This paper tries to identify the origin, types and some recurrent themes in the Bhutanese folklores. It posits Bhutanese folklore as an important national identity with an innate value system that nourishes the very soul of this tiny Kingdom amidst giant neigbours at a time when everything we have achieved so far could yet be lost. For being a vehicle of transmission of time honoured national ideals and standards, the paper proposes the preservation and promotion of Bhutanese folklore for all times to come by bringing out its thematic significance and the artistic treatment that it has received in each of the folk genre which in itself is of much value.
Bhutan is a small Himalayan Kingdom nestled between India and China with a little over six hundred thousand people spread over its 38,394 square kilometre area. As small as its size is, Bhutan is a majestic nation blessed with successive generations of visionary leaders and their farsighted development approaches which allowed Bhutan to develop at its own pace and on its own terms. It has laid the foundation of conditions favourable to the preservation and promotion of its vibrant Buddhist and folk tradition. Bhutan is today a world leader on this front.
Separated by extreme diversities of altitude, climate, topography and vegetation, a unique way of life evolved in Bhutan which is best expressed in its vibrant folklore. Pre-modern Bhutanese society was loosely divided along the lines of Zhung (king and the government), Dratshang (the monk community) and Misey (the people). Life and culture of the first two strata was dictated by the best of Buddhist values and practices. For the last cohort, the folks, lives were based upon simple wisdoms of life passed on orally through generations and simple adaptation of Buddhist teachings found in such work as the Jakata tales. All these ideals of life combined to give Bhutan a common folk identity with an innate ability to dissolve tensions along the lines of caste seen in many other countries in the region. Like the folklore, people could move and mix fluidly in the Bhutanese society and every individual could hope to better his/her standing through the harmonious channelizing of his potentials in the best pursuit of folk values.
Authorial anonymity of Bhutanese folklore makes identification of their origin difficult. However, it is commonly believed that two types of folklore has evolved in Bhutan. The first type constitutes a work of body inspired principally by religious teachings of the Buddha. The main proponent of this folk genre may be attributed to the dominant monastic community which played a key role in the propagation of Buddhist faith and inculcation of Buddhist values among the lay people. These works include simple portrayal of worldly affairs in terms of the suffering brought about by an excessive materialistic attachment with a strong religious underpinning. These folk genres are in the form of fables and parables adapted into local context which may be lightened appropriately to suit the level of people’s grasp. Their principal functions include the teaching of the laws of casualty and other Buddhist principles which may otherwise be beyond lay comprehension.
The second type of Bhutanese folklore may be closer to the conventional usage of the term folk. While the previous work is designed for the Bhutanese folk, these people are essentially the main proponent of this body of folklore. These folklores express their worldview and often serve the purpose of expressing their grievances against perceived injustices. They may at times simply serve plain entertainment purposes in a society which is largely devoid of any outlet towards this end. This folk works come in the form of tales, songs and folk compositions which are similar in treatment to the Western poems.
However, the differences in this two essentially different nature of works may be blurred as overtime all elements of Bhutanese society came to represent the same Buddhist worldview which was not always the case. The differences may also be treated as inconsequential as all folk works are of the same Bhutanese inspiration and serve essentially similar purposes.
For a detailed discussion on Bhutanese folklore, a look at some prominent types of folk work in existence is of paramount importance. Next a closer look at the recurrent themes in all these works will help us identify the fabric of Bhutanese society and its Buddhist and folk underpinnings.
Myths, legends, tales and other genres of folklore has evolved in Bhutan through the centuries. Some common themes run through all these genres. Hard work, dedication, honesty, loyalty, wisdom and other values deemed fit for a holistic life are stressed.
Folktales constitute the single largest body of Bhutanese folklore. Every Bhutanese community living in near isolation from each other owing to the extremes of nature has evolved its own unique tales with varying compositions, themes, characters and mode of transmissions. It is of interest to note here that Bhutan is a diverse nation with as many as 20 different languages.
Folk tales served both educational and entertainment purpose in the Bhutanese society. Bhutanese folktales feature a range of characters from kings and queens to gods and demons, from lords and paupers to animals and animal-like creatures. Story telling is employed to cultivate universal values such as compassion and hard work while promoting a culture of intolerance to vices such as greed, dishonesty and inactivity. Some Bhutanese folk tales are similar to those in neighbouring India, Tibet and Nepal. Some indefinite influences can also be seen of the Jakata tales-Buddhist fables depicting the activities of various incarnation of the Buddha-and through other Buddhist texts and accounts of travelers and pilgrims.
Bhutanese folktales can be a simple lullaby to put children to sleep or a lewd anecdote for the sensory pleasure of blossoming lovers. As in any other stories from the region, Yeti, the abominable snowman leaves its mark on many Bhutanese folktales.
Lozey (Bhutanese folk verse)
Literally translated as ‘ornaments of speech,’ lozey is a Bhutanese folk genre which is roughly equivalent to the Western ballads with a similar treatment of themes and use of verses. It is a rich source of information on Bhutanese society and its history in the absence of a better archive. Despite the usage of colloquial language, lozeys often achieves poetic height through the employment of such poetic modes as similes, metaphors, symbols and a constant rhythm. This form of folklore is unique to Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan though variations of it exist in other dialects too.
Tsangmo is a popular folklore genre in Bhutan. However, it is difficult to pin point an equivalent in popular Western compositions. Lozey is oral in nature and consists of four lines or a quatrain with two couplets. Each couplet is a self-contained entity. The first couplet usually makes a statement and introduces a tension. The second couplet then completes the statement by resolving the tension. The subject is usually love or hate and involves cajole or ridicule. It usually involves a contest and a mock fight may break out with veiled threats hurled at each other.
Folksong is a highly refined art which achieves perfection with a master performer. Unlike modern songs, this song is an expression of the nation’s values and standards. Bhutanese folksongs can be classified into zhungdra (literally meaning the song of the centre and originated from the Dzongs which house both the religious and the secular power) and boedra (songs originated from medieval court servants as an expression of loyalty, dedication and fidelity to their lords). Some minor categories include zhey, yuedra, zheym, alo, khorey and ausa all of which has their origin outside the realm of the government and the lords who wielded its authority.
Some songs are dance oriented while others are voice oriented. However, in either case, the songs are sung to the accompaniment of folk musical instruments, popularly the dranyang, pchiwang and lingm. The former two are stringed instruments while the last one is a flute.
Bhutanese Folk Theatre
When dealing in theatre in the conventional sense, Bhutan has none. However, there are folk performances in Bhutan that borders on theatrics and in some sense may be considered as Bhutanese theatre. Tshechu is a religious festival that is conducted in the open courtyards of the dzongs and monasteries. They are a part of the rich corpus of liturgical melodies developed for rituals by the monastic community. Dancers wear masks of animals and other mythical creatures and don flowing robes. They performed to the music played by an orchestra positioned at the other end of the courtyard. Cham, as these dances are also called, is one of the grandest spectacles in Bhutanese performing tradition. It is a meditation in movement and the dancers conceive themselves as the deity they are representing, with every gesture not just symbolic but imbued with the power of the deity. The people on the other hand believe that gods are pleased with dramatic representation of themselves and put good faith in these performances to liberate them from all that cause suffering by the mere sight of the cham.
While it is highly problematic to regard these performances as folk theatre as they differ from secular theatre in both form and content, they contain in them certain elements which are folk in nature. They assume folk theatrics in the way certain dances are adapted into folk performances. Most notably, Acho Phento and Pholay Molay are introduced into the otherwise entirely religious exercise to highlight the vices of humankind and the power of religion to redeem common folks from them. Besides tshechu is an occasion for the people living in this predominantly rugged land to come together to express their solidarity and reaffirm their devotion in a grand folk festival of their own making where the participants are largely the folks themselves.
Art, Craft and Architecture
Bhutanese art does not exist for its own sake. More important than their aesthetic quality which is valued quite antithetical to Buddhist values of non-attachment, paintings of Bodhisattvas and the likes exist for instructional purposes. Art is mostly a religious obligation, the anonymous creators of such works blending indigenous and Tibetan traditions.
Combined with various craft and architecture, art in Bhutan is known as zorig chusum. Zo is the ability to make, rig is the art or craft and chusum is thirteen. The thirteen arts and craft in Bhutan are the shingzo (woodwork), dozo (masonry), lhazo (painting), jinzo (clay art), lugzo (casting of religious articles), shagzo (making wooden utensils), garzo (blacksmithing), troko (silversmithing), thagzo (weaving), tsazo (bamboo work), dezo (traditional paper making) and tsemzo (embroidery)
The most distinctive Bhutanese architectural landmarks are dzongs. Usually of monumental height, size and shape, most are built on strategic sites such as mounds, hills or ridges. Overlooking entire valleys, dzongs controlled important land routes. During the unification of Bhutan and subsequent invasions by Tibetan and Mongol forces, many dzongs were built as a chain of defensive fortresses with watch towers and observation posts. Later they served as administrative and religious centers to fulfill emerging socio-political needs. They are mostly built from clay bricks, stones and woods. Remarkably, not a single iron beam or nail is used in the construction of a dzong.
Recurrent Themes in Bhutanese Folklore
One theme that is common to all Bhutanese folklore irrespective of their origin or form is hard work. Being a predominantly farming society, Bhutanese of the yore had to bear heavy field work besides transporting government loads and contributing to the government revenue. All these had to be done with brute all, day in, day out. For the non-farming Bhutanese, lives were no easier. Serving in the government and religious communities were equally taxing. It all added up to a lot of work for the average Bhutanese. If there was a quality needed across board, it was the willingness to put in untiring effort into ones work. Naturally, hard work cut across Bhutanese folklore as the single most dominant theme. From a village boy being crowned a mighty king to a mighty king being dethroned due largely to their hard work or the lack of it, the Bhutanese folklore scene has it all.
Work ethics also painted a very savory picture of the Bhutanese society. The people had their fate in their hand and it was for them to decide what they want. The folklores told a story of a ideal society where what one does alone counted, where one did not need to get bogged down by some rigid system of caste that was the undoing of many a great civilization, home and abroad.
To counterbalance what could potentially become a destabilizing element in the society where everybody work for himself or herself alone, a word of caution is thrown in the form of loyalty. While one must attempt to better ones circumstances, it must not be at the cost basic universal values. Loyalty to ones superiors, peers and to ones core values is stressed in many Bhutanese folklore. An ominous war ballad where the lord hero foresees his imminent demise but nevertheless put his loyalty to his master above personal premonition is an abiding image of Bhutanese folklore.
A feel good factor amidst such self annihilating values is the assurance in the knowledge that someone more than all the people in the world is overseeing ones’ every thought, speech and action and in times will come to deliver justice for every good service rendered. Faith in an unseen cosmic power lightens mood and give heart to the desperate. Buddhist and other traditional faith is the cornerstone around which the lives of all Bhutanese revolve. Not surprisingly, this quality finds its way in many Bhutanese folklore. A particular story of a woman who sincerely believed that a dog’s canine her son offered her as a piece of the Buddha’s tooth cured all her misfortune strike a chord with every Bhutanese.
If loyalty to ones’ superior is a basic Bhutanese value, Buddhist faith urges people to be compassionate and considerate to the needs of those less fortunate than themselves. Compassion thus comes out as a prominent folklore theme. Stories abound of powerful kings who learnt to outlive their royal luxuries to lead Bodhisattva lives in the service of their subjects. On a more mundane level, there are tales of people who sacrifice the little they have because of the need they feel to benefit others. This people endure much hardship but live in the comfort of being useful when called for.
Though Bhutanese society abounds in values to promote wholesome wellbeing, elements of dissent sometimes creep into its folklore where common people are pitted against representatives of ruling elites. These are the common people’s expression of discontent against perceived flaws in the social order. This folklore usually comes in the form of tales where the upper classes are ridiculed so that they can be changed for good without the need for bloodshed and other overt means. Ultimately, these are tales of change where the society’s complacencies are mirrored, whatever they are, so that they can be rectified. This thematic element must be seen as the society’s attempt at correcting itself through a robust system of check and balance where everything goes, even ridicule.
Fidelity to Relationship
In a close knit society like Bhutan, existence depends on the people’s ability to work together. Family and other interpersonal relations are thus stressed through depiction of victory of common endeavour against formidable odds. In a most enlightening tale, a huge number of toads come together to defeat a roaring tiger in a race. Bhutanese continue to cite from this tale whenever some things become difficult and require pooling of common resources.
Care for Nature
A defining feature of Bhutan is its care for the natural environment. In a bold statement, the Constitution of Bhutan mandates that the country maintain 60 percent of its total land area as natural forest. This statement draws from the Buddhist worldview which states that all living beings have lives and it is sinful to destroy them. Bhutanese folk works are strewn with stories where concern for natural objects are rewarded with good fortune and those with a disdain for nature are taken to task.
For countries like Bhutan whose economic and military might is insignificant at best, its status as a nation depends largely on its people and their identity based upon popular culture and folklore. This paper has tried to posit Bhutanese folklore as an important national identity with an innate value system that nourished the very soul of this tiny Himalayan Kingdom through many generations.
However, today Bhutan has reached a stage in its evolution where everything that it once cherished, from environment to tradition, from people to their values, might get sidestepped in a mad rush to achieve newer heights of development. Bhutan has made great economic stride and has consistently achieved double digit growth over the last decade riding on the back of exponential hydropower generation.
The danger is that as the country is exposed headlong to outside influences, many of its innate qualities that once kept together the country might break down. The country has already seen unprecedented pressure on its limited natural resources and compromises are being made on the national policy of keeping Bhutan naturally vegetated for all times to come. A similar erosion of national values can also be seen with the people increasingly taking to Western ideals of materialism.
The answer to all the problems the country is faced with might seem obvious. For a country with a long and proud history with a wealth of value system, it can fall back on its past and reclaim its value to counter the new trends that inevitable exposure creates. However, it is easier said than done. It is not always easy to let people see the value of their own goodness, especially of their folklore with its rustic, almost crude connotation.
At a time when uncensored Western media is beamed at an unprepared young population, it is no longer possible for people to do things like they were always done. There has been a rapid loss of folklore and its values on the young people, urban and rural alike. No stories of the past are ever told today. With a whole host of mindless games and other entertainment outlets, people no longer has patience to hear their grandparents narrate a folk tale. It is a sad tale because Bhutanese folklore are not just entertainment, but within it lay a whole wealth of wisdom and ideals to be passed on for the wellbeing of the nation.
While a complete fallback on folk wisdom alone may be out of tune with modern problems that emerge every day, Bhutan must find a way to carry forward its rich folklore and its innate qualities if it is to prosper and develop into the wholesome society that it aspires to be. Fortunately, it has both the public and political goodwill. In the first national survey on folklore, as many as 95 percent of the people support state patronage of folklore preservation and promotion. Promotion of national identity also finds its way in all public policy statements and folklore is a big part of that identity.
Folklore tradition is still alive in rural Bhutan where some 70 percent of the people live. With a little bit of effort and careful planning this may be preserved for all times. Appropriate folklore scholarship and its sensible promotion may ignite interest among urban youth for whose modern sensibilities, folklore may appear crude at times. Efforts are already underway to transcribe folklore and archive folklores of Bhutan. However, Bhutanese folklore is essentially oral in nature and if new forms of transmission must be found, they must be true to the original idea of folklore composition which gave it its value in the first place.
Dorji Penjore (2007). “Folktales and Education: The Role of Bhutanese Folktales in Value Transmission. In “Rethinking Development, Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Gross National Happiness. Thimphu: The Centre for Bhutan Studies. Pp.258-277
Dorji Penjore (2006). “Folklore of Bhutan.” In “The Greenwood Encyclopedia of World Folklore and Folklife.” Edited by William M. Clements. Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press. Pp. 105-112
Dorji Penjore (forthcoming, 2011) “Dangphu…Dingphu…The Origin of the Bhutanese Folktales”, Proceedings on Intangible Cultural Heritage of Bhutan. Paro: National Museum of Bhutan.
Steve Evans (2009). The Impact of Cultural Folklore on National Values: A Preliminary Study with a Focus on Bhutan. In “The Journal for Bhutan Studies, 20” pp.3-20
Jim Brown (2009). “The Role of Folk Consciousness in the Modern State.” In “Journal for Bhutan Studies, 20.” pp.37-63
Tshering C. Dorji (2009) “Preserving our Folktales, Myths and Legends in the Modern Era.” In “Journal for Bhutan Studies, 20.” pp. 93-108