Bhutan’s linguistic diversity is mind-boggling. For a small country, it’s hard to believe that there are more than 20 different languages. Linguist George van Driem, who has done extensive research on Bhutan’s languages, lists 19 languages, mostly belonging to the Central and East Bodish genetic groups. But some other linguists count up to 25 languages in Bhutan.
Dzongkha is Bhutan’s national language. Before it was adopted as the national language in the 1960s, it was a spoken vernacular like all languages in Bhutan. Its written form was developed in the 1960s. Dzongkha is spoken as the native tongue by the people of Wangdi, Punakha, Thimphu, Paro, Haa, Gasa, and Dagana, and Chukha districts in the west of the country. It gained popularity as the language spoken in the dzongs (the seats of the government).
As a new official language, Dzongkha is fighting a tough battle against English which is popularly used – officially and unofficially – by the country’s fast-modernising population. But is patronized by the state and supported through the Dzongkha Development Commission. It is the language of Parliament deliberations and election campaigns.
Among other popular languages of Bhutan are Tshangla (unofficially called Sharchokpikha) spoken in all eastern districts, Chocha Ngacha spoken in parts of Lhuntse, Mongar, Trashigang, and Trashiyantse districts, Lhotshamkha (Nepali) spoken widely by the people of ethnic Nepali origin in the southern districts, Khengkha spoken in Zhemgang District and parts of Mongar District, and Bumthangkha spoken in the central district of Bumthang, among others.
Other languages of Bhutan include Kurtoepkha spoken in parts of Lhuntse District, Chalipikha spoken in the village of Chili in Mongar, Jyokha spoken in the nomadic villages of Merak and Sakteng in Trashigang and Dur village in Bumthang, and Dakpakha spoken in the northern region of Trashiyantse. Some languages in the country are reportedly facing extinction, spoken, as they are, by only a few people.
Bhutan is a multi-religious country. The majority Buddhist population belongs to two traditions of Buddhism of Kagyu and Nyingma. A sizable section of the population of ethnic Nepalese origin practises Hinduism. The country has a small Christian population.
Drukpa Kagyu is the state religion of Bhutan. Bhutan state monastic body consists of the Central Monastic Body and District Monastic Bodies in all 20 districts. The state supported monastic bodies are headed by His Holiness the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot) who is assisted by five ministerial-level Lopons.
The Constitution of the Kingdom guarantees the freedom of religion and designates Druk Gyalpo as the protector of all religions. The Constitution also mandates that “religion remains separate from politics” and “religious institutions and personalities shall remain above politics”. Therefore, religious personalities in the country are neither allowed to take part in politics nor allowed to vote. They must remain above politics.
In Bhutan, Buddhism is recognised as the cultural heritage of the country. Dzongs, temples, monasteries, and stupas – thousands of them – spread across the country are not only the places of worship but also vibrant socio-cultural institutions. The state is mandated to preserve and promote them.
While the mainstream religion has spread across all parts of the country, one finds some traces of Bonism which predates the arrival of Buddhism in the form of nature worship and animal sacrifice in some rural pockets.