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Ethnic groups of Bhutan

Photograph by Wikimedia Commons

Bhutan is a small Himalayan country that is known for its happiness index, as well as for its unique cultural heritage. One of the fascinating aspects of this heritage is the country's ethnic diversity. Although the Ngalop people who speak Dzongkha are the majority, there are several other ethnic groups in Bhutan, each with their own distinct culture and traditions. Which includes four main ethnic groups: Ngalop, Sharchop, Lhotshampa, and Bhutanese tribal and aboriginal people.

The Ngalop, meaning "earliest risen" or "first converted," are of Tibetan origin and migrated to Bhutan as early as the ninth century. They introduced Tibetan culture and Buddhism to Bhutan and were the dominant political and cultural element in modern Bhutan. Dzongkha, their language, is the national language and is descended from Old Tibetan. The Ngalop are dominant in western and northern Bhutan.

The Sharchop, meaning "easterner," are populations of mixed Tibetan, South Asian, and Southeast Asian descent that mostly live in the eastern districts of Bhutan. The Sharchop account for most of the population of eastern Bhutan. They have been largely assimilated into the Tibetan-Ngalop culture, and most Sharchop speak Tshangla, a Tibeto-Burman language. They traditionally practice slash-and-burn and tsheri agriculture, planting dry rice crops for three or four years until the soil is exhausted and then moving on. The Lhotshampa, meaning “southerner”, are generally classified as Hindus, although this is an oversimplification, as many groups that include Tamang and Gurung are largely Buddhist. Their main festivals include Dashain and Tihar. In the late 1980s and 1990s, as many as 107,000 Lhotshampa left Bhutan. Traditionally, Lhotshampa have been involved mostly in sedentary agriculture, although some have cleared forest cover and conducted tsheri agriculture. In addition to these groups, Bhutan also had a sizable modern Tibetan refugee population. Although there are no Tibetan communities or villages in the country, the total Tibetan population stood at 10,000 in 1987, with the majority arriving in the aftermath of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising. Although Bhutan traditionally welcomed refugees - and still accepted a few new ones fleeing the 1989 unrest in Tibet - government policy in the late 1980s was to refuse more refugees. Despite this, the Tibetan population in Bhutan has continued to persevere, building new lives for themselves and their families in the face of adversity. Finally, there are small aboriginal or indigenous tribal people that live in scattered villages throughout Bhutan. These include the Brokpa, Lepcha, and Doya tribes, as well as the descendants of slaves who were brought to Bhutan from similar tribal areas in India. They are culturally and linguistically part of the populations of West Bengal or Assam, areas which was historically under Bhutan later annexed by British-India and have embraced the Hindu system of endogamous groups ranked by hierarchy and practice wet-rice and dry-rice agriculture. These communities tend to be near traditional population centers where they can participate in service to the state. Together, the Ngalop, Sharchop, and tribal groups constituted up to 72 percent of the population in the late 1980s according to official Bhutanese statistics.

Despite the differences among the various ethnic groups, the people of Bhutan have a shared sense of identity and a deep respect for their cultural heritage. They are proud of their country's unique traditions and customs, which have been shaped by centuries of isolation in the Himalayas. From the Ngalop to the Lhotshampa to the small aboriginal or indigenous tribal peoples, each group has a unique story to tell. Today, Bhutan is an increasingly modern country that is making efforts to preserve its cultural heritage while also embracing the benefits of globalization. Whether you are interested in the country's history, religion, or culture, there is much to discover in Bhutan's diverse ethnic groups.

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