AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 111

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Session 111: Tradition and Evolution in Bhutanese Intangible Culture

Organizer and Chair: Ariana Maki, University of Colorado, Boulder, USA

In the last forty years, Bhutan has modernized rapidly. Tentatively opening to the outside world in the late 60’s, television arrived in 1999 and democracy in 2008. Half of Bhutan’s population today is under twenty and further changes are sure to come. Along with the obvious benefits of such modernization, there are many potential costs. Although the government’s policy of Gross National Happiness designates conservation of Bhutan’s cultural heritage as one of its four key principles, many aspects of its intangible culture are effectively undocumented and hence under-recognized. This panel of Bhutanese scholars examines several intangible cultural traditions and how they have not only established and maintained themselves over the last four centuries, but also documents how they are currently engaging modernity. Khenpo Phuntshok Tashi explains the deeper meanings of an important Buddhist ritual dance revealed by one of Bhutan’s foremost religious masters, Pema Lingpa (1450-1521), which is performed throughout the Kingdom, albeit in varying forms. The papers of Dr. Yonten Dargye and Dorji Penjore each analyze the seventeenth-century origins and subsequent development of a different socio-religious ceremony, both of which continue to be performed nearly daily in numerous settings. Last, Dr. Jagar Dorji shares recent research on the current status of one of Bhutan’s endangered dialects, Hen Ka in central Bhutan. Juxtaposing past ideals and present realities, this panel seeks to offer a multifaceted understanding of the ways that Bhutanese intangible cultural traditions have evolved over the centuries, delineating some of the dilemmas that modern Bhutanese face today.

The Sacred Dance of Peling Ging Sum
Khenpo Phuntshok Tashi, National Museum of Bhutan, Bhutan

Local festivals of Bhutan are one of the core mechanisms by which communities identify themselves and communicate societal and cultural values. In Bhutan, sacred dances called cham constitute a major part of these events. This paper explores one such dance, the Peling Ging Sum, which was established in the 15th century by one of the most significant treasure revealers (terton) in Vajrayana Buddhist history, Pema Lingpa (1450-1521). Meaning the ‘Three Wrathful Deities’ of Pema Lingpa (also known as Peling Tercham), it consists of three parts: first, the stick dance (wan) which locates and points out the adversary; second, the sword dance (dri) to conquer and destroy it; and third, the drum dance (nga) which celebrates victory over the adversary. Often invoking frightening or wrathful imagery, the Peling Ging Sum employs vivid visual descriptions of action undertaken to cultivate a peaceful atmosphere; elements of which each also serve as metaphors for the removal of obstacles to personal Buddhist practice. The dance was revealed as a divine vision to Pema Lingpa and was originally limited to his home region, the Bumthang district of Bhutan, but is now performed throughout the country. Through an analysis of its components and their deeper meaning, this research sheds light on the importance of this all-pervasive, yet remarkably understudied dance. Further, it identifies the effects of this pervasiveness, most notably in changes the Peling Ging Sum has undergone as its performance spreads throughout the country and beyond, changes that threaten the integrity of the dance itself.

Chibdrel: A Bhutanese Ceremonial Welcome
Karma Rigzin, Institute of Language and Culture Studies, Bhutan

The chibdrel ceremony is a perennial and enduring aspect of Bhutanese culture. Translated literally as ‘ceremonial procession of men on horseback’, chibdrel is conducted on a designated auspicious day for special occasions, such as to honour the visit of a head of state, religious head or senior officials, as well as marking high-profile promotions, marriages or major religious functions. Comprised of monks equipped with a traditional orchestra consisting of trumpets, clarinets, drums and cymbals, it is also accompanied by a myriad of supporters: a hierarchy of officials, body guards and attendants, dancers and singers in traditional costume, religious dancers, and people carrying various religious items such as auspicious symbols and substances and flags associated with deities. These displays each carry their own special meaning and significance in Bhutanese culture, yet the ubiquitous chibdrel ceremony has remained essentially unstudied. This paper explores how the chibdrel ceremony became so prominent in daily practice and analyses how its performance helps to enrich Bhutanese national cultural identity. Concurrently, this work aims to elucidate the multiple functions of these processions through an analysis and description of their constituent parts. It also examines how chibdrel has been elaborated over time, including the addition of new elements that reflect modern conditions. The chibdrel ceremony constitutes one of the pre-eminent symbols of Bhutanese identity and is celebrated across the country on an almost daily basis; it therefore simultaneously asserts Bhutanese sovereignty and independence.

Rows of Auspicious Seats: the Role of bzhugs gral phun sum tshogs pa Ritual in the Founding of the Bhutanese State in the 17th Century
Dorji Penjore, Australian National University, Bhutan

This paper analyzes the 373 year-old Bhutanese ritual, Zhugdral Phunsum Tshogpa (bzhugs gral phun sum tshogs pa), which must be executed prior to any significant public function in Bhutan. Translated as ‘auspicious seating row’, its performance is believed to bring good fortune, and is deeply ingrained in the Bhutanese psyche as a ceremony for acquiring grace, glory and wealth. Zhugdral has a religious origin: it was ‘invented’ by the founder of Bhutan Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651), during a visit to Punakha in 1637. The spiritual teachers, disciples and representatives of regional and neighbouring kingdoms gathered there all pledged their loyalty to him. Calling the events auspicious, Zhabdung asked those present to be seated in rank-based rows before distributing offerings, accompanied by dedicatory prayers invoking the authority of the Drukpa Kagyu Buddhist tradition. This paper analyses the significance of Zhugdral in terms of Hobsbawm’s notion of ‘invented tradition’ and in light of Foucault’s ‘governmentality’, thus generating alternative understandings of the ritual. Additionally, it argues that Zhugdral is not a wholly novel invention but rather an ‘invented tradition’ with precedents in previous monastic institutions, but modified, ritualized and institutionalised to establish and legitimize the evolving Bhutanese state. Further, it offers an analysis of the ceremony’s concurrent religious, political, social, and cultural roles: consolidation and perpetuation of Drukpa Kagyu authority; securing loyalty to the Dual System of Governance; imposition of a pseudo-monastic discipline upon the people; and the replacement of a highly decentralised social structure with hierarchal and centralised social order.

Hen Kha: A Bhutanese Dialect of Mangde Valley
Jagar Dorji, National Council of Bhutan, Bhutan

Language is the main mechanism by which humans understand each other. Binding a community, region or nation, language both unifies societies and cultures and helps distinguish between them. Nineteen unique languages or dialects can be found within Bhutan, a Himalayan nation of 600,000 people, with a marked concentration in the east of the country. Though a comparatively small geographic area of some 37,000 square kilometres, Bhutan’s linguistic diversity is testimony to the country’s vast cultural wealth. However, challenges brought about by the processes of modernization, which began only in the last fifty years, are placing these languages/dialects in jeopardy, as there is a growing shift towards other, more international languages, particularly English. This paper presents research on Hen Kha, a dialect of the Mangde region found in the central district of Trongsa. As dialects around the world are perishing at an alarming rate, there is a deep concern about the future of Hen Kha and the other dialects of Bhutan, whose presence reveals the cultural diversity of the country. The present analysis explores the effects of modernisation and urban migration on local vernaculars, as well as the grassroots efforts to conserve such languages, such as communities who are actively producing films and music in their local dialects. Fortunately, there is still time for Bhutan to actively preserve such dialects so that they do not disappear into oblivion, and this study is an initial step in that direction.