Bhutan Research and Documentation Project
The country of Bhutan has a highly evolved and richly diverse culture. Elaborate and well- defined rituals and traditions have been created to mark every transition and major event in the life cycle of individuals and of communities. Because of the geographic demarcations of this mountainous Kingdom, these traditional rituals vary from valley to valley. Yet they are woven together by Tibetan Buddhism, which permeates every aspect of the cultural and spiritual life of the vast majority of Bhutanese people.
Recognizing that Bhutan is only one generation into the modern age, it is important to document basic cultural beliefs and practices before a gap emerges between generations or the beliefs and practices are lost to history. Even in Bhutan time does not stand still.
Only four decades since it opened its doors to both visitors and modern development, Bhutan continues to integrate into the world with the popular consent of both the general population and the government. The country has embraced a balanced approach of adopting modernity without losing its unique culture and traditions. However, the forces of change are strong and they permeate many aspects of rural beliefs and practices. A rapidly growing urban population finds it ever more difficult to stay in touch with the practices that dictated every major life transition for their parents and grandparents in the villages from which this younger generation has emigrated.
This research and documentation project began in March 2003. Although it initially aimed at covering every major cultural and transitional event in Bhutanese life throughout the major parts of the country, the enormity of the project threatened smoothness and proper focus of the work. So, advised by the Center for Bhutan Studies, the pioneering research authority on Bhutan, the project narrowed its goal by focusing on four important aspects in the lives of the Bhutanese - Birth/Rebirth, Marriage, Inheritance and Death. The focus of the project is secular although religious implications are included to provide a comprehensive study of each practice and belief.
The Center for Bhutan Studies has been monumental in supporting the project by endorsing the work and providing a letter requesting all regional administrators and community leaders to provide access and assistance. As a result, each region and community that was visited has been forthcoming and very informative.
All regions identified for research visits have been completed except for the southern region, which was considered unsafe for travel until very recently. It is expected to be completed by April 2005. Meanwhile transcription of voice recordings of interviews and field notes are in process. The format of presentation is a book, which is still in the planning process. The challenge ahead is to decide on the style of presentation, so as to avoid making the book monotonous and technical, but to make it easily readable and appealing to people from all walks of life, including, most importantly, the younger generation of Bhutanese. In addition to the book, portions of the research may be posted on-line.
As a preview to the research findings, the region of Tang in the district of Bumthang, central Bhutan, is presented here. Tang is one of four valleys that make up the district of Bumthang in central Bhutan. It is a long day's drive from the capital city, Thimphu, one of the most modern/urban areas in the country. The valley of Tang itself is comprised of several scattered villages; some with immediate access to a motorable road while others are less than a day's walk away.
Informants Gembo and Chophel are from two different villages in Tang. They are both in their late fifties. Gembo is literate in traditional education while Chophel is a layman religious practitioner and a village astrologer. Gembo was chosen as an interviewee due to his wide knowledge of local tradition while Chophel as an astrologer performed some of the rituals described in this report. Gembo was interviewed twice while Chophel was interviewed once. They were both supportive knowing the objective of the project and, in fact, they empathized with the process of change in their society and agreed with the importance of documentation of historical tradition.
The process of pregnancy and birth, just as in death, is commonly believed around the country to be spiritually impure. So, once pregnancy of a woman is confirmed, the prospective mother is not allowed to enter or visit any houses beside her own, until a ritual, locally called Tsangman (described below) is performed. If a pregnant woman happens to visit or walk into a neighbor's house and misfortunate happens, be it sickness or death, to the house of visit, the pregnant woman can be held responsible.
A pregnant woman is not allowed to participate in heavier works of the farm and is delegated to lighter work, in fact, even encouraged in the belief that it aids in easier delivery. The mother is given nutritious food such as eggs, meat, butter and cheese in quantities and frequency more than regular farm meals. In the context of subsistence farm living this extra rich food can mean significant extra expenses, especially if the family does not have cows or chickens.
Tsangman is a very important ritual that combines the official celebration of marriage and purification rite for the pregnancy as well as a platform for divinations regarding the pregnancy and eventual delivery of the child. It is performed in the third month of pregnancy. Tsangman is conducted by a village astrologer. All relatives and other inhabitants of the village gather for the occasion.
For the ritual, both husband and wife must be present. In the case of a child whose father cannot be identified or for whatever family reason is not acknowledged, the woman or her family has to find another man to substitute for the husband during the ritual. A case was recollected where a woman with an illegitimate child found it very difficult to find a willing man to perform the role for the ritual.
For the ritual two mats are prepared for the couple to sit on. The one under the wife and mother has an egg placed over a mound of barley and the one under the man has an oriental swastika, locally called yudrung, made of barley. The egg represents a soul or life and yudrung represents a good luck charm and a symbol of longevity. In front of the couple on a low table, a beautiful china cup or a prized wooden cup filled with arra (home distilled alcohol from grain) is placed and a few feet away a ceremonial arra offering called Marchang is readied. The village astrologer performs the purification ritual, locally called Lhabsang, literally translated as offering of incense to the gods. After Lhabsang the Marchang ceremony is performed. This is an offering of arra to gods and the pantheon of protecting deities of Mahayana Buddhism evoking blessing and protection. At the end of Lhabsang the couple will rise and the egg under the woman is inspected. It should not be broken. Then the egg is broken to check the inside. If the egg is normal it is considered a good sign for the marriage, pregnancy and eventual delivery. However, if the egg is found to be broken or spoilt, it is taken as a sign of impending misfortune or unmatched union. Usually the astrologer under such an event prescribes corrective rituals to be performed by the couple.
Tsangman is performed only for the first child, but if the woman remarries and has a child, it has to be performed once more.
The main event of the day happens towards the evening when well wishers arrive. A witty person with poetic skill is appointed as the official director of the program. His main responsibility is to greet, introduce and present well wishers and their gifts to the couple. It is done in flourishing stanza of praises for the couple, the guests' good wishes and elaborate description of their gifts. The gift offered for the occasion now is mostly cash and the white scarf called Khadar. In the past people brought food, grains and other farm produce. Also for this occasion the couple assumes the name of legendary epic hero, King Gesar of Ling and his Queen Shechen Drolma. This is meant to evoke the blessings of a successful and faithful wedding, since King Gesar and his consort are supposed to have had boundless love and dedication to each other. The evening is spent feasting and dancing long into the night.
Come delivery time the mother is attended by her female relatives or someone who has always experienced easy and successful deliveries. If there is a delay beyond nine months the pregnant woman is made to cross bridges or walk over mountain passes. This symbolically evokes passing "through" in the same way wished for the baby's journey to a new stage outside the mother's womb. Interestingly, people now believe that crossing a pass in a car makes delivery even easier. Also, a woman having difficulty in delivery is given a leaf of pipal or Bodhi tree, and in some cases the meat or fat of the Takin, an animal whose meat is considered medicinal.
After delivery, if the newborn child is a boy, Lhabsang (offering of incense to the gods) is performed on the third day and, if it is a girl, on the second day. Well wishers will arrive only after the Lhabsang is performed. Mother and child are given gifts of money, cloth for the child and food such as eggs, cheese and dried meat. Well wishers are offered arra and food. On the third morning the newborn is taken out of the house for the first time, first facing the direction advised by the astrologer.
Soon after birth an astrologer is commissioned to prepare a horoscope for the child based on the timing of birth, down to the closest minute. The horoscope lays down everything regarding the child's character and life, good and bad. For the bad aspects, appropriate rituals are prescribed for corrective measures. Based on this horoscope, a name is given which is used only for rituals when the person dies. For a name to be used while the child is alive families usually go to local temples and get names derived from a particular deity or they ask high lamas (priests). In some cases parents decide on a name themselves. Some parents take their child to a lama and offer the first haircut, a symbolic reenactment of Gautama's pledge in his quest for Buddhahood by first shaving his head.
For Buddhists all forms of life are believed to be rebirths of previous existence but not every rebirth is identified. Rebirth is identified in circumstances described here based on an actual event in one of the villages. Although there is no officially prescribed procedure to recognize rebirths, it is believed that if a child is an identifiable rebirth, he or she will speak about family members and the village of previous life. This is believed to happen at an early age when memories of the past have not been obscured by newer memories of the present life. Rebirths are usually established before age four or five. The child will sometimes indicate by pointing towards the direction of his or her past village and insist on going there. And sometimes while playing they suddenly speak of who they were and recall events from the previous life and show characteristics of the deceased person.
In such an event, one test performed to authenticate rebirth is mixing actual belongings of the past life with replicas and making the child choose the right ones. In the village of Dazur, a child was born who kept saying he was the keeper of Rimochen Monastery, a temple above the village. The child was able to recognize his family and belongings and recollected events accurately from his previous life.
Marriages, especially in the past, were entirely decided by couples on their own; no arranged marriages existed. If two individuals liked each other and decided to live together they were given the status of husband and wife by society but nothing was done to mark the wedding immediately. As described in the birth section, Tsangman is the official recognition and celebration for marriage as well. If a man and woman did not live together but the woman is expecting, Tsangman offers the opportunity for the girl to finally introduce the father of her child and announce him as her husband.
People of Tang valley still practice marriage between cousins although it is now becoming rare due to increased understanding of possible biological consequences. After marriage a boy leaves his parental home and moves in with his wife and family. The people of Tang have a saying that "a boy's foot step is always outside of the house and the girl's always inside", meaning boys will eventually move away and the girls will always stay at home. But there are exceptions to the rule depending on the need of a family, boy's or girl's, that a girl may move to her husband's home.
Family property is usually inherited by daughters. In optional cases parents give some share to sons but most commonly property is bequeathed entirely to a daughter(s). The rational is that a daughter will always remain at home even after marriage and that she will be there to take care of parents in their old age.
Although used in every sphere of life, astrological readings are most crucial in the event of death. Immediately after a person dies an astrological reading is sought for all that is required to be done after death. The astrological reading dictates when a dead body can be taken out of the house, the direction, by whom and when it can be cremated. Sometimes, if the direction prescribed is away from where a door exists, walls are broken down to make way.
Beside cremation there are five important stages of rituals performed for the dead. These are prescribed death rituals based on Mahayana Buddhism practice. Rituals are performed on the 7th, 14th, 21st and 49th days. It is believed that any ritual performed for benefit of the dead has to be done by the 49th day, after which it is believed that the soul of the person realizes he/she is dead and moves on to the next birth or the karmic forces take over deciding his/her fate. Then, an anniversary ritual is performed after one year for three consecutive years, after which families believe that the soul has finally moved well on into its next stage. For cremation and the associated rituals, only a high lama who has the necessary spiritual training is invited.
When death occurs in a village the whole village or representatives of families come immediately to console and help. People contribute labor, food, arra, (grain liquor) money, firewood and all necessary items. In terms of food, people mostly contribute locally grown grains such as wheat, buckwheat, barley and vegetables.
Death rituals are performed equally for all except in few circumstances. If a person dies at the age of 81 year, it is considered ill luck to cremate the body immediately since doing so may bring forth more deaths in the family and village. So the body is preserved by submerging it in a river or temporarily burying it in a cave, until by normal count of years the deceased reaches the age of 82, when the body can be cremated. However, the after death rituals are performed as prescribed.
In the case of a childless woman, the body is cremated on stones at a riverbank. This is done because it is believed that a childless woman has not earned the same right as others to be cremated on soil.