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Bhutanese Culture

There are three main ethnic groups in Bhutan: the Sharchop in the east, whose origins can be traced back to the tribes of northern Burma and northeast India; the Ngalops in the west, who migrated from Tibet and introduced Buddhism to Bhutan; and the Lhotsampas in the south, who are of Nepali origin. The population of Bhutan is roughly 700,000.

Though there are several large towns in Bhutan, such as the capital, Thimphu, most of the people are farmers and live in small rural villages. Many of the villages are isolated and can be reached only on foot. As the younger generation becomes more educated, however, many of them are leaving the villages and migrating to the larger towns to find office jobs.

The official language in Bhutan is Dzongkha, though many regions have retained their own dialects due to their isolation. English is the medium of instruction in Bhutan, and it is widely spoken by those who have received education, especially those in urban areas.

Bhutan's official religion is the Tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism, and it plays an important role in Bhutanese society and development. There are temples in most villages and religious structures along the roads and trails, and you will see prayer flags in abundance on the hills and high passes. Many Bhutanese homes have a special area containing a small shrine.

There is a national dress in Bhutan, originating from the time of the first Shabdrung. The Bhutanese men wear what is called a "gho," which is a long knee-length robe that is tied around the waist by a belt. The women wear a "kira," which is an ankle-length dress worn with a short jacket.

Archery is Bhutan's national sport, and the Bhutanese have their own unique rules and equipment. The traditional bows and arrows are made out of bamboo. The targets are quite small, about 30 centimeters in width, and the archers stand back at a range of 120 meters. The teams cheer, sing, and dance throughout a tournament, and the commotion increases when a target is hit.

The main staples of the Bhutanese diet are rice (red or white) and chilies. One dish favored by most Bhutanese is called "ema datse," which is chilies and cheese. The chilies are treated as a vegetable, not as a mere spice. Most Bhutanese dishes are fiery, and the children learn to tolerate the heat at an early age. Meat is widely eaten in Bhutan, and common meat dishes include pork and radish (daikon); dried beef mixed with vegetables; and yak meat, when it's in season.

The Bhutanese also eat a variety of vegetables, including potatoes, fern, spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, and onions. These vegetables are often cooked with a small bit of fresh cheese. In central Bhutan, buckwheat is the main staple because the altitude is too high to grow rice. The Bumthang region is known for its buckwheat pancakes and noodles. Common beverages in Bhutan include butter tea (suja) and ara, which is a spirit distilled from rice, wheat, or corn.

Bhutanese architecture is unique and beautiful. The structural designs and exterior paintwork (shapes, colors, and patterns) are important to national identity and have traditional meanings. Some common Bhutanese structures are dzongs (fortresses), gompas (monasteries), chortens (shrines/stupas), lakhangs (temples), and houses.

Dzongs are typically huge, castle-like stone structures, with large courtyards, and they are usually built on hilltops, where they have a commanding view of the surrounding area. No nails are used, even today, in the construction of dzongs, and they continue to be built without the use of blueprints or sketches. They were built originally for defensive purposes, but they now serve as the administrative centers for government and monastic activities. The newer dzongs are still built in the traditional style. One feature that sets dzongs and religious structures apart from secular structures is that they have a painted red band running around the building just below the roof.

There are numerous monasteries and temples throughout Bhutan. Many of the monasteries are built on steep hillsides and in other remote places so as to provide a place of quiet and solitude for the monks. Though each monastery has its own design, there are features that are common to all of them. Most monasteries have a central chapel with statues and separate sleeping quarters for the monks. There will be prayer wheels around the outside and a round gold-colored ornament on the roof. Temples are similar to monasteries in design and look, but they do not house a monk body.

A chorten is a small structure whose purpose is for offerings and prayers. Some are built in the memory of a person. There are three main types of chortens: Tibetan (rounded), Bhutanese (square stone pillar with a red painted band near the top), and Nepali (four-sided with a pair of painted eyes on each side of the tower). The Thimphu memorial chorten is in the Tibetan style.

Traditional Bhutanese houses are constructed out of packed mud, bamboo, and wood. The doors and windows are often painted with animal, religious, or floral designs. Traditionally the roofs are made of wooden shingles held down with large stones to keep them from being blown away. The houses usually have three stories--the ground floor is for cows and other livestock, the second floor is for storage, and the third floor is the living quarters, and it often contains a shrine. The open-air area between the third floor and the roof is used to store hay and to dry vegetables and meat. Every Buddhist home will have a prayer flag in the center of the roof.

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