There are over 100 ethnic groups in the high mountains across the length of the Himalaya, so this page only reviews the most common you might encounter in Nepal and Bhutan, and to a lesser extent, in India.
The first section after Greetings and Blessing describes Brahmins, Chhetris and Newars, which are the most common residents of the Kathmandu and Pokhara valleys, and the most likely owners of a trekking business or hotel that you may choose.
A brief summary of the major ethnic groups in throughout the Nepal Himalaya is then followed by a general description of Bhutan and peoples.
I must appologise to India! There simply hasn’t been enough time to work through ans summarise all the peoples of the Indian Himalaya, although there is substantial cross-over with Nepal.
Greetings and Blessings
Religious practitioners of all faiths are normally happy to show you around their temple/shrine and answer questions, but there is a strict etiquette to follow when in their company. They will greet you with a ‘namaste’ by placing both hands together in front of their chests and a light bow of their head. You should respond in the same way. Shaking hands is not required unless the other party extends a hand. If you do shake hands, your sleeves should always be unrolled to show respect.
If you are a guest, you should begin by handing over a khadag. Use two hands with the palms towards the sky and take the khadag between your thumb and the palm of your hand. This is a traditional greeting in order to pay respect to your host, who may, as a sign of respect, hand back the khadag, hanging it over your head onto your shoulders. Receiving a khadag from a lama is considered a form of blessing. Your khadag should be folded three times width-wise and presented with the opening towards the receiver; to not do so will be considered offensive.
When receiving a blessing from the lama or presenting a khadag, monks and nuns are generally asked to go first, in order of seniority. In Buddhist cultures, monks go before nuns. You approach the lama holding out a khadag; he may then touch your head with his hands as a blessing, and then either he or his assistant may give you a red blessing cord with a small knot on it. The cord should be treated with respect and not dropped. Buddhists tie the cords around their necks or place them in their shrines. You should knot the thread around your right wrist or your throat, depending on the size. You may also receive a blessed parcel or small picture amulet, which can be suspended from the thread, like a pendant. You should not remove this (unless for washing) as you will also remove the blessings it bestows. It is always polite to offer money to the temple when you receive a blessing – NRs100 or more is reasonable.
If a Hindu holy man, or sadhu approaches you on the street with a little tray of coloured powder or flowers and you accept a blessing, it is appropriate to give NRs5-10 – this is his way of living. However, if you take a blessing from a sadhu, especially in tourist areas and places of interest, expect to pay a few hundred rupees at least.
PEOPLES OF NEPAL
BRAHMINS, CHHETRI AND NEWARS
Brahmins and Chhetris
These are the highest ‘rank’ in the Hindu caste system, and with the Chhetris (who formed the ruling Rana class) still form the majority of wealthy and influential society in Kathmandu. They speak Nepali and are spread throughout the country, especially in the pahar and terai.
Of the Chhetri castes, the Thakuris have the highest social, political and ritual status, so many of the influential Khas, Gurung, Bhotia and Magar people who have converted to Hinduism have aspired to become Thakuris.
In most parts of Nepal Brahmin and Chhetri homes are painted with red ochre, or whitewashed and traditionally repainted during the dasain festival. The inside is usually whitewashed and the mud and cow dung floors are swept daily. Around the outside of their homes is a line formed from where rainwater falls from the roof. This is the external boundary for low-caste people approaching a home, the next boundary is the veranda and reception room (in larger houses) where you, and people of a similar caste, may be invited to rest and have a cup of tea. Same-caste marriages organised by the family still predominate, although love and inter-caste marriages do occasionally occur.
Brahmins (who originally came to Nepal from India) form the priestly caste and, as such, are often conservative in their outlook. Brahmin and Chhetri boys are given a ‘sacred thread’ when young, and every year this is replaced. This thread is worn diagonally across the body under clothing, and never removed.
Almost everyone you meet in Nepal who is in any position of responsibility will be Brahmin or Chhetri. This has made many of the lower castes feel marginalised, and in some way led to the Maoists success with the promise of social change.
Newars are the indigenous inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley and claim an ancestry dating back to the 6th century bc. They are a cultural entity rather than an ethnic group, and have Mongoloid and Mediterranean features. They speak Nepali and Newari. Newars traditionally travelled for trade or business and many now live west of Kathmandu in Pokhara, Butwal and Silgadhi. Newar houses are usually several storeys high, with a veranda, and large framed doors and windows. Many of the beautiful old buildings in Kathmandu highlight the complexity and beauty of their woodcarving. Newars may be either Hindu or Buddhist, and sometimes both, so they celebrate most festivals and feast days. There are 1600 sub-castes in Newar culture, as every profession forms its own caste.
Newars, particularly the Hindus, still prefer arranged marriages. Every family is a member of a guthi or club, which come together for religious services (such as weddings and cremations), social events (picnics and the like) and public services (maintaining temples, rest houses and bridges). This means that Newar communities are close knit and can be difficult to understand. Newar woodcarvings and stone masonry are famed throughout the Himalaya, including India and Tibet, and have influenced many of the most popular works of Asian art.
Limbuwan (the Limbu homeland) extends east from the Arun Khola to the Indian border at Sikkim, and includes Taplejung and Ilam. Most of their villages are between 750 and 1,200 metres in altitude. Like the Rai, their houses are in the middle of their fields and are generally single storey stone buildings with thatched roofs. Richer folk will use slate for their roof, and the house will be larger than average with a wooden balcony running around the first floor. They cultivate maize, rice, wheat and millet. They use the grain for food, but also for rakshi and tongba (locally made alcohol). Limbus have arranged marriages, but more commonly by capture/abduction or elopement. Abduction marriages are where a girl is ‘taken’ from a public place and kept in the boy’s home for three days. If the girl agrees, the wedding will be arranged; otherwise she is free to return to her parents. This is certainly a less expensive alternative to big arranged marriages! Their marriage customs and religions are similar to Rai (see, p000), who can be described as ethnic cousins.
Olangchun (Walanchung) people
One of the most important trade routes from east Nepal to Tibet passes along the upper Tamur Valley, where the main trading centre is Olangchung Gola (known locally as Holung). A local legend tells of a wolf showing a trader the pass to Tibet, thus the village name Olang (wolf), chung (trader) and Gola (place or village). They do not have any field cultivation, but there have been many rich and successful traders over the years. Exports to Tibet include cloth, cotton thread, grain, gur (brown sugar) matches, cigarettes and other items from India. These are exchanged for Tibetan salt, wool and carpets. Holung people travel extensively for trade, as far as Lhasa, Delhi and Mumbai, and they are therefore relatively well informed about the outside world compared to many of their mountain neighbours. Homes are built of stone on the ground floor and then completed with wood. The lower areas are for storage and the living quarters above. They practise Buddhism and have a beautiful but old gompa in the village, which desperately needs some repairs.
West of Olangchun Gola is a series of valleys where the people of Thudam, which is a place name rather than an ethnic group, live. These people have no land of their own, so they rent a little farming land east of the Arun Nadi from the Lhomi people.
Individual families own pulping mills where they make juniper wood incense, which is very popular in Tibet. The mills are very basic: a wooden shaft a metre or so long is turned by a waterwheel. The rough block of sandstone, which is attached to the ground, is scraped with the small juniper log – the resulting pulp is dried in the sun and then sold. They also keep yaks, which are mainly used as pack animals and traded with Tibet.
Lhomi live in the upper Arun Nadi valley in eastern Nepal in Sankhuwasabha district, one of the most remote regions along the northern border of Nepal. Their ‘main’ villages are Hatiya, Hongon (Hangaun) and Gomba (which has one of only 2 gompas for the region), which cling to the steep slopes above the Arun Nadi gorge. They are often isolated from each other, and they mainly trade to the south as far as the terai.
Lhomi marriages are always by choice. They grow enough maize, millet, barley wheat and potatoes for their own needs, and the villagers keep cattle and dzum (yak crossbreeds) for ploughing, and sheep for wool and meat. They have only recently learned how to milk their cows. The dzum are often sold to Olangchun Gola people. Their houses are erected on piles, with bamboo walls and wild straw thatch. Although not well off economically, they are friendly, hospitable and cheerful. They are not ardent Buddhists, as they will kill animals for meat and follow Shamanism.
Rai settlements are along the Dudh Koshi and Arun Nadi, usually between 1000 and 2000 metres in altitude. They live in single storey stone houses with thatched or slate roofs. Their villages are generally spread out, like Sherpas’, with each house in the family field. Some Rai houses are built up on wooden piles, with a notched ladder to get you up to the first floor. Animals live under the veranda, and the walls and roof are made from bamboo. They use wet and dry fields to grow rice, maize, wheat, millet and vegetables and fruit such as beans, potatoes, bananas and guava.
Men and women often smoke cigarettes of locally grown tobacco. Rais have arranged marriages, but more commonly capture/abduct or elope. Their religion is quite complex having been influenced by Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism, and incorporates many local mountain deities. Within the home, the cooking fire is sacred and visitors should never throw anything into the flames. They frequently build stone chautara (resting platforms) and wooden benches shaded by a pipal tree, which provide shade and rest for travellers (yes, even trekkers!) as a memorial for their dead. Along with the Limbu (their ethnic cousins), they often join one of the Gurkha regiments.
The famous Sherpa people live in the Solu-Khumbu (Everest) region, and are similar to the Bhotia of Helambu (north of Kathmandu) and other ethnic groups dotted through the eastern districts of Nepal. Their mountain settlements are always higher than anyone else’s, no matter where they are living. During the cold winter only the elderly stay in the village to look after livestock, and the younger come down to the plains and valleys to look for manual work. Many Sherpas own or work for trekking and mountaineering companies, while others run lodges and shops in Kathmandu or along popular trails. Most families make a part of their income from tourism. Sherpa people keep yaks, dzum and dzo (a cross between cattle and yak) to work the fields, carry loads and provide meat, milk and wool.
The traditional Sherpa house has two stories made of stone with a sloping shingle roof. On the ground floor potatoes and firewood are stored, and this is where their livestock will be sheltered during bad weather. The family lives upstairs, normally in one large room, which functions as bedroom, sitting room and kitchen. Sherpas follow Tibetan Buddhism and generally pick their own marriage partner. They grow millet, maize and barley, and make their own alcohol, called chang, which is a fermented beer.
Rather than being a distinct ethnic group, Bhotia people are immigrants from the Tibetan Plateau who have settled in mountain valleys along the length of the Himalaya. They can therefore be considered the ‘ethnic cousins’ of other Mongoloid groups like the Sherpa and Tamang, who have also migrated from the north.
Bhotia homes can be either single or double storey, and are usually made of stone for the ground floor and wood for the upper levels. Communities tend to be compact, with only small fields for growing crops and keeping livestock and a few dozen homes. Bhotia always follow Tibetan Buddhism and the particular sect they belong to is often a clue as to where they originally came from. Marriages are normally within their own community, or another Bhotia village.
The term Bhotia is considered insulting by some ethnic groups, so don’t use it unless you are sure you won’t cause offence; calling them ‘Lama’ or ‘Sherpa’ is likely to be safer, even if less accurate.
Tamangs mainly live in the hills that circle Kathmandu, where you may see them on the streets, carrying their dhoko by a namlo, and always with their khukuri knife tucked into their cloth belt. No self respecting Tamang fellow would leave the house without his knife. Tamang means horse-trader in Tibetan, and they believe that they originated from Tibet and moved to Nepal countless centuries ago, where they continue to practise Buddhism. Theirs is the major Tibeto-Burman speaking community in Nepal.
They generally prefer to live in congested paved villages with terraced stone houses and wooden shingle or slate roofs. Most houses have 2 floors, the ground floor is where grain is stored and livestock shelters overnight, and the family live upstairs. The first floor has three wooden windows surrounded by intricate carvings and sometimes overhangs the ground floor, forming a veranda where the inhabitants will take tea, chat and work during the day. They grow their own crops of wheat, maize millet etc and keep a few animals such as chickens, goats and buffalos.
Typically, a boy’s family will offer a ceremonial gift and some money to the girl they would like their son to marry. Should the girl accept the gift, she will then be betrothed. However, should another man wish to marry the girl, he can ‘outbid’ the first offer by paying double, and again it is up to the girl to accept.
Tamangs are skilled craftsmen and tuneful singers. So their festivals are often lively affairs, which continue into the early hours for days on end! They are strong, easygoing and hardworking – many are employed as porters for trekking groups as well as local delivery work. They are the most highly sought after domestic staff because of their honesty, kindness and work ethic.
Larke & Siar people
The high valleys around the back of the Manaslu range and bordered by the Ganesh Himal to the east and Tibet to the north are called the Larkye region. There are two groups of people who live here, the Mongoloid Buddhist people in the Ro (Sama) and Tsum valleys, and the Siar people of mixed Gurung ancestry who occupy the hills above Gorkha and Dhading.
The people of the high valleys of Larkye first came from Tibet and are therefore enthusiastic followers of Buddhism. The Siar people share many of the habits and traditions of the Gurungs to the south, while still being ardent Tibetan Buddhism practitioners. Their economies are based on agriculture and trade, as their villages lie along two important trade routes to Tibet, which were possibly established by the Sherpas of the Solu Khumbu. Tibetans exchanged salt and wool for food grains and Nepali merchandise. They are relatively poor, but kind hearted and fun loving, and always ready to share a glass or two of rakshi or a pot of boiled potatoes.
The Ru-Pa people of Samdo
Formerly residents of Ru, an old Tibetan trading village and home to the famous Taiga Gompa, fled to Samdo after the Chinese occupied their village in Tibet. They had grazed their herds in the fields of the Nubri Valley for centuries, but they left everything, crossed the passes and began a new life. The first group arrived above Sama in spring 1962. They claimed Nepali citizenship, based on a set of copper plates granting them land rights over 600 years before. Villagers petitioned the King of Nepal and received the rights they so desperately needed to remain in Nepal. Since then, there has been an almost constant disagreement with the people of lower villages, such as Sama, over who has the right to these lands. They still maintain many of the Tibetan Buddhist and animist customs their forefathers followed, and live a mostly subsistence life, trading and carrying their goods across high passes on dzo (a yak and cattle cross breed).
Gurungs usually live along the southern slopes of the Annapurnas, from Gorkha in the west to Lamjung in the eastern Gandaki zone. They first became famous in Nepal when they formed the bulk of the Shah armies of Gorkha, which conquered the Kathmandu valley in 1768 and united Nepal. This fighting tradition continues to this day, with many young Gurung men in the Gurkha regiments of the British and Indian armies, as well as the Nepal Army and police. Gurungs who are not in the armed forces survive on agriculture and livestock breeding. As many of the older men of a village receive service pensions they tend to only hold small amounts of land, and it is always a treat to see an old ex-Gurkha decked out in his neatly pressed uniform in a village in the middle of nowhere!
In April, Gurungs take their sheep or goats to high pastures where they remain until about September. They then take their flock to lower altitudes to sell for the important Dasain festival, when every family will have at least one animal for dinner. Gurungs will also cross the border to Tibet or India to trade salt or ghee (clarified butter).
The Gurung people are hardworking and fun loving, and the women especially are flirtatious, even with foreigners. Their round faces, bright eyes and broad cheeky smiles are hard to resist. Gurungs traditionally speak a Tibeto-Burman language, though many now speak Nepali. Gurungs rather uniquely have a system called rodi where young boys and girls have sleep-overs in a house under supervision, as a method of courting. The couple, once married, do not live together, but remain with their respective parents until a child is born. The girl then finally leaves her parents and lives with the boy and his family.
The inhabitants of the Manang valley (Manang-pa and includes Braga) are more properly known as Nyeshang. They claim to be Gurung, although the Gurungs don’t agree, and their language is different from any Tibetan dialect. They farm, cultivate and run successful businesses, both in the mountains and in urban areas. Their houses are usually mud with flat stone roofs, with stables below and living areas above. They are built almost on top of each other, up steep slopes, each roof forming the front and base of the next house up. Upper floors are reached using notched wooden ladders. Houses in Manang itself, where there is more flat land, are the traditional mountain homes of stone or wood with storage below and living areas on the upper floor. Similar to other ethnic groups in the high mountains, Manangpa traditionally practice polyandry where two or more brothers marry one wife. Although this is becoming quite rare in recent years. They follow Tibetan Buddhism, although many gompas have fallen into disrepair over the years.
Thakali people come from the high valleys of the Kali Gandaki and extends south from Jomsom towards Tatopani. The hospitable Thakali people run most bhatti, or trailside teahouses, in the Annapurna region. Their homeland marks the transition between the mainly Hindu lowlands and Buddhist higher areas, although they look more similar to their northern neighbours with regular Mongoloid features of round faces, high cheekbones, flat noses and yellowish skin colour. Thakalis have spread south and east through Nepal, since they were awarded a monopoly over the salt trade with Tibet in the nineteenth century. Along with the Manangba, these people have evolved into one of the most successful long distance trading groups of Nepal.
Thakali houses generally stand against each other in a line, much like western terrace houses, are built of stone and have flat roofs for drying grain. The inside of their houses are usually spacious, and many have an enclosed courtyard for shelter from the wind and keeping livestock, which then leads onto the main living room, with the kitchen leading off to one side. There are separate sleeping and storage rooms, as well as a family chapel. Thakalis have a financial co-operative system called dhigur, where members pay a set amount each year into the ‘community chest’. Every year one member is awarded the money, either because of a specific need, or by lottery, which they can use as they please. The member must repay the principal sum, but keeps any profit and carries any loss they may incur. Dhigur has helped families to build large teahouses, and even businesses in Kathmandu and beyond. Thakali religion is a complex mixture of Jhankrism (a shamanistic religion), Hinduism, Buddhism and Bon. They usually marry by capture where the boyfriend ‘abducts’ his girlfriend until the families agree to marriage. If no agreement can be made the boy’s family must pay a fine, although the couple may elope instead!
Magars have Mongoloid features and are more yellow skin-toned than other Nepali people. They speak at least three mutually unintelligible Tibeto-Burman languages, but most speak Nepali as a second language. Magars live in western Nepal, from the high Himalaya to the terai, around the Gorkha District, and in small pockets to the east, past Kathmandu. Many Magars become soldiers, and they are skilled craftsmen and hunters, so they spread across Nepal looking for work. Magars form the largest number of Gurkha soldiers outside Nepal. Their traditional home is a two-storey stone house, covered in whitewash, with thatch or slate roof. In the west, many smaller houses are round or oval and washed in red mud or ochre.
Most Magar villages will have a number of men away on army duties, and many older fellows who have retired from the service. Their marriages are similar to the other hill folk, with most young people choosing their partner to a certain extent. The majority of Magars are Hindu, and the most influential call themselves Thakuris.
These people live south of Lo Manthang and north of the Thakalis, and usually prefer to be thought of as Gurungs. They are more widely travelled than the Lopa (from Mustang) and the region in which they live is slightly more advanced. Their major villages are Muktinath and Kagbeni, both of which form the border to Mustang, and are often visited by trekkers crossing Thorung La. Their houses are similar to the houses in Lo, built of mud and poorly ventilated. They are, however, quite warm and manage to keep out most of the wind that howls up the valley every day from about 11am. Their clothing, like the Lo-pa, is Tibetan in style and often brightly coloured. The Baraguan villages used to supply large numbers of bonded servants to rich Thakalis. They follow Tibetan Buddhism with some Bon influences.
The Lo-pa people of Mustang live in mud-brick homes that are whitewashed on the outside and decorated on the inside, much like Tibetan homes. Lo Manthang also boasts the Raja’s Palace and many beautiful monasteries, which are being restored by art historians from Italy and other European countries. The land around Lo Manthang is arid and windswept, and not at all conducive to agriculture. The altitude is between 3000m and 3500m. Where there are small streams, however, willows grow and wheat, potatoes and barley are cultivated.
The Lopa traditionally traded with Tibet but in the mid-18th century the Thakalis to the south were granted a monopoly on the salt trade, so the Lopa lost a great deal of income. Local wealth deteriorated further when Tibetans began crossing the border in 1959 and encroached on the small pastures the Lopa used to feed their sheep, yaks, donkeys and mules, causing great hardship. They practise Tibetan Buddhism, and have marriages by parental agreement, capture and elopement. Like many people who live in harsh landscapes, they are kind and generous but also shrewd businessmen. The most famous festival in Lo Manthang is Teeji (see Festivals and Faith) which is generally in April/May.
West of the upper Kali Gandaki, at around 4000m, lies the remote area of Dolpo. Surrounded by mountains over 6000m, this landscape can only be successfully inhabited by tough, hardy people. There are 25 or 30 villages spread over an area of about 1300 square kilometres.
The Dolpo-pa (Dolpo people) are very hospitable and kind, and grow most of the crops they need, as well as keeping yaks, sheep and goats for meat, wool and milk products, or to be sold or traded. Their houses are built of rough stone and all huddled together, as though trying to gain warmth and comfort from each other. This often makes the villages look like forts. Their traditional ‘fancy’ dress for women includes a striking headdress made of two rectangular brass plates with edges that turn up over the top and back of the head. These headdresses are adorned with coral and turquoise and often represent the wealth of the family. They marry by choice or arrangement, and follow Buddhism and Bon. The 1998 movie Caravan (also called Himalaya) was shot here and told the tale of the now defunct salt caravans. You can still find locals in villages such as Saldang who appeared in the film.
Khas are found in the remote valleys of the western hills of Nepal, in Mugu District. For centuries, the Khas people (known as Khasas) were considered illiterate, simple people by the elite in Kathmandu. They originally followed Tibetan Buddhism, until Indian Brahmans fled the Islamic invasion of India (9th to the 14th centuries), and converted them to Hinduism. Since then they have had very limited access to economic or development opportunities. Most modern Khas people will not refer to themselves as Khas (they consider it to be humiliating), instead calling themselves Chhetri after the caste that converted them.
From the 12th century, the Khas built a powerful kingdom covering much of west Nepal, Kashmir and western Tibet, known as the Malla Empire (not related to the Malla Kingdoms of Kathmandu Valley). As the Empire fell apart from the 14th century, many of the ruling families migrated throughout Nepal and so many common Nepali surnames (Thapa, Basnet, Bista and Bhandari), as well as the national language, have their roots in the ancient and once proud Khas kingdom.
Most of the men can speak Nepali, however, women who generally do not leave the village can only speak the Khas language. Their houses are built of stone and mud with flat roofs of mud or thatch depending on their altitude. They are dark and poorly ventilated and not usually kept very clean. Ground floors are usually for livestock and a notched wooden ladder provides access to the first floor and wooden veranda. Most marriages are arranged when the child is still young. Many Khas continue to worship their shamanic mountain deities, and rarely follow the traditional Hindu rituals or worship their gods.
PEOPLES OF BHUTAN
Bhutan has received little anthropological research, so I’ve tried to describe a little history, the importance of Buddhism and a few of the major ethnic groups that we came across while researching the GHT Bhutan.
There’s a lot in a name
The diversity of this enchanting country reflects a long and complex history. Sandwiched between the plains of India and the high Tibetan plateau it is no surprise that there are at least two stories about how Bhutan came to exist.
The Tibetans, depending on circumstance and their feelings towards what they considered unruly southern neighbours, referred to Lho Mon (Southern Land of Darkness), Lho Tsenden (Southern Land of Cypresses), Lhomen Khazhi (Southern Land of the Four Approaches), or Lhojong Menjong (Southern Land of Medicinal Herbs). However, in India they called the massive hills and mountains to their north Bhu-Uttan (highlands) or Bhota-anta (At the end of Tibet) and considered it a wild, untamed place.
Before becoming a Kingdom, Bhutan identified with and looked towards Tibet as the source of their traditions, trade and religious guidance. Legend says that as the great Tibetan saint, Tsangpa Gyare Yeshe Dorji (AD1161-1211) was consecrating a new lhakhang (monastery) in Tibet he heard thunder that he believed to be the voice of a druk (dragon) loudly proclaiming the truth of the Buddha’s teachings. He named the monastery ‘Druk Lhakhang’ and founded the Drukpa Kargyupa sect in the Mahayana tradition, which became the state religion during the 17th century, and so, this remote and isolated land became Druk Yul, or the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
Brief early history of Bhutan
In the 7th century, the legendary 33rd King of Tibet, Songtsen Gampo ordered the construction of monasteries throughout his kingdom to subdue evil spirits. Two of the 108 lhakhangs were built in Bhutan (Kyichu Lhakhang in Paro and Jambay Lhakhang in Bumthang) and were visited by Guru Rinpoche (aka Padmasambhava) in AD747. Songtsen Gampo’s successor, the heretical King Langdharma (AD836-842) banned Buddhism and so began a major wave of migration to the still-devout Bhutan. Subsequent migrations, mainly from Tibet over the next 1000 years or so, created a patchwork of cultures across the country.
As time went by, Bhutan developed into petty fiefdoms that frequently squabbled and warred. However, they also sponsored important lamas to relocate from Tibet, which continued to fuel the importance of Buddhism throughout the country. Perhaps the most well known of the lamas are Gyalwa Kagyu, who built the first dzongs (forts) and Drukpa Kunley, who is known as the Divine Madman (see below).
By the early 17th century, Bhutan’s princes were almost constantly at war and/or raiding surrounding regions. Then in 1616, Ngawang Namgyal (AD1594-1651) arrived from Ralung Monastery in Tibet to transform Bhutan. His claim to be the re-incarnate Abbot of Ralung was challenged by a powerful rival, which meant that he had to escape fearing for his life. He arrived in Laya (see below) and soon established his spiritual and political authority over the country, thus creating a unified state. For more history see Wikipedia’s Bhutan page, Lily Wangchhuk – Facts about Bhutan Land of the Thunder Dragon, Absolute Bhutan Books 2008, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchhuck Treasures of the Thunder Dragon, Penguin 2006
Architecture and Superstition
Bhutanese are very superstitious and adorn their buildings with all sorts of talismans and ritual images. The ornate decoration of windows and doorways often incorporates the eight lucky symbols of Buddhism and phallic symbols inspired by Drukpa Kinley (AD1455-1529), or the Divine Madman. This very popular saint sought to spread Buddhism through unorthodox and often shocking behaviour. He used songs, poems, earthy jokes and stories, and his legendary sexual prowess allegorically to highlight Buddhist spiritual values. He has inspired two of the most startling architectural features of a Bhutanese house, the large carved penises hanging from the corners of the roof and the less common giant painted phalluses either side of the front door.
Appeasing spirits, whether they are ancestors or otherwise, is an important part of every-day life and house design. On the rear outside wall of a house or in the courtyard all homes have a chorten where pine needles are burnt each morning to purify the air of evil spirits (and flies). If a person within the house has a recurring or serious illness another ornately decorated spirit house is attached to the rear wall on the first floor. It is common to see derelict buildings in and around villages as an old house will never be knocked down for fear of upsetting resident spirits.
The most iconic of Bhutan’s buildings would have to be the numerous medieval dzongs throughout the country. Built to protect against invaders (mainly from Tibet) they are the administrative and religious centres of every district. Most of them sit like enormous beached ocean liners atop easily defensible positions and are a reminder of a not-so-ancient feudal past.
In every building in Bhutan each doorway has a raised threshold step and low lintel to make you both left your feet and duck when entering a building. This is done to prevent zombies from getting into your home as Bhutanese believe that they are unable to bend their arms and legs. So if you see someone kicking the front step and unable to enter a doorway you’d better run a mile!!
Major Ethnic Groups
Extending from the highest peak of Bhutan’s Great Himalaya Range to the India plains, the Black Mountains divide the country almost equally. It is believed that the Monpa communities of the Black Mountains were among the original inhabitants of the country along with the other pre- Buddhist groups of Khenpa, Brokpas, Doyas, Koch (from the southern hills) and Birmis (little is known about this semi-nomdic group from the northeast). Monpa are normally grouped within the six eastern districts (Lhuntse, Monger, Trashigang, Trashi Yangtse, Samdrup Jongkhar and Pemagatshel) and together they are all commonly referred to as Sharchops (the easterners).
Bhutan’s southern boundary, called the Duars, are dominated by jungles and inaccessible valleys, which are home to two ethnic groups the Lokpas and Doyas, who also predate the Tibetan and Indian migrations. However, the most significant group throughout this region is the Lhotshampas who share Nepali origins.
The western districts are home to Ngalops who occupy almost every position of consequence in Bhutan. The Ngalops created the national language, Dzongkha and established their traditional attire as driglam namzha, or national dress.
Today, most Bhutanese call themselves Drukpa (people of Druk) and are broadly divided into three groups;
- Sarchops – the people of the eastern Bhutan are called Tshangla (descendants of Lord Brahma), or more popularly as Sharchops, and they speak Tshangla-kha. Traditionally they produce stunning woven fabrics from raw silk and cotton. They grow a great deal of corn and much of the excess is turned into ara, a local firewater drunk throughout the country but particularly prized in the eastern districts. Most Sharchops follow the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism with some elements of Bön (animism and shamanism) and Hinduism, although those who live in the Duars are animists.
- Ngalops (aka Ngalongs) – are Tibetan immigrants that settled in the western and central areas and who practice Tibetan Buddhism, grow mountain rice, potatoes, barley, and other temperate climate crops. They eat all kinds of meat including beef and pork and they claim the national dish, ema datchi as their own. Most Ngalops follow the Drukpa Kargyupa sect.
- Lhotshampas – people in the south of the country are mainly from Nepal. They are generally classified as Hindus, although the Tamang and Gurung minorities are largely Buddhist and the Rai and Limbu (Kiranti communities) are mainly animist followers of Mundum. Whether they are Hindu or Tibetan Buddhist, most abstain from beef, notably those belonging to the orthodox classes who are vegetarians. Their main festivals include Dashin and Tihar, a festival based on the Indian Diwali. Deep in the thick jungle forests are Totos,Taba and Dramtoeps who are regarded as aboriginals.
Many Bhutanese believe in the concept of ‘Kanyin-Zungdrel’, meaning ‘Kagyupa and Nyingmapa as one’. For information on the level of Religious Freedom in Bhutan see the 2009 UNHCR Report.
Regardless of your background, every Bhutanese is obliged to wear traditional dress (for men the gho, for women the keira) in all official and spiritual buildings and for some public ceremonies and festivals as a way of preserving cultural integrity. Buddhist monks are help in great respect throughout the country and perform many administrative tasks, so expect to see them in dzongs.
Ethnic Groups of Central Bhutan
Occupying Jangbi, Wangling and Phumzur villages, one of the smallest ethnic groups and quite possibly the oldest in Bhutan, are the Monpas of the Black Mountains. They speak an archaic dialect from the Tibeto-Burman group of languages and genetic testing indicates they are distinct from all other ethnic groups in the country. The term, Mon-pa, is broadly used across the entire Himalaya (see Himalayan Diversity) as a Tibetan reference to ‘people from the south’, but the Bhutanese Monpa are perhaps the oldest of them.
Monpas are a matriarchal society where a courting boy moves into the girl’s house. He works in her family’s fields and contributes his earnings to them. After three years the girl’s parents send a message to the boy’s family saying, “Your son is in my house, his eyes are not blind, his legs and arms are not broken, do you need him back?” If they say no, the boy stays on in his wife’s house, but if they want him back, they send a formal apology and gifts to the bride’s house and the couple then move into the husband’s family home. His parents then transfer all their property to the new daughter-in-law as an assurance she will not be abandoned by her husband. If he does leave, he forfeits all his family’s assets.
As animists, they worship the sun and moon as well as a multitude of local spirits that dwell in groves, mountains, rocks, cliffs, rivers and the elements. The main totem and clan idol is the tiger-spirit, who will torment any disrespectful believer while they sleep. Monpa believe this spirit to be a manifestation of the ancestral forest spirit that once took a young shaman into the jungle for initiation. They were recently persuaded by neighbouring Buddhists to stop ritually sacrificing animals and to use wheat-dough sculptures instead.
Subsistence farming practices (maize, millet, wheat, buckwheat, mustard and rice) are gradually being improved with new techniques and grains, but their traditional medicine and use of forest-sourced materials remains unchanged. Older folk still wear pagay, a tunic made from woven nettle plants. Monpas are renown in Bhutan for their knowledge of forest products (including edible fruits, ferns, mushrooms and nuts) and their bamboo and cane weaving skills.
For more info on this unique ethnic group see Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchhuck Treasures of the Thunder Dragon, Penguin 2006
Bumthaps, Mangdeps & Khengpas
These three similar groups are from the central Bhutan districts of Zhemgang, Tongsa and Mongar, which were all petty fiefdoms prior to the unification of Bhutan in the 17th century. They share similar dialects although there are differences in farming and husbandry.
Bumthaps and Mangdeps are adept yak and sheep herders and are often found in the high pastures along the Snowman Trek in the summer months. They also produce fabrics of wool and yak hair.
Khengpas live in densely forested steep-sided valleys where they practice what seems to be a form of sustainable slash-and-burn farming. However, low yields and small farming areas mean they rely heavily on foods that they can gather from the surrounding forests. Perhaps ostracized long ago because of illness, there is also one small Khengpa community near Trashigang in the far-east of the country. All Khengpas are known for their bamboo and cane craft.
All three groups follow the Drukpa Kargyupa school of Tibetan Buddhism and have similar customs to Ngalops.
Ethnic Groups of East Bhutan
Lhuentse Dzong, perched above the Kurichhu river is the heart of Kurtoep culture and the ancestral homeland of the present royal family. The father of the first king of Bhutan, Jigme Namgyel, was born in a manor house on the hillside opposite the imposing dzong in 1825. He became Penlop (governor) of Tongsa (in neighouring Bumthang) and then de facto ruler of Bhutan in 1870. His son was crowned the first king of Bhutan in 1907, a dynasty that is now five generations old.
Near Lhuentse is Khoma where the women are perhaps the most celebrated of Bhutan’s traditional weavers. Their intricate Kushithara (textiles) are the most prized in the country and many go straight to the royal household. A fine silk keira from Khoma can easily take nine months to make and cost US$2000.
Brokpas (aka Dakpas)
The people of the northeast areas are fully or semi nomadic yak and sheep herders, and perhaps the most famous of them are the Brokpas (aka Dakpas) of Merak and Sakteng valleys in Tashigang district. The locals tell of how once, long ago, they were exiled for killing a tyrannical king. Merak, the higher of the two communities, was only reached by the strongest and fittest of the refugees, the others settled in Sakteng.
Brokpas wear a distinctive hat of felted yak wool with a round centre and five long tail-like projections. The locals say the projections provide sun protection to ears and eyes and channel rain to drip without it interfering with sight or hearing. Men wear a belted woolen jacket, felt shorts, leather leggings and knee-high wool or leather boots. Over this they wear a tunic of deerskin or calf hide. Women wear a pink and white striped raw-silk dress, a long-sleeved red over-shirt decorated with traditional motifs and a black apron tied behind them to serve as a mat and extra insulation. Both outfits are very similar to those worn in Memba and Monpa communities in Monyul (see Himalayan Diversity) over the border in Arunachal Pradesh. In summer they move to the pastures in the higher lands with their yaks and sheep and in winter they return to live in their villages or to trade in the towns of eastern Bhutan.
Their principal crops include corn, barley, and beets. They keep pigs, chickens and sheep and use yaks for meat and dairy products, which form the bulk of the trading produce.
Brokpas are polyandric, meaning a woman has more than one husband, often brothers. The eldest brother is the most senior but none are specifically identified as the father of any particular child. They follow Bön (animism and shamanism), the Nyingmapa school of Buddhism and regularly worship the two people who guided the communities to their safe haven, Lama Jarepa and Aum Jomo.
For more info on this unique ethnic group see Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchhuck Treasures of the Thunder Dragon, Penguin 2006.
Ethnic Groups of West Bhutan
Layaps (aka Bjops) & Lunaps (aka Laps)
Bhutan’s northeast are home to two famous ethnic groups, the Layaps and Lunaps. It is not known if they share a similar ancestry they refer to themselves as female (layaps) and male (lunaps) communities. Layap women are famed for being the most beautiful women in the country, which is probably helped by their distinctive dress. Lunap men, from Lunana district, are considered the strongest and most powerful in Bhutan. Some locals claim to be able to lift a yak!
The Story of Layaps
Legend says that long ago the Layaps lived in southern Tibet. Their region was beset by a series of calamities, which were believed to be caused by a terrible curse. It was decided that the only way to remove the curse was to send it away attached to scapegoats and the inhabitants of one unfortunate village were chosen. Dressed in a black costume and pointed hat, the villagers were banished. It took them several days to find a new place to live, but when they saw a beautiful valley beneath the awesome Mt Masagang they declared, ‘La-Ya!’ in wonder and excitement. Since that day the inhabitants of Laya have retained their peculiar outfits because it ultimately bought them good luck. The pointed hat is still worn by the womenfolk who believe that to not wear it would offend the spirits and the dreadful curse could return again.
Both lead semi-nomadic lives where family members tend their yak herds in the summer months and trade in the winter. Yaks are critical to both communities and are loving reared like children. Both Layaps and Lunaps know their yaks by name and often wax lyrical about their favourites. Dairy products are important for their winter-trading excursions down to Ghasa and Punakha. Both communities go en-masse in the spring months to search for yarasgumbha (see Himalayan Diversity).
Men are often away for long periods so polyandry used to be common but is less so now. Mothers tend to remain in the village throughout the year and are usually busy growing barley, buckwheat, mustard and wheat on limited farming land and weaving yak wool. Perhaps surprisingly, wool spinning is left to the men.
The Story of Lunaps
It is said that long ago, when Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal was building Punakha Dzong he conscripted men from throughout the country. But many didn’t want to work on the Zhabdrung’s project and ran away to the hills, the Lunaps ran furthest, to the high mountains where they still live today. They had a reputation for inconsistent hospitality, perhaps because of their isolation, but today they offer a warm welcome to all visitors.
Marriage is an informal affair, such that if a boy stays overnight and then breakfasts with the family the couple are considered to be married, but if he leaves during the night, then he’s obviously not serious.
For more info on this unique ethnic group see Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchhuck Treasures of the Thunder Dragon, Penguin 2006
The BBC ‘Tribes’ program webpage has a good overview of Layap and Lunap life (click here), the following extract describes religious life.
‘The spiritual life of the Layaps and Lunaps is a fascinating demonstration of what anthropologists call religious synchronism. Buddhism was introduced into Bhutan from Tibet in the 7th century but in these communities it did not simply replace the existing animistic and shamanistic practices. The animism and the Buddhism complement each other. For example, local animistic gods and demons have been made into defenders of Buddhism and there is a happy balance between the two. In Lunana for example, there are sacred forests that belongs to the Due Shing, or demon trees. People entering this forest without the permission of these spirits will be punished. When people fall ill or suffer misfortune it is often believed that they have disturbed or displeased such spirits. The Layaps and Lunaps each have their own adaptation to this convergence of belief systems – in Lunana you must walk around Chortens (shrines) in an anticlockwise direction to please the spirits and in Laya you must move around them clockwise. If the spirit world is ever disturbed then a ‘tsip’, or astrologer, is consulted to appease the spirits. The astrologer for this reason can be a very influential person in the village extending his influence beyond religion to village politics.
Each year in Laya a household will hold its own ritual called a Choku that is carried out to honour the deities and spirits that protect that house. The Choku is a time of great celebration where members of the village are invited to join in the ritual for two or three days’ festivity. These ceremonies are pre-Buddhist in their origins and involve the village shaman or Pow. For example, in Laya there is the ‘Bongkpo’ festival that is held in May and that celebrates the onset of spring bringing fertility to crops and livestock. Other Buddhist ceremonies are observed on holy days (10th or 15th of the lunar month) as a part of routine offerings.’
Lhops (aka Doya)
The wild, dense and mosquito-plagued Duars (southern hills) are home to what many consider to be an ancient aboriginal tribe, the Lhop. Found in the southwestern low valleys of Samtse (Amochhu valley) and near Phuntsholing, they grow oranges and cardamom to trade. A simple dress of a white tunic knotted at the shoulder covers their small frames (Lhops are normally 4-5 feet, or 1.2-1.5m tall) but they are strong and work as porters after harvest.
Lhops are largely animist and worships spirits that live in rocks, waterfalls, lakes, mountains and caves and are pacified by sacrificing pigs and rooster. The decapitated head is placed on the roof and it is considered a bad omen if it should be stolen by a cat, eagle or crow. The Doya trace their descent matrilineally and marry their cousins.
Very little is known about Lhop culture but their unique funeral rites have been recorded. The deceased are embalmed, placed in the foetal position and buried above ground in circular wooden coffins with their belongings. The coffins are then buried under a mound of stones and the deceased is then assigned some land. A bull is sacrificed is the dead person is male, and a cow if female. The entire community feasts and divides the remaining meat. The spirit of the deceased is then invoked and beseeched to leave the family in peace. They chant, ‘We are giving you your share of grains property, livestock. Take them, and make offerings to the deities for the safe journey of your soul. Do not trouble us any more, we are giving you your share.’
For more info on this unique ethnic group see Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchhuck Treasures of the Thunder Dragon, Penguin 2006
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