Bhutan's Culture & Religion
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Cultural Legacies

What is immediately apparent on entering Bhutan is the clarity of difference. The country was almost entirely isolated from the more modern outside world until the early 1960s and has subsequently undergone only very partial integration in line with the measured and balanced development policy pursued. It is only one generation removed from what might be termed a pre-modern condition, and for many their overall situation - although considerably improved in certain important respects - has not changed that dramatically. The prevailing culture, therefore, not only draws on certain aspects of the past for inspiration, but also bears an unusually close resemblance to a long-established undiluted tradition. Within this context neither the positions occupied by religion and the monarchy, or the perpetuation of dress, architecture, handicraft and overall social organization appear as particularly outdated throwbacks.

There is a rare coherence and sense of balance in current cultural conditions. Throughout the world pockets of indigenous culture perpetuate. However, it is unusual that an entire nation remains collectively so connected to its traditions, and significant dislocations have not yet occurred across time and space. Much of Bhutanese history retains direct contemporary relevance, rather than being a record of a remote and incongruent past. Furthermore, a complete division has not yet occurred between modern urban and traditional rural cultural systems. Individual identities remain firmly rooted within established structures and belief systems, reflected in a lack of self-consciousness, an underlying self-confidence and the high return rate of students studying overseas.

The foundations of contemporary Bhutanese culture lie with several closely interrelated traditional legacies: ethnicity, Buddhism, hierarchy, community and self-sufficiency. There are three main ethnic groups - the Sharchops of Indo-Mongoloid origin, the Ngalops of Tibetan origin and the Lhotsams of Nepali origin - and there remain a few distanced tribal communities. The most profound cultural influences arrived with the Tibetan migration. The Ngalops are the dominant group within the country, over the centuries bringing with them Tibetan Buddhism, artistic and more functional practices. The earlier settled Sharchops were converted to Buddhism and subsequently integrated within a centralized Ngalop dominated nation. The Lhotsams' arrival is much more recent - over the course of the Twentieth Century - and, due to Hindu religious belief, the relative strength of an existing culture and their concentration in the south of the country, many have not become wholly assimilated within the prevailing Ngalop dominated national culture. Although the national language is Dzongkha - belonging to the Tibetan language family and historically spoken only in the west of the country - Nepali (and to a lesser extent Sharchop) remain widely spoken. The national newspaper, the Kuensel, represents the major language sets, being published in Dzongkha, Nepali and English, which has become a principal language of instruction.

Since its arrival in the Seventh Century and gradual diffusion, Tantric Buddhism has underpinned individual and collective outlooks. The relationship between religion and culture was and remains particularly intimate due to the both the holistic approach to life that Buddhism implies, and the enhanced significance attributed to religion within traditional societies. In the sense that Buddhism, especially in its tantric form, lays out a blueprint for correct thoughts and actions (and therefore correct values), it has strongly informed the development of political and social institutions. There remains an unusual consistency between respective elements of a supporting cultural system. Furthermore, since the natural environment, art forms, rituals and ceremonies are all connected to religion, Buddhism has been the fundamental influence on material as well and psychological aspects of culture.

Politics and religion remain deeply interrelated. Whereas Bhutanese society is predominantly egalitarian, the legitimacy to rule is divinely determined. This implies a very steep natural hierarchy, with a significant division between those to whom divine legitimacy has been attributed - high rinpoches, the King and blood relations - and everyone else. Those in authority possess an awareness of their responsibility and the reciprocal nature of implied relationships. Around these centers a system of court politics has developed, where power is given through the nature of the relationship with the source. This implies a very vertical and narrow central political hierarchy. Although the political system is being reformed - and new hierarchies are developing related to wealth and more broad-based notions of status - power remains concentrated. Other more aesthetic cultural forms are essentially passed from the top-down, for example fashion and architectural style.

The basic social structure remains highly devolved. Scattered self-reliant village communities were traditionally relatively distanced from each other and monastic-fortress power bases. This has led to highly localized and self-contained worldviews and life-worlds. A restricted perspective on the material world has served to accentuate a village's relationship with itself and the spiritual domain. Local stories and superstitions - many with fantastic themes and twists - thrive within a rich storytelling tradition. Religious aspects are deeply embodied within village systems, varying from a temple or priest to an auspicious location and interesting explanation. There remains an immense multiplicity and diversity of cultural practice, concentrated around respective communities. A number of local dialects are spoken and an integrated extended family system remains firmly in place.

The idea of community remains extremely strong, being a robust source of identity. Where everyone knows everyone else and their personal histories, one is more likely to suffer from claustrophobia than alienation. Even when transferred to an urban environment - particularly among the majority first and second-generation migrant - most people still associate with a particular region and village, and a similar sense of community has evolved within these new settlements. Traditional values possess a high respect for age, history, local deity, learning, face and family. The essential self-reliance of individual villages underlies traditional economic systems that were non-monetized, subsistence-based and internally self-sufficient. It is no coincidence that communities with a trading culture - for example the people of Laya and Chapcha - have proved more successful at taking advantage of emerging business opportunities.

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