Culture & Traditions of Bhutan

Shape Icon

Cradled in the folds of the Himalayas, Bhutan has relied on its geographic isolation to protect itself from outside cultural influences. Bhutan’s unique cultural heritage has remained intact and untarnished.

Bhutan has rich cultural heritage, interlaced with religion folklore and history. Indeed as a mark or respect, the people still wear traditional national dress. Men wear ‘gho’, a heavy knee length robe tied with a belt. Whilst women wear ‘kira’, which is an ankle-length dress worn over a blouse and tied up with a brooch.

Before the introduction of Buddhism, a form of animistic worship, called "Bon" was prevalent in the region. Bon was an oral tradition that revered the natural world, particularly the sun, moon and sky. The natural world has been at the heart of the history of Bhutan. The introduction of Buddhism drew on and incorporated some of the ancient beliefs around nature.Spirits, manifestations, medicine men, yetis and reincarnation are still part of the story of Bhutan. Aspects of life may appear fantastical to western minds are regarded as commonplace here.


Bhutan is linguistically rich with over nineteen dialects spoken widely in the country. The richness of the linguistic diversity can be attributed to the geographical location with its high mountain passes and deep valleys. These geographical features forced the inhabitants of the country to live in isolation but also contributed to their survival.

The national language is Dzongkha, the native language of the Ngalops of western Bhutan. Dzongkha literally means the language spoken in the Dzongs, massive fortresses that serve as the administrative centres and monasteries. Two other major languages are the Tshanglakha and the Lhotshamkha. Tshanglakha is the native language of the Tshanglas of eastern Bhutan while Lhotshamkha is spoken by the southern Bhutanese of Nepali origin.

Other dialects spoken are Khengkha and Bumthapkha by the Khengpas and Bumthap people of Central Bhutan. Mangdepkah, which is spoken by the inhabitants of Trongsa and the Cho Cha Nga Chang Kha which is spoken by the Kurtoeps. The Sherpas, Lepchas and the Tamangs in southern Bhutan also have their own dialects. Unfortunately, two dialects that are on the verge of becoming extinct are the Monkha and the Gongduepkha.


Prepare yourself to have a delicious love affair with the spices. The spiciness in the Bhutanese cuisine is what sets it apart from the usual cuisine you enjoy in your respective country. Nearly every Bhutanese will agree that a meal is tasteless without chillies in it. Rice is the integral body of most of the meals and it is taken with one or two dishes of vegetables or meat. Ema Datshi is the national dish of Bhutan. Ema Datshi translates to, spicy mix of chillies with delicious local cheese.


Marriages may be arranged by the parents or by the individuals entering the marriage. To get married, a certificate is required from the Court of Law, but most marriages are performed by a religious leader. The Bhutanese are essentially monogamous. Polyandry (multiple husbands) has recently been abolished; the practice of polygamy is legal provided the first wife grants her consent.

A bride does not necessarily move into her husband’s household, as is common throughout much of the Indian subcontinent. The new husband may reside with his wife’s family if their need for labor warrants it, and the wealth of the family goes to the daughter. Alternatively, the new couple may set up their own household on their own plot of land. Divorce is permitted in Bhutanese society, although compensation is required from the party seeking the separation.

The Relative Status of Women and Men:

Bhutan’s culture does not isolate or disenfranchise women. Dowry is not practiced, and land is divided equally between sons and daughters. Girls receive nearly equal educational opportunities, and, while accorded a lower status than boys, they are cherished because they are the ones who care for parents in old age. Men and women usually work side by side in the field. Women fill most of the nursing and teaching positions.


Childbirth is an important event in life and Bhutanese have several beliefs, rituals and practices associated with it. Experienced housewives tend to the birth of a child although today most childbirths take place in a hospital under the care of nurses and midwives. The traditional women of Bhutan follow their local procedures for birth and also celebrate the birth with families, friends and villagers.

For first three days following birth of the child, the friends, neighbors and relatives do not visit the house as it is believed that the house is polluted by kaydrip (kay- birth drip-defilement). Thus, Lhabsang(purification process), a ritual is conducted to purify the house, after which the outsiders visit the house with gifts to bless the new born and congratulate the family. In rural places, the common gifts include rice and dairy products, whereas in urban areas the gifts are commonly the clothes and money.

Bhutanese prefer the name of the new born to be given by highly regarded holy person. In rural places where people worship local deity, the child’s name is associated with the deity. Rarely, the name of the child is associated with the day on which the child was born. Kye tsi, the horoscope of the baby is written based on Bhutanese Lunar calendar. For precise prediction of the baby’s future, the accurate time and date of birth are must. The Kye tsi would also advise on different rituals to be conducted at different stages of child’s life as remedy to possible illness, problems and misfortunes.

Traditionally, Bhutanese do not celebrate birthdays. However, birthday celebration has become popular especially amongst the urban dwellers.


The Bhutanese believe that death is a gateway to new life. Most Bhutanese are Vajrayana Buddhist, which incline them to believe in reincarnation and colours their attitude towards death. Strictly speaking, reincarnation is a means to gain final salvation, or the opposite, depending on the deceased’s karma.

Therefore, when someone dies, the community mourns for 49 days. Throughout, they practice a series of elaborate rituals to ensure the deceased has a smooth rebirth. In particular, on day 7, 14, 21, and 49 after the death, the loved ones of the deceased erect prayer flags and perform rituals to ensure the deceased has a smooth transition into their new life. The deceased is believed to roam through the intermediate state for 49 days.

During these 49 days (or until cremation), the corpse is treated as if it is alive, being fed food and given company. The Bardo Thongdrol, which directly translates to "deliverance by hearing in the immediate state", is read in front of the dead person to guide them through the intermediate state and towards rebirth. The ritual is performed by lamas accompanied by clanging cymbals and blaring horns. Some spirits pass through quicker than the rest, depending on how attached it is to its life. The enlightened might take only 21 days. Every anniversary of a death, many elaborate rituals are performed too. Family members of the community offer rice, alcohol and other gifts when attending these ceremonies.