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Echoes of Folksongs in Bhutanese Literature in English Sharma, Chandra Shekhar 2006-12

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 Echoes of Folksongs in Bhutanese Literature in English
Chandra Shekhar Sharma*
Folksongs are a part of Bhutanese culture, performed during
festivals, celebrations and regular chores. Folksongs and
dances are media of communication. To realize the role, place
and importance of folksongs in Bhutanese life one's
involvement with Bhutanese people is important. This paper
attempts to analyze the Bhutanese folksongs and their echoes
in Bhutanese literature in English. The first part is a brief
analysis of Bhutanese folksongs, and in the second part
echoes of folksongs in popular Bhutanese non-fiction and prose
fiction in English are analysed.
Bhutan is a small country sandwiched between India and
China, but it is rich in folk traditions. It has a variety of
humoristic folktales, numerous folksongs and dappled
coUection of dances. Songs, dances and archery live in the
veins of Bhutanese people and society, and they together
weave a unique cultural pattern. Folksongs and dances are
not merely modes of entertainment, but have a message to
instruct the common people. Some folksongs are purely vocal
whUe others are accompanied by choreography. Some dances
are social whereas others are reUgious, performed by lamas or
monks in dzongs and monasteries especiaUy during religious
and auspicious occasions like tshechu. ReUgious and mask
dances performed at dzongs and monasteries have fascinated
foreigners, especiaUy tourists, more than any other folk
entertainment and genre. They are found quoted in various
books in English by foreign authors.
Lecturer  in  English,   College  of Science  and Technology,   Royal
Bhutan Institute of Technology.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Modernization and urbanization are two key factors that are
adversely affecting the performance of folksongs. There are
three types of songs that are popular throughout Bhutan:
zhugdra, boedra and rigsar. Rigsar is a modern genre that is
fast becoming very popular, especially among young people,
while the performance of zhungdra and boedra is becoming
fewer year after year.
Zhungdra, boedra and rigsar have been classified based on
the tune, style, content and form. Rigsar is mostly about
contemporary Bhutanese society. They have blended western,
modern Tibetan and Indian music. It is only about two
decades old.
By the end of the 1980s, rigsar was no longer so popular,
until the founding of the Norling Drayang recording label.
Since Norling came into limelight, popular Bhutanese music
has primarily been the rigsar genre, a fusion of elements...1
Rigsar music grew after introduction of commercial music
industry that brought a change in lyrics, instruments, tunes
and tastes of music lovers.
Apart from zhungdra, boedra and rigsar there are other
folksongs that have more social references. They are notably
picturesque and have capacity to imbibe deep feeUngs. But
very few people of the new generation know them. Their
classification is difficult because of diverse contents and
Basically folksongs of a society can be classified into two
categories: social and religious. But when it comes to
studying folksongs of a country or a diverse society, the
classification is difficult and compUcated. In such cases,
various factors such as region, culture, tune, and purpose
must be considered.
Folksongs can be bifurcated into vocal- and dance-oriented
1 http: / / en. wikipedia. org/wiki/ Music_of_Bhutan
 Echoes of Folksongs in Bhutanese Literature in English
songs. Subject matters and themes of folksongs help in the
classification. On this basis they can be divided into
institutional, seasonal and sports-related folksongs. Some
folksongs are related to a special class of people. Hence, they
have to be classified accordingly. Another way is to study
them according to their length. Keeping into account the
diversity of folksongs and places they are sung, the
classification based on regions best suit the Bhutanese
Among folksongs of northern Bhutan, boedra, cha, yuedra,
zhey, and zheym are dance-oriented while alo, ausa, gurma,
khorey, tangmo, and tshoglu are purely vocal. Out of these
gurma and tshoglu are very spiritual and hymn-tike. The
subjects of lozey are epic by nature. They sing of a hero or
heroic qualities at length. Sonam Kinga classifies Bhutanese
folksongs on the basis of the locality they exist.
Zhey are very regional in character. Alo is ascribed to that
region (Kurtoe). Zhetro Yarchoed... is common to Trongsa
Valley. Khorey is a type of song unique to Dungsaam, Ausa to
Haa, Aulay to Laya, Achay Lhamo to Ura and Omo Omo pad
lung to Kheng.2
Goen Zhey is performed at Gasa...3
Cha is performed in the village of Ney, Luntse...4
The classification becomes easy if the songs have a common
nomenclature for their group. If they are without
nomenclature, like those of Lhop community, the
classification becomes difficult since each song is a genre by
The northern Bhutanese are followers of Mahayana
Buddhism.   Most residents of the  Southern belt known as
2 Kinga, Sonam (2001) "Attributes and values of Folk and Popular
Songs.", Journal of Bhutan Studies, 3 (1): 138.
3 Ibid., p. 139.
4 Ibid., p. 140.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Lhotshampas practice Hinduism. The belt is settled by
Bahun, Chettri Limbu, Rai and other Nepali ethnic groups.
Though they have their own folksongs they are rarely seen
performing. Among others, there are Tamangs inhabitants
who have different folksongs. Lepchas too have their own
folksongs called muten chi, dambrajo, phenlyok, pyasu loma
lolima etc.
Sharchops who live in the Eastern Bhutan share same
folksongs as those of the Western Bhutanese. Different ethnic
groups have their different folksongs related to religion, deity
or usual chores but these songs are on the verge of becoming
Folksongs have accompanied every walk of Bhutanese life.
One can find them sung during festivals and religious
activities, games and sports like archery, regular chores,
social activities and farming. They are deeply rooted in rural
life. Novels and non-fiction in English are the best means for
non-Dzongkha speakers to understand the folksongs and
their position.
In History of Bhutan Bikram Jit Hasrat touches on historical
social and cultural aspects of the country but misses
folksongs. Though he writes on chams, a religious mask
dances performed by monks, but folksong is not even
mentioned. Bhutan: Kingdom of the Dragon by Robert
Dompinier contains just one photograph of women
performing zhungdra, but there is no caption even about the
name of performance. In her famous travelogue, Beyond the
Sky and the Earth, Jamie Zeppa shares her experiences in
Bhutan - cultural patterns of rural Bhutan and intrusion of
modernization in Bhutan. There's a picturesque presentation
of people and society but nothing on folksongs and dances.
Dieter Zurcher and Kuenzang Choden focus on water in their
book, Bhutan: Land of Spirituality and Modernization Role of
Water in Daily Life. They analyze the presence of water in the
 Echoes of Folksongs in Bhutanese Literature in English
Bhutanese life. Amidst colourful photographs they mention
"Singing in the rain".5 There is rain, there is water but there
is no song sung by the natives during the rains.
Dr. Jagar Dorji's ethnography on Lhop, a tribe living in hUls
of South-west Bhutan, gives a little room to folksongs. The
songs mentioned by Dr. Jagar Dorji reject above-mentioned
classification. The songs of the Lhops differ not only in terms
of nomenclature but also in terms of tune and purpose. In
some cases there are diverse contents. Songs like "Sele la wo
chey; Mainaguri ya chey and "Tangphu-tangphu la rang ka
pon-mrn-yan" are the songs of surrendering the country to
the supreme power and begging for its protection.
Lhops too have sports related folksongs. Ker (archery) and
dogu (discus throw) are their traditional sports. WhUe playing
these sports, they enjoy folksongs.
Dasa dogu tsisa ley
Aulu tsemo tsisa ley
Bhoto mahri, butsu mahri,
Gengey nyma tsosa ley...6
Dr. Jagar tells us of another ballad-like song about a hero
sung during archery matches. The song praises a local hero
who devoted himself towards a social cause. The folksong
below indicates that the Lhopu's involvement in building the
Dalim Dzong.
Oi pu-chia tang manda wai
Ley yenchey ngari kuzho yen wai...7
We get another reference to Labey in the book. Lhopos sing
Labey   during   the   archery   match   unlike   at   the   end   or
5 Zurcher, Dieter, and Kuenzang Choden (2003) Bhutan: Land of
Spirituality and Modernization Role of Water in Daily Life. Chicago:
New Dawn Press, p.27.
6 Dorji, Jagar (2003), Lhop - A Tribal Community in South Western
Bhutan, and its Survival through Time, Paro: Jagar Dorji, p.30
7 Ibid., p.57.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
beginning of ceremonies.
Ah Labey Labey wai Labey sa
Ah Labey labey lay sho chi
Wangchen poengi wai chandha dhi
Ah Laybi tendi wait se go bay...8
The footnote teUs that for inhabitant, expression and feelings
matter as much as the language. He writes,
Although the words are undoubtedly Dzongkha, their
pronunciations have altered so much that that if one does not
listen carefully, they sound more like a foreign dialect. Lately,
a number of Nepali words have entered the Lhop dialect with
such dexterity that it is hard to make out the differences.9
To be precise the Lhop community is rich in folksongs and
verses that are sung invoke their local deity, Geynen,10 to
revere the local deity during the celebration of Lo,11 their
annual festival, to appease the local deity at local festivals,12
to celebrate the harvest13 and to enjoy sports.
These songs are on the verge of becoming a history of the past
due to lack of exposure and intrusion of modernization. Jagar
Dorji is credited for bringing to light an account of the tribe
which before 2003 is hardly known. The same is the case
with their folksongs. Though the book has a little room for
folksongs, it unveils the vanishing oral tradition of Lhops.
There are only few Lhops who know the songs.
Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the Queen of Bhutan, has
emerged as a powerful writer in recent years. Her memoir
Treasures of Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan "is a
captivating blend of personal memoir, history, folk lore and
8 Ibid., p.59.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid., p.56.
11 Ibid., p.55.
12 Ibid., p.35.
13 Ibid., p.54.
 Echoes of Folksongs in Bhutanese Literature in English
travelogue."14 The book interestingly reveals dappled aspects
of Bhutanese rural society. But while writing these aspects,
Ashi Dorji provides a little room for folksongs. In this book we
come across a very emotional melancholic folksong that the
author heard one morning whUe camping in the northern
region, the cold region of yaks and yak-herders.
As we rode uphill, the song of a yak herder floated in the
clear, still air. There is something haunting about yak herder's
songs, whether in Laya or Lunana, and the song I heard this
morning was...
How beautiful is yak Legpai Lhadar's face
Yak Legpai Ladhar the god-sent calf
Shall I describe my home and paths?15
The song translated by Dorji Penjore portrays not only the
poetic art or approach but also his or her ability to perceive a
yak's feelings and melancholy, and the spontaneity in
versifying them.
Though the folksongs are seldom mentioned in the works of
foreigners the indigenous writers could not resist themselves
from writing something about them. Prose-fiction or novel in
English is recent introduction.
Karma Ura in his novel, The Hero with a Thousand Eyes
describes the developmental stages of society, monarchy and
administration through eyes of a courtier who saw the reign
of two successive kings. His book is helpful in positioning the
existence of folksongs and dances in the society as he gives
us a brief, but valuable picture of folksongs. In his preface he
mentions that Late Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck "found a
great solace and seff impression in folk dance, songs, poems,
mask dances, architecture, folklores and painters."16 A clearer
14 Wangchuck, Dorji Wangmo (2006) Treasures of Thunder Dragon: A
Portrait of Bhutan, Delhi: Penguin,
15 Ibid., p. 156.
16 Ura, Karma (1996) The Ballad of Pema Tshewang Tashi, Thimphu:
Karma Ura, p.xvii.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
portrait of the society and songs during the Second King,
Jigme Wangchuck comes with the protagonist's narrative in
the second chapter where he describes his departure from the
viUage to serve as a retainer by saying that "after meals, my
friends, including girls, sang song with brisk dance into grey
He mentions that the song, apart from theme of Buddhist
seff-contentment, reveals the psychological traits, culture,
"love and constancy and feminism in Bhutan during those
times. It should be recalled that at that point, the
protagonist's age was just nine years, and that was the age
when his friends, children, sang a song of departure. This
shows that the society's indulgence in folksongs was so
intense that even children knew how to sing.
Here is the song:
You are the high sky, I am the radiant sun.
The sky and the sun,
I wonder whether the twain shall meet
Or whether the twain shall come across each other.
We found each other, Tshering, once again today,
Ah, destined by the force of our previous lives.
No! We are not meeting to make good
The remains of deeds from our previous lives,
But   because   we   have   been   comrades   in   Dharma   from
immemorial times.18
The backdrop of the song, which is described intricately in
the text, helps the reader understand the social scenario, the
Buddhist philosophy and gender roles in the society. But for
us at this moment, the piece of narration signifies that the
songs were even present in the society long before the time of
the Second King. Ura himself says that "it was composed in
medieval times in searing circumstance by a woman of
western Bhutan..."19
17 Ibid., p.20.
18 Ibid.
19 Ibid., p.22.
 Echoes of Folksongs in Bhutanese Literature in English
Another picturesque narrative regarding the usage of songs in
the happy and leisure times stimulates reader to cast upon
content, context, the unbounded expression, romanticism
and spontaneity of composers.
The excitement of archery game was also augmented by a
bevy of songstresses serenading their own team and
distracting the opposite team. These women dancers heckle
and harass the opposite team by occasionally levelling
personal criticism in the form of songs. One team's dancers
Your head resembles that of an ape.
And from the back-side you appear like a bear.
The monkey headed bear will not find the target.
The arrow will hit away from the target.
It must be deflected! It must be deflected
Let it overshoot and fly up to the sky
Let it fall short and drop on earth.20
Such impromptu songs are a kind of provocation or a jest or
trick meant for enjoyment. Women are the first to break the
ice in such condition. How do men respond to the temptation
provoked by women? They too respond in the same manner.
Karma Ura continues, "the archery players who were butt of
provocation responded in the form of song. These lines were
full of sexual innuendos and hinted at liberal virtues of some
dancers..."21 He states the way in which the players
One who is maid of the lady adorned with coral necklace
Your eyes look only to the bright and colourful chambers
Your bed room, at the end, is stable
Though you vocalize as much as a parrot
My arrow cannot be swayed from the bull's eye.22
20 Ibid., p.64.
21 Ibid., p.64.
22 Ibid., p.65.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Not only the laymen or the players were the targets of such
women but the then His Majesty also could not escape from
such notions as "when the turn came for His majesty to shoot
his arrow the women dancers picked on him too...They
taunted him equaUy.23 But the manner and the matter of
taunting changed a little. The vocal would become soft and
gentle. Ura says that "one usual singing refrain, welcoming
royal seduction, when his turn came was:
You will not propel your arrow on the target
Ifyou must shoot you must launch it below my navel!24
Labey is one common song sung at the end of every occasion.
Ura describes its presence in grandeur and comfort. The
excerpt below is a chronicler to the change that has taken
place in due course of development. "On the last day of the
fair, people marched from the fair ground to the palace
singing laybey. The first song was always laybey, in contrast
to the present practice of singing it at the end."25 It's a very
gesture in Bhutanese society to be hospitable towards a guest
and to entertain the guest by doing the best for him. The
tradition of dancing and singing at night as a gesture of
hospitality and entertainment towards a guest is positioned in
true manner in the chapter "A New Era Begins":
...the highly relaxed atmosphere it created helped the ladies
enjoy themselves and give us great pleasure by serenading
throughout the night. The number of songs they knew would
have enabled them to sing incessantly for a week, it was only
a question ofthe capacity to on the part of guests.26
This flow of emotions through songs was very vast and
intricate and so interwoven with the society that it would go
on for successive nights even. This becomes clear through the
following narration: "On the second night, we pleaded our
hostess    to   wind    up    the    dancing   and   singing   around
23 Ibid.
24 Ibid.
25 Ibid., p.66.
26 Ibid., p. 182.
 Echoes of Folksongs in Bhutanese Literature in English
midnight..." But, "My hostess insisted that I also sing. I sang
a song that I penned with a friend of mine some years ago."27
By analyzing such instances of singing and dancing
appearing in the novel it becomes comprehensible that:
songs were present with the folk in the times of departure
(melancholy), happiness, entertaining a guest, conclusion of a
ceremony and childhood, youth and old age; the content of
the songs has a wide range of emotions tainted with similes
and metaphors consisting of the flora and fauna of the
country, and there were numerous such songs.28
Ura's main purpose in the novel is to deal with a courtier's
life. He can be revered high for portraying a true picture of
society and cultural traits of the past. But he does not go
deep into analyzing the genres of folksongs. Never do we read
him writing about the type of the song. Rather, he leaves this
opportunity to others to analyzing the genres. He uses them
not merely as a reference but as a tool to teU the moods of
A little is written about folksongs in Kunzang Choden's novel,
The Circle of Karma. However, her canvas is bigger and places
more local colour, tradition, beliefs and rituals. Unlike Ura
she mentions the impromptu songs just once in her novel.
She gives transliteration and translation of the 'four verse
songs' that are sung to pinch a girl, Chhime.
Suddenly one or two of the younger people started to sing the
four verse songs. These playful songs sung in jest sometimes
had subtle meanings. Men and women often express their
feelings through them.29
And a boy, Sangay, sings to attract Chhime:
Daughter of noble birth
27 Ibid., p. 182.
28 Ibid.
29 Choden,  Kunzang  (2005)   The Circle of Karma,  Delhi:   Penguin
Books, p.33.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Seeing your beauteous worth;
On a high bough beyond reach
Desirable as ripened peach.30
Chimme responds in verse to this provocation in an absurd
manner. Thus the novel attests to the presence of songs
aimed to entertaining, expressing feelings or provoking the
opposite sex.
While Ura has used folksongs as a ethical tool to provide a
cultural identity, Choden has used it just for their referential
value or to portray their presence in society.
Some Bhutanese nationals have tried to translate valuable
Bhutanese works available in Dzongkha into English. To add
to the literature Sonam Kinga and Karma Ura contributed
translations of two popular lozeys that have allowed non-
Dzongkha speakers to access the style, content and context of
Foreign authors have frequently written about the mask
dances, unlike folksong that have been neglected or avoided.
Only indigenous writers have given place to folksongs in their
works. This may be because the foreigners who came here on
a short duration could see only mask dances for they have
more visual appeal. Since folksongs require in-depth
understanding, it befits the national authors to write about
30 Ibid.
 Echoes of Folksongs in Bhutanese Literature in English
Choden, Kunzang (2005) The Circle of Karma, Delhi: Penguin Books
Dompinier,  Robert (2000)  Bhutan: Kingdom of the Dragon.  Delhi:
Dorji,  Jagar (2003)  Lhop - A Tribal Community in South Western
Bhutan, and its Survival Through Time, Paro: Jagar Dorji
Hasrat, Bikram Jit (1989) History of Bhutan. Thimphu: Department
of Education.
Kinga,   Sonam   (1998)   Gyelong   Sumdar  Tashi:   Songs   of Sorrow.
Thimphu: Sonam Kinga
Kinga,  Sonam (2001) "Attributes and Values of Folk and Popular
Songs" Journal of Bhutan Studies, Vol.3, No. 1, Summer 2001
Ura, Karma (2003) A Hero with a Thousand Eyes, Thimphu: Karma
Ura, Karma (1996) The Ballad of Pema Tshewang Tashi, Thimphu:
Karma Ura
Wangchuck, Dorji Wangmo (2006) Treasures of Thunder Dragon: A
Portrait of Bhutan, Delhi: Penguin
Zeppa,  Jamie  (NA)  Beyond the Sky and the Earth,  London:   Pan
Zurcher,   Dieter,   and  Kuenzang  Choden   (2003)   Bhutan:  Land  of
Spirituality   and   Modernization   Role   of  Water  in   Daily   Life,
Chicago: New Dawn Press


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