Monday, March 03, 2014

Music of Bhutan

This post tries to briefly explain the little known various styles of Bhutanese music which you can hear blasting from the local radio stations every day. Religious music is in a category of its own, with sacred dances and monastery music - here I will only focus on folk and popular music.

Starting with the newest form: B-pop, a style "invented" by a local music studio in Thimphu called M-Studio. They have produced several hits during their few years of existence, most famously Tharingsa of which I have heard at least four different versions (not to mention all the karaoke interpretations), and Yonphula which is probably their second-biggest hit.

The video below, filmed on a beautiful river-side with a prayer flag covered bridge in the background, is an acoustic version of singer-songwriter Pema Deki's "Due Atara". The faster, disco-type original song was chosen for the first ever flashmob organized in Bhutan: Pema Deki performed her song live when a group of 50 volunteers danced to it at the Clocktower Square in Thimphu on December 5, the International Volunteer Day 2013. Pretty great!

Rigsar is the name for Bhutanese popular music featuring synthesizers and elements from Western, Nepali and Hindi pop. Most of the song and dance numbers in Bhutanese films are of rigsar type, and the reason why people go to local cinema theatres at all. It is said that particularly the urban youth prefer rigsar - perhaps because it is easier to sing, it has a much faster rhythm than traditional Bhutanese music and the romantic lyrics usually circle around the typical boy-meets-girl scenario.

Folk music
The three main instruments used in folk music are dramnyen (flute), chiwang (fiddle) and lingm (flute). There are many different singing styles, but here the focus is on the two most common ones: zhungdra and boedra.

The easier form of Bhutanese folk singing is boedra, which has evolved from Tibetan court music and has a rhythm. The more difficult style is zhungdra, traditional singing from the 17th century using "extended vocal tones in complex patterns which slowly decorate a relatively simple instrumental melody" (Wikipedia) and without a rhythm. 

According to the Wikipedia article Music of Bhutan, "even those with natural singing ability, typically find it challenging to sing zhungdra". This is a mild under-statement: my spouse has lovely compared my attempts to sing traditional Bhutanese songs to a howling dog (so far). For a slightly more pleasant listening experience - and for seeing authentic village life in Bhutan - have a look at the video "Aum Nimchu Pem, legendary Bhutanese singer" produced by the Music of Bhutan Research Centre. Highly recommended! 

Both boedra and zhungdra can, and usually are, danced to. Each song has a bit different dancing steps. Usually dancers form a line or a circle, do simple movements forward and backward, with soft stomps and very intricate hand movements.

The messages relayed through folk songs differ from rigsar or B-pop songs which focus on romantic love. Folk songs contain social and historical information, and often narrate the stories of legends, human dilemmas and relationships. The emphasis is on collective social consciousness, as opposed to rigsar songs where individual feelings dominate.

If you want to find out more about the cultural importance of traditional music in Bhutan and see how dramnyen (lute) is played, check out this TedX Thimphu talk by the founder of the Music of Bhutan Research Centre, Sonam Dorji in November 2011.

And if you are really interested to learn more about the differences and history of both rigsar and traditional folk songs, an article by Sonam Kinga, "The Attributes and Values of Folk and Popular Songs" delves much deeper.

I will (perhaps) be able to sing some of the traditional songs more or less properly after a few months of practice. Until then I can only offer the best possible competition to all the wailing stray dogs on the streets of Thimphu... 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Food (= chillies) in Bhutan

"In Bhutan, chilli is not a spice. It is a vegetable."

These were some of the wise words I was told during the flash introduction to culture, security and practical issues in Bhutan by the UN security officer during my first week. Since then, I have been asked the question "how are you coping with the food here?" in a worried tone, as not everyone is as fond of chillies in every single dish as the Bhutanese are.

Selection of Bhutanese dishes at the Folk Heritage Museum restaurant. Chilli sauce (ezay) in the front, ema datshi (chillies and cheese) third bowl from the front.
Luckily, I was a chilli lover even before coming here, so the experience has not been as extreme as it could be. An average Bhutanese household can use one large sack of chillies (2 kg or so) in one week. It is hard to think of a proper Bhutanese meal without them - and yet chillies are a recent import, perhaps only 100-200 years old. Nowadays Bhutanese staple food usually consists of rice (domestic red rice or imported white rice), cottage cheese and chillies in some form. The three favourite dishes for vegetarians are:
  • ema datshi (chillies with cheese, the unofficial national dish)
  • shamu datshi (mushrooms with cheese)
  • kewa datshi (potatoes with cheese, my personal favourite)
  • nakey datshi (wild ferns with cheese)
Red rice in the middle; some wild ferns on the upper left side; and momos on the lower right side.
Besides rice, especially in higher altitudes people also eat wheat and buckwheat. The central region of Bhutan, Bumthang, is famous for its khuley (buckwheat pancakes) and puta (buckwheat noodles). Despite the general Buddhist prohibition of killing, people at least in the urban areas seem to be eating a lot of meat, such as sikam paa (dried pork).

Tibetan style dishes make up the list of fast food, with momos (steamed or fried dumplings, either filled with cheese and vegetables, pork or beef), thukpa or bathuk (noodle soup) available on the street in the evenings and in little restaurants during the day. The most famous Tibetan drink is suja, salty butter tea which I have learnt to like, although I still prefer ja, the normal tea (hopefully I will learn to pronounce ja correctly before I leave...).

Fast food at the vegetable market: beef thukpa on the left, cheese momos with chilli sauce on the right.
Looking at the garbage thrown on the streets of Thimphu, nowadays the most common snacks are imported potato chips and noodles. However, when visiting people's homes or Bhutanese restaurants, usually some zaw (toasted rice) or corn flakes are offered first, to be eaten as they are or put in the tea. Many shops and markets also sell chugo, cubes of hard, dried cheese that I have not dared to taste yet. 

Finally, the "snack" one cannot miss seeing in Bhutan: doma, betel leaf and areca nut with lime paste. According to Kunzang Choden in her book Chilli and Cheese: Food and Society in Bhutan (2008), doma belongs to the general category of trozay, "food for enjoyment". Although doma is claimed not to be addictive, the behaviour of regular users, chewing it almost constantly does hint otherwise. Doma relaxes and gives a momentary high while heating up the body (very useful now when the winter is approaching). However, chewing it is also bad for your teeth and causes oral cancer. According to the GNH Survey in 2010, around half of the Bhutanese population consume doma, women even more (51 %)  than men (47 %). Red stains, the result of people spitting the remains of doma from their mouth on the streets and stairways are also a telling testimony of the popularity of the habit.

After all this writing about food, it's dinner time and now we're off to cook nakey datshi, the wild ferns with cheese with this simple recipe. Let's see how it goes!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Festival sideshows

Christmas, the most commercial religious holiday of all is approaching. One might think that the materialistic, carnevalistic celebration of religious holidays would not have reached Bhutan yet – wrong.

The two tsechus, religious festivals I have testified in Thimphu, the capital and in Bumthang, Central Bhutan have had a vast selection of attractions outside the official programme of sacred dances (cham): gambling, drinking, dancing know, the usual things you would associate with a Buddhist festival! 

But first: what is a tsechu? Bhutanese tsechus are important social and religious gatherings which last 2-5 days and take place in the courtyards of dzongs (administrative and religious centres of the district) or lhakhangs (temples or monasteries)

The main programme consists of sacred dances which have different significances, commemorating the events in the life of Guru Padmasambhava who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century and is revered here as the Second Buddha. The oldest dances date from the 15th century and are performed by both monks and villagers. Attending a festival is believed to bring merit and blessings.

Although the official dance programme is nice to watch, the sideshows of festivals – some intended, some not – were even more interesting to follow.

Clowns or jokers (atsaraa) are actually a part of the official festival programme. Their main tasks are to to pester people, make indecent jokes and hit people on their heads with large wooden penises. At the Thimphu tsechu, they also took babies from their parents to be blessed by lamas. 

Particularly the Thimphu tsechu was one big fashion show where everyone dressed up in their best kiras and ghos, adorned with jewellery. I could have sat for hours just to watch all the different dresses, men's knee-length socks with different patterns and adorable children in their tiny costumes. In Thimphu, young people were posing for mobile photos together – presumably posted directly onto Facebook.

Fun for kids
Watching the sacred dances can get boring for small kids (and also for adults after some time). Luckily, at the Bumthang festival there was a giant market area just outside the temple, where you could get everything from toy guns to cotton candy. This meant that kids spent most of their time running around the temple area, chasing each other with water pistols. 


The Jambay Lhakhang festival in Bumthang featured a hugely popular activity: gambling. Roulette, Bhutanese darts (khuru), game called ”lucky seven”, archery, name it! I won 200 ngultrums (2,5 euros) in a simple game of roulette.

Dancing girls
Drayang (see BBS article) is an entertainment centre – basically a bar with a stage where girls (and sometimes boys) dance and/or sing for money for mostly male-dominated audience. It sounds a bit dubious, but performers always wear a full national costume, and anything else than dancing or singing will only happen outside the establishment. The drayang at the Bumthang festival was one of the most popular spots for an evening drink.

Finally, the favourite activity of many Bhutanese: drinking alcohol. In Thimphu, there was no alcohol at least visibly involved in the festival activities, but Bumthang market area featured it prominently - perhaps because much of the Bumthang's Jambay Lhakhang festival actually happened during the night (such as the famous ”naked men dance”, tercham). According to my hosts, not only spectators, but also many of the festival dancers encouraged themselves with a few drinks. After all, it is not an easy task to go dancing naked (although faces covered in a mummy-like white cloth) in front of a large crowd, when it is almost freezing outside and your friends and families are watching...

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Bhutan and Finland, part 1: Alcohol

Bhutanese people often ask how do I like Bhutan, adding that "it must be very different from your country". 

Actually, in many ways, it isn't. 
Just to name a few common things between Finland and Bhutan: 

  • Forest coverage in Finland: 78 %, in Bhutan: 72 %
  • People are modest and don't like bragging about themselves
  • Showing emotions is not common, and talking about them is even less common
  • And finally, alcohol consumption is high (highest in South Asia), and the people who drink, drink a lot
Drinkers both in Bhutan and Finland tend to consume mostly beer and strong liquors. I have had the chance to taste a few different kinds of local alcohol brew called ara, among the most memorable being heated ara with pieces of egg in it: dinner and drink together, very convenient!

Local Red Panda weissbier. Only local beer brands are allowed to be sold in most restaurants to boost domestic brewery industry.
The attitude towards drunk-driving is still a bit shocking for me here: so far I have met no-one who would NOT drive after drinking. Luckily roads are very curvy, hilly and have a lot of potholes, forcing people to drive slowly and potential accidents are not as bad as they could be on a high-speed motorway. This is what I hope, at least...

Statistically Finland does much worse in terms of alcohol consumption when compared to Bhutan. Alcohol is the number one cause of death among the 15-64 year-olds in Finland, and the amount of drank alcohol has tripled from 1968 to 2008. WHO statistics for Bhutan claim that the total alcohol consumption in Bhutan (2003-2005) would only be 0,5 litres of pure alcohol per person (which sounds very low) - for Finland, the same figure is 12,5 litres!

Problem-drinking does not seem to be a taboo topic in Bhutan.

An excellent Bhutanese blogger Riku Dhan Subba posted telling photos of passed-out people on the streets of Thimphu. Public broadcasting service BBS covered alcohol abuse in a news article from different angles (domestic violence, drunk-driving, health issues), noting that "Bhutan is the only country where alcohol and sport goes together" (see previous post on archery).

A week ago in a lifeskills training for out-of-school unemployed youth, organized by the Ministry of Education, a group of youth made a role play on the topic of alcoholism. They were probably as giggly about it as Finnish youth would have been, but the discussion afterwards was still heartfelt. Perhaps it is only my bad memory, but I can't recall any proper discussion on alcohol from my school days while I do remember many, many talks and presentations on drugs. It is hard to have a serious discussion about alcohol in Finland without either becoming immediately moralizing or turning it into a joke (article about history of alcohol, in Finnish).

Photo from Thimphu tsechu, religious festival where no drinking was seen.

Another major difference between Finland and Bhutan is the relation of alcohol to religion. The Statistical Bureau in Finland would probably not start their publication on alcohol use with social, cultural and religious meanings attached to alcohol, as the National Statistics Bureau in Bhutan does in "Alcohol use and abuse in Bhutan" (2012, pdf). According to this publication, Mahayana Buddhism regards chang (alcohol in Dzongkha) as "eternal nectar" which is used in tantric rituals along with meat. Meat offering is seen as symbolic of "skillful means" and alcohol as symbolic of "wisdom", "the luminous lamp of wakefulness". Deep stuff. 
This very elaborate list of different concepts on alcohol use in Bhutan is taken from the section on "Social, cultural and economic significance of alcohol" in the same publication:

Serkem chang Drink offerings to local deities
Tor chang Drinks furnished while making ritual cakes
Deutsi chang Spiritual offertory drinks
Sangdze chang Alcohol used as an ingredient of incense offering
Jinsek chang Used as an ingredient for warding off evils rituals
Yang chang Brewed for the god of wealth
Ngo chang Drink offerings for the sake of the dead
Tsan chang Drink offerings to local deity
Tshe chang Drinks brewed for long life rituals
Khando chang Ritual drinks related to individual astrology
Tshog chang Communal tradition of offering drinks to visitors (popular in east)
Duen chang Drinks to welcome guests (pastoral societies)

Tengkor chang Drinking for reciprocity
Tsug chang Drinks to begin any important work
Bar chang Drinks served in the middle of work
To chang Drinks served before meals
Zhe chang Drinks served after meals
Branpa chang Drinks for free labour services (eastern Bhutan)
Nar chang Drinks to request labour help (eastern Bhutan)
Suwa chang Usually reception drinks
Dong chang Arrival drinks
Log chang Reciprocal drinks
Zim chang Night dose
Zheng chang Wake-up drinks
Lam chang Journey drinks

I can't make any kind of list of similar Finnish vocabulary on alcohol for different drinking circumstances, besides "alkumalja" (starting drink in festivities) or "ehtoollisviini" (sacramental wine). Help, anyone?

Group of monks at the Dzong in Thimphu, the seat of both political and religious powers.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Shooting arrows

"The Bhutanese love archery. They also love drinking. They tend to combine their two passions, and this is worrying."

Before coming to Bhutan, I read a pile of books trying to grasp this country, most of them written by Westerners. Out of these travel/autobiography accounts Eric Weiner's "The Geography of Bliss - One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World", described by the author as "a philosophical humorous travel memoir" was one of my favourites.

His quote above is not that far from reality, as even deadly archery accidents (not necessarily only due to alcohol) have taken place in Bhutan. One of the main news stories last week was a young man who was hit by an arrow, piercing his shoulder 11 cm deep from behind. Apparently his village was 8 days (!) of walking distance from the nearest hospital. Bhutan has no ambulance helicopters (yet, that is one of the new leading party's promises), so the main news of the following day was his transportation to the national main hospital in Thimphu on an Indian military chopper.

Archery ground in Thimphu
Bearing all this in mind, I approached prudently the main archery ground in Thimphu, next to the football stadium on a warm Saturday afternoon yesterday. However, this being the final of the "most notable archery competition in Bhutan", there were no signs of alcohol among the contestants nor the crowd, which was even surprisingly lethargic compared to the lively crowds in the King's Cup football tournament in July. After all, this is the official national sport of Bhutan (since 1971) - a surprising choice considering that in Buddhism, killing of any living beings is forbidden. 

Arrow has hit the archery board: a dance and a song is performed
I had seen some highlights of archery matches on TV before and was very much looking  forward to seeing the dances, songs and cheerleading ceremonies related to the archery traditions in Bhutan. Every time an arrow - shot from around 150 meters of distance - hits the very small board, the team members perform a little dance and a song in front of the arrow board. In this final, unfortunately, no female cheerleaders were present.

This year the competition gathered 267 teams with 1,602 archers from around the country. The competition between the three qualified teams took more than 4 hours (I was there for one hour). The prizes for the winners were interesting: the winners got iPads and washing machines; the second place team members got an older (!) version of iPad and a fridge; and the third team got a lap top and a microwave oven each. This prize list actually reminds me a bit of Finnish ice-fishing competition prizes...(and so does the association of alcohol with the competition).
Archer in action
All in all, archery seems to be quite an equal sport - except for the fact that all archers had modern bows which cost more than the average annual salary in Bhutan...yet, the organizers of the tournament proudly acclaim that their hope is to bring all sections of society together through the sport: princes, farmers, taxi drivers and government officials - and even women!  Although in most areas of life, Bhutanese men and women are fairly equal, there is still a noticeable gap in sports and in politics. Traditionally archery has strictly been men's domain (as is the other favourite pastime, Bhutanese darts, khuru), but Yangphel tournament has also allowed women to participate. Hooray!

There are a quite a few Bhutanese proverbs related to archery. I would like to end with this one that I particularly like (see the short video clip above with the archer concentrating):

"Da chab lu mi cho, thi lu cho; Loe lab lu mi cho, nen lu cho."
"The way the arrow is targeted is more essential than the way it is shot; the way you listen is more essential than the way you talk. (anyone can shoot, but the way it hits matters).

Friday, July 19, 2013


After more than 24 hours of traveling, three different planes, 4 hours of waiting at the transfer lounge of New Delhi airport and one stop-over in Kathmandu, I finally arrived at the Paro airport in Bhutan four days ago.

View from the plane landing

Paro airport

One of the three planes of the Drukair flight company

King and Queen wish welcome to Bhutan

All the five kings of the Kingdom of Bhutan are watching people queueing for their visa

First working days have largely consisted of filling out at least a dozen of different forms: for bank account (both in USD and local currency ngultrum), ATM card, SMS service for the bank account, work permit, medical clearance for the work permit, post-paid telephone name it. Different handling fees and official stamps (costing 15 cents each) have been indispensable in this process.

I would have never survived the paperwork without the infinite help from my colleagues at the UNDP. Very warm welcome indeed!

View from the entrance of the UN House

Entrance to the UN House in Thimphu
What I am missing now are: permanent apartment, multiplug with adapters and at least one set of kira, the national dress for women. Search for these items continues!

Tuesday, July 02, 2013


In my mind, there can be no cooler country than one issuing postal stamps which are vinyl records that can actually be played! The stamps were issued already in 1973, but 40 years later I am  myself going to Bhutan for one year contract as a UN volunteer. Yay!


Listen to the Bhutan record stamp short sound clips, a) brief description of Bhutan: and b) Bhutanese music:

Besides phonographic stamps, there are other peculiarities in Bhutan - which is your favourite?
  • tourists can only enter the country after paying tour operators 200-250 USD per day (all inclusive), backpacking is not allowed 
  • television broadcasting was begun in 1999 
  • no traffic lights in the whole country 
  • first Western schools founded in the 1960s, first university in 2003 
  • reputedly only 8 pilots are able/allowed to land on the airport because the surrounding Himalaya mountains make the conditions very "challenging"
  • national sport is archery 
  • all Bhutanese have to wear a national dress in public places during sunlight
  • state religion is Mahayana Buddhism: there are 6000 Buddhist monks in a country of 700 000 people
  • the aim is to become a wholly organic country (The Guardian, 11 Feb 2013
  • and perhaps the most famous Bhutanese invention: the Gross National Happiness, national ideology on what matters and should be measured in development and human well-being 
I hope to be able to write about all of these topics during the next year. Stay tuned!