Culture and identity
The main ethnic groups of Bhutan are Bhote (50%), ethnic Nepalese (35%) and indigenous or migrant tribes (15%). Dzongkha, the official language, is derived from the Tibetan language. Southern Bhutan is inhabited mainly by Nepalese farmers who arrived in the country at the end of the nineteenth century. These people speak Nepalese and Hindu.
The national dress for men is the gho, a knee-length wrap-around coat tied at the waist. The women’s ankle-length dress is known as the kira. It is made of brightly coloured, fine woven fabric with traditional patterns.
The castle-like dzong (fortress) dominate the landscape and serve as religious, military, administrative, and social centres. Bhutanese festivals centre on celebrating the harvest or expelling evil spirits. They are colourful, loud and joyous, with plenty of music, dancing and food. Some festivals end with the unveiling and worship of huge religious appliques or throngdrels. Many include the national sport, archery, or other traditional sports such as digor (a kind of shot-put), darts and wrestling.
Great progress towards the Millennium Development Goals has meant the health of Bhutanese has improved dramatically. Over the past two decades, infant mortality has dropped to 44 deaths per 1,000 live births. Life expectancy at birth is 67 years. Fewer than 0.1% of the population are living with HIV.
Health services are provided free to the entire population. Traditional medicines are commonly used, with both Buddhist rituals and village shaman playing an important role.
Most people have access to clean water and just over two-thirds use improved sanitation facilities.
Religion and beliefs
Bhutan's state religion is Drukpa Kagyu, a form of Mahayana Buddhism. The leader, an elected lama, has equal rank with the monarch. The Buddhist faith plays a fundamental role in the cultural, ethical and community life of Bhutan. Every major event is marked by a religious ceremony in homes or at the temples. There is also a large Hindu population who predominantly live in the Nepalese south.
Food and shelter
Food varies from region to region but rice and curries made with yak meat, vegetables and chilli are common. Special rice-based dishes include desi, a tasty mixture of white rice, butter, sugar, golden raisins and saffron, and zow – fried rice mixed with sugar, butter and sometimes oilseeds. In eastern Bhutan, the staple diet is puta or wheat noodles. In southern Bhutan, kharang is made from ground corn kernels and bamboo shoots. In the north, most people are nomadic yak herders whose diet consists of milk, butter, cheese and yak meat, with the addition of some barley, winter wheat and a few root vegetables. The accompanying drink may be suja (butter tea) or ara (a locally made grain wine). With increasing urbanisation and connection to the outside world, Western foods are becoming more popular.
Rural houses are made of mudbrick or stone walls and metal, wooden shingles or thatch roofs. During the summer the nomadic herders live in black tents woven from yak hair and in winter they live in homes built in the lower valleys. People in cities commonly live in cement-brick apartment blocks.