Music of Bhutan

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Musician monks.jpg
Monks playing lingm at Lhuentse Dzong

The music of Bhutan is an integral part of its culture and plays a leading role in transmitting social values. Traditional Bhutanese music includes a spectrum of subgenres, ranging from folk to religious song and music. Some genres of traditional Bhutanese music intertwine vocals, instrumentation, and theatre and dance, while others are mainly vocal or instrumental. The much older traditional genres are distinguished from modern popular music such as rigsar. [1]



Bhutanese dranyen Luth dranyen (musee d'ethnographie, Neuchatel, Suisse) (28873179047).jpg
Bhutanese dranyen

Instruments used in both traditional and modern genres of Bhutanese music include the lingm (six-holed flute), the chiwang (Tibetan two-stringed fiddle), and the dramnyen (similar to a large three-stringed rebec); modern musicians often update these instruments for use in rigsar. [2] [3]

Other traditional instruments include tangtang namborong (four-holed bamboo bass flute), kongkha (bamboo mouth harp), and gombu (bull or buffalo horn). Newer instruments include the yangchen, brought from Tibet in the 1960s. [1] [4] :139–140

While Bhutanese folk music often employs stringed instruments, religious music usually does not. [1] Unlike many countries, Bhutanese folk music is almost never incorporated into popular music. [4] :132

Religious music

Dechen Phodrang monastic school, Thimphu 2.jpg
Monks playing dungchen, Dechen Phodrang monastic school, Thimphu

Bhutan was first united in the 17th century, during the reign of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594–1652); the same period saw a great blossoming of folk music and dance. Religious music is usually chanted, and its lyrics and dance often reenact namtars, spiritual biographies of saints, and feature distinctive masks and costumes. Today, Bhutan has a robust tradition of monastic song and music not normally heard by the general public. [1] [5] The language used in these lyrics is generally Chöke. [4] :138, 146


The Cham dance is one of the most conspicuous religious musical subgenres in Bhutan, and is shared among Tibetan Buddhists in Tibet and in other countries, having roots in the 8th century. [6] :17 Lama and founder of Bhutan Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal is also credited with introducing many masked dances into Bhutanese tradition. [1] Performed during modern Bhutanese tsechus (festivals), cham dances act both to achieve enlightenment and to destroy evil forces in a sort of ritual purification. [6] :21, 180 Ordinary people watch cham dances in order to receive a spiritual benefit and merit. [1] The music and choreography of the cham dance are heavily associated with Tibetan Buddhism, however some common features derive directly from the Bön religion. [6] :32 The Dramyin Cham in particular is a focal point of many modern tsechus.

Folk music

The influence of Drukpa Buddhism and Buddhist music on Bhutanese culture is such that many folk songs and chanting styles are derived from Drukpa music. [7] While some lamas and monks are credited for composing certain Bhutanese folk music, the majority of its creators are unknown or anonymous. [1] Like religious music, the lyrics of folk music are most often in literary Dzongkha or Chöke, however there are also several traditional songs in Khengkha and Bumthangkha. [4] :138, 146

Vocal and behavioral discipline for traditional singing requires thorough training in order to master the correct pitch, facial expressions, gestures, and overall conduct while performing. [4] :142

Along with traditional music, masked dances and dance dramas are common participatory components of folk music, and feature prominently at Bhutanese tsechus (festivals). [4] :133–4, 142–4 Energetic dancers wearing colorful wooden or composition face masks employ special costumes and music to depict a panoply of heroes, demons, death heads, animals, gods, and caricatures of common people. The dances enjoy royal patronage and preserve not only ancient folk and religious customs but also perpetuate the art of mask making. [8]

Bhutanese folk songs include a variety of subgenres, including zhungdra and boedra , as well as several minor varieties such as zhey and zhem, yuedra, tsangmo, alo, khorey, and ausa. [1] [4] :134 Traditional song and dance are also an integral part of archery in Bhutan, known for lyrics that range from literary and sublime to provocative and burlesque. [9]


Zhungdra (Dzongkha: གཞུང་སྒྲ་; Wylie: gzhung-sgra; "center music") is one of the two dominant forms of Bhutanese folk music. It was developed in the 17th century, and is associated with the folk music of the central valleys of Paro, Thimphu, and Punakha, the heart of the Ngalop cultural area. [4] :136, 164 [10] Although considered secular, the lyrics of zhungdra songs often tell Buddhist allegories, such as Yak Legbi Lhadar, in which the singer tells of his former life as a yak slaughtered in connection with a non-Buddhist ritual in the Gasa District. [1]

Zhungdra is characterized by the use of extended vocal tones in complex patterns which slowly decorate a relatively simple instrumental melody. Untrained singers, even those with natural singing ability, typically find it challenging to sing zhungdra. This has reduced the popularity of zhungdra compared with rigsar, the fast-paced pop Bhutanese music style based on electronic synthesizers.


Boedra (Dzongkha: བོད་སྒྲ་; Wylie: bod-sgra; "Tibetan music") is the second of the two dominant forms of Bhutanese folk music. Instrumentation for boedra often includes the chiwang, which symbolizes a horse. In contrast to Zhungdra, Boedra evolved out of Tibetan court music. [1] [4] :136, 161

Zhey and zhem

The paired zhey and zhem (Dzongkha: གཞས་/གཞས་མོ་; Wylie: gzhas/gzhas-mo) [4] :136–7, 164 are elaborately choreographed vocal performances often performed during tsechus (festivals). They contain elements of both zhungdra and boedra. The quick-stepped zhey are performed by men, while the more flowing zhem are women's dances. Zheys originate in the 17th century, and although there is considerable variety among contemporary zheys, most of them share common tunes and dance formats. Dancers originally performed barefoot and without any elaborate uniform, however the tradition of wearing long gowns, head gear and traditional boots was established in the 1970s. [11]

In honor of the 2011 royal wedding, Bhutanese dancers performed four major zheys (Goen Zhey of Gasa, Wang Zhey of Thimphu, Nub Zhey of Trongsa, Woochupai Zhey of Paro) and four minor zheys (Auley of Laya, Locho of Sha, Bonghur Zhey of Haa, and Miritsemoi Zhey of Chukha). [11] [12]

The Goen Zhey is of central importance among all zheys. Its origins lie in the coming of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the founder of Bhutan. According to tradition, when he came in 1616 to at Bangdekha below Wakeyla, a place between Gasa and Laya, the people of Goen in Gasa offered the elaborate dance. Requiring two days and 21 dancers to complete, the dance has 25 intricate steps. Dancers wear red woolen gho, black tego undershirt, and red-and-white kabney in the fashion of ancient warriors. The zheypon (dance master) wears an elaborate headdress. [11]

The Woochhu Zhey, from the Wochu Village ("Jackal River Village"; modern Woochhu Village in Lungnyi Gewog, Paro), also bases its origin in Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, first performed by a lama in the procession to receive the Zhabdrung. [11] [13]

One particularly endangered performance is the Wang Zhey of Thimphu. According to tradition, it began with a commoner from the Wang valley who went to Laya. On his way, he stopped at the Gasa tshechu where he saw Goen Zhey for the first time. Inspired, he stayed to learn it. After returning to Wang, he taught his people the zhey in exchange for a fee of salt for every song. In 1620, with small changes, it was performed in Thimphu during the consecration ceremony of Chagri Monastery. Thereafter, it was performed regularly in receptions for important Tibetan Drukpa lamas. Though the Wang Zhey was once routine in rabneys, archery matches, and weddings of well-to-do families, it is now less frequently performed, and young Bhutanese do not know its significance. [11] [12]


Tsangmo (Dzongkha: ཙང་མོ་; Wylie: tsang-mo), also considered a literary genre, are very popular in Bhutan. They consist of sung couplets, the first of which describes a relevant scenario, followed by the second couplet, which conveys a point such as love, hate, abuse, or ridicule. Tsangmo may be sung in a call-and-reply fashion, and may be a means of competition. [1] [4] :135–6, 163


Lozey (Dzongkha: བློ་ཟེ་; Wylie: blo-ze), literally translated as "ornaments of speech," refer to two distinct vocal traditions. The first is a short exchange lines, while the second is a collection of ballads that vary from region to region. They all concern traditional customs, dress, and literature. Rich in metaphor, they are known and recited by ordinary people in modern language. Like Tsangmo, Lozey may be sung in a call-and-reply fashion, and may be a means of competition. Certain Lozey are sung in vernacular language. [1] [4] :135–7, 162

The modern popular rigsar genre (Dzongkha རིག་གསར་; Wylie: rig-gsar; "new idea") [14] emerged in the 1960s. Rigsar can be contrasted from most traditional music in its updated electronic instrumentation, faster rhythm, and vernacular language, especially Dzongkha and Tsangla. Its context can also be contrasted, as rigsar is a common feature of Bhutanese television and film. Some of the earliest rigsar tunes were translations of contemporary popular Hindi songs. The first Bhutanese rigsar hit was Zhendi Migo, covered the popular Bollywood filmi song "Sayonara" from the film Love in Tokyo . Since the 1960s, a great number of Bhutanese artists have covered or produced a staggering volume of rigsar music. [4] :132, 139, 145–8

Rigsar gained popularity on the Bhutan Broadcasting Service, making way for the rigsar band Tashi Nencha to established the first recording studio in Thimphu in 1991. Prior to this period, Bhutanese people primarily listened to filmi and other kinds of Indian pop music. Rigsar is the dominant style of Bhutanese popular music, and dates back to the late 1980s. The first major music star was Shera Lhendup, whose career began after the 1981 hit "Jyalam Jaylam Gi Ashi". [2]

By the end of the 1980s, rigsar was no longer so popular, its detractors citing repetitive, simple tunes that were often copied directly from foreign music. [2] Since 1995, with founding of the Norling Drayang recording label, rigsar has returned to relative popularity as a fusion of elements and instruments from English language pop, Indian and Nepalese music. Rigsar remains ubiquitous in Bhutan, heard in on public streets, in taxis, and on buses, and even used by the government to deliver health and sanitation education. [4]

There is also a small underground metal scene with bands like Forsaken [15]

Bhutan has also been seeing a boom in the popular music such as the B-Pop show that was held to promote creativity in May 2018 by M-Studio in collaboration with the Ministry of Information and Communications. [16]


The Royal Academy of Performing Arts (RAPA) has worked under royal prerogative to document, preserve, and promote traditional Bhutanese music, song, and dance since 1954. Its activities are overseen by the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs of the Government of Bhutan. [17] [18] [19] The Academy's performers participate in festivals, tour schools within Bhutan, and perform for tourists. [4] :149–50

The Royal University of Bhutan Institute of Language and Cultural Studies (ILCS) at Semtokha, Thimphu, was the only university level institute to offer elective courses on traditional and modern Bhutanese music, song, and dance as of 2003. [4] :150–1

Aa-Yang Ensemble, started by Jigme Drukpa in 2010, is a private performing group. The ensemble includes members from north, east and south of Bhutan, making it one of the more culturally diverse music groups in Bhutan. In 2013 the group toured Sweden for 23 days.

Khuju Luyang, a private performing arts group with international stage presence. Khuju Luyang won the folk music and dance competition in 2006 and received the silver medal from the Royal Government of Bhutan for preservation of folk dance and music. [20] [21]

See also

Related Research Articles

History of Bhutan

Bhutan's early history is steeped in mythology and remains obscure. Some of the structures provide evidence that the region has been settled as early as 2000 BC. According to a legend it was ruled by a Cooch-Behar king, Sangaldip, around the 7th century BC, but not much is known prior to the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism in the 9th century, when turmoil in Tibet forced many monks to flee to Bhutan. In the 12th century, the Drukpa Kagyupa school was established and remains the dominant form of Buddhism in Bhutan today. The country's political history is intimately tied to its religious history and relations among the various monastic schools and monasteries.

Thimphu Capital of Bhutan

Thimphu is the capital and largest city of Bhutan. It is situated in the western central part of Bhutan, and the surrounding valley is one of Bhutan's dzongkhags, the Thimphu District. The ancient capital city of Punakha was replaced as capital by Thimphu in 1955, and in 1961 Thimphu was declared as the capital of the Kingdom of Bhutan by the 3rd Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck.

Dzong architecture

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Drukpa Lineage

The Drukpa Lineage, or simply Drukpa, sometimes called either Dugpa or "Red Hat sect" in older sources, is a branch of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Kagyu school is one of the Sarma or "New Translations" schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Trongsa Place in Trongsa District, Bhutan

Trongsa, previously Tongsa, is a Thromde or town, and the capital of Trongsa District in central Bhutan. The name means "new village" in Dzongkha. The first temple was built in 1543 by the Drukpa lama Ngagi Wangchuck, who was the great-grandfather of Ngawang Namgyal, Zhabdrung Rinpoche, the unifier of Bhutan.

Ngawang Namgyal

Ngawang Namgyal and known colloquially as The Bearded Lama, was a Tibetan Buddhist lama and the unifier of Bhutan as a nation-state. In addition to unifying the various warring fiefdoms for the first time in the 1630s, he also sought to create a distinct Bhutanese cultural identity separate from the Tibetan culture from which it was derived.

Articles related to Bhutan include:

Zhabdrung Rinpoche

Zhabdrung was a title used when referring to or addressing great lamas in Tibet, particularly those who held a hereditary lineage. In Bhutan the title almost always refers to Ngawang Namgyal (1594–1651), the founder of the Bhutanese state, or one of his successive reincarnations.

Zhungdra is one of two main styles of traditional Bhutanese folk music, the other being bödra. Arising in the 17th century, zhungdra is an entirely endemic Bhutanese style associated with the folk music of the central valleys of Paro, Thimphu, and Punakha, the heart of the Ngalop cultural area. Bödra, in contrast, evolved out of Tibetan court music.

Boedra is a traditional genre of Bhutanese music. Boedra, which is influenced by Tibetan folk music, is one of the two main folk singing styles in Bhutan, the other being zhungdra, which was developed in the 17th century.

Punakha Administrative centre in Punakha dzongkhag, Bhutan

Punakha is the administrative centre of Punakha dzongkhag, one of the 20 districts of Bhutan. Punakha was the capital of Bhutan and the seat of government until 1955, when the capital was moved to Thimphu. It is about 72 km away from Thimphu, and it takes about 3 hours by car from the capital, Thimphu. Unlike Thimphu, it is quite warm in winter and hot in summer. It is located at an elevation of 1,200 metres above sea level, and rice is grown as the main crop along the river valleys of two main rivers of Bhutan, the Pho Chu and Mo Chu. Dzongkha is widely spoken in this district.


Tshechu are annual religious Bhutanese festivals held in each district or dzongkhag of Bhutan on the tenth day of a month of the lunar Tibetan calendar. The month depends on the place. Tshechus are religious festivals of the Drukpa Lineage of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.


The dramyin or dranyen is a traditional Himalayan folk music lute with six strings, used primarily as an accompaniment to singing in the Drukpa Buddhist culture and society in Bhutan, as well as in Tibet, Sikkim and Himalayan West Bengal. It is often used in religious festivals of Tibetan Buddhism. The instrument is played by strumming, fingerpicking or plucking. The dramyen, chiwang (fiddle), and lingm (flute) comprise the basic instrumental inventory for traditional Bhutanese folk music.

Dramyin Cham is a form of Cham dance, a masked and costumed dance performed in Tibetan Buddhism ceremonies in Bhutan, Sikkim, Himalayan West Bengal and Tibet. They are a focal point of the Bhutanese festivals of Tsechu. The Dramyin Cham is notable among Cham dances as the lead dancer keeps time with a dramyin - a Himalayan folk music lute, and not a traditional percussion instrument like the cymbals. This is among the few instances of monastic music in the Himalayas where the use of a stringed instrument has been observed.

Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Dzong is a large dzong - Buddhist monastery and fortress - of the Drukpa Lineage of the Kagyu school in Paro District, Bhutan. It houses the district Monastic Body and government administrative offices of Paro Dzongkhag. It is listed as a tentative site in Bhutan's Tentative List for UNESCO inclusion.

Chagri Monastery

Chagri Dorjeden Monastery, also called Cheri Monastery, is a Buddhist monastery in Bhutan established in 1620 by Ngawang Namgyal, 1st Zhabdrung Rinpoche, the founder of the Bhutanese state.

The Druk Desi was the title of the secular (administrative) rulers of Bhutan under the dual system of government between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Under this system, government authority was divided among secular and religious administrations, both unified under the nominal authority of the Zhabdrung Rinpoche. Druk, meaning "thunder dragon", refers symbolically to Bhutan, whose most ancient name is Druk-yul. Desi, meaning "regent", was the chief secular office in realms under this system of government.

Punakha Dzong

The Punakha Dzong, also known as Pungthang Dewa chhenbi Phodrang, is the administrative centre of Punakha District in Punakha, Bhutan. Constructed by Ngawang Namgyal, 1st Zhabdrung Rinpoche, in 1637–38, it is the second oldest and second-largest dzong in Bhutan and one of its most majestic structures. The dzong houses the sacred relics of the southern Drukpa Lineage of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, including the Rangjung Kharsapani and the sacred remains of Ngawang Namgyal and the tertön Pema Lingpa.

The national symbols of Bhutan include the national flag, national emblem, national anthem, and the mythical druk thunder featured in all three. Other distinctive symbols of Bhutan and its dominant Ngalop culture include Dzongkha, the national language; the Bhutanese monarchy; and the driglam namzha, a seventeenth-century code on dress, etiquette, and dzong architecture. Natural symbols of Bhutan are its national flower, the Himalayan blue poppy; its national tree, the Himalayan cypress; its national bird, the raven; and its national animal, the takin.

Public holidays in Bhutan consist of both national holidays and local festivals or tshechus. While national holidays are observed throughout Bhutan, tsechus are only observed in their areas. Bhutan uses its own calendar, a variant of the lunisolar Tibetan calendar. Because it is a lunisolar calendar, dates of some national holidays and most tshechus change from year to year. For example, the new year, Losar, generally falls between February and March.


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