Culture, Traditions and Customs of Bhutan

Until the 1960s, Bhutan remained largely closed to and uninfluenced by the outside world. The result is a nation which can now boast the best-preserved traditional culture anywhere on our planet – and of course this is one of the main attractions of a visit to Bhutan.

Below are some of the many fascinating traditions that exist in Bhutan, which make the country one of the most unique and exciting places to visit in the world. 


Introduced by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, a set of etiquette, known as ‘Driglam Namzha’ seeps into many facets of the life of a Bhutanese. This too, of course, traces its root to Buddhist practice, especially those of the secular realm.

It includes a comprehensive guide starting from the individualistic level such as behavioural conduct and dress code, to state-level administrative and monastic domains.

It is not customary to shake hands, however, people do so (one fine example of the effect of modernization). Bowing would be the more apt choice when greeting someone. This too has, a level of sorts. A person is required to bow deep if the next person is from a higher rank and a tad less for a lower rank and so on.

The code of conduct requires every citizen to be respectful of their surroundings, especially to their elders and seniors, devotion to the institution of marriage and family, dedication to civic duty, and many more.

Pointing of fingers or feet, walking over holy items, and touching of heads are unbecoming of a cultured person and will not be tolerated. No harsh punishments are imposed but reprimands will be in effect. Shoes and hats are not allowed inside of the temple, and neither shouting and clicking of photos.

Bhutanese locals
Traditional architecture in Bhutan


The first thing one would notice (after nature, possibly) when one sets foot in Bhutan would be her distinct architecture. While much of the areas near the border and urban has been engulfed by the incursion of modernization, traditional Bhutanese architectures are still in sight in many regions.

Bhutanese architecture perhaps could be described as an innovative twist on the Tibetan, Indian, and Nepalese. This holds especially true in the case of religious structures such as Dzong, Lhakhang, and Chortens. And so, to say Bhutanese architecture is synonymous with Buddhist architecture would not be deemed wrong either.

The houses usually employ easily available raw materials. Wooden planks make up the majority of the structure and no nails are used (the dove-tail technique is favored). Other than that, easy-to-find materials such as mud (beaten), stones, and bamboo. After the completion, they are usually white-washed and on top of that painted with religious inscriptions or pictures.

Locations determine the kind of houses that are raised up. Southern regions use more bamboos; Northerners make do with simple stone structures; western regions usually are the ones that adhere to the traditional form that employs mud, clay, and lots of wooden planks.

Before constructing any sort of structure, a person must seek out an astrologer who points out a suitable spot which is then followed by rituals to cleanse the area of any evil spirits. No formal planning goes into the building phase but there is some set of rules that people need to adhere to.

Music & Dance

Most of Bhutan’s culture and traditions draw essence from Buddhism. This couldn’t be more true in the case of music and dances either. Usually, lamas and monks are credited for the composition of the songs and introduction of dances.

The traditional ones essentially include Boedra, Zhhungdra, and less common Zhey and Zhem, Tsangmo, Ausa, Alo, Khorey, and Yuedra. They often incorporate traditional instruments such as Chiwang (two-stringed fiddle), Dramnyen (a large rebec), Lingm (six-holed flute), Aungli (horn) to name a few.

Rigsar, the modern counterpart, encompasses the modern form of instrumentations and the use of vernacular language and has since the 1960s been in gear so much so that the traditional folk variations aren’t brought to the front unless there are some celebrations that require so such as Tsechu, archery matches, and Royal coronations and birth anniversaries.

With globalization, as one would expect, pop, rock, and raps are also gaining notoriety.

Bhutanese festival
Traditional architecture in Bhutan

Art & crafts

Like music, art and crafts too, have an association with religion. Paintings, poetry, sculptures, and theatres often are associated with historical (and perhaps mythical) figures and evoke their gallant narratives.

These arts and crafts are often utilized as everyday items and also as decoration pieces in houses, temples, and various infrastructures.

In Bhutan, the arts and crafts are collectively classified into 13 types known as Zorig Chusum. The classification includes Shingzo (Carpentry), Dozo (Masonry), Parzo (Carving), Lhazo (Painting), Jinzo (Sculpting), Lugzo (Bronze Casting), Garzo (Blacksmithing), Troeko (Ornament making), Tsharzo (Cane and bamboo weaving), Thagzo (Weaving), Tshemzo (Tailoring, Embroidery and Appliqué), Shagzo (Woodturning), and Dezo (Paper-making)

Tertoen Pema Lingpa is believed to have first introduced the arts and crafts. Later, Zhabdrung’s initiative of establishing an institution for the learning of these arts and crafts further withheld and promoted the mentioned. The categorization credit, however, goes to Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye, the 4th Druk Desi.

Bhutanese crafts, particularly textiles have gained international recognition in recent years.


Most of the country’s literature is in oral form. Her vast pool of folktales, biographies, local narratives, mythologies, and chronicles of the past are in most cases passed down from word to mouth. However, this doesn’t mean written forms don’t exist. In fact, Bhutan supposedly has rich accounts recorded in text but them being mostly in Choekays and classical Tibetan, remains next to inaccessible to the general population. In Bhutan, sometimes, not even the highly learned population are well acquainted with the classical form of writing.


All in all, it is not the celebration but the rituals that take precedence when it concerns the institution of marriage; what matters is the overall compatibility. Celebrations are kept to a minimum, often ending with the presenting of scarfs and some small gifts by their close kins. But yes, like in any part of the world, lavish wedding ceremonies are also held, especially by those who have the means to do so, naturally.

Traditionally, women were expected to marry as early as teens and men, in their early twenties.

Arranged marriages were relatively common until a few decades back but owing to the changing times, as one would expect, they are in much decline. Nowadays, love marriages are more sought after, especially by the younger generations.

Chhu Ngyen or ‘child marriage’ was also practiced in the olden times. In this, children, at a very young age, were married (that is, in theory; but in practice, it was more like matchmaking with certitude – for only later after having entered adulthood would the marriage be recognized and will the couple live together.)

It is interesting to note that the eastern and western regions practiced different matrimonial customs. In the western part of the country, it was the husband who ‘went to live in his wife’s house after their marriage’ and in the eastern parts, the opposite and the most common was true. As this would suggest to some degree, women inherited the land in the western parts.

The eastern parts and some central parts of Bhutan also practiced cross-cousin marriage and not just any cousin but one’s own immediate cousin. What’s more, it wasn’t only consented to but also considered a privilege. To espouse one’s own uncle’s daughter, known as Serga Mathang and Serga Kothkin otherwise, was a talk of pride. Of course, this is not feasible (might also be considered morally wrong) and so, is not common and almost non-existent today. But the compelling reason to not opt for it would be owing to the passing off of hereditary medical conditions.

Polygamy – including both polyandry and polygyny was and is still commonplace in some regions. The former is mostly exclusive to the highlanders. The wife would often marry the whole brothers; to marry one of the brothers was to marry the whole lot of them. In some instances, they would look after the brothers when they are all but a kid and later go on to take them as their husbands. The latter was more common in the western regions. A man would take in their care two or more wives, in most cases, sisters.


In Bhutan, like in many parts of the world (perhaps mostly the Buddhist community), death is not the means to an end but the beginning of a new chapter; the soul, merely taking on a different form. And so, as you would expect, a great many rituals are performed to guarantee this – to ensure no complications befall in the process. (However, human reincarnation is not guaranteed)

The custom dictates the 7th, 14th, 21st, and mostly the 49th as the most significant of the days for the deceased and to hold up to this numerous rituals are held in-between along with the erection of prayer flags. The deceased is said to wander through the ‘intermediate state’ during the first 49 days and so offerings of food and drinks are also made.

Burial is not a common practice in Bhutan although some parts tend to go in this direction. Usually, the corpses are cremated, however, there are instances where different customs of funerals apply. The most unique and perhaps more so terrifying might be the discarding of the corpses atop a cliff or mountaintops for vultures to prey on. This might sound unjust but if we care to take a look from a different angle, it is done so in a last act of compassion.

There’s a lot of leeway in the discussion of the subject of death in Bhutan. In fact, it might also be considered one of the most important things to inculcate and a sign of good parenting. Children are often reminded of the shortness, the absurdity, and the uncertainty of life; that death is always on one’s door and so, should always do their best to plunge themselves into doing good deeds and accumulate merit when having been finally born into the realm of Buddha.


Like in every part of the world, the birth of a child is a happy time of life. As a whole, there are no discriminations based on sex, however, in Bhutan, spanning three days after the birth of a child, no other (extended) family members and guests are allowed to take a peek, nor is the mother allowed to speak to anyone. Only after the purification on the 4th day, are they permitted.

The ritual that ensures safety such as Jabzhey and Lhabsang are performed for both the mother and her child as far as the time of her pregnancy until the delivery.

One thing that might seem odd is concerning the naming of a child. It’s not customary for Bhutanese parents to name a child. Instead, they entrust the role to a local Lama or other Rinpoches who along with naming also offer blessings of a local deity. This is said to ensure the well-being of a child.

Following, in the course of a few days, most seek out a written horoscope based on the birth year of the parents, and the precise time, date, and year of the birth of the infant. This horoscope, known as ‘Ketsi’ is a prediction of sorts that will warn a person of approaching ill happenings in which case, a person might have to perform rituals to do away with it. It even details the previous life of the child and his reasons for being born this time around.

Woman and baby in Bhutan


The practice of upholding family names is not all that common in Bhutan and so the last name doesn’t carry with it any family linkage (However, this is not to say that they don’t hold any special meaning).

As mentioned, the responsibility is handled by the lama. Sometimes one’s own parents and grandparents might take the privilege.

However, there are exceptions like in the case of royals – Wangchuck and other families of esteemed status like the Dorji.

Much of the population of Bhutan often share the same name, including both the first and the last name.