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The Tradition of Betel and Areca in Bhutan Pommaret, Françoise Aug 31, 2003

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Francoise POMMARET*
Doma zhes is one of the most heard and widespread phrases
in Bhutan: " Please have betel leaf and areca nut" becomes a
leitmotif each time two individuals meet, at the end of a meal,
and in all the occasions of everyday life. It is impossible not to
notice the importance that the betel leaf and nut holds in
Bhutan. One can multiply the scenes and the examples:
Customers buy the betel leaf at the weekly Sunday market,
their dress's pocket bulging with silver boxes, or just simply
with plastic bags filled with betel leafs; petty sellers at bus
terminals selling ready made quid, called kamto, in cone-
shaped papers; monks returning to the monastery with their
bags filled with quantity enough to last for a week's
consumption; betel leaf with a small piece of areca nut that
the host offers with his two hands to the guests at the time of
a ceremony; betel leafs and nuts put in a plate along with
those filled with chocolates during archery games or official
ceremonies ; betel leafs and nuts passed round after dinner ;
red stains in the street; men and women with red stained
teeth sweating profusely.
Researcher CNRS, Paris, Director of the Laboratoire UMR 8047 "Langues et
cultures de l'aire tibetaine" (National Centre for Scientific Research,
" Languages and cultures of the Tibetan area").
I would like to thank my Bhutanese friends who provided me with precious
information without which this article couldn't have been written: Dasho
Shingkarlam, Karma Choezom, Aum Chime, Aum Ugyen Norzom, Dasho
Ugyen Namgyel, Aum Kunley, Rajman Tamang, Lopen Namgyel, Lopon
Kanjur and Mindu.
My immense gratitude also goes to Tandin Dorji, Lecturer at NIE/CAPSS,
Paro who translated this paper from French into English.
This article was first published in French: "Rouge est le Sang: Le Betel au
Bhoutan", in Opiums: les plantes du plaisir et de la convivialite en Asie, P. Le
Failler & A. Hubert (eds.), l'Harmattan, Paris, 2000, pp. 25-38.
This is a slighltly-modified version.
 The Tradition of Areca and Betel in Bhutan
These descriptions invite questions and amongst them, what
is the true significance of the "betel" in the Bhutanese
context? Can the date of the betel leaf and nut consumption
habit be traced back?
The importance of these plants is well known in the Indian
sub-continent as well Southeast Asian countries. On the
contrary, we know that the Tibetans did not consume areca
nut and leaf. Could Bhutan, the country lying on the
crossroad of these two worlds, have been influenced by the
habits of their southern neighbours? Besides its addictive
properties, what role does betel have in the Bhutanese
society? Why is the consumption of betel accepted where as
tobacco is strongly condemned?
Areca Nut, Leaf and Lime
The majority of the westerners are under the impression that
betel is the nut. We talk even of betel nut and the mistake
was made even as early asl673. The betel (Piper betel) is, in
fact, the leaf that envelops the nut and the later is areca nut
(Areca catechu). In Bhutan a quid comprises a piece of areca
nut, doma,1 betel leaf, pani, (from pan of Hindi, which is
derived from Sanskrit parna meaning "leaf" 2), on which lime,
tsuni is applied. The areca nut is rolled in the leaf and the
quid obtained is called doma, the abbreviated form of doma
The areca nut was not indigenous to Bhutan but imported
from Assam and Bengal. The cultivation of areca nut
commenced in the 1960s in the southern foothills as it
became really populated after the control of malaria and the
development of communications with the interior parts of
Bhutan. Today it forms one of the important sources of
income. However, a part of it is still imported from India.
i Spelled in Dzongkha as dog ma    (or rdo ma), this word is also
applied to the fruit of any type of tree.
2 Hobson-Jobson, 1989: 689.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
The areca nut is consumed in two ways: The fresh nut, called
kanza is harvested in summer; the old nut is known as
muza.3 The later, consumed in winter and spring is stored in
big holes dug in the earth. With a size of a table tennis ball
and slightly oblong, the fresh areca nut has a dark orange
greenish bark and produces a juice with the reputation of
possessing strong intoxicating properties; the old nut with a
dark brown bark and covered with fibres is preferred to the
fresh ones as it is less strong.
The betel, pani, is a creeper, which grows wild in the subtropical regions of Bhutan, normally below 1300 m. It is
found in the regions of Punakha, Kheng, in the southern
parts of oriental Bhutan and along the Indian border. Two
types of betel leaves are consumed. Rata is the one that grows
wild whereas trodom4, which belongs to the same species of
betel leaf of India, is basically cultivated in the village of
Tabadramtsi in Samtse district of Southern Bhutan. The rata
is smaller and is bought along with the stalk whereas the
trodom is sold in the form of packet of leaves. The former is
cheaper and in effect less strong than the later. It is difficult
for an individual accustomed to chewing trodom to shift to
rata and vice-versa.
Imported only in small quantities from India, lime, tsuni, is
largely produced artisanally in the villages. The best
limestone is found in Chendebji in central Bhutan but all the
villages make use of what is available in their region. They
produce lime, which is boiled till a white creamy paste is
obtained. The product is consumed in the village or put in
small empty condensed milk cans and sold in the market.
The lime produced in Bhutan is considered weaker and less
corrosive than the ones imported from India. It is said that
the paste of lime prepared for important officials and royalties
is mixed with white cow butter to weaken the astringency. It
3 There is no standard Dzongkha spelling for these terms.
4 Idem.
 The Tradition of Areca and Betel in Bhutan
is also possible to add a plant - the species of which is
unknown to me- that turns the paste into orange.5
The different ingredients can be bought at the weekly markets
even in the small urban centres. The areca nuts are kept in
big jute bags and the merchants normally present a nut cut
into halves so that the clients can judge the quality of what
they are buying. The fibre of the nut that covers the bark is
also peeled off with a knife. The most current unit of sale is
the pon, a word of Indian origin, and equivalent to 80 nuts.
The stalk bearing the rata leaves are tied together in tens and
stacked in crudely woven bamboo baskets whereas trodom
leafs are folded and packed in boxes. As for lime, it is sold in
the empty condensed milk cans, which forms a kind of unit of
Each person then makes their own preparation at home,
cleaning the leaves and applying lime to the personal taste,
placing half or a quarter of a nut before folding the leaves and
putting all of it in the mouth. The ingredients are generally
kept in a plate or a bangchung, a container of woven bamboo.
The addicted and chain consumers carry the required
quantity for the day in a small plastic or a cloth bag tucked in
their hemchu (a pocket formed by the folds of the upper part
of the Bhutanese dress). A small metal container is used for
carrying the lime.
The grand style of carrying betel ingredients consists of a
rectangular silver box, chaka6 which contains the betel leafs
and nuts, and a round box with conical lid, also in silver,
thimi,7 for lime. In the past, Bhutanese carried these two
containers in their hemchu but today they seems to prefer
plastic or cloth bags which are lighter and not as bulky.
5 Information provided by Dasho Shingkarlam during an interview in
Thimphu on January 4, 1996.
6 In Dzongkha, lcags dkar means, " white iron ", because the first of
this type was made of this metal and not in silver like today.
7 In Dzongkha, kri mi.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
In most of the shops along the road, at the bus terminals, or
in villages, one can buy the ready-made quid wrapped in a
conical paper containing four pieces. The quid therefore look
like a bouquet where the betel nuts would be the flowers.
Called kamto, a quid costs Nu. 5 in 2001. Bhutanese would
eat it straight away if they are in need. However usually,
before chewing it, many people unfold the betel leaves to
check that the required dose of lime is correctly applied. In
the eastern part of the country, lime, betel leafs and nuts are
simply rolled in a paper and it is left to the consumer to
prepare the quid according to personal taste.
Addiction and Properties
Doma pani provokes a phenomenon of addiction and is
therefore, according to the medical criteria, a drug. Certain
people wake up late in the night and cannot go back to sleep
without chewing a quid. Even the old people who have weak
teeth make use of a special instrument known as drecha8 to
grind the nut into small pieces so as to reduce the difficulty of
chewing. And, a chain consumer can chew up to fifty quids a
day. On the other part, the dropping of the habit of chewing
the betel can provoke in certain persons withdrawal
symptoms: headaches, giddiness and irritation.
The noxious effects of doma are well known: lesion of mouth
and gums, abrasion of teeth, and mouth and throat cancer.
More still, most of the Bhutanese do not spit the juice but
swallow it, which also seems to cause lesions of the intestine
walls. Doma pani consumed first in the morning without
eating can also lead to suffering from diarrhea. But, the
Bhutanese see doma pani as increasing their resistance to
fight against cold; it also creates a sensation of warmth, and
keeps oneself awake and concentrated.  It is also plausible
8 It is a tube of a wood or metal in which is put the nut, which is
chopped and ground to small pieces by a sharp tool.
 The Tradition of Areca and Betel in Bhutan
that doma pani kills some of the taste buds. This could be an
explanation for the impressive quantity of chili consumed
especially in Western Bhutan where it is a vegetable and not a
In parts of western Bhutan, it is believed that doma pani and
hot water should be given to women who have delivered so as
to avoid the possibility of the newborn suffering from
Origin and Substitutes
The betel leaf and nut chewing culture is believed to be an
age-old practice as it plays a very important social role; in the
same way as the archery, it appears that this custom cannot
be disassociated from Bhutanese culture. However, the
exploration of historical sources and the fieldwork lead us to
doubt its ancient nature, at least in most parts of the
The Bhutanese Code of Laws (bKa' khrims) was composed in
1729 by Tenzin Choegyel, the future 10th Je Khenpo, under
the command of the 10th temporal ruler Mipham Wangpo
(1729-1736). This text gives very detailed prescriptions on
different aspect of life and especially a strong condemnation
of tobacco (ff. 107 a-b) but betel is not mentioned.
The 1775 report of George Bogle, the first British emissary to
Bhutan who visited the country in 1774, does mention the
large consumption of alcohol as a kind of Bhutanese habit
but is silent on the issue of betel. In the like manner, Bogle
enumerates the dishes displayed on his table but does not
mention doma. However, it seems that betel nut was already
imported from India at that time since Bogle writes: 'The
consumption of Bengal goods except tobacco, betel nut, and
other bulky articles is very small in the Deb Raja's country".
In 1783, Samuel Turner, another British emissary visited
Bhutan. He describes in great details all the presents offered
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
to him and also the Bhutanese customs but does not remark
at all on betel. In 1815 the British sent an Indian called Kisan
Kant Bose on another mission to Bhutan. In his mission
report he writes: "From the low-lands under the Hills and on
the borders of Runpore and Cooch Behar, they import swine,
cattle, pan and betel, tobacco, dried fish, and coarse cotton
With the Pemberton mission in 1838 began the derogatory
reports on the 19th century Bhutan, reports that explained
the bad relations, which existed between Bhutan and the
British. Pemberton mentioned the export of tobacco to
Bhutan but not that of betel, and neither does he describe the
betel chewing habit, which he could not have missed if it was
as wide spread as today. Doctor W. Griffith who participated
in the same mission also does not describe this betel chewing
custom but remarks that "the Booteahs depend on the plains
for supplies of betel nuts, otherwise they might
advantageously cultivate the tree on many of the lower
J.C. White who was the Political Officer to Sikkim and Bhutan
relates that at the time of the enthronement of the king in
1907 "three kinds of tea, rice and pan were offered in turn."
As per Mrs. Williamson's diary who in 1933 had accompanied
her husband, the Political Officer of that time, there is not
even the slightest mention of the betel chewing habit in
These witnesses pose a problem. Most provide very detailed
information on the export of areca nuts from India to Bhutan
but none projects even a glimpse of its consumption. One can
propose two hypothesis for the lack of this information:
either, coming from India where betel was consumed in large
quantities, the British must have judged unnecessary to
describe a well know custom, or this habit was not as
widespread as today and probably restricted only to a small
section of the population. It is difficult to be definite on the
basis of theses sources. The book of K. Nishioka, a Japanese
 The Tradition of Areca and Betel in Bhutan
who had lived in Bhutan for 20 years, provides a
contemporary parallel; he is silent on the betel leaf and areca
nut but attaches a lot of importance, among others, to the
description of the production of alcohol.
There is no place for doubt that the custom of making betel
quid came from India, and that the ecological condition of
Bhutan favoured the expansion of the areca nut plants,
whereas it remained unknown in Tibet. The very term pani for
betel, as we have seen, comes from the Hindi pan which
means betel leaf. The combined form of all the ingredients
that one eats is interestingly mentioned as early as 1298 in
the accounts of Marco Polo.9 Pan would be the abbreviated
form of pan supari as supari in Sanskrit signifies "pleasant"
and applied to designate the areca nut in Hindi.10
The term supari was not introduced in Bhutan, and in India it
is referred only to the dried areca nuts chopped into small
pieces and flavoured with all kinds of ingredients; this is the
Indian "dry type" that the Bhutanese refers to, in opposition
to the "humid type" that they chew with betel leaf and lime,
and it is also the most appreciated in Assam and Bengale. In
effect, it certainly is from these border areas with which
Bhutan shared commercial relations that the consumption of
the combined ingredients was adopted. Chakravarti, an
Indian writer asserts "the Bhutanese seemed to have picked
up this habit from the people of the plains in Assam in course
of their trades and raids through centuries. Bhutan draw its
requirement of betel leafs and areca nuts from Assam. Betel
leafs, however grow in some quantity in the jungles of lower
Bhutan also."
It is not a surprise that the Bhutanese sources remain silent
on doma, if we know that the texts essentially had a religious
tonality and the lay customs as well as the personal habits
were    usually   not    documented.    However,    a   text   titled
9 Hobson-Jobson, 1989: 89.
io Hobson-jobson, 1989: 689.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Significance of chibdrel, Serdreng and Zhugdrel Ceremonies,
enumerates doma pani among the offerings made during the
Zhugdrel ceremony: n "This is followed by oblations of wine
(marchang), flag, changyep (ceremonial money) and doma
pani (areca nut and leaf)." Similar references are found in the
two protocol manuals (Driglam Namzha) published in 1999.
If we now turn towards folk literature, just recently and partly
documented, mention of doma is made in at least two popular
stories, Gasa Lamey Senge and Namtala which dates back to
the second half of the 19th century. Similarly, doma appears
in the colourful history of Ap Wang Drugay, a highly amusing
personality and the Bhutanese equivalent of Akhu Tompa of
Tibet, who is supposed to have lived in the 19th century.12
However, to my knowledge, in the hundreds of stories
documented, there is not even a single in which betel and
areca play a central role.
The field work that I had conducted in December, 1995 first
confirmed that doma pani was consumed at a much lesser
degree in eastern and central Bhutan; on the other hand, it
showed that the generalized and frequent habit of chewing
doma was probably due to the development of
communications and trade with India in the 1960s as well as
the monetary increase among the population and therefore
quite recent.
The biography of Dasho Shingkar Lam,13 high official who
served the second, third and the fourth kings throws light on
this point. When he arrived to western Bhutan from
Bumthang, (central Bhutan) in 1947, he remarks: "People in
Paro seemed to be richer and were accustomed to the
consumption of betel nuts as a daily necessity, whereas it
was still an occasional indulgence in central Bhutan." He
11 In dzongkha: gshugs grel.
12 " (He) chewed ruminatively upon the makings of a doma," in
"Opening Spell," Chiramal, J.M., Ap Wang Drugay, Thimphu,
Yangchenma publications, 1995, n.p.
13 Drag shos Shing khor bla ma.
 The Tradition of Areca and Betel in Bhutan
confirmed this to me later in a personal interview.14 The
western Bhutanese and, in particular, those of Paro and Ha
had the habit of chewing betel and areca nuts since an
unspecified date but for a very long time, according to him.
They bought them from the borders areas during trading
trips, and during the transhumance when they migrated
south with their cattle in winter. Both activities were tied
together. It is interesting to note that the region of
Tabadramtse where areca nut is cultivated is one of the areas
of winter transhumance.
It therefore seems that doma pani was restricted for a long
time to the upper layer of the society, and to the western
Bhutanese who had the occasion of migrating to the plains.
On the other hand, the villages in the interior pockets of
Bhutan had plants of several types that substituted betel and
areca. These plants are still used today in areas cut away
from the roads.
The most currently used plants are rushing and gonra. 15
Rushing which means "creeper tree" is identified as
Poikilospermum. Found in abundance mainly in the
subtropical regions of Khyeng and Lhuntse, it is essentially
consumed in these areas as well as in Bumthang. Today, at
times a small amount of it is added to the combination of
betel, areca and lime. The bark of the creeper was peeled off,
then chopped into small pieces and dried to be eaten. It
produces a red juice. The western Bhutanese also consumes
the bark of the wild peachtree whereas those of the east and
particularly the residents of Lhuntse chew the bark of the
chir pine (Pinus Roxburghii). Gonra (Tshangla; Dzongkha:
Bjukosisi; Bumthangkha: yukuling; potentilla pendoncularis
fam. Rosacoe) is found in almost all parts of Bhutan but is
mainly consumed by eastern Bhutanese. The root is dug out,
14 Interview with Dasho Shingkarlam in Thimphu on January 4,
15 Ugyen Thinley of the Department of Forest helped me by
identifying the botanical names of these two plants and I thank him
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
boiled and then chopped into small pieces. When chewed it
produces a red juice and has a bitter taste. All the substitutes
of areca nut are also prepared with betel leaf and lime when
The field work and the sources allows us therefore to present
an image of doma pani consumption which is less uniform
but a habit more ancient than the impression created by the
sources referred to at an earlier stage. If it appears that
Bhutan imported areca nut from India at least from the mid-
18th century as per the British sources, the consumption
itself was not that wide spread like today and probably
confined itself to the category of luxury items for many while
the inhabitants of the interior pockets satisfied themselves
with other substitutes available in their area.
Don et Part age: Le Role Sociale du Betel
These conclusions are partially confirmed if we examine the
role that the betel plays in the Bhutanese society. Today, a lot
of Bhutanese chew doma pani but the consumption is much
higher in western Bhutan where areca nuts have been
imported since two centuries ago if we trust the British
sources. In the weekly market of Thimphu, the capital, a
section of the place is fully reserved for the sellers of doma
pani. However, the younger generation seem to be eating
much less doma than their parents, often because they find
the smell offensive or for esthetic reasons.
All the informants above 50 years agreed to say that, in their
youth, doma pani was a luxury and that areca nuts was ten
times more expensive than today and not available
everywhere. All of them are of the opinion that the
development of roads in the 60s allowed the habit of chewing
doma to reach all the layers of the society and to become
generalized beyond western Bhutan.
According to the same people, in their youth, important
people presented doma pani to the villagers as a valuable gift,
 The Tradition of Areca and Betel in Bhutan
soelra 16, or even as a payment. The villagers would be so
thrilled when they received a whole areca nut along with two
or three betel leaves. Likewise, Dasho Shingkarlam 17 relates
that at the time ofthe Second King (1926-1952), the later had
the habit of giving a quid already prepared by a servant as
soelra: the areca nut was enveloped in a leaf on which was
also put some lime.
The sources say the same thing although they must be
deciphered further. We have seen that J.C.White explains
that three types of tea, rice, and pan were offered to the
guests of the coronation ceremony of the First King. At that
time the Bhutanese did not drink much tea (Camilla sinensis)
but leaves of different kinds of tree in the guise of tea. If there
was tea, then they prepared salted butter tea. To serve three
varieties of tea, therefore, was demonstrating great
lavishness, and all the more to offer three kinds of rice as the
majority of the Bhutanese did not eat rice and consumed
maize, barley and buckwheat according to the region.
We can then imagine that to serve three kinds of pan was a
sign of wealth. The King, moreover, had a courtier whose duty
was to carry the container of betel and areca, "a senior
changgap carrying doma bata (betel nut container)".18 Bata19
is a round metal container, the lid of which is often decorated
with lotus motifs and its use reserved to the King, the Chief
Abbot and the ministers.
In the mid -19th century, making presents of betel or doma
pani was an acceptable gift as related in the history of
Namtala, a courtier of the lord of Dramitse in eastern Bhutan.
Namtala returned from a mission conducted for his lord but
"on the way he realised that he had not taken any gift for his
lord, so he took some betel leaves from the forest and put
16 Spelled as gsol ras, it is a gift from a superior to an inferior.
17 Interview with Dasho Shingkarlam, Thimphu, January 4, 1996.
13 Karma Ura, 1995 : 179.
19 In dzongkha, sba khra.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
them in his gho.20 The lord of Dramitse was very surprised to
see Namtala back the next day. He accepted his gift of betel
Simlarly, in the history of Sengye, the servant of the Lama of
Gasa,21 the chamberlain of the Desi, the temporal head of
Bhutan, used to visit the house of the well-off villagers in
Punakha who "tried to serve him as well as possible. They
were not poor but they were not rich either and it was an
honour for them to receive the Desi's chamberlain in their
houses. They offered him Doma and drinks." When Dasho
Shingkarlam was serving at the court of the Second King,
sometime in 1948, he encountered a young village girl and
flirted with her by offering several areca nuts: "In the course
of our frivolous talk, I took out my pan holder and scooped a
dash of tsuna (lime paste) with two rumpled leaves of pan. I
recall I did not put a quarter of a betel nut on the pan as
commonly done, but three pieces of betel nut, which I am
sure she understood as romantic (and perhaps narcotic)
lavishness."22 The areca nut was rare enough if offering three
nuts was considered as a great generosity, accessible only to
important people. We remember Dasho Shingkarlam's
surprise when he noticed that the people of western Bhutan
consumed a lot of areca nut.
In this context, it is very possible that the offering of doma
pani during the ceremony of zhugdrel represented a precious
gift to the monks who had the authorisation to chew betel
and areca but could neither smoke nor drink alcohol.
In India the custom of offering pan to the guests whom we
want to honour is very old as attested by Hobson-Jobson
dictionary:23 in 1616 "the king giving me many good words,
and two pieces of his Pawnee out of his dish, to eat of the
20 The Gho (gos) is the men's dress.
21 Ga sa bla ma'i Seng ge, a very popular story from the mid-19th
22 Karma Ura, 1995 :101.
23 Hobson-Jobson, 1989: 689.
 The Tradition of Areca and Betel in Bhutan
same he was eating;" and, in 1800, "On our departure pawn
and roses were presented (...)". It is therefore probable that
Bhutan had borrowed, along with the areca nuts, this gesture
of friendship and honour from India, and it was all the more
appreciated that the ingredients were relatively rare.
Because of its diffusion and availability, doma pani is no more
considered an important gift or a mark of honour, but as a
symbol of conviviality and friendship. To offer doma pani
when meeting someone at the bus stops or at the time of a
fortuitous encounter implies the desire to chat, and therefore
if two persons already know one another, it means that they
wish to maintain and strengthen their friendship.
At the time of marriage or promotion ceremony, a servant or
any relative gives with two hands, an elementary courtesy, a
demi-nut and betel leaf to the guests who have come to
congratulate and offer good wishes and presents. During
official ceremonies or archery tournaments, plates containing
half areca nuts, betel leafs and lime are kept on low tables in
front of the guests. However, an individual from the inferior
social ladder would usually respect the etiquette and would
not chew doma pani in the presence of someone superior,
unless the later tells him or her to do so. On the contrary,
among equals, when the ambience becomes relaxed with
lively conversations, the plate of doma pani passes round
from one hand to another and each one chooses with care his
or her leaf, nut as well as the necessary amount of lime.
Similarly, at the end of a meal the guests sigh with
contentment when the container of doma pani circulates. A
real meal never does close without a quid and the host should
not forget it. This sharing is done in a relaxed manner only
between the people coming from the same social level; in this
case there is no protocol and to share doma pani is a symbol
signifying free and open conversation.
It is also a mark of friendship, and even of intimacy if
someone asks somebody else to prepare a quid. This implies
that they know each other well.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Consumed by men as well as women, by laymen as well as
monks at all the hours of the day, doma pani is perceived
today by the Bhutanese as signifying a moment of relaxation
and conviviality. Despite the knowledge of its negative effects
on the health, doma pani had never been an object of
opprobrium while tobacco is strongly condemned.
 The Tradition of Areca and Betel in Bhutan
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