Bhutan Language & Religion
The National language of Bhutan is Dzongkha and literally Dzongkha means the language spoken in the Dzongs and administrative centers in all the districts of Bhutan. But the Dzongkha was the language spoken by the people of Western Bhutan.
The Drukpas form the major chunk with nearly 67% of the total population. They are of two groups. Those related to the Tibetans speak Dzongka. The other major language is Tsangla in the east with 11 different dialects. The Nepalis form 20% of the total Bhutanese people. Formerly the second largest peoples group after the Tsangla, they inhabited the southern region mostly. However, lately due to disagreements over government policies they have moved back to Nepal, their country of origin. Indians, Tibetans, Sikkimese, Sherpas, etc., form the remaining 13% of the population.
The unity of the Bhutanese people and independence of the country is under control of the state religion, Buddhism. There is very limited religious freedom, as government and social pressure do not allow for public expressions of other faiths.
Buddhism is followed by 70% of the population, while Hinduism is practiced by 25%. The rest are either Muslims or Christians.
The Kingdom of Bhutan is the only country in the world where Buddhism is the official religion and is endorsed by the government. To ensure the perpetuation of Buddhism, normally, one son from each family attends monastic school. The Buddhist faith plays a fundamental role in the cultural, ethical and sociological development of Bhutan and its people. It permeates all strands of secular life, bringing with it a reverence for the land and its well-being. Annual festivals (Tshechu and Dromchoes) are spiritual occasions in each district and are dedicated to either Guru Rimpoche or other deities.
Mahayana Buddhism was the state religion, and Buddhists comprised about 70% of the population in the early 1990s. Although originating from Tibetan Buddhism, Bhutanese Buddhism differs significantly in its rituals, liturgy, and monastic organization. The government through annual subsidies to monasteries, shrines, monks, and nuns has long supported the state religion financially. Throughout Bhutan, stupas or Chortens line the roadside commemorating a place where Guru Rimpoche or another Shabdrung may have stopped to meditate. Prayers flags are even more common as fluttering on long poles they maintain constant communication with the heavens.
The majority of Bhutan’s Buddhists are followers of the Drukpa sub-sect of the Kargyupa School, one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The Kargyupa literally means a concept tying the realization of emptiness to freedom from reincarnation. This school is a combination of the Theravada (monastic), Mahayana (messianic), and Tantrayana (apocalyptic or esoteric techniques of meditation and a repertoire of sacred icons, phrases, gestures, and rituals that easily lend themselves to practical interpretation) forms of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism holds that salvation can be achieved through the intercession of compassionate bodhisattvas (enlightened ones or deities which occupy the center of a richly polytheistic universe of subordinate deities) who have delayed their own entry into a state of nibbana, or nirvana, enlightenment and selfless bliss, to save others. Emphasis is put on the doctrine of the cosmic Buddha, of whom the historical Buddha – Siddhartha Gautama (563 BC- 483 B.C) is only one of the many manifestations.
Monasteries and convents are common throughout Bhutan. Both monks and nuns keep their heads shaved and wear distinguishing maroon robes. To bring Buddhism to the people, numerous symbols and structures are employed. Religious monuments, prayer walls, prayer flags, and sacred mantras carved in stone hillsides can still be found all over Bhutan. Among the religious monuments are Chorten, the Bhutanese version of the Indian stupas. They range from simple rectangular “house” Chorten to complex edifices with ornate steps, doors, domes, and spires. Some are decorated with the Buddha’s eyes that see in all directions simultaneously.
The earth, brick, or stone structures commemorate deceased kings, Buddhist saints, venerable monks, and other notables, and sometimes serve as reliquaries. Prayer walls are made of laid or piled stone and inscribed with Tantric prayers. Prayers printed with woodblocks on cloth are made into tall, narrow, colorful prayer flags, which are then mounted on long poles and placed both at holy sites and at dangerous locations to ward off demons and to benefit the spirits of the dead. To help propagate the faith, itinerant monks travel from village to village carrying portable shrines with many small doors, which open to reveal statues and images of the Buddha, bodhisattvas, and notable lamas.
The royal family alternately practices the Nyingmapa and Kargyupa forms of Buddhism.