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The Bhutanese Way of Life

January 2023

Are Bhutanese people really among the happiest in the world? If so, what is their secret to a happy life? How has Bhutan, a tiny kingdom in the Himalayas sandwiched between two large countries with the biggest population in the world, been able to preserve its cultural identity, maintain its traditional social structures, and conserve its natural environment, all in the face of rapid modernization and ever-increasing external influences?

Perhaps the secret lies in the very manner Bhutanese people have lived for centuries. The Bhutanese way of life is refreshing for all its contrasts; while life in big cities is crushingly busy and overcrowded, here the shops in the capital Thimphu are very relaxed, and often don’t open until after 10am. Crime rates are very low, public health and education are free, communal and Buddhist values are strong, the air is fresh, and the country is mandated by its constitution to maintain not less than 60% of its land under forest cover for eternity.

Vajrayana Buddhism is Bhutan’s state religion, practised by the majority of the population - although there is freedom to practise any other religion - so Bhutanese culture is very much influenced by Buddhist values. Bhutanese people have deep respect for their gods and deities; hence the country is dotted with monasteries, temples and stupas, old and new. Colourful prayer flags flap on windy hillsides, the mantras inscribed on them believed to be carried away by the wind to deliver compassion to anyone the wind touches.

Bhutanese people hold strong beliefs in rebirth and karma (le judre) which is a Buddhist concept that the past actions shape the present state of being, and present shapes the future. This usually means a person is mindful of their thoughts and actions as they don’t want their negative deeds to darken their futures. In certain cases, it also acts as a coping mechanism. A misfortune in this life is probably not entirely your fault; maybe you did something terrible in the past life and doing good things now will ensure that the future or next life is better. It enables a person to feel content with what they have and encourages them to earn more merits instead of material wealth. Believing in rebirth also means that Bhutanese people believe all sentient beings (including enemies) have in one of the past lives been their loved ones. This inspires compassion for all.

Food for the soul

When it comes to food culture, rice - both red and white - are staple of Bhutanese cuisine. Buckwheat and corn are also cultivated and form an important basis of most Bhutanese meals. Rice is usually accompanied by side dishes (curries) made from either meat or vegetables. Chilli is the most essential part of Bhutanese cuisine; in Bhutan, chilli is used more as an ingredient than a spice. Ema datshi, the national dish of Bhutan, is a spicy stew made with chilli and cheese, and is a favourite of both locals and foreign visitors. The most popular snack in Bhutan is perhaps the momo, which are stuffed dumplings. You will come across plenty of ‘momo-corners’ in Bhutanese towns, some of which have adopted creativity over traditional recipes and offer a wide variety of stuffings, even ema datshi momo! 

Bhutanese culture is colourful and vibrant, with lots of festivals, ceremonies and communal activities. Most of these festivals have their origin in Buddhism. They are celebrations dedicated to and in reverence of important religious figures of the country. The most popular festival is the annual tshechu, which is conducted on the 10th day of a month of the lunar calendar. Every district celebrates their own tshechu, albeit on different dates. New years are also celebrated according to the lunar calendar, and western Bhutan celebrates winter solstice as their new year. Another festival worth looking forward to is the Drukyul’s Literature Festival, an annual international literary festival held in Bhutan. It is organised by Bhutan Echoes, a non-profit organisation that produces events to promote literature, culture and art in Bhutan. Traditional Bhutanese music and dances (as well as alcohol!) form an important part of these festivities. Bhutanese people use music in every aspect of life, from religious rituals to celebrations and even passing on age-old wisdom and values to younger generations.

Strong family and community ties

In a typical Bhutanese home, you will find multiple generations living together, although that is becoming rare with young people migrating to urban places and having nuclear families. Marriage has always been a private affair in the Bhutanese culture - a couple moves in together and the community considers them married. They will usually get their legal papers sorted out after having a baby. However, this trend has been changing in recent years as more young couples choose to live together before deciding to get married. Even marriage ceremonies have become elaborate affairs (with plenty of Instagramable pictures) as compared to modest family celebrations in the past. In Bhutan, the law permits a Bhutanese to legally marry only three times - third time's the charm!

Sustainability forms a big part of everyday lives of Bhutanese people, from recycling plastic containers at home to passing down heirloom textiles from one generation to the next. A Bhutanese will never discard a handwoven kira or gho. They will keep passing them down, and eventually sew them into mat covers and foot mats. Hence it’s no surprise that Bhutanese people take pride in preserving their environment. This motivation to protect the environment also stems from their belief that every mountain, river and gigantic trees and rocks have spirits and deities residing in them. Moreover, Bhutan is home to many endangered species and glacial lakes. The effects of climate change is a real threat to the lives of people living in fragile mountain ecosystems like Bhutan. 

A land of myths

Bhutan is also a land brimming with stories and superstitions and people believing in omens. A person does not join a new workplace on a ‘bad’ day, or move to a new house or start a business venture. If you suddenly feel ill, you have probably been ‘seen’ by a spirit, and need to immediately light incense to feed the spirit so it will go away. Often you will come across small peculiar structures made of bamboo and rainbow-coloured threads woven in triangular shapes. These are dzoe or spirit catchers. You will find them near a house or on the roadside with religious offerings - a nightmare for waste management authorities! Bhutan is unique for many things, including the greater equality and freedom women in Bhutan enjoy as compared to other South Asian countries. Even the right to inherit properties is usually passed on to the daughter rather than the son.

In Bhutan, if you look closely enough, you will feel a living spiritual energy permeating the place that is hard to ignore. The serene untouched natural environment combined with strong religious faith of the people provide the perfect conditions for wellness and spiritual retreats. Meditation and practising mindfulness are core Buddhist values that are gaining renewed popularity in the world as mental health is accorded equal importance as physical health. Many hotels in Bhutan offer wellness services that combine spa treatment with traditional Bhutanese healing techniques. Bhutanese people also love playing the national sport, archery, and other popular games like football and futsal. As soon as the clock strikes five in the evening, the traffic in capital Thimphu will gradually become heavier as office-goers will either go shop for groceries, go home, or head to one of the many futsal and archery grounds in the city. Bhutan is a place unlike anywhere else in the world, where travellers are met with conditions that almost force them to disconnect, unwind and rejuvenate. As soon as you step inside this country, time seems to slow down.

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