Demography of Bhutan

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The population ratio of Bhutan in comparison to other countries is not less. Searching backwards, the period between 500 BC to 500 AD is the time when people entered Bhutan, especially in Wang and Wanduephodrang. When in 9th century Lam Tsangpa entered Bhutan, the population gradually increased.

During the third decade of 9th century, when Mongolian troops of Tibetan origin were sent to Bhutan for invasion, they settled there itself, naming themselves Tshochhen Gyed, who were called Milong in Mongol.

People rivered to Bhutan for settlement when the apostate son of Tibetan King Sadnalog and brother of king Lang Dharma [836-842], Lam Tsangpa, entered Bhutan to preach Buddhism in 830 AD.

The population of Bhutan in 1864 was 20,000. Spate stated that in 1957 the population of Bhutan was 300,000. Chantal Massonaud marked the population in 1962 as 800,000 and in the same year Encyclopaedia Britannica recorded the population of Bhutan as 623,000. The 1963 Britannica Book of the Year recorded the population of Bhutan in 1961 as 680,000. The second publication of Status of the World's Nations in 1965 said the population of 1963 was 715,000. The census record of 1969 done by Royal Government of Bhutan records the population as 931,515 and the census of 1981 recorded the population at about 1,165,000. The 'Colombo Plan Bureau' noted that the population in 1963 was 600,000 and in 1961 was 750,000.

The sudden increase in the population in the country after the 1960s was due to those people who had reached Bhutan as part of the labour force with the start of the first five year development plan in 1961, initiated by the then third monarch, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. Ram Rahul mantions that, according to several sources, in the more populous eastern Bhutan area the Bhoteas are heavily outnumbered by Indo–Mongoloid people of non-Tibetan origin.

The US Army Handbook (published by the American University) noted the population in Bhutan by the year 1964 as 725,000. The Asia Handbook (1965) and Statemans Year Book (1963) clarify the population of 700,000. International Year Book and 'Stateman’s Who’s Who' observes the population in 1966 at approximately from 700,000 to 800,000. In the Asian Annual, the 1966 population statistic is approximately 750,000.

The Information Service of India stated the population at 800,000. V.H. Coelho said that the population in 1969 was 900,000 in his book Bhutan and Sikkim. In 1970, the book Lords and Lamas of Michel Pelssel has shown the population of Bhutan as 500,000 to one million. Bell stated that by comparison with Kalimpong and Sikkim, 'Bhutan could support 150 persons to a square mile. At present it can be only 20 or 30.' (C. 170)

The population stastistics of Bhutan given by different historians have differences because the exact population has not yet been calculated. The first census in Bhutan was done in 1969 by the Late King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. The census has shown the following population figures:

Regions Districts Population Eastern Tashigang 234,708 Mongar 121,252 Ja 37,816 Lhuntshi 45,651 Chotse 46,316 Shemgang 53,136 Total 538,879 Western Wangdzong 61,382 Dar 16,908 Pangdzong 21,212 Thimphu 60,027 Rimpung (Paro) 63,032 Haa 21,356 Total 243,917 Southern Samchi 57,161 Chirang 80,357 Total 137,518 Grand Total 920,332

The population of Bhutan in relation to its ethnicity distribution is as follows: Sarchops…………….33% Ngalongs…………….15% Lhotsampas………….50% Other………………….2%

These figures state that population of Bhutan when seen with respect to population density is not so small. Its national population density could be over 19 people per square kilometer from its extension of 18,000 square miles or 47,000 square kilometers. But English missions reported that the indigenous population of the country was constantly on the decreasing trend. For miles, Eden wrote, "not a trace of a village was to be seen where there were unmistakable sign the land having once been cultivated and terraced." At first he thought that the Bhutanese practiced a form of shifting cultivation but learned that wherever possible they stayed on the same fields and only left when forced by circumstances. Another reason for the decreasing population, in his opinion, was the people's "gross immorality and filthy habits" without specifying their nature except to refer to "withdrawal from the country who idle away their existence either in the dreary indolence of celibacy or who find it pleasanter to form one of the bands of bravoes by whom every official is surrounded, than to earn their bread by honest labour." (Peter Collister: Bhutan and the British, page 109/10) In the report on his visit, Weir expressed some anxiety about the future for Bhutan as the population could be in decline owing to in breeding and the reduction of immigration from Tibet. (Peter Collister: Bhutan and the British, page 184). The problem of a declining indigenous population was accentuated by the great increase of Nepalese coming into the south. (Peter Collister: Bhutan and the British, page 191)

Origin And Settlement

There were few people living in Wang and Wangdiphdrang in the period before 500 AD. Later people from around the land migrated and settled in Bhutan, forming various community groups.

There was a slight increase in population during the 5th century when Bonists entered Bhutan preaching their doctrines. They were followed by hundreds of Tibetans who finally settled in Western Bhutan forming a strong community. The Ngalongs, thepresent ruling elite, descends from this community. By the 9th century Lam Tsangpa Gyarey had attracted hundreds of people from Tibet and Mongolia to enter Bhutan for settlement.

The population increased heavily during the time Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal entered Bhutan. Sharchhops, who had migrated from Arunchal Pradesh in pre-historic age, occupied Eastern Bhutan. These people are the followers of Ngawang Namgyal.

Ngawang Namgyal also brought Nepali-speakers from Gorkha Kingdom, the kingdom of Ram Shah, ancestor of present Nepalese royal family. "Ram Shah of Gorkha and Shiva Simha Malla of Kathmandu flunked some of their citizens and handed over to Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1624 AD (1681 BS). These people went to Bhutan under the leadership of Bishan (Bishnu) Thapa." This shows that Bhutan had been a barren place in the ancient times and in due course people from around the land had gathered to live together.

Ethnic groups

The dominant groups of Bhutanese population are Lhotsampas (Southern Bhutanese), Sarchhops (Easterners) and Ngalongs (Westerners – the ruling group). Leo has stated that "Nepali community, more over, are a small minority, restricted for most part of the fringe area of the country. They are not as in Sikkim, the majority community, throughout the most of the country.".5 However, there has been several claims that Nepali ethnic community of southern Bhutan, scattered all over the country, is the dominating ethnic group of Bhuan. Thus, we can say that Bhutan is the land of migrants.

Bhutanese people fall into three broad ethnic groups, stated earlier. "The first, Sarchhops, are believed to have been the earliest inhabitants of the country. Apparently, Indo-Mongoloid in origin, the question of where they come from, or exactly when they reached Bhutan remain unsolved. Today Sarchhops live largely in eastern regions. The second group known as Ngalongs, are descendants of Tibetan migrants who came to Bhutan from about 9th century onwards settling primarily in the west. The third section of the population is the Nepalese who began to settle in the south towards the end of last (19th) century."

The Sarchhops are said to be the ancient migrants whom follwed the Ngalongs from Tibet and set their power in Bhutan. Most of the historical figures who came to Bhutan for presching Buddhism like Guru Rinpochhe, Phajo Drugom Shigpo, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal are claimed to fall in the Sarchhop ethnicity.

The ethnic Nepalis who live mostly in south have migrated to the land in and after 17th century. The other alreafy existing communities welcomed them in 1624, when the country was in critical position because of the external agreession, especially from Tibet. Some of them settled in south, who came in the last century. They helped in building close relations with the British ruling at that time in India. As they knew, "we cannot afford to let the Chinese establish influence in Bhutan. However, it is fast becoming a Nepali state. Already 3/4 of the population of Sikkim are Nepalese and Gorkhas who are multiplying fast are streaming over into a vacant places in Bhutan. In obvious reasons, it is of real importance to keep the Gorkha State under our control"7 they encouraged the Nepali speakers live around Assam, West Bengal and Sikkim.

"Settlement by Nepali Bhutanese in area outside of southern Bhutan is in fact still effectively discouraged. But on the other hand, the term upon which members of this community cultivate land and pay taxes in southern Bhutan are now broadly equivalent to those of other Bhutanese. Thus, while discriminatory have not been totally eliminated, the community's economical and political status have been greatly improved over what it was in 1950s".

When Eden reached Paro, he observed: Many of the inhabitants of this place were Bengalis who had long since forgotten their place of origin. Again in Thimphu, 2 miles away from Trongsa dzong; most of the villagers in the area were Bengali slaves, many of whom had been born there. They would be seen in the gaps in the forest hewing wood and collecting pine leaves use for manure for their masters. (Peter Collister: Bhutan and the British, page 96/7)

Tradition And Culture

Bhutanese lived on meat, chiefly pork, with turnips, rice and barely meal. Their tea came from China in the form of bricks, cut up when required in to leaves which were placed in a large hollow bamboo into which hot water was poured, followed by boiling water, salt and a little crude soda. It is 'unquestionably a very nourishing diet. A cup or two of such tea is most invigorating after great exhaustion or cold.' (Peter Collister: Bhutan and the British, page 111) Bhutanese had no caste system. (Peter Collister: Bhutan and the British, page 17)

Bhutanese live in small helmets besides the rivers and in isolated and surprisingly large farmsteads similar in appearance to those in Austria and Switzerland. They are usually made of wood, stone and clay, without any nails and have shingled roofs held down by large stones. Animals occupy the ground floor.

Ngalongs, Lhotsampas (ethnic Nepali community) and Sarchhops are the major ethnic groups who have occupied most part of the country. Lhotsampas follows the Hinduism and pray the Gods namely Bishnu, Krishna, Ram Shiva etc. They had distinct culture, tradition than that of other groups. Their culture is similar to those of Nepal's and northern Indian's. They had only branched in 1624 and this reason connects the same culture and tradition of these people. On them Leo writes, "The Nepalis who shared a basic Hindu culture with the Indians, nor do the Bhutanese share the difficulties faced by the Nepalis in defining a separated and distinct national identity from Indians."9 Ngalongs had migrated from Tibet and China before 10th century and had their strong hold in western Bhutan that grew stronger after 1907. One of their most famous ancestors was Drukpa Kuenley, follower Drukpa sect and had contributed in preaching the Buddhist doctrines in Bhutan. Their culture and tradition has more or less similarity with Tibetans. They follow Drukpa Kagyugpa sect of Buddhism, the state religion. These ruling elite had now spread their tradition and culture to all over the country.

The eastern Bhutanese, who had migrated earlier into Bhutan from Arunchal Pradesh, follow Buddhism sect Nyingmapa, the religion spread by the Guru Rinpoche and Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. They had similar tradition and culture to those of Arunchal Pradesh in India.

The Bhutanese method of fighting was with bows and arrows was for each side to fire and then rush forward and struggle for any dead bodies from which, according to Bose, they would extract the livers to eat with butter and sugar. They also mixed the fat and blood with turpentine in order to make candles for musical pipes and the skulls for beads. They were also mounted in silver to make receptacles for sipping water at religious ceremonies.

Marriage was by mutual contract without any celebration and husband usually lived in their wives' houses. A rich man could keep as many wives as he could afford and conversely a poor man could buy a part share in a wife with his brothers, of whom the eldest was considered to be the father of any children, the younger brother being called uncles. Apparently it was no crime for a man to sleep with any of his female relatives except his mother although copulation with sisters or daughters was frowned on.


When people entered streamingly to Bhutan and population increased, the need of kingship appeared. Imitating the style of rule in Tibet and China petty rulers and kingship emerged in Bhutan.

Before the advent of Guru Rinpochhe, Bhutan was divided into smaller chamber-kingdoms and each was ruled by separate kings as: Kings Kingdom Deb Wangchhen Dharma Kilingling Kurtoe Deb Gawa Phadung Deb Darjam Ngatshag Deb Dawa Chitsang Deb Dola Beneng Deb Tonden Tshengma Deb Tshewang Tashigang Deb Dewa Khaling Deb Phodrang Abchen Kanglung Deb Lam Nagseng Merag Sindhya Gyab Bumthang

Singlala Clan of Sekhya had built Changangkha Gome Palace in Bumthang long before Sindhya Gyab. His descendents Nagoche of Sindhu came to know that the palace was built by his ancestors. So, he invaded Bumthang; thus ending the existence of Bumthang kingdom. His descendents elaborated the kingdom to Dorji Dag, Har in Tibet and present western Bhutan.

In the 7th century Bhutan was said to be ruled by the kings of Kamrup, India and Cooch Behar by kings of Sangaldip. When king Bhaskerverma died in 650 AD, Sangaldip’s sovereignty was also fanned out after an invasion of King Piranvisan from Tartary.

Phajo Drugon Shigpo's son Dampa had established a kingdom in Paro, Garton had in Khotangkhora, Nyima had in Thimphu Wangchuk had in Changangkha and Gasa and Lam in Thimphu Dodena. Dampa conquered with Lam Lhapa in Paro. This victory helped him in tying the friendship with the kings of Bhananla [Kamata] and Kamadhala [Kamrup]. His descendents entered Sha, Wang, abolishing the kingship of Palden Drugpa. Geden Lama of Ura Bumthang was the descendents of Phajo Drugom Shigpo.

Language and Literature

The National language of Bhutan is Dzongkha. About 80% of people speak it although it is native only to about 25% of them. (C4) The word ‘Dzongkha’ is derived from two words –‘Dzong’ and ‘kha’ ‘Dzong’ means office and ‘kha’ means mouth or spoken language. Initially, this was the language used to speak in offices. Later on, the Dzongkha word is used as name of a language.

The national language is the mother tongue of Ngalongs. It is reformed and side-added-term-language derived from Tibetan. It is slightly reformed, changed the fundamental composition by the various well-known personalities who came to Bhutan from Tibet and China. This national language is written in ‘Ukan’ script.

The land of Bhutan itself is the land of migrants and this asserts that there are many languages spoken. The community is divided into many races and ethnic groups as per their origin culture and language, though many of them have similarities.

Few languages spoken in Bhutan are as follows: 1. Dzongkha

It is the national language but is usually spoken in western Bhutan, where Ngalongs had its strong footholds from ancient days. It is the language used in curriculum and taught in every school.

2. Tapadrapteng

It is a minor language spoken in Bhutan near Buxa Duar.

3. Laya Lingtshi

This is the small minority people’s language usually spoken in Northwest Bhutan.

4. Shalingpa

It is spoken in Shali region of Shonkhar District and most of the Eastern Bhutan.

5. Dangpakha

It is mostly spoken in Northeast part of Bhutan.

6. Mirasangtengkha

It is the language spoken in eastern Bhutan, Tashigang. These six languages, as said are the sub divisions of the national language, Dzongkha. Besides this Dzongkha as divided language, kheng literature had its second domination among local dilects. The components of the language are as follows:

1. Madikha:

This is mostly spoken in Trongsa area.

2. Gungdevhikha

In ancient time this language was spoken in the southern part of the country. Recently it is mixed with Kheng literature, though it had its independent script previously.

3. Khengkha

It is mostly spoken in Kheng region, South of Trongsa. With the adoption of Gungdevikha into its pocket, this language has widened.

4. Bumthangkha

It is the famous language amongst the components of Kheng literature. It is spoken mostly in Bumthang and central Bhutan.

5. Samangkha

This language has dominated the northeastern part of the Kurtoe region.

6. Yangsepakha

It is the language mostly used in northern border, Tawang and Southern Tibet.

7. Kurtoepakha

The dialect is mostly spoken in Kurtoe region. These languages didn't have their own script before but now they are written in ‘Ukan’ script, the script of Kheng literature.

Studying all these literature of Bhutan, one can say that there are many linguistic groups, races and creeds of people living there. Among these languages, we find four of them are mostly used. They are:

1. Dzonghkha

It is the national language and is mother tongue of the ruling elite. Previously, it was mostly spoken in western Bhutan. After the enthronement of Sir Uygen Wangchuk as the first king of Bhutan, it took the way to national language. “It is the language of the home in western Bhutan; where small-non Tibetan communities, such as Doyas and Lepchas, who reside in this region and have tribal language of their own, also speak Dzongkha.”11

2. Bumthang kha (Kheng)

It is the famous language of ancient Bhutan. Now it is centralized only in Kheng region and central Bhutan.

3. Sharchopkha or Chhangla

The Sharchops, eastern Bhutanese speak this language. It is the mother tongue of the Sarchhops. It originated from Arunachal Pradesh, as they (Sharchops) are believed to have migrated from Arunchal Pradesh.

4. Nepali (Lhotsamkha)

This is the language of southern Bhutanese. The dominion and majority of Nepali speaking people contributed to spread this language to the whole country. Many town-men speak this language. The language has its origin in Nepal, which is its national language. It is distinct from other languages of Bhutan. The others have some similarities between them, which are not matching to Nepali. Nepali speakers are then divided in numbers of creeds who use their own dialects to communicate with their ethnic group. Leo E. Rose writes. “ The Nepali Bhutanese who make up the vast majority of the population in southern Bhutan came from a wide varieties of communities in Nepal, most of which have their own languages or dialect”.

“Dzongkha would be known only by those Nepali Bhutanese who hold government post or who need to communicate with the central authorities, on a regular basis”.13 But many of the Nepali speakers speak Dzongkha as they are to be engaged and regularly communicate with the communities who speak Dzongkha. Dzongkha is popular in their society as it is the language used in curriculum.