Jigme Choden
Research Officer, National Library and Archives of Bhutan

Marriage in a Bhutanese context is a social event that encompasses several Buddhist rituals; it does not end simply with exchanging vows and rings and kissing the bride. The centuries-old traditions in Bhutanese marriage ceremonies are much richer and involved; however, despite this, these traditions have been disappearing over the years.

In ancient times, a couple was not considered married until a formal marriage ceremony occurred and an eminent lama (Buddhist priest) blessed the couple. For this reason, the ceremony was considered an indispensable event for a couple to begin a new life together. However, before the wedding ceremonies could take place, it was imperative to have a lama set an astrological date for the ceremony. Only after the date was set could the couple send formal invitations to family members, friends, and colleagues.

On the wedding day, the ceremony began at dawn. The couple dressed in their best traditional attire, offered prayers to Kencho Sum (Triple Gem deity), and lit a butter lamp as a representative token for a happy and prosperous life. After the initial rituals were completed, the couple took part in the two most significant ceremonies: a purification ceremony and a vow renewal ceremony, where the husband and wife exchanged scarves received from a shrine and took ambrosia to symbolize their loyalty to one another. The rituals were also conducted to sanctify the couple and ward off all tribulations from the couple’s lives.

In addition to the Buddhists rituals, a traditional marriage ceremony included an offering of ceremonial scarves, a feast for all the well-wishers, and performances of traditional dances. Usually, the celebratory events lasted for days.

The marriage ceremony has long been an important part of Bhutanese intangible cultural heritage; however, it remains to be recognized and appreciated. In fact, the marriage culture has been dying as the scenario of marriages taking place in Bhutan has completely changed. Today, Bhutanese youth are oblivious to their traditional heritage, and thus, they consider themselves married as soon as they start to live together, regardless of whether an actual wedding ceremony has taken place.

The idea of marriage in Bhutan has shifted drastically over the years. Caught in the web of modernization, not many Bhutanese want to have a marriage ceremony today, and for those who do, it is often an amalgamation of foreign culture with religious rites being replaced with dance party music and English songs, and traditional Bhutanese wines and dishes with Champagne, cakes, and exotic cuisines. Suffice to say, this unique intangible cultural heritage of Bhutan has fallen victim to the effects of modernization. However, the recent royal wedding has rekindled the dying culture of Bhutanese marriage ceremonies, allowing them to gain momentum once again, as many young couples have started to imitate the royal couple.

The royal wedding not only marked a milestone in Bhutanese history but also highlighted the distinctiveness of Bhutanese culture and showed the importance of safeguarding culture in this time of rapid modernization. It was a cultural treat for the people who witnessed their king wed Ashi (Queen) Jetsun Pema in a traditional Bhutanese manner on 13 to 15 October 2011. The three-day ceremony conveyed a strong message: a marriage ceremony is as important as any other cultural heritage, and it is the responsibility of every Bhutanese to keep the culture vibrant.

The royal wedding epitomized a traditional Bhutanese wedding ceremony—it was at once simple yet held a sense of grandiosity. Essentially, everything was kept entirely traditional, as was demonstrated by the preparations, songs, dances, mask dances, costumes, and cuisines. Beginning right from the morning tea, all the guests were served traditional Bhutanese cuisine served in bangchungs (traditional Bhutanese dishware made of bamboo) and dapa (plates made of wood). Folk dances were also performed to entertain the guests, thereby revitalizing Bhutanese cultural heritage.

The royal wedding portrayed the beauty and elegance of Bhutanese culture to the outside world, and it was an eye opener for Bhutan, showing how culture could be kept alive, even amid modernization. The rituals conducted, the feast served, and the folk dances performed worked in tandem to show the possibility of cultural continuity in today’s world.

The royal wedding ceremony in its plain grandness was an example that came down from the throne to help safeguard an intangible cultural heritage of Bhutan. Having envisioned that Bhutanese culture needs to be preserved, it was a simple gesture from His Majesty. The modus operandi he chose to preserve culture was by being a role model. Because such initiatives and measures were barely taken by anyone earlier, the intangible cultural heritage of Bhutan was seriously threatened and close to non-existent. However, now that the first step has been taken, part of the dying culture is sure to be reinvigorated.