Culture and Development in Bhutan. Recommendations for Cultural Policy

Essay, 2010

23 Pages



1. Introduction and Background

2. Chapter
2. 1. Oral tradition ‘lozey’ becoming less popular
2.2. Intangible cultures and values under threat
2.3. Dzongkha (national language), an endangered language
2.4. Masked Dances
2.5. Handicraft, Indigenous arts and craft
2.6. Traditional song vs. modern songs
2.7. Phallus (wooden Penises and arts) culture on verge of disappearance
2.8. Architecture

3.0. Irregularities and Corruption culture becoming popular
3.1. Other Recommendations

4. Conclusion



Culture and development is not only integral but also inevitable for sustainable development. Cultural value and moral implications of individuals and communities are the foundation of socio-economic development of any nation. Landlocked in the Himalayas, the tiny Himalayan Kingdom, Bhutan appear almost untouched by globalization. The culture and traditional values in Bhutan is deeply rooted to Buddhism. Behavior, perception and daily routines of people are directly guided by the religion, cultural values and belief. Thus the preservation and promotion of culture is one of the four pillars in realizing the country’s development philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH).

GNH is the middle path of development that embraces a balance between spiritual and material development towards the attainment of happiness by the Bhutanese. The concept of GNH as a unique and primary development philosophy was initiated and coined by His Majesty, the Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. His Majesty believes that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product” and therefore a people centered development with happiness with value as the end goal is what it should be for Bhutan. And thus beside economic factors, one should take account of social factors, environmental, cultural, and good governance. The ultimate goal of development must be happiness and human well-being, but should not be economic development or to be a winner in the global competitions (Karma Ura, 2009). Every individual no matter what race, creed, colour, origin, nationality the ultimate aspiration of life is happiness. Therefore, the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGOB) established the GNH Commission to guide the planning process in the country. In addition, the establishment of democracy in the country has led to the review of many policies in all ministries and autonomous institutions so that services are improved and delivered on time.

This main purpose of this paper is to examine the culture and development of Bhutan and will make necessary recommendation addressed to the government on how to foster culture approach in designing development policies based on stock piling.

1. Introduction and Background

Preservation and promotion of culture is said to be vital for the functioning of a harmonious and progressive society. One of the greatest strengths of Bhutan is its unique identity that comes from culture. For a country like Bhutan, which is small both in size and population, it is important to be different from others. It is culture that makes the Bhutanese distinct from the rest of the world. Thus, it is necessary for Bhutan to promote and preserve its spiritual and cultural values as it is the symbol of Bhutan and being Bhutanese.

The components of the pillar of preservation and promotion of culture are national identity, religion, language and literature, art and architecture, performing arts, dress, Driglam Namzha (righteous behavior), traditional etiquette, textile, sports and recreation. On the spiritual front many new religious institutions are built, besides the renovation of important old monasteries. The recommendation mentioned below will help Bhutanese policy makers for further enhancement of culture diversity and development. Measures and alternatives that are comfortable to the people should be explored and integrated into wider policies to protect and promote Bhutanese culture.

Culture is a holistic approach that reflects the complete way of life in a society. Culture and tradition are never hurdles to development rather culture provides positive strength for sustainable development. People should not take culture and tradition as hurdles to development instead take it as strength for sustainable growth and development (Dawa, 2006). The government should make sound policy and implement accordingly for socio-economic development and cultural diversity. Specifically, some of the recommendation for diversification and culture development of Bhutan are:

2. Chapter

2. 1. Oral tradition ‘lozey’ becoming less popular

Bhutan is rich in unique culture of oral storytelling, lozey, ole (typical and long song) and tsangmo (lyrics). Lozey is literally known as ‘clear or intelligent mind’ or it could also mean ‘ornament of speech’. It has to do more with inborn talent. The Ballad of Pemi Tshewang Tashi: A Wind Borne Feather by Karma Ura (1998) says that, “during gatherings, men, women and children, who may not be able to read or write, contest with individually or in group in repartee of lozey. Lozey may have existed since 12 to 13 centuries back. It is referred to as a genius expression recited only during appropriate times such as marriage, mourning, and war”.

Lozey is a popular form of entertainment in dzongkha speaking communities of western Bhutan such as Sha, Wang, and Paro. It is also another form of natural entertainment and relieves one from stress and burden of the mind. It is said that lozay is composed of rich oral poetic composition. Experts argue that, “lozey was a vital means of interaction with friends and impressing girls” because of its multi-functional expression of love, friendship, courtship, dislike or insult, praise through use of metaphors and symbols to express feelings and opinions etc.

Most of the Zhungdra (traditional songs and dances performed in slow motion with very long tune), Boedra (traditional songs with short tunes) and Zhay (special unique songs related to spiritualism) are composed from lozey. The famous and popular songs such as ‘Yak Legpai Lhadar Gawo’ (tragic and melody song about the gorgeous and splendid yak parting from his master, the yak herder) is composed from such lozey.

With the introduction of western education system, the younger generations pay little or no interest in Lozey. Most young Bhutanese don’t even know what lozey is and some might even say that they never heard one before. Although what Bhutan has now is as a result of age old strong oral tradition, the art itself is on decline. Some possible causes could be technology based entertainment and the shift in the life style of the Bhutanese.

So far there is no research under taken by government therefore the Central Bhutanese Studies should carry out the mandate research of lozay in western part of Bhutan for deepen the “understanding of the Bhutanese society”. If there is absence of intensive research on lozey as early as possible, all the old people knowledgeable in it will die leaving its details in mystery. Children are either out for movies, visiting game parlors, or at home watching television, movies, reading and on the internet. Some grandparents and parents are also equally interested in other modern forms of entertainment. Beside most parents in urban settings are busy with work and appointments and social obligations.

The oral tradition of lozay should be included in school curriculum so that culture of lozay can be reviving in near dying culture. Teachers Education College at Paro and Samtse should demonstrate this oral tradition of lozey in exciting and motivating ways so as to challenge the readymade entertainment sources and organize lozay telling days in school. The Ministry of Education should have organized debate competition between regional and national level school. Likewise, the Department of Culture should organize the lozay competition in regional areas. The importance of such competition should have more room for old people who are well versed with lozay.

Moreover, both the national library and Royal Academy of Performing Arts (RAPA) should research on lozey. The stock of lozey should be updated and made accessible online and in digital form to promote and sustain oral traditions. United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO) (2005) reports says, safeguarding and improvement of oral tradition is one of the main components of culture diversity and development.

The effort made by individuals recently in writing two most popular lozeys, Pemi Tshewang Tashi and Gaylong Sumdar Tashi, in English was a good start. Gaylong Sumdar Tashi lozay tell us about emotional masterpiece of a young man who had to join the monkhood to pay his family’s monk tax around 263 years back. Likewise, Pemi Tshewang Tashi lozay depict the crucial historical period of the country around 133 years old in the form of lozey. The lozay tell us “long and sad personal narratives of loyal citizens torn between personal obligations and national priorities”.

Poor or inadequate research in culture is mainly due to shortage of professional man power, resources and fund. The Ministry of Home and Cultural affairs should seek financial and technical assistance from various national and international researches and organizations, to promote traditional orals of the world.

As mass media is gaining popularity in disseminating information to the public, the importance of lozey should be made aware through mass media. Bhutan Broadcasting Service should make more programs on lozey and other cultural aspects. Bhutanese film industry should also create possibilities to include lozey in some scenes. Professionalism is seeping in gradually and journalists should take up the challenge to unravel ‘earth-shattering’ stories, stories that will make impacts, stories that will be remembered.

2.2. Intangible cultures and values under threat

The culture and traditional values in Bhutan is deeply rooted to Buddhism. Lay Jumdray Thadamtsig (understanding the cause and effect of good and bad action, intentions and sacred commitment to others in society) is one of the important intangible values rooted in the traditions and culture of Bhutan. The concept of Jumdray Thadamtsig states that, “good begets good and vice versa”. A case study report by RAPA in 2009 states that Thadamtsig can be divided into three:

i) love and respect for parents as they have given one’s precious life
ii) commitment between spouse to remain faithful throughout the life and
iii) respect between elders and younger generation

The forces of modernization have been both creator and destroyer of cultural values in Bhutan. There is a poor and inadequate respect between king and subjects, employers and employees, teachers and students, parents and children, religious leaders and disciples, etc. For example, there were 241 divorce cases in 2008 while it increased to 330 in 2009. Extra marital affairs are blamed as the cause for most divorces. Even though the number appear quite small, these are measured high when measure up to the population of country.

Similarly, with the invasion of globalization, innovation and assimilation of culture and traditions, the task of the promotion and the preservation is big. The western culture and globalization has deeply penetrated in urban areas victimizing vulnerable groups of children and women. The pertinent issues of drugs, street fights, prostitution, day-light robbery to name few, are the recent phenomenon becoming common in cities. Just before the third month of 2010, there were around 13 suicide cases of which five are students of 15 to 17 years old (Kuensel, March 4, 2010). Similarly, number of religious monuments called stupas and monasteries being vandalized by unprincipled people every year are increasing at an alarming rate too.

It is culturally important for all families to live in harmony. However, with advent of globalization and media, traditional values are diverted more towards individualism. For example, Dawa (2006) noted that, “the conflict between wife and husband on TV channel, where wife enjoys Indian serials and husband sports channel, similarly children crying to watch cartoon network”.

The steep rise of such issues should be taken seriously by the government. Education and awareness are some strategies that would provide sustainable solutions to such social issues. Often children are undeservingly caught in the sea of problems and it might lead to breeding generations of future citizens who are troubled. I appreciate the initiative by the Ministry of Education in starting to incorporate GNH values in the education system. Besides it is also crucial to educate parents, stakeholders and general public on GNH values so that schools are free from the burden of being the change agent.

Ronald Colman (2009) argues that, “GNH should have spiritual and contemplative education in a regular curriculum, with more environmental consciousness, critical thinking and cultural values into school curriculum”. Schools can create awareness Lay Jumdray Thadamtsig during school based parenting education. The Royal University of Bhutan should ensure that the tertiary education has components of intangible values especially for teacher education program so that the graduates’ creation enabling conditions in the schools.

Greater roles need to be played by the religious community to change people’s attitude and thinking because Bhutanese by nature are spiritual and therefore the influence through religions would be immense. Besides their roles could also promoting Lay Jumdray Thadamtsig from a spiritual culture. The Ministry of Health and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) should take the first steps and play a key role to set up mental and counseling centers in the rural areas that could help the people suffering from depression.

Moreover, the Central Monastic body should make people aware that our culture is derived from “Thuenpa Puen Zhi” (Four Harmonious Friends). “The Thuenpa Puen Zhi story perfectly demonstrates harmony, interdependence, co-operation and friendship between four animals who become close friends”. It signifies the virtues of Buddhist morals. Such beautiful allegory should be infused in the Bhutanese elementary school curriculum to further enhance unity, social capital and ultimately maximize GNH.

2.3. Dzongkha (national language), an endangered language

Language of the fortress popularly known as ‘Dzongkha’ is the national language of Bhutan. There are also more than 40 different dialects in Bhutan identified by Central for Bhutanese Studies (CBS) in 2000. Official communication, both written and spoken is expected to be in Dzongkhag although English is the preferred. Tibetan script is used to write Dzongkha in Bhutanese form. Since the 1960s the Royal Government of Bhutan has made English as medium of instruction in schools along with the Dzongkha as ancillary subject.

However recently a CBS (2008) report says that, “Bhutan could be among the few countries where its literate citizens are finding it difficult to write or read anything written in the national language”. The Dzongkha Development Commission (DDC) has found more than 90 percent of Bhutanese cannot speak dzongkha properly without mixing with either other dialects or foreign languages. The trans-cultural and modern educational programs are the main factors for deterioration of dzongkha in Bhutan. English language has dominated the national tongue because being able to speak English would mean one is educated, or well-travelled or with great exposure to external culture. It is also a class distinction indicator and with young people it is fashionable to speak a mixed language. Dzongkha is a complicated and difficult language and students think it is boring and unfashionable.

Therefore, I would like to recommend DDC to make dzongkha more user-friendly. Dzongkha terminologies and phrases should be made easier to understand and make the language interesting. Beside simplification of dzongkha, the DDC should correct more than 862 dzongkha words which are quite vague in understanding. The national language is very important for promoting identity, values, social codes and sense of belongingness and nationality and pride. The promotion of national language has a ‘direct bearing’ in safe guarding the sovereignty and security of a nations. Specially some of the recommendations are for DDC are:

1. Promote regional and international seminar for teachers, parents, officials and stake holders to promote awareness and importance of dzongkha as a language, as a medium, as national identity.
2. Collaborate with teacher education institutes to provide high quality training to dzongkha language teachers.
3. Convince the MoE and RUB to give dzongkha the weightage at par with English.
4. Reinforce use of dzongkha in all official communications
5. Promote means to learn dzongkha through formal and informal education
6. Encourage and enhance more research on the development of user friendly dzongkha
7. Encourage translation of written and audio-visual materials to dzongkha in order to promote circulation of ideas to youths of Bhutan and beyond
8. Collaborate with RUB to upgrade colleges for higher learning in dzongkha with clear carrier path
9. Introduce dzongkha tuition for civil servants and other stake holders to increase writing and oral skills.
10. Collaborate with MoE and mass media to produce cartoons for children in Dzongkha
11. Make more provision and opportunity to learn Dzongkha across the country
12. Develop electronic dictionaries, Dzongkha software and Dzongkha computer keyboards
13. Develop reliable and standardized comparable indicators for assessing the impact of national language
14. Dzongkha dictionary should be simple, straightforward, and simplified spellings
15. Upload dzongkha grammar tutorials, letter writing samples and essays on the World Wide Web.

There is a positive trend in boosting dzongkha after political election in 2008. The Election Commission of Bhutan has mandated all parliamentary debates in the national language. All sessions of the National Assembly are required to be proceeded in dzongkha.

As watchdog, media should always question and criticize public policies for mass interest and not give in to political pressures or commercial interests. The media, should mostly investigative, covered a range of such issues of having poor communication in dzongkha.

2.4. Masked Dances

Masked dances are performed during religious festivals throughout Bhutan at different times of the year to commemorate different events. Some of these religious dances are strictly performed by monks while others are performed by lay man. Each dance has its own set of dance attire, rhythm and movement and significance. Masked dances are supposed to be laden with spirituality blessing. It is believed that watching the dances would relieve one from the cycle of suffering or Samsara.

Although elderly citizens regard masked dances religious and attend such festivals the younger generations question the importance and significances. It is often not possible to provide empirical evidences and scientifically proven advantages of such events. The existence of history for all the dance forms are claimed to exist, but in languages which cannot be comprehended by common people.

Some dances are so holy and presented in entirely different ways. Tercham, Sacred Naked Dance is one such dance believed to bless people watching it especially women with fertility. This dance is performed by 16 naked dancers who run from the Jampa temple door with the tune of drum beat and cymbals at mid night around a camp fire. The performers are naked with white cloths covering their faces. They too make routine dance steps mainly fooling around, sometimes carrying off disgraceful aerobatics. They wind ropes around their penis and pull each other by the rope in the course of their performance.

Together with the Tercham is the “Mewang, the fire blessing dance. A wooden frame of 3 m (9 feet) high and 5 m (16 feet) wide is raised as an entrance covered with cypress leaves which are put on fire. Once the entire structure gets burning, people run through it. Some people are scared just before crossing the first step and retrace the steps. But as people coming to watch keep coming from behind, there is no way to stop it. Without other choice, the people who slow down get to run through the fire. Many people across the country come to attend the Mewang and the Tercham with the belief that one will stay healthy for one whole year after having passed through the fire.

The elderly devotees are of the opinion that the spectators should look at the male organ with dedication instead of making fun of it for being exposed to public very rarely. Also the same is thought as valuable and so worshipped the dance in prayer and wish for the wellbeing of all sentient beings.

At one time Bumthang dzongkhag administration did not permit the performance of Tercham owing to its crudeness. But there was heavy rain and hailstone during the annual Dzongkhag festival symbolizing the ill luck. Local astrologers prophesized that restricting the performance of the Tercham was the real reason. After that incident the Dzongkhag Tshechu then regularly reinitiated its tradition of the Tercham performance.

However as is a fact with all cultures around the world, forces of modernization have been a challenger of the continuity of such cultural values in Bhutan. Specifically, some of the issues and challenges are:


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Culture and Development in Bhutan. Recommendations for Cultural Policy
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Tshewang Dorji (Author), 2010, Culture and Development in Bhutan. Recommendations for Cultural Policy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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