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Bhutan, The People of Bhutan

Sankosh, Yak cheese, dzongs, Tibetan script, Nepali people

Foreign sources placed Bhutan’s population at 2,094,176 in 2002. However, the official 1990 estimate by the Bhutanese government gave the country’s population as about 600,000. The discrepancy is due to the fact that, beginning in 1990, the official census has excluded people of Nepali origin. Using either estimate, Bhutan’s population density is low. Based on the 2002 estimate, the country has 45 persons per sq km (115 per sq mi). The annual growth rate is estimated at 2.2 percent. The population is dispersed widely. Large tracts are virtually empty; others are relatively crowded. The Middle Himalayan valleys contain nearly half of the nation’s population, concentrated in the middle portion of the Wong, Sankosh, and Manas river valleys and in the valleys of their tributaries. The southern zone, close to the Indian border, contains approximately 40 percent of the kingdom’s population. The Black Mountain Range and its associated highlands, which extend from east to west across south central Bhutan, are thinly populated. The Great Himalayan region in the north has vast areas that are nearly uninhabited.

Thimphu and Phuntsholing, in southwestern Bhutan near the Indian border, are the major urban centers. Other cities and towns include Paro, Punakha, Wangdu Phodrang, Tongsa, Tashi Gang, Mongar, and Chirang.

There are four major ethnic groups or groupings in Bhutan: Bhutia, Sharchops, a cluster of indigenous groups, and Nepali. These groups are distinguished by language, religion, and socioeconomic characteristics. The most populous group is the Bhutia, who are descended from Tibetans. The Bhutia mostly live in northern and central Bhutan. They, like most Bhutanese, speak languages from the Tibeto-Burman language family and practice a form of Buddhism closely related to Tibetan Buddhism. The Bhutia dominate Bhutanese political life: Top government officials and lamas (monks) come from this group.

The Sharchops reside mainly in eastern and southeastern Bhutan and are thought to be the region’s earliest inhabitants. They are ethnically related to hill tribes in the nearby Indian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and are Indo-Mongoloid in origin. The Sharchops speak both Hindi, due to their proximity to India, and languages of the Tibeto-Burman language family. They follow indigenous religions that are influenced considerably by Tibetan Buddhism.

Clusters of smaller, indigenous ethnic groups, such as the Lepcha, are scattered throughout Bhutan. The strongest concentration inhabits the narrow fringe of the Duars in the southern foothills near the Indian border. These people are ethnically related to groups in the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal. They speak Indo-Aryan languages and follow Hinduism.

Nepali people constitute a significant portion of Bhutan’s population. They are the most recent settlers, occupying south central and southwestern Bhutan. The Nepali are mainly Rai, Gurung, and Limbu ethnic groups from the eastern mountains of Nepal. Nepali immigration has been banned since 1959, when the Bhutanese government feared the minority would become too populous. Nepali are not permitted to live in the central Middle Himalayan region because the Bhutanese government wants to maintain Bhutanese identity in this area; this ban has caused resentment and inner political turmoil for Bhutan. There has been little assimilation of the Nepali people with the predominant Tibetan culture.

Dzongkha is the official national language of Bhutan. It is based on Tibetan and uses chhokey (the Tibetan script) for writing. English is also widely used, particularly in education. Ngalopkha, also derived from Tibetan, is spoken in western Bhutan. Sharchopkha, which is an Indo-Mongoloid language, is the dominant language in eastern Bhutan. Nepali is spoken in the south.

The Drukpa sect of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion of Bhutan. Nearly 75 percent of Bhutan’s population practices this form of Buddhism, which is closely related to Tibetan, or Lamaist, Buddhism. The rest mainly practice Hinduism, which varies in Bhutan from traditional Hinduism to a fusion of Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism, in which the beliefs and practices as well as the gods and shrines of both religions are worshiped. Although religious and secular authority is vested in the king, Buddhist lamas also exercise a powerful influence on national affairs.

The adult literacy rate was estimated at 47 percent in 2000. Until the early 1960s no formal schools existed in Bhutan except for religious ones. Since that time the country has developed free and noncompulsory schooling that provides both primary and secondary education. Due in part to a lack of access to facilities, the attendance rate at Bhutan’s schools is relatively low. In 1988 it was estimated that 25 percent of the country’s children attended primary school and 5 percent attended secondary school. A greater percentage of boys attend school than girls.

Institutions of higher education in Bhutan include a four-year degree college (located in Kanglung), one junior college, and two technical schools. With the assistance of grants and fellowships, many Bhutanese students annually receive higher education abroad, mainly in India, Japan, Australia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Under a national service plan, students returning from their studies abroad take short courses that inform them of Bhutan’s current needs and also of the parameters of its development and resources. The students are then required to work in rural areas for a specified period of time (generally about six months), assisting the villagers in constructing schools, installing irrigation systems, improving the drinking water supply, or running health centers.

Some 93 percent of Bhutan’s population lives in 4,500 rural settlements, which vary in size and organization from a group of 20 or more houses in the Duars to scattered groups of houses in the Middle Himalayan valleys and small settlements in the Great Himalayan region. Most of the populated valleys of Bhutan have a dzong, a fortified monastery that also serves as an administrative center. Dzongs are typically built on an outcrop on the steep side of the valley and guarded by rows of Buddhist prayer flags. Bhutan’s architecture is influenced by that of both India and Tibet.

Before the mid-20th century there were three social classes in Bhutan: the monastic community, led by the nobility; lay civil servants, who ran the government; and farmers, the largest class, living in self-sufficient villages. Elements of these traditional social classes still survive, but since the 1960s society has changed; class division is based on occupation and social status. Also, increased mobility outside the village has led to the development of nuclear family units.

Although men still dominate the politics and economy of Bhutan, development programs that were begun in the 1960s have led to increased opportunities for women in the fields of teaching, nursing, and administration. The National Women’s Association of Bhutan (founded in 1981) is working to improve the socioeconomic status of women in the country.

Food staples for the Bhutanese include rice and, increasingly, corn. They also eat beef, pork, poultry, goat, yak, and fish. Yak cheese is part of the diet of upland people. Meat soups, rice or corn, and spiced chilies comprise daily food; beverages include buttered tea and beer distilled from cereal grains.

Traditional clothing is worn throughout Bhutan. Women wear the kira, an ankle-length dress made of a rectangular piece of cloth held at the shoulders with a clip and closed with a woven belt at the waist; underneath they wear a long-sleeved blouse. Social status is indicated by the colors of the kira, the amount of decorative details, and the quality of the cloth. Men wear the gho, a wraparound, coatlike, knee-length garment with a narrow belt. Both men and women sometimes wear elaborate earrings. Both sexes also wear scarves or shawls, white for commoners and carefully specified designs, colors, and manner of folding for higher-ranking individuals.

Dance performances are a popular form of entertainment in Bhutan. Masked dances and dance dramas are held several times a year during Buddhist religious festivals in dzongs throughout Bhutan. Dancers wearing colorful wooden masks and special costumes create a splendid display of heroes, demons, animals, gods, and caricatures of common people. Many of Bhutan’s dances tell religious, historical, and other types of stories.

A national library is in Thimphu, and a national museum featuring paintings, decorative art, arms, and jewelry is in Paro. Bhutan’s national sport is archery. Competitions are often held weekly as well as throughout the Lunar New Year celebrations in February.



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