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Khar: The Oral Tradition of Game of Riddles in Tshanglakha Speaking Community of Eastern Bhutan Dorji, Tshering 2007-12

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 Khar: The Oral Tradition of Game of Riddles in
Tshanglakha Speaking Community of Eastern Bhutan
Tshering Dorji*
Khar, which literally means 'house', is an age old oral tradition
of riddle games in Tshanglakha (Sharchopkha) speaking
communities of eastern Bhutan. This paper attempts to explain
the terminology khar for the game of riddles. The preliminary
survey of its presence in other dialectic groups of eastern
Bhutan, explanation of the terminology for the game,
comparison amongst the riddles in different dialectic
communities and the way of playing the riddles as well the
occasions during which it is played will be discussed. An
attempt has been made to find similar oral traditions within
other linguistic and dialectic communities in other parts of the
country. A modest attempt of finding its prevalence in
neighboring and other states of India is made, and comparison
is drawn between that of Bhutan and those of other states so
as to prove its importance as an age old tradition spread all
over the region. This paper also attempts to put forward the
importance of khar, as an oral tradition, to lives of rural
communities and the causes of its diminishing popularity in
present times.
This is not a scholarly paper but a layman's attempt to record
the prevalence of riddles, their significance in the lives of the
communities, the possible causes of their vanishing trends
amongst the younger generations, and their prevalence in
other parts of the world. An attempt to explain the possible
origins of different terminologies for the riddles in different
dialectic and linguistic groups is also being made as an
appetizer for further studies by researchers in this field. The
way of riddling or playing the game of riddles in different
' Teacher, Nangkor Higher Secondary School, Pemagatshel
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
communities has been given to show its richness and
widespread prevalence. A comparative study with a few
examples of riddles from different dialects has been given so
as to help in grouping the riddles into different groups with
respect to the subject matter. It is to be noted here that there
is no such classification but it is a simple attempt by the
author to show the range of subjects the people touched on
while riddling, and also to bring out the similarity amongst
riddles in different places and communities.
The methodology of study was personal communication by
the author and also by friends from different parts of eastern
Bhutan. The author also based most of the findings on
personal communications with students and friends of
Nangkor higher secondary school in Pemagatshel.
Oral tradition
Oral tradition is one of the oldest forms of art in any society
on the earth. A. Steven Evans writes, "Large numbers of the
world's population are oral communicators. They learn best
through communication that is not tied to or dependent on
print."! j-[e mentions that, "it is estimated that more than two-
thirds of the world's population, or over four biUion people,
are oral communicators by necessity or preference."2 Evans
further writes that, "Primarily through story, proverb, poetry,
drama and song, oral communicators house their knowledge,
information, teachings, concepts, lists, and ideas in narrative
presentations that can be easily understood, remembered,
and reproduced."3
In Bhutan oral communication includes "srung (folktales), dpe
gtam or dpye gtam (proverb), gtam rgyud (legend), bio ze
(baUad), tsang mo (equivalent of quatrain?), gab tshig (riddle),
i   Evans,   A.   Steven   (2006),   "Promoting  Happiness   through   Oral
Traditions," Journal of Bhutan Studies, 15:115-132, p. 117.
2 Ibid. p. 117.
3 Ibid.
 Khar: The Oral Tradition of Game of Riddles
and dgod bra (joke)", as per Dorji Penjore.4 And he further
writes, "Bhutan is stiU an oral society... Modern education
was introduced only in late 1950s, and before that, the
monastic system that provided Buddhist education was
accessible only to a few privileged families. Modern education
may succeed in turning man into an efficient machine for the
market, but in creating value-based, sociaUy responsible
individuals, oral tradition plays an important role."5
Different languages and dialects in Bhutan
Bhutan, though a small landlocked nation, has about twenty
dialects as per DDA.6 Bhutan has one native language that is
being spoken by the common people, viz., Dzongkha, the
national language and mother tongue of the majority of
people in Paro, Haa, Thimphu, Punakha and
Wangdiphodrang dzongkhags, while Lhotshampakha (Nepali)
is the language spoken by Lhotshampas, people of southern
Bhutan (Sarpang, Samtse and Tsirang dzongkhags and some
parts of Samdrup Jongkhar, Dagana, Chukha dzongkhags)
who have immigrated from Nepal and neighbouring states of
India. They also speak other dialects of different castes like
Tamang, Gurung, Sherpa, etc. English is a foreign language
that has made its way into Bhutanese daily life some time
back as a medium of modern education and the language of
communication with other countries.
Tshanglalo (as caUed by the native speakers) or Tshanglakha
or Sharchopkha (in Dzongkha) is the most popular dialect
spoken by majority of the people of eastern Bhutan
(comprised of Lhuntse,   Mongar,  Trashigang,  Trashiyangtsi,
4   Penjore,   Dorji   (2007),   "Role   of Bhutanese   Folktales   in   Value
Transmission,"  in  Rethinking Development: Proceedings of Second
International  Conference  on  Gross  National Happiness,  Thimphu:
Centre for Bhutan Studies, 258-277, p.262.
s Ibid. p. 261.
6 DDA (Dzongkha Development Authority) as quoted in Gyeltshen,
Tshering (2006), "Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People," Journal
of Bhutan Studies, 15:1-39, p. 9.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Pemagatshel and Samdrup Jongkhar districts), while other
major dialects in Bhutan would be Bumthangkha, Khengkha
and Kurmedkha (Chocha Ngacha) considering the number of
speakers and the size of the area the communities speaking
the dialects occupy.
In eastern Bhutan besides Tshanglakha, there are other
dialects tike Kurmedkha, Zhakat, Zalakha, Khengkha,
Chalipikha, Bumthangkha, Gondupikha, Brahmi, Brokat,
and Dakpakha.7
Overview of origin of riddles in Bhutan and the terminology khar
sNyen ngag, which titeraUy may mean Svords that please ears'
(snyen: 'nice/sweet to hear' and ngag 'words'), is one ofthe rig
ney chung wa nga (five smaUer or lower
rig ney).8 sNyen ngag has three parts, of which gab tshig is
the second chapter in the third part. The literal translation of
its definition is, "In the midst of gathering of people, when
played or begun to plan the game to play so to make (others)
laugh. And the meanings of the words that are not to be made
known by aU that have gathered and have to be hidden are
done so by other words and uttered making the other people
puzzled, thus making it difficult to understand instantly the
intended meaning of the message. Such appropriate words
that are the ornaments of snyen ngag are called ornaments of
gab tshig."9 Further it is said that 'though it is caUed gab
tshig, in olden language (bda nying) ofthe three bon (bortism),
drung (legends) and deau, it is the deau. But then, it is (i.e.,
gab tshig) the sentences with appropriate wording (nyam
tshar dang den pey) that belong to snyen ngag which is
similar to popularly known (i.e., in Tibet) kha tshar or khed.10
7 Ibid.p. 2.
8 'Rig ney chung wa nga: snyen ngag, ngen jade, deb jur, dhoe gar
and kart shi' as in 2007 reprint of Dzongkha Dictionary edited by
Lam Chechong, Thimphu: DDA, p. 909.
9 Pelden, Setshang Lobzang (2004), Tshangsey bzhed pey drayang,
Delhi: Tibetan Cultural & Religious Publication Centre, pp. 866-867.
io Ibid. p. 866.
 Khar: The Oral Tradition of Game of Riddles
Dorji Penjor mentions gab tshig as one of the oral traditions of
Bhutan and translates it as riddle. In dzongkha gab tshig is
explained as 'gu thorn drewa',11 which would literally mean 'a
puzzling question'. The terminology gab tshig could not have
been the original dzongkha term for riddles which was an oral
tradition in almost aU parts of Bhutan. Even in Tibet it
originated, later than the popular terminology kha tshar12 or
khed13, as mentioned above, once Buddhism had spread
through various Indian and Tibetan masters, and
translators.14 Kfoa tshar or khed had in turn originated later
than the deau.15
In Bhutan riddle could have originated from Tibet as part of
Bon culture or later from kha tshar or khed or it could have
originated in Bhutan independent of these two traditions of
Tibet. It looks likely the second assumption is nearer to the
mark since the Dongkha has the word kha tshar, but this
terminology could have easily got into Dongkha by contact
with Tibetan. While in the east, riddle could have originated
independently or by any of the assumptions put above and
the words kha tshar might have got abbreviated as khar or
the word khed could have got modified into khar over a period
of time.
The abbreviation of the words and change in meaning is
evident from the way of asking the riddle by Tshangla
communities in Narphungi6 and Kurmedpa communities of
Kurtoe   and  Trashiyangtse.17   People   in   Narphung  ask  the
11 English Dzongkha Dictionary, Thimphu: DDA, p. 868.
12 Dzongkha Dictionary (2007), Thimphu: DDA, p. 96.
13 Khed   is   synonym   for   gab   tshig   as   in   Advanced   Dzongkha
Dictionary (2004), Thimphu: KMT Publisher, p. 132.
14 Refer Tshangsey bzhed pey drayang (2004) by Setshang Lobzang
Pelden, p. 1-20.
15 Deau  is  explained  as  one  of the  caste  in Tibet in Advanced
Dzongkha Dictionary (2004), Thimphu: KMT Publisher, p. 869.
16 Author's personal recollection.
17 As   collected   by   Bodpa   Ngedup,   teacher,   Tangmachu   Middle
Secondary School, Lhuntshe.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
riddle as, "Wang bu la phur lus pa, hang kharbey? Kharphay,
khar phay" and it would translate as, "When hole is taken the
pole is left, what is it/what it means?" Hang means 'what' and
kharbey has come to mean 'it means or is it', when it is used
during the game, but will make no sense if used casuaUy in
normal communication. The word is clearly formed from khar
phay as evident from way of asking it in other places and
even in Narphung by some other people. For instance, in
Nangkor it is asked as, " Wang bu la phur lus pa, hang?' WhUe
in Khandudung, it is asked as, "Wang bu la phur lus pa,
hang? Khar phay, khar phay." In Kurmedkha the word
sholong has come to mean Svhat is it / what it means' though
it is the terminology used for the riddle. For instance, they
would ask the riddle as, "Ama bong ring ku chig ka rey log
chig pa ghenma, sholong?"18 When asked, common
Kurmedkha speakers do not know the meaning or origin of
the terminology.
The third assumption that it might have originated
independently in Bhutan could also be argued from the view
point of change in terminology for the riddles in Tibet. With
the change in time and influence of Sanskrit literature, the
original terminologies have become overshadowed by the new
terminology gab tshig, which is a written form of literature
mainly used or written by elite groups of Indians and
Tibetans, particularly masters and royals,!9 wmie the oral
traditions have become a thing of the past as one could
decipher by reading in between the tines that define gab tshig
as cited above. The point is the riddles might have been there
in Bhutan but the terminology might have been imported
from Tibet, most probably looking at the similarities in
essence of the riddles played oraUy and that of the written
form as noted above for the origin of gab tshig. Thus, khed or
kha tshar could have come to eastern Bhutan either from
western Bhutan or directly from Tibet and became khar.
is Ibid.
19 Refer sNyen ngag gi tenchey chenpo melong la jhug pey shaed jar
danyidhiye gong jan zhe jawa zhug so (1999) by Mepham Geyleg
 Khar: The Oral Tradition of Game of Riddles
There is a second very strong argument with regard to
independent origin of riddles in eastern Bhutan looking at the
terminology khar. Khar literally means liouse' to common
people of a Tshangla community, whUe the dictionary
meaning of it in Dzongkha is a 'fortress'. The terminology
Khar could have come from the bet the respondent has to give
if he or she fails to give the correct answer. In different parts
of eastern Bhutan, the bet is either a dzong, monastery or
house. For instance, in Shongphu20 under Trashigang district
it is monasteries, in Gomdar under Samdrup Jongkhar it is
predominantly houses, in Bikhar2i under Samkhar gewog of
Trashigang it is house and in Trashiyangtse it is dzong.22 The
initial meaning of the word khar could have been 'dzong'
which later began to be used for comparatively bigger state or
government houses (also called nagtshang) that served as
residence cum office for the local chieftain, or drungpa, in the
locality and then began to be used equivalently for the
ordinary houses. The argument is further supported by the
terminology used by Lhotshampa people of Bhutan who call
the riddle gaun khani katha23 which literally means 'story for
eating viUage' and the bet given is a viUage.
Different ways of riddling
With regard to storyteUing, Tandin Dorji writes, 'The art of
narration is not limited to the use of beautiful expressions,
figures of speech and ritualistic formulas but it is also equaUy
animated and made lively through gestures and varying
intonation of the voice of the narrator."24 In playing riddles
Bhutanese are inventive, and different villages have developed
their own way of riddling. The foUowing are a few ways of
20 As recollected by Tshering Wangdi, Office assistant, NHSS.
21 As recollected by Choki Wangmo, author's wife.
22 As recollected by Lopen Ngawang Phuntsho, NHSS, and I owe him
for telling me, for the first time, the term 'sholong' for riddle game in
23 As recollected by D.C. Khatiwara, teacher, NHSS, and I thank him
for this and the examples of gaun khani katha.
24 Dorji, Tandin (2002), "Folktale Narration: A Retreating Tradition,"
Journal of Bhutan Studies, 6:5-23, p. 10.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
playing khar that I have come across during my work and
these are certainly not the conclusive representatives of
playing it in other Tshangla communities of eastern Bhutan.
People in Narphung play it by asking the riddle foUowed by
the word kharbey. "Sa phrakha dengtsi/tsigpa gapha hang
kharbey? Khar phay, khar phay or phey phay phey phay."25
What is the waU beneath the soil? Give house, give house,'
the questioner would demand.
And the respondent would try very hard to answer and he or
she gets enough time and chance to answer, but with
incessant, "khar phay, khar phay" by the questioner. It goes
on untti the respondent gives up and asks, "Ei bi gha phey
chas pey?" Whose house do you want?'
The respondent would suggest an array of houses belonging
to their vtilage and the questioner would not agree unless he
or she gets the best house of the vtilage. Then it is the turn
for the respondent to question and pester for the house. He or
she will not accept the house already given to the first person.
In Nangkor, once the respondent fails to answer the riddle, he
or she asks whether the questioner wants ser or sa dzong or
ngey or nam dzong. The giving of the bet itseff is a riddle
where ser/sa dzong means a latrine, whUe ngey/ nam dzong
means proper house or dzong. Here the colour of the stool or
soil is compared with the gold and since the latrines hold
stool it is therefore called ser/sa dzong.26
Ultimately the players would be counting the houses,
monasteries or dzongs they got in the course of the game and
would be the champion for the moment.
25 Author's personal recollection.
26 As recollected by Lopen Kelzang Lhendup, NHSS and I sincerely
thank him for his contribution on sending away the khar by people
in Nangkor.
 Khar: The Oral Tradition of Game of Riddles
Ending the game of riddle and beliefs associated with it
As there are so many ways of ending storyteUing sessions by
Bhutanese storytellers27, there are also numerous ways of
ending the riddles in eastern Bhutan. The common ground of
concluding the riddles is sending off the khar, which in
Tshanglakha is caUed khar abi nung mey. The riddle is
personified as khar abi (abi means 'grandma' or 'old lady',
khar abi could mean 'grandma of the house') in the end of the
game. The personification could have come from the general
belief that ladies are more inteUigent than man and riddles
definitely require inteUigence.
In Gomdar people send off the khar abi by providing her with
all the necessary items for food and drink, and then hurting
her over a cliff with thunderous growa 'crash' as in the
"Bogpi cho thur, kharang lamshu thur, khu khau thur, ara
palang thur, khomin tshik thur, phagpa sha gudey thur, solo
nam gnang thur, eincha par thur, melong brag key dong
In Bikhar people send off the khar abi along with three
essential equipments required for weaving which are all
hurled over the bridges of the major rivers in their locality as
given in the following:
"Thagchung toam thur, brung toam thur, sepir toam thur
Thungthiri zam pye dong growa ken, Samkhar ri zampye dong
growa ken, Gamri zampye dong growa ken."29
27 Dorji, Tandin (2002), "Folktale Narration: A Retreating Tradition,"
Journal of Bhutan Studies, 6:5-23, p. 12-17.
28 Translation for the sending off of khar in Gomdar as recollected by
author, Two fistful of flour, a container full of kharang, a container
full of rice, a bottle of wine, an internode of sugarcane, a pair of
sliced pork, a pod of chilly, a fistful of salt, crash over the cliff of
melong.' (Containers mentioned are standard measuring containers
used in rural Bhutan).
29 As recollected by Abi Daza, grandmothera of author's wife and
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
In Samdrupchoting30, under Samdrup Jongkhar, khar is sent
off along with the household items as done by people in
Narphung but they are hurled over the bridges as done by
people in Bikhar.
In Khanduphung3!, Serthi Gewog under Samdrup Jongkhar,
the sending off of khar is unique from other places and it is as
One of the participants wiU say, " Yap ley doan" and the rest
will say in respond "doo!" and will continue with "ray ngan ley
doan, doo!, phynang ley doon, doo!, medharang ley doan", and
conclude with, "kho petang ley doan, dooF
In Nangkor and other vUlages of Pemagatshel it is done quite
elaborately and dramatically and a transliteration of it is
given below.
Abi khar tarn gyelmo nung ma khab. Lap ka za ley yaenang
tshas pey dang. Lap ka ja may lam chang tshas pey dang.
Khamong na may thagcha tshas pey dang.
Dang dang dangshing. Ba ba badhey. Thag thag thagchung,
ne  ne  neyshing.   Why  why  whyshing.   Li  li  lizu.   Sho  sho
shogodong. Phu phu phunpalang. Phun phun phundum. Kho
kho khom thur. Si si sipchurung. Bu bu bumphegtsham. Bi bi
Abi labka ku wo gyeba kab. Brung ga warong nang ka ara
translation is, A bundle of sword, a bundle of bamboo rods and a
bundle of pattern pick crash over the bridges of thungthi, Samkhar
and Gamri rivers.' (Translation for the items used in traditional
handloom in Bhutan is from "From the Land ofthe Thunder Dragon:
Textile Arts of Bhutan" (1994) (eds) by Myers, D.K & Bean, S.S,
pp. 44-45).
30 As recollected by Aum Sangay Wangmo, wife of a BPC employee at
3i As recollected by Pema Rinzin, lab assistant, NHSS. An English
translation of sending off Khar in Khandudung is: Evil in the loft.
Doo! Evil on the ladder. Doo! Evil in the house. Doo! Evil in the
hearth. Doo! Evil on the doorstep. Doo!.
 Khar: The Oral Tradition of Game of Riddles
zhey. Abi labka threul nang langpa kab. Mencha warong nang
ka ara zhey.
Nadang chilo baka sheg pa kab. Ye nang to rey chi lo phag ney
Nadang zemo baka sheg pa kab. Ye nang to rey ze mo phag
ney zhey.
Ley shing tshong gu sheg pa la la li li ma ghig cho.
Buy nang shing ga ra gu sheg pa ba ba bi bi ma ghig cho.
Zor khon zor khon shegpa za ra zo ro ma ghig pen daey na. Abi
auo auo!32
The people of Narphung, Bikhar and Nangkor believe that the
contestants will have bad dreams if the khar is not send off,
while people in Samdrupcholing believe that the contestants
will suffer from stomach ache. Though there are no concrete
reasons for sending off the khar abi, one can say that people
are trying to send away the evil forces from their houses and
lives. It is evident from the way they throw away the khar abi
down the cliff or bridges so as to make her unable to return.
It is more evident from the way people of Khandudung send
off the khar where the very powerful word doo33 is used to
32 As recollected by Lopen Kelzang Lhendup. An English translation
of it is: When grandma khar tarn Gyelmo is send off demands pack
lunch and drinks for the journey, and demands for the equipments
for handloom. Thag thag the sword. Ne ne the heddle rod (ground
warp). Why why the closing rod. Li li the temple. Sho sho the shed
rod. Phu phu the shuttle case. Phun phun the yarn winding rod.
Kho kho the breast beam. Si si the supplementary -warp-pattern
heddle rod(?) Bu bu the leash (coil) rod. Bi bi the foot brace (source
same as that of 28.) Grandma, when tired on the way drink the ara
from the horn of buffalo (containers made of horn of buffalo and
mithun). Grandma, when sad on the way drink the ara (locally
brewed alcohol) from the horn of mithun. When reached at bigger
resting places eat the bigger pack lunches. When reached at smaller
resting places take the smaller pack lunches. When reached near the
clusters of banana plants utter not la la li li. When reached near the
oak trees utter not ba ba bi bi. When reached at hilly areas go
without uttering za ra zo ro. Grandma, auo auo!
33 Doo is a tantric incantation used by religious persons to drive
away evil forces.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
drive away all possible evil spirits (doan) residing at different
parts of the house after being named one after another by one
of the contestants. Sending off and beliefs associated with it
warrant further study.
Presence of the riddles in other dialectic groups in eastern Bhutan
People in Trashiyangtse and Lhuntshe have various dialectic
groups of which the majority speaks Kurmedkha (Chocha
ngacha). The Kurmedkha speaking people in different parts of
Lhuntshe and Trashiyangtse caU the game of riddle by
various names tike sholong, ngachi si si long long, ngae mi chi
long long or mi si long long.34 The original meaning of the word
sholong is not known by the people, as mentioned earlier, but
it is author's assumption that it could have meant 'raising the
game of dice' or Svake up to play the dice' (sho 'dice' or 'game
of dice', long -Svake up' or 'raise') or look for dice' (long also
means look amongst things' in Dzongkha and
Chocha ngacha). This assumption is drawn from the usage of
the words "sholong sholong do sholong" by the people of
Trashiyangtse before the riddle. Another possibility could be
that the word could have simply meant 'come on wake up' in
the beginning, since these two words' plain literary meanings
are the foUowing: sho is 'come' or 'come on' in Chocha ngacha
and long is Svake up' in both Dzongkha and Chocha ngacha.
This conclusion is drawn from one of the reasons cited by a
person from Trashiyangtse for playing the riddle.35 The reason
was to keep awake while working overnight or guarding fields
against wild animals during the night.
There is another strong but simple possibility for origin of the
word sholong as it is supported by the name and meaning of
the terminology for the riddle in Dungkar village in Lhuntse.
In Dungkar it is called sholo and Tashi Dungkar36 of Dungkar
village it translates as 'coming', but the probable reason for
34 Collected by Bodpa Ngedup.
35 Ibid.
36 As told to Rinchen Khandu, teacher, NHSS by Tashi Dungkar,
38 year old man of Dungkar village, Lhuntse on 16/10/2007.
 Khar: The Oral Tradition of Game of Riddles
the usage of the terminology for the riddle game could not be
provided. The word sholong could have probably come from
the word sholo and over time changed to sholong and the
people might have lost the trace of the word's original
The bet they keep is dzong. The way of playing it in Kurtoe
(Lhuntse) is similar to that in other parts of eastern Bhutan
but the respondent will give the choice between "Ser Dzong
and Nge Dzong", which literally means 'Golden fortress and
Silver Fortress'. The questioner would ask for "silver fortress"
for the simple reason that the golden dzong is the Lhuntse
Dzong, and the word 'golden' is accorded to the dzong to
mean worthlessness. While, on the other hand, 'silver dzong'
would mean any other dzongs which are supposed to be of
greater value than the Lhuntse Dzong. It is similar to asking
ser or sa dzong or nge or ngaam dzong by people in Nangkor
and equating the gold to stool because of the simtiar colour.
In Khoma, another vtilage in Lhuntshe district, where the
dialect is Zalakha, the riddle is called meg pa chop chop.37 The
way they play it is simtiar to that of other places in Lhuntse.
In Dungkar, another vtilage in Lhuntse, the riddle is caUed
sholo and the questioner gives dzong to the respondent if
given the right answer. There, the loser in the end of the
riddle game has to sing tshangmo, a genre of traditional
songs, whUe in schools the students make the losers do frog
jump and other activities.38
The way of playing sholong and meg pa chop chop is different
from that of khar in the way ghe questioner begins the riddle.
Sholong is begun with "sholong sholong do sholong" in
Trashiyangtse and in Dungkar only "sholong sholong". The
riddle is asked after this as, "Sholong sholong do sholong. Tho
ra ngan ma che ring ri nga ring rija khan sholong?' While, meg
37 Collected by Bodpa Ngedup.
38 As   recollected   by   Sonam   Deki,   Student,   Class   VI,   Dungkar
Primary School and collected by Rinchen Khandu.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
pa chop chop is begun "nga ku meg pa chop chop" where again
"chop chop" is further repeated for some time as, "Nga ku meg
pa chop chop chop ... Yig peye ri sum tsi kha phab peye
jamtsho ting nga zi lo ya?"39
Subjects forthe riddles: A comparative study
A comparative study of riddles asked in different places of
eastern Bhutan reveals that the riddles were mainly based on
common household items, crops grown in their fields, wild
and domestic animals around them, their daily activities,
commonly seen heavenly objects, Buddhist cultural artifacts,
parts ofthe body, etc.
Following are a few examples of the riddles, in native dialect
along with their English translation, played by Kurmed people
living in Lhuntse district, where they call it ngae michi long
longd0 Of the five examples, the first two are the vegetables
grown by them, next two are the parts of a tree they come
across daily and the last is the heavenly body they happen to
see almost daily in the blue nights of Bhutan.
1. Sa yi nang gi relmo dung do : Yu mang.
Beating of cymbols beneath the soil: Turnip.
2. Sa yi nang gi dhung phu do: Cha ru.
Blowing of blow horn beneath the soil: Raddish.
3. Nam tho khi ma mu turn ten ma: Dhong phu kung.
Showing of feast from the sky above: Cone of pine.
4. Nam tho khi ma khab ten ma: Dhong phu tra.
Showing needle from the sky above: Pine needle.
5. Chu phi ru ghang kei yang chab do: Karma.
Cup of water spread everywhere: Stars
39 Collected by Bodpa Ngedup. Translation is given along with the
transliteration in the appendix.
4° Ibid.
 Khar: The Oral Tradition of Game of Riddles
The answer to the riddle number 3 wiU be given as
inflorescence of banana by the people living in lower altitudes
where bananas grow, as no or a few pine trees grow in those
A few examples of riddles narrated by a Kurmedkha-speaking
person from Trashiyangtse are also given and divided into the
above mentioned groups for comparision.
1. Ama bong ring ku chig ka rey log chig pa ghenma
sholong?: Dhar shing.
A taU lady wearing belt (kera in Dzongkha) on one side. What
is it?: Prayer flag.
2. Ama bong ring ku la chig nam pa tag gu yed pa sholong?:
A taU lady having nine pouches. What is it?: Ladder.4!
3. Mi bong thung ku la chi mig kha drang med pa sholong?:
A short man with uncountable eyes. What is it?: Bamboo
4. Nam mey tshig pa tang ma sholong?: Chala.
A wall built in the sky. What is it? : Banana.
5. Za tshey kha gi za, ju thsey lok kie ghung ma sholong?:
Rung thag.
Eaten through mouth but comes out through waist. What is
it?: Grinding stone.
6. Dar phu chig gi nang dren po per gang yed pa sholong?:
A handful of guests present in a cave. What is it? : Teeth.
4i A pouch called khanang in Sharchop that is formed when gho
(traditional dress of Bhutanese man) is put on. It is used in reference
to rungs of a ladder which is suppose to have nine rungs ,and ladder
is used to climb up to the loft of a house by all Bhutanese
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
These examples also reveal that the subject matters are
related mainly to the above mentioned broad topics tike the
religious artifacts, household items, body parts, agricultural
produces, etc.
A few examples of riddles played by Tshangla communities
are also given below to reveal the similar trend with regard to
subject matter.
1. Phur bula wang lus pa hang kharbey?: Muley.
When pole is taken the hole is left. What is it?: Radish.
2. Wang bu la phur lus pa hang kahrbey?: Phur gey Ian phag
When hole is taken the pole is left. What is it?: Untying rope
from peg.42
3. Sa phra kha langder shug pa hang kharbey?: Langley
The snake gliding underneath the earth. What is it?: Plough.
4. Tsho nyig tshing rum la rum la dag pa phu thur gi tok pa
hang kharbey?: Ming nyig tshing cham ka nawong.
Two seas are about to merge but blocked by a mountain.
What is it?: Two eyes with nose in between.
5. Ama dagsey la za bi sam hang kahrbey?: Ara zang dang
nang kho.
A short mother with three-legged son. What is it?: Cauldron
and pot.43
Examples of riddles from other parts of Bhutan as well from
Kerala in India have striking resemblances and the examples
with the English translations are given in the appendix for
42 A knot is made at the end of a tether and instead of untying it the
knot is slipped off from the peg.
43 A tall cauldron in which the fermented rice or maize is kept and
boiled with a condenser pot on its top. Inside the cauldron is kept
usually an earthen pot in olden days but an aluminium or copper
pot now a days on a wooden tripod to collect alcohol.
 Khar: The Oral Tradition of Game of Riddles
further emphasis and reference.
Prevalence of riddles in other language speaking communities in
When enquired informally, many people from western Bhutan
whose mother tongue is Dzongkha affirmed that there is a
tradition of playing riddles mainly by older people in the
communities but they were not in a position to teU the exact
terminology for the game. Luckily a person44 from Doteng
vtilage under Paro Dzongkhag recalled it being played by older
generations when he was young and the people over there call
it shetho kheb, which literally means 'expert in gossip' (shetho
'gossip', kheb learned' or 'experti). In order to know and trace
the original terminology or terminologies for the riddle in
Dzongkha-speaking communities one may have to do
thorough research amongst the viUage elders before it is too
late. The gab tshig cited as one of the oral tradition in Bhutan
is quite doubtful whether it was the original or right
terminology for the oral form of riddles in Dzongkha. Some of
the examples of the riddles in Dzongkha are given in the
appendix to Ulustrate its similarity with riddles in other parts
of Bhutan.
In the southern dzongkhags, where majority of the people are
Lotshampas and speak Lhotshampakha, the riddle is caUed
gaun khani katha as mentioned earlier and the bet they give
for the riddle is a village. A person45 from Pemathang village in
Samdrupchoting, Samdrup Jongkhar district recounts the
acceptance of the bet as follows: "Whatever good, expensive
things tike houses, fertile lands, productive and useful
domestic animals, and beautiful or handsome girls or boys
are there in the village belongs to me. AU useless things such
as unfertile land, lame and unproductive domestic animals,
latrines, ugly boys or girls of the viUage belong to you." Then
only the questioner gives the answer for the riddle. It is
somewhat similar to the way the house is accepted by people
44 Rinchen Khandu.
45 D. C. Khatiwara. (Examples are given in the appendix).
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
in Nangkor where the good things in the house are taken by
the questioner and unwanted and filthy things forced upon
the respondent. The subject matters of the riddles both in
Dzongkha and Lhotshampakha are similar to that of other
dialectic groups in Bhutan. But the study on the prevalence
of riddles, ultimately aimed at preserving and promoting it, in
the other major dialectic groups is wanting at present.
Prevalence of oral form of riddles in other parts of the world
Riddles have been a rich oral tradition, without doubt,
throughout the world. Every society plays it in present time,
though riddles have become more complicated with the
advent of writing. Examples of English riddles seen in books
reveal how written forms of communication has given rise to
new riddles. For instance, the riddle 'What is common in
front of a woman and behind a cow?" for which the answer is
Sv' clearly shows that it is word play.
As mentioned above, riddles had been prevalent in Tibet a
long time before Buddhism reached and the literary form of
riddle, gab tshig came from India and overshadowed the oral
tradition. In India, the presence of literary form of riddles
which were used for philosophical discourse, and also as a
part of literary prowess among the elite, is evident from the
references made by Tibetan literary works and writers and
also by studying Sanskrit literature. Upon informal enquiry
people from different parts of India also agree that the oral
form of riddles are there in their communities. In Kerala it is
called kadamkhatha46, which means 'story of debt' (kadam
'debt', katha 'story') and a few examples of it are given below.
1. Kala kidakkum. Kay arodum: Mathanga.
Cow wiU sleep. Rope will roam: Pumkin.
2. Muttathe cheppin adapptila: Kinar.
A small lidless container in front of the house: WeU.
46 As recollected by Somarajan K.S, teacher, NHSS.
 Khar: The Oral Tradition of Game of Riddles
3. Adum kuthira. Chadum kuthira. Vellam kandal. Nilkum
kuthira: Cherippu.
Running horse, jumping horse. On seeing water the horse
stops: Shoe.
Khar and its significance in the lives of the people
According to Tandin Dorji (2002), "It is important to know
that approximately 79% of the Bhutanese population dweU in
the viUages and some of which are as far as three days walk
from the motor road point. The modern amenities like
electricity and entertainment gadgets such as video,
television, cinema and many others are not available. Tucked
away thus, one may think that they lack even the basic
entertainment amenities but a closer understanding of the
rural community would reveal that they dwell in the state of
secret enchantment. One of the sources of enchantment is
the storyteUing sessions that replace the modern
entertainment gadgets of the urban population."47 Khar is
another important source of this secret enchantment and the
smties the question brought upon my students and
colleagues, and their eagerness to share their experiences
when asked about khar truly revealed the role khar had
played in their youthful ages.
Khar is usuaUy played by people to entertain themselves
during long winter nights (even summer nights are quite long
for viUagers who go to sleep at about 6-7 pm) as they remain
awake in their beds. Of course it also helps gauge the
inteUigence of the people gathered in different places on
different occasions. It can as well sharpen the inteUigence of a
person. Common occasions are losars (Bhutanese New Year),
annual puja (lhasey), monthly tshechus and marriage
ceremonies. When boys are gathered in the cattle ranches
away from viUages or sleeping in makeshift huts (khaye in
Sharchopkha) during winter, they enjoy the dirtier riddles.
Same   is   the   case  with  girls  when  they   are  gathered  in
47 Dorji, Tandin (2002), "Folktale Narration: A Retreating Tradition,"
Journal of Bhutan Studies, 6:5-23, p. 17.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
someone's house to weave together or just to enjoy the
youthful glee of sleeping together at friends' places.
It also has a very practical use when it is played by people
who keep guard of the fields from wild boars and other
animals: it helps them to remain awake. Playing khar also
helps the young to remember the vtilage households as well
the people living in them and their relation to those living in
the houses, since they have to either name the chief of the
house or someone of the house to give it away as bet. At times
the contestants would have to wrack their brains to recoUect
whose house sttil remained. This would also make the
children know the social standings of different households as
they would try to get the house of the richest household for
themselves.48 It also would help younger generations learn
about their surroundings like plants and crops grown in the
fields, common plants and animals available in their locality.
Also, they would learn about the daily household items,
agricultural tools and their body parts. The giving of dzongs
and monasteries would also make the contestants aware
about the historic buildings and their significance.
Anthropologists could use khar to trace the origin of the
communities, migration patterns and as weU as to study
social settings. For instance, sending off of khar reveals the
importance one placed on weaving or agricultural activities,
and also the subject matter of the riddles easily reveals the
household items, crops, animals, religious practices, etc. that
the people are familiar with. The study of khar can also reveal
the extent of social interactions amongst communities living
Causes for its diminishing popularity
Modern education has become a necessity for survival in the
present day world and its penetration into the lives of the
rural population is a boon. But it has also proved to be a
cause for the diminishing trend of oral traditions not only in
48 From author's personal experience as a youth.
 Khar: The Oral Tradition of Game of Riddles
rural communities but more so in recently evolved urban
communities of Bhutan. Students in rural areas still play
khar but not so much as it was played few years back. Even
then they are aware of it and know few of them, while a
Sharchopkha-speaking student from urban Bhutan is asked
about it he or she wiU be at a complete loss. Even storyteUing
and other beautiful customs of the past are looked upon by
our younger generations as outdated because of their
distorted and iU-informed idea of modernisation. These are of
course the ultimate result of wrong usage of modern
amenities tike television, video, etc. since these modern
amenities along with modern education can do wonders in
reviving, preserving and promoting oral traditions, including
khar, if used in a proper manner. A friend49 of mine recaUed
hearing BBS airing khar once and it would do much good in
promoting and preserving khar.
Another main cause of diminishing khar and other oral
traditions amongst the urban population is the foolish pride
our younger generations and their modern parents harbour
when they say that they have never been to their native
villages. This attitude is making our urban populace lose their
ancestral root and ultimately the fading of oral traditions. If a
child or a student is asked to share a riddle he or she wiU
definitely wrack his or her brain to come up with a riddle of
an English origin. It illustrates the loss of their original root
and the finding of a new root. Further, some educated lots
discourage children from playing riddles in their native
villages and look upon it as wastage of time on foolish
adventure of viUage simpletons.50 This results from the lack of
understanding by our people of the importance of the oral
traditions to the intricacies of social webs of our country,
especially the rural communities.
The other cause is the lack of proper documentation of khar
49 Pema Rinzin.
50 Lopen Passang, NHSS shared his experiences at his native village
Kokokhar, block Bjena in Wangdiphodrang district.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
as it is an oral tradition, and besides it is overshadowed by
written forms of riddles at the present time. The lack of any
organised competition of riddling in the villages could have
been a reason for its diminishing trend and also its lesser
popularity compared to storyteUing. This has lead to
documentation of storytelling as a rich oral tradition of
Bhutan by many Bhutanese as weU by foreigners, but not
riddles, though they are prevalent through out the country.
This paper, as mentioned, is a sincere attempt to record the
prevalence of khar amongst the Tshangla communities and
the prevalence of oral form of riddles in other dialectic and
linguistic groups of Bhutan, as weU as its prevalence in some
of the states of India. The wide spread prevalence of the oral
form of riddles became evident from this study. Striking
similarities in the subject matter of riddles between that in
Bhutan and Kerala shows it's the simplicity and down to
earth nature of the oral form of riddles, unlike that of English
literary riddles and gab tshig.
Chechong (ed) (2007). Dzongkha Dictionary. Thimphu: DDA.
Dorji, Sangay et al. (eds.) (2007). English Dzongkha Dictionary.
Thimphu: DDA.
Dorji,   Tandin    (2002).    "Folktale    Narration:    A   Retreating
Tradition." Journal of Bhutan Studies, 6:5-23.
Evans, A. Steven (2006). "Promoting Happiness Through Oral
Traditions." Journal of Bhutan Studies, 15:115-132
Gyeltshen,    Tshering    (2006).     "Migration    of    Kurmedkha
Speaking People." Journal of Bhutan Studies, 15:1-39.
Myers, D.K & Bean, S.S. (eds). (1994). From the Land ofthe
Thunder  Dragon:   Textile   Arts   of Bhutan.   New   Delhi:
Timeless Books.
Namgyal,   Mepham   Geyleg   (1999).   sNyen  ngag gi  tenchey
chenpo melong la jhug        pey shaed jar danyidhiye gong
jan zhe jawa zhug so. Delhi: Tibetan Cultural & Religious
Publication Centre.
 Khar: The Oral Tradition of Game of Riddles
Pelden, Setshang Lobzang (2004). Tshangsey bzhed pey
drayang. Delhi: Tibetan Cultural & Religious Publication
Penjore, Dorji (2007). "Role of Bhutanese Folktales in Value
Transmission" in Rethinking Development: Proceedings of
Second International Conference on Gross National
Happiness. Thimphu: Centre for Bhutan Studies, pp. 258-
Thinley, Kunzang (ed). (2004). Advanced Dzongkha Dictionary.
Thimphu: KMT Publisher.
Appendix: Some common examples of riddle in different parts of
J. Examples ofngae michi long long.
1. sa yi nang gi relmo dung do- yu mang
Beating of cymbal beneath the soil- turnip
2. sa yi nang gi dhung phu do-cha ru
Blowing of trumpet beneath the soil- radish
3. chu phi ru ghang kei yang chab do- kar ma
Cup of water spread everywhere-stars
4. nam tho khi ma mu turn ten ma-dhong phu kung
Showing of feast from the  sky above-cone of pine  (People
living in lower altitude give the bud of banana as the answer
to the question)
5. nam tho khi ma khab ten ma-pine needle
Showing needle from the sky above- pine needle
(Recollected    by:    Atngay     Yeshi    Peldon    of    Tangmachu,
Lhuntse and collected by Bodpa Ngedup.)
II. Examples of sholong sholong do sholong:
1. a ma bong ring ku chig ka rey log chig pa ghenma sholong-
dhar shing
A lady of taU height wearing kera (belt) on one side-prayer flag
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
2. a ma bong ring ku la chig nam pa tag guy ed pa sholong-
tray ka
A lady of taU height having nine pockets (khanang - pouch
resulting when gho is put on)-ladder (suppose to have nine
3. mi bong thung ku la chi mig kha drang med pa sholong-
A man of short height having uncountable eyes- bamboo
4. nam mey tshig pa tang ma sholong- cha la
A wall built in the sky -Banana
5. za tshey kha gi za ju thsey lok kie ghung ma sholong- rung
Eaten through mouth coming (passing) through waist-
grinding stone
6. bar phu chig gi nang dren po per gang yed pa sholong- so
Handful of guests present in a cave-teeth
7. na pa nga songma nga songma zey tshe phin sa dhen da
phen ma sholong-kam
Says 'I wiU go fast, go fast' but reaches destiny at the same
time- legs
8. tho ra ngan ma che ring ri nga ring ri ja khan sholong-
leyu dur
Early in the morning that says 'you are taller. I am taller'.-
pounding stick
9. lang gud po la chig thag zhi gi tag tey yed pa sholong-
tshan ta
An old ox tied by four ropes- shelf (traditional shelf made of
poles and tied at four corners and hung from ceiling just
above the oven)
 Khar: The Oral Tradition of Game of Riddles
10. Lung nhi phrat to phrat to zer tshe gang chig gi dhog pa
sholong- mig to
As two oxen are about to fight, it is blocked by a hiU-eye.
(Recollected by Ugyen Wangchuk, cook, Tangmachu MSS, and
he is from Trashiyangtse, and collected by Bodpa Ngedup on
30th September, 2007).
III. Examples of meg pa chop chop:
1. Nga ku meg pa chop chop....Mi ringku la thag gey pey log
thag la thag gyen ney zi lo ya?: Dar cho shing.
Nga ku meg pa chop chop  A taU man wearing gho only on
one side ofthe body. What is it?:   Prayer flag.
2. Nga ku meg pa chop chop....Yig peye ri sum tsi kha phab
peye jamtsho ting nga zi lo ya?: Sho sho ma.
When lifted is at the tip of the ri sum (three mountains) but
when lowered is at bottom ofthe ocean. What is it?: Churning
stick (Churning stick used traditionally in Bhutan and other
places in Himalayan region)
3. Nga ku meg pa chop chop Pang thang zed rang chig
puye shig phab tang thag lu ney zi lu ya?: Lem.
When whole meadow is burnt a strip is left. What is it?: Path.
4. Nga ku meg pa chop chop... nob tey achu chu nab tey
achu chu zi lo ya?: Jo.
In the evening it says achu chu and in the morning also it
says achu chu. What is it?
Ladle made of a gourd. (Achu chu are words uttered when
some feels cold).
5. Nga ku meg pa chop chop   gay long ku kha nang nga
kang go la dray tsheud ney zi lo ya?: Yaar.
Inside monk's pocket there is a pebble. What is it?: Black
(As recollected by Gembo Dorji, student of class X, Tangmachu
MSS and collected by Bodpa Ngedup.)
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
IV. Examples of Sholo in Dungkar:
1. Sa la dar dir nam la phur phur: Toham.
On the land it makes dar dir sound while in the sky (air) it
makes phur phur sound: Pounding stick. (Traditional
instrument to pound rice and other grains in Bhutan).
2. Bari zon chepta chepta re thag gi gugpaey na: Me ni ri.
When two buUs are about to fight it is blocked by a hiU: Eyes
and nose.
(Collected by Rinchen Khandu and recollected by Sonam Deki)
V. Examples of khar:
1. Pako tsa lo nang ka bitang temken cho wa hang?: Solo.
A red pocket fiUed with coins. What is it?: Chilli. (Bitang is old
Bhutanese coins)
2. Ser khag tang thur gadang gi tshung mey mar ba hang?:
A lump of gold that cannot be touched by hand. What is it?:
3. To nowang guy za la khi thar khang guy woo wa hang?:
Rang thang.
Food is eaten by mouth and stool is passed through waist.
What is it?: Grinding stone.
4. Lung thunka shing lik pa shing thungka lung ligpa lung
thungka shing shing thung ka soo lik pa hang?: Rnag thang.
On stone a tree is grown, on the tree a stone, on the stone a
tree and on the tree a bamboo. What is it?: Grinding
stone. (Traditional grinding stone in Bhutan has a circular lower
stone joined with a wooden pivot to the upper circular stone
which has a wooden handle covered with a hollow bamboo
5. Phashi phag pa thur gi ja dang bay ta ka hang?: Lam.
A strip of cane that reaches aU over India and Tibet. What is
it?: Path.
 Khar: The Oral Tradition of Game of Riddles
(Recollection of author.)
VI. Examples of shetho kheb:
1. Mi chi lu migto lesha yed mi ga chi mo?: Tsheu.
A person with numerous eyes. What is it?: Bamboo basket.
2. Lha khang karp chi nang gomchen serp chi yed mi ga chi
mo?: Gong do.
Inside a white monastery there is a yeUow monk. What is it?:
3. Ma rey ma rey zer the rey mi rey rey zer the mi rey ga chi
mo?: Kha.
When said don't touch don't touch it touches and when said
touch touch it does not touch. What is it?: Mouth ( Lips of
mouth does not touch each other while uttering rey rey but
touches when said ma rey ma rey).
VII. Examples of gaun khani katha:
1. Ghar tira zhada ban tira muk. Ban tira zhanda ghar tira
muk. Kay ho?: Bancharo.
While going towards home the face is towards forest, while
going towards forest the face is towards home. What is it?:
Axe. (It is being carried on the shoulder with the handle
towards front of the person.)
2. Tsha pani, tshaina pani, bhaya pani chaidaina. Kay ho?:
It is there, it is not there. Even if it is there, it is not needed.
What is it?: Earthquake. (If you say earthquake is there then
you cannot see it. But ifyou say it is not there yet it happens.)
3. Thallo ghar ko kuwa ko parti suktha, mathlo ghar ko rithay
lato marcha. Kay ho?: Dhipri.
If the pool of water in the ground floor dries up the siUy chap
in the first floor will die. What is it?: Kerosine lamp.
4. Autagoru ko sayawora jura. Kay ho?: Karala.
One ox having hundred humps. What is it?: Bitter gourd.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
5. Tin mukoy janatu achamby hunago,  chaway jura chan
tara.  Bokcha duy janalai saaj biyana kat khancha hai kar
kara. Kay ho?: Chula.
Creature   with   three   mouths   and   six  humps   carries  two
persons every dawn and dusk, and eats firewood. What is it?:
(Collected by author and recollected by D. C. Khatiwara. He
recounts narrating the fifth riddle in the example in a rhythmic
manner in his youthful age).


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