Bhutan is considered one of the culturally and spiritually richest countries in the world. Culture and traditions being resultant of the evolution of human civilization, they have developed according to the socioeconomic needs and conditions of the Bhutanese people, as well as within the physical and environmental constraints and opportunities of the place or the region. But most importantly, their origin is deeply rooted in Buddhism.
Buddhism first came to Bhutan in the seventh century. Since then, Buddhism has had a very strong impact on the Bhutanese society, which was largely shamanistic until then. The ideas and principles derived from Buddhist teachings underlie the evolution of the rich, diverse, and unique culture and traditions of Bhutan.
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal unified the country that had been divided under the rule of numerous local chieftains in the seventeenth century. Under Zhabdrung’s rule, Durkpa Kagyu, a principal tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, was established as the state religion. Since then, imbued with Buddhist values and principles, a significant aspect of culture and traditions of Bhutan was formalized. These mainstream culture and traditions formed an integral part of Bhutanese identity and unity. Throughout the centuries, Bhutan has remained a sovereign country, and the preservation of culture and traditions is one of the main factors attributing to it. Since then, the government has continued to make great efforts to preserve and transmit these unique traditions and culture.
While culture and traditions are maintained and promoted, there are also many unique cultural traditions that have evolved in isolation and continue to thrive in remote parts of the country. Realizing the importance of such cultural traditions in terms of cultural diversity, the government has been engaged in preserving these increasingly vulnerable cultural traditions of particular communities as the country has been quick to modernize.
ICH Inventory of Bhutan
The Research and Media Division, National Library and Archives of Bhutan under the Department of Culture is mandated with the function of developing and maintaining an inventory of the intangible cultural heritage of Bhutan.
The ICH inventory is geared towards achieving the following aims:
- to ensure security and sovereignty of the nation;
- to preserve cultural and spiritual values of the nation;
- to ensure proper documentation of cultural values before they become extinct; and
- to bridge the gap with new information.
The objectives behind inventory are:
- to identify, inventory, rectify, and document different ICH of Bhutan, with appropriate research, and to publish comprehensive books to help firmly establish our national identity;
- to safeguard the ICH of Bhutan; and
- to make ICH information accessible to people in written form as well as in video and audio formats to maintain the continuity of our culture.
Spearheaded by the Research and Media Division, the first nationwide survey and recording of ICH began in 2011 under the project titled Development of a National Inventory System of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Bhutan between the Royal Government of Bhutan and ICHCAP of the Republic of Korea, with generous funding from ICHCAP. To date, the project has covered nine of the twenty districts of Bhutan. In those nine districts, more than a hundred villages were covered. Among the people interviewed were fifteen bearers, fifty-five practitioners and learners, and many other informants. The second phase of this ICH inventory program is intended to be completed by March 2013.
Methodology for Inventorying
The team of researchers from National Library first approached and communicated with the local leader of every sub-district and gathered preliminary information on potential ICH in the villages within the sub-district. Based on the information collected from the local leaders, relevant villager, artists, and individual households were visited and interviewed using the questionnaire that was jointly developed among the researchers. The local leaders helped the team get appointments with individuals as well as organize a focus group interview when necessary.
All the questionnaires were thoroughly checked in the evening to clarify the information written down. These data were entered into computers back in office, analyzed, and organized.
ICH of Bhutan
Five domains of ICH as proposed by UNESCO 2003 Convention are used as a guide in identifying the ICH elements of Bhutan. The five domains being very broad and almost all encompassing in nature were thus found very useful.
Based on the five domains, the identified ICH elements of Bhutan include language, traditional etiquette, belief in karmic law (universal principle of cause and effect), mask dances, folk dances and music, drama, legends, aphorisms, poetry, sports and games, and stories. Further, it includes celebrations, national laws, medical treatments, rituals, belief systems, astrology, daily life, mediation, religious sects, arts and crafts, songs, and more.
The process and methods of teaching and learning different traditional sciences, arts and crafts, and medicines, and systems of conduct and mannerisms that expound the appropriate or harmonious conduct of the body, speech, and mind are also considered the part of ICH.
Although the inventory team is still in the process of compiling the data collected from the field, it is apparent that the identified ICH items already run into hundreds.
During the survey, it was found that ICH elements are declining at an increasing rate, and some of these ICH elements are on the verge of disappearing in near future. ICH bearers and practitioners shared that younger generations are least interested in learning the traditional practices. One of the reasons of the decline and extinction of ICH elements is due to lack of timely support from the community and the government in terms of financial and human resources. Given the very short duration of the current inventory project, it will be extremely difficult to develop a comprehensive ICH inventory of Bhutan. Nevertheless, this project has helped to initiate a very important activity of identifying and recording the ICH of Bhutan, and it will significantly contribute to the efforts towards preserving the ICH of Bhutan.
Sonam Tobgay (Project Manager, Research and Media Division, National Library and Archives of Bhutan)