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Change in the Land Use System in Bhutan: Ecology, History, Culture, and Power Tashi Wangchuk Nov 30, 2000

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Tashi Wangchuk*
In this two part analysis I attempt to answer questions with
reference to historical land use and tenurial systems in
Bhutan. The first part throws light on the popularly held view
that land tenure in Bhutan was feudal prior to the advent of
moderisation. By looking at the lived experiences of peasants
in Bhutan, as human agents at the nexus of social, political,
economic, and ecological forces, a nuanced and complex
picture of land use systems in Bhutan emerges. I argue that
in contradistinction to a feudal tenancy mode, historically
land has been held in private for the most part although other
arrangements existed alongside private property ownership.
Monastic estates, and estates belonging to the handful of
nobility were worked by tenured serfs and slaves.
In part II, I have tried to build an analytical framework for an
alternative explanation to feudalism in Bhutan. Rather than
relying on the 'Tibetan model' and the 'empty land model'
which are closely linked, I instead build a layer model for the
explanation of land use systems in Bhutan.
Acknowledgement and Disclaimation
Professor William Burch of the School of Forestry and
Environmental Studies, Yale University, provided inspiration,
advise, support, and guidance. Certain names of people and
places have been changed for reasons of privacy. The views
expressed here are solely those of the writer.
Tashi Wangchuk is a civil servant with the Nature Conservation Section,
Department of Forestry Services, Ministry of Agriculture
There is much confusion today as to the land use system in
Bhutan prior to 1960. When one looks at the lived
experiences of the day to day lives of the peasantry, questions
as to what exactly was happening arise. Was Bhutan a feudal
society prior to the advent of modernisation? Or was the land
tenurial and distribution system more akin to tribal
organisation? How did the current land use systems in
Bhutan come into being? What were the forces of change
affecting land tenure? What role did the farmers play in the
land and ecosystem management decisions historically?
I will attempt to answer these questions by an analysis of the
social and ecological history of Bhutan. For analytical
purposes, the study is divided into two parts. The first part
will look at currently practised systems, which will be
compared to the period prior to the advent of modernisation
in 1960. This will constitute a comparative analysis both in
space and time. Feudalism as practised in Europe will be
looked at and compared to the land use systems in Bhutan
prior to 1960, which is generally dubbed as "feudal" Bhutan.
The second part of the analysis is more of a research proposal
to generate some clues to the questions that arise in the first
part and more speculative in nature. It is an attempt to look
back deeper in history and find the "origins" of not only the
diverse peoples of current day Bhutan but also to the land
use systems that they practised prior to state formation in the
1600's. The nation state of Bhutan came into existence only
in the mid 1600's prior to which the region consisted of "one
valley kingdoms" ruled by hereditary kings, chiefs, or lamas
(Aris, 1979). The second part then is a more general look at
Bhutanese origions. It is assumed that by looking at the
deeper, older layers of Bhutanese land use history, current
systems can be better understood.
In the first part, the land user, the peasant or minapcxlv, will
be viewed as an actor among a multitude of kings, chiefs, and
 priests in my story. On these actors ecological, social,
political, and economic forces are constraining structures.
Also, rather than viewing the farmer as a passive victim of
history, the role of the peasant themselves played in
structuring the land use systems, by resisting and
strategizing against the constraints will be explored (Scott,
1985). This approach is inspired by several scholars
(Baviskar, 1997; Burch, 1997; Isaacman, 1996; Siu, 1986;
Worby, 1985) who have looked at human experiences at the
nexus of political, historical, social, economic, and ecological
systems. By doing this however, I do not mean to romanticise
resistance as Babiskar (1997) citing from Marx (1852) makes
...people make their own history, but not of their own
free will; not under circumstances they have chosen
but under the given and inherited circumstances with
which they are confronted...
Attempts to balance and play off the tension between
constraints and resistance will be made in the analysis.
Part I: Was Bhutan Ever a Feudal Society?
Many western scholars studying Bhutan (Rose, 1970;
Pommaret, 1984, Aris, 1987; Aris, 1996) label the period prior
to the rule of the third king (1952) as feudal Bhutan as
opposed to modern Bhutan. They generally assume that
Bhutan was a feudal society much like Europe was in the
Middle Ages before the Enlightenment. In Bhutan's case the
enlightenment is thereby implied to have dawned with
modernisation. This view is largely accepted as a historical
fact by both Western and western educated Bhutanese
scholars. This pre-modern, "dark age" is seen as a stage from
which Bhutan just recently emerged to embrace modernity.
High-modernist discourse of social systems and states
progressing and developing along a trajectory are implicit in
such views.
 I argue that under scrutiny, the above distinctions show that
pre-modern Bhutan was certainly different from present day
Bhutan but was not feudal either in the 'general or technical'
sense as Goody (1971) distinguishes. Why then have so many
scholars assumed Bhutan to be a feudalistic society?
Certainly there were elements of oppression, reminiscent of
feudal Europe. However, as shown below the tenurial system
and property rights can hardly be labelled as feudal in
Bhutan. Perhaps it is a result of scholars preferring a high-
modernist ideology, which sees feudalism as preceding
modern societies. Such scholars are bounded by this
evolutionary framework and as Goody writes' ...the Western
European starting-point heavily influences the outcome of the
Another compelling explanation for Bhutan to be labelled
"feudal" may be that western scholars who study Bhutan
have been trained as Tibetologists. They look to Tibet for
causal explanation of not historical events in Bhutan but also
the country's entire socio-cultural systems in general. This is
understandable in light of the fact that there was strong
religious and cultural influence on Bhutan from Tibet.
However, this does not mean that Tibetan systems were
wholly transplanted onto Bhutan. Rather, a hydridity between
"roots" and "routes" (Clifford, 1997) of rooted cultures and
cultures on the move offer a more complex understanding.
This is further explicated in Part II below. My main aim here
is to problematize both the "high-modernist" European
evolutionary model and the "Tibetan model." I offer a counter
narrative based on the lived experiences of farmers in
Bhutan. Due to the recentness of the introduction of
development, most middle aged and older Bhutanese
peasants today lived through the transformation. As such
there is a wealth of knowledge, undocumented and existing
mostly in peoples memories. As Isaacman (1996) writes,
accessing this is to create space for alternative perspectives
and as Worby (1990) explains, observing the problem with a
different "conceptual lenses" can reveal new insights and
 What is Feudalism?
I first begin with a working definition of feudalism as
understood in Europe and then compare this to the situation
in pre-1960 Bhutan. Defining feudalism is a much debated
topic even in the European context. Bloch (1961), however, is
seen as authoritative and offers the following:
A subject peasantry; widespread use of the service
tenement (i.e the fief) instead of salary ...supremacy of
a class of specialised warriors; ties of obedience and
protection which bind man to man; fragmentation of
authority; and in the midst of all of this, survival of
other forms of association, family and State.
Applied to pre-modern Bhutan, there is a subject peasantry
in the sense of being subject to heavy taxation in kind and
labour by the state. State authority was increasingly
fragmented after the death of the first Shabdrung, the monk
statesman who unified Bhutan after 1616. This fragmentation
seems to be the basis for Aris (1994) to describe Bhutan as
fiefdoms ruled by regional governors under limited authority
of the centre. However, there never was service tenement or
the existence of a class of specialised warriors.
This becomes clear when we consider Peter's (1997) explicit
division of feudal Europe into a tripartite society consisting of
the clergy, knights, and peasants. In particular he highlights
the importance of the knights and lords to feudal Europe:
'knighthood bound the men of war together and contrasted
them with the men of work...These individuals often
combined the social status of high birth with old royal titles of
service (count, duke, viscount) and landed wealth that
enabled them to attract and bind subordinates to them by
oaths of vassalage....they assumed control of ...public legal
and financial powers which made the aristocracy....private
lords and public authorities.' Bhutan never had a knighthood
but rather a "church bureaucracy" (Carrasco, 1959) to
administer public legal  and financial matters.  According to
 Deby (1980) it is only when the 'rights of government (not
merely political influence) are attached to lordships and fiefs
that we can speak of fully developed feudalism.'
On the issue of a "subject peasantry" and land tenure,
Bhutan clearly had a system vastly different from feudal
Europe. I argue that rights in property have always been held
in private by the peasantry. In feudal England, there were
estimated to be about a thousand lords who shared the
landed property amongst themselves (Peters, 1997). By
contrast Bhutan had only about 5000 serf/slave families, all
of whom were granted manumission in 1959 by the third king
(Karan, 1963). Karan writes that the third king "...freed the
5000 slave [families] giving them choice of remaining with
their masters as paid servants or accepting land from the
government and setting up as farmers." Further support for
this figure is provided by Rose (1977) who writes that the
"estimates vary from 700 to 5,000 families.
Even if the higher estimate of 5,000 families is taken and an
average family size of 10 is assumed, a figure of roughly
about 50,000 people results. If one projects backwards from
the current population of 600,000 and population growth
rates between 1959 and now (varying between 0.5% to 3.1%),
the population in 1959 is roughly about 500,000 people.
Consequently, slaves and serfs formed roughly about 10% of
the population. The others were mostly kheap, free peasants
who paid taxes to the government in kind and labour. This
basic division is reflected in the composition of many villages
in Bhutan today, although detailed surveys are needed to
verify this. Inordinate amounts of attention have focused on
the slaves and serfs and their masters and hardly any on the
vast majority of the peasantry, the kheap, in Bhutan.
The zasen or slaves were descendants of people captured
from India. Wealthier peasants occasionally bought some
slaves from traders. Most were attached to monastic lands,
which the slave families cultivated. Some of their descendants
 to this day continue to farmland owned by the central monk
body and sharecroppers.
This has often been confused with the entire peasantry being
labelled as serfs and a feudal model used to explain the rest
of society. Rose (1977) writes ' The traditional landholding
system in Bhutan was feu dal...tenancy which was the norm
earlier in most of Bhutan has been much reduced in
scope...what is more important perhaps is that the character
of the tenancy system has changed....more often than not
now it is families that are already landholders in their own
right'. In short Rose tells of a revolutionary change not only in
the land tenurial system but the entire society at large. He
does not explain the factors behind this purported revolution
but assumes that they occurred based largely on an
erroneous reading of the existence of slaves, tenancy, and
elites in the traditional system.
The vast majority of peasants were freemen (to use a feudal
term), either owing private lands or sharecropping for
wealthier families, monasteries, and other elite. They are even
today referred to as minap, loosely translated as "ignorant
people" or "people in the dark" but nevertheless free. Some
were drap or serfs in the true feudal sense, attached to
estates of the handful of hereditary nobles "choje" or lords of
religion in central and eastern Bhutan. Ura (1995) explains
their situation: 'drap worked without any payment on the
master's land in return for a piece of land allocated by the
master for their own use ... drap families did not pay any tax
[to the state] because they were only answerable to the
master. 'It is important to keep in mind that they constitute a
notable minority to the free peasants. Others were zasen or
slaves as explained above. Ura distinguishes them from the
drap: 'zab [zasen] were in a worse situation: they worked
entirely for the master who gave them only food and clothes.'
Thus, a mixture of landholding systems existed at the same
time between the minap, zasen, and drapfxlvi. The important
point is that the slaves and serfs constituted only about 10%
 of the total population at the time of their manumission in
1959 (Karan, 1963).
The Burden of Tax
Most of the free minap were poor, yet heavily taxed. In eastern
Bhutan, some are said to have fled to Arunachel Pradesh in
India to escape this heavy tax (Aris, 1980). Lopen Kinley
(1985) of Ramena village, a monk in his late fifties, recalls
from his childhood days, the immense loss felt by the yak
herders at the time of taxation.
The boedscxlv" would come to our village, pata ben
[sword] at their sides. They did a pu-yig and counted
each family's yaks and then demanded butter and
meat taxes on this basis. Some of the harsher boeds
would point out live yaks and demand that they be
slaughtered for the sha thray [meat tax]. It did not
matter if the selected ones were milching bjim
[females] or zhuli [seed stud yaks], as long as they
were fattened enough. I remember my mother crying
and pleading with the boed but to no avail. Of course
some boeds were kind and did not force the issue. The
lifting of the sha thray and ma mi-sayr [public]. It was
the kindest kidu [welfare] granted to us bjops [yaks
herders] by the government.
The amount of tax was determined by animal census or pu-
yig when representatives from the central government would
count each family's holdings and tax them accordingly.
However, this was changed to a light monetary tax system
with the families reporting the number of animals they own.
The animal census was dropped since the tax collected was
nominal and the census expensive. People thus report much
lower numbers than they actually own in order to evade
taxes. The change in the tax system freed the pastoralists
from central government control to a certain extent.
 Thus taxes were a heavy burden on the people and it was
only during the third king's reign that they were alleviated.
Depending on the agro-ecological zone people lived in, they
paid taxes for what they produced. For instance, as shown
above in alpine regions, taxes were paid in yak butter and
meat. In the lower farming valleys, taxes were paid in rice,
maize, or wheat. In addition, peasant households also had to
render labour services, such as transporting goods to the
centres of administration in the monastic fortresses or the
Thus as another informant Aum Thinley Bidha says: 'We had
to pay taxes from the Utse [gold roof] of the dzong all the way
down to the tari (stables].' This is a metaphorical reference to
a system where the entire state administrative apparatus was
supported by the taxes of peasants.cxlviii However, it was only
after 1952 that taxes in kind were completely abolished,
thereby lifting a great burden off the peasantry. Today, only
nominal token taxes are collected in monetary terms and
these "rural taxes" collected from the peasantry only account
for less than 5% of total government revenue.
Under heavy taxation, evasion tactics were common practices
by the people. For instance, many older tax paying Bhutanese
today recall several tactics used. Since unhusked rice was
collected, in many cases peasants mixed in shupa or chaff
with the actual kernels of grain. Grain was not weighed but
measured according to volume of a measuring container, the
Can Bhutan be Explained by Tibet?
In Land and Polity in Tibet, Carrasco (1959) looks in detail at
the 'systems of land tenure as related to political organisation'
in Tibet. What is of great relevance for the present purpose is
that it is one of the few studies, which compare land use
systems in Tibet with what he calls the "Lesser States" such
as Sikkim, Ladakh and Bhutan. Other Tibetologists have
assumed that land distribution and tenure in Bhutan can be
 explained by the Tibetan model, notably Aris (1994) writes:
'the land itself was divided into provincial units and sub-
units, and each was given its own administrative designation
on a Tibetan model'.
Turning to Carrasco (1959), Aziz (1978), and French (1990), a
very different picture between Bhutan and Tibet emerges.
Carrasco concludes his analysis on Bhutan by writing:
In comparison with other Tibetan states, the most
remarkable trait was the absence of hereditary landed
estates as the main source of income for the officials,
and the apparently greater social mobility within and
into the official class. In this respect, the officialdom of
old Bhutan closely resembled the monk officials of
Lhasa but without a class corresponding to the lay
nobility of Tibet.
Although there has been a disproportionate amount of
attention focussed on the handful of choje and other landed
hereditary nobility cxlix in Bhutan, the vast majority of
peasants lived a life closer to that described by Carrasco. It is
important to keep in mind that until the instituting of the
monarchy in 1907, the ruling class was non-hereditary.
Bhutan's numerous civil wars are wars of succession simply
because there was no hereditary ruling family along which
the secular regentship and powers were passed. After the
Shabdrung's death was revealed in 1705 and until 1907,
Bhutan was in a 'perpetual cycle of conflict' with very few
secular rulers, the Druk Desi, being able to serve the full
three year term in office (Aris, 1994). Many were assassinated
and still others were exiled. The most ruthless and conniving
emerged as the most powerful. Since there was no hereditary
ruling elite, very often peasants starting as lowly count
attendants, stable boys, and messengers managed to find
their way to the top.
In Tibet, 'the underlying right of ownership to all the land in
Tibet was in the person of His Holiness the Dalai Lama....all
 land grants were conditioned on the continued goodwill of the
government toward grantee.' (French, 1990). Peasants were
attached to estates directly administered by the state, to
estates owned by nobility and monasteries, or farmed small
plots on which they paid 'a sixth part of the field' as taxes
(French, 1990). Also, peasants could not vacate these lands
without permission and in the case of not having an heir who
both inherited the land and the tax obligation, peasants
adopted children to fill in for them (Aziz, 1978). Among the
'three classes of commoners' described as agriculturists,
traders, and itinerants such as artisans, Aziz writes of the
agriculturists as: '...all are tax paying tenant farmers, working
holdings leased from the government or another landlord.' In
short there is no private-property owning peasants. The
nobility too is hereditary including the men of religion, ngag-
pa or hereditary priests (Aziz, 1978). These priests own
estates farmed by tenants. Aziz explains the aristocracy of
Tibetan society as per-pa, 'the term ger means private,
designating the exclusive property rights members enjoy as
private landlords.'
The situation in Bhutan is very different; there is no ger-pa or
ngag-pa class. The agriculturists worked their own private
land as tax paying subjects. Monks were recruited from the
peasantry as were the government servants.01 This is not to
say that there was no social stratification in Bhutan. The
basis of stratification was different; it was not hereditary, and
was not determined by the quality of tenancy or land
holdings. Rather, it was the quantity of land owned that
determined one's social position. This of course depends on
several factors but is open to manipulation. Another
important distinction is that land inheritance in Bhutn is
passed through the daughter, a matrilineal system, where as
in Tibet it was patrilineal. Suffice is to say that while Bhutan
and Tibet have many similarities, fundamental differences
remain and the Bhutanese land tenurial system cannot be
explained by Tibetan models.
 Current Practices
In a comparison of three villages in three different ethnic
zones in Bhutan, Sangay Wangchuk (1998) summarises the
current land use practices in Bhutan. Citing Ura (1995) he
writes that after 1953, the distinction between private and
public property was made official or legalised through the
passage of the Thrimshung Chenmo or Supreme Laws. 'The
official recording of agricultural land after 1953 separated
private and community property rights...prior to this,
property rights were loosely defined.' This can be understood
as the State making the country more "legible" for easier
control. Previously, customary law regulated land use
practices. Currently, this customary law has been overlain
with various national legislation such as the Land Act (1978),
Forest Act (1969), and Livestock Act (1980). However, this
does not mean that customary laws have disappeared. At the
local level, customs or Juso still determine everyday decisions
in many significant ways. For instance, village scared groves
and forests, which may not be distinguished from other forest
by state laws, are protected by customary laws. E.P.
Thompson (1991) writes:
Agrarian custom was never a fact. It was ambience. It
may be understood with the aid of Bourdieu's concept
of 'habitus' - a lied environment comprised of
practices, inherited expectations, rules...norms, and
sanctions...Within this habitus all parties strove to
maximise their own advantages. Each enroached upon
the usages of others.
In Bhutan, such a habitus is also the nexus where customs
meet formal laws and are negotiated, contested, used and
abused by the local actors. Thus to acknowledge the existence
of only one system is to deny history to a rich process. For
instance, to look at the Forest Act and to assume forest usage
existing on the ground as legislated in the Act would be an
incomplete picture.
 However, the general effect of the legislation resulted in
private property being measured, recorded, and titled in a
systematic way. This can be misinterpreted as the granting of
private property and instituting a change in land tenure
practices from a feudal to private property relationships. It is
important to keep in mind that these activities are state
schemes at rationalisation and ordering. In Seeing Like a
State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition
Have Failed, Scott (1998) shows the need for states to
simplify the complex in order to exert control. Consequently,
the schemes should be seen as an exercise in "administrative
ordering" and making legible a complex society. Today the
effort continues with the use of more sophisticated cadastral
equipment, and computerisation of the entire land records of
the country into a database. Peasants have lost rights over
common property resources such as forests and pastures
with the enactment of the Forest Act. Sangay Wangchuk
(1998) explains:
The enactment of the Forest Act in 1969 whereby all
forests became the property of the state, had a
profound impact on the tenurial system. However, this
did not have an immediate effect on forest resource
use by the local communities, as the state did not
have adequate machinery to implement the provisions
of the Forest Act. Therefore the informal tenurial
relationship continued. Over the years...the state's
enforcement of the respective laws has increased. This
process has lead to the widening of the gap between
the state who owns video camera, talked to her
surviving children and other village elders. The story is
important since it reveals the dynamics of land tenure
in Bhutan during a time when most historians dismiss
as a "feudal" state.
Thinley Bidha was born in 1908 in the village Wangcli Simu in
west Bhutan. As the eldest and only daughter she inherited
the ancestral property from her mother who died at the young
age of 29 when Thinley Bidha was only 11. Various maternal
 aunts served as the nangi aum in the household until she
took over at the age of 26 after the death of her aunts. The
peasant household revolves around the nangi aum. This term
is variously translated as mother at the core and anchor
mother. Although sometimes upstaged by a forceful husband,
the nangi aum still retains some control since the husband
joins the household as an outsider and the property owner is
still the wife. The division of labour ideally is that the
husband handles the outside work while the nangi aum the
inside work. Outside work can range from dealing with the
state, tax collectors, performing the labour tax, serving in the
militia recruited during times of war, resolving disputes in
court, and sometimes going on trading expeditions. Inside
work reflects work not only in the house but also all work
related to the land such as making decisions about planting,
harvesting, and day to day work schedules of the land.
Thinley Bidha's lost her husband to an illness when she was
43. Her younger brother increasingly took on outside work on
her behalf but could not be fully committed since he had
married out and was responsible for his wife's household
duties also.
In 1947, after she had lost her husband and her younger
brother had already married out, a distant relative filed a
labzhi case against her. Seeing her household strong male
representation, the relative took advantage of this to grab not
only her valuables but also her property. Without a fair trail,
the court granted all the movable valuables such as jewellery
to her enemies. She however, refused to hand over the Phazhi
citing ancestral claims and invoking the protection of
guardian deities. Her brother was taken as a prisoner due to
her refusal to move out of the house. By doing so she would
have symbolically given up her rights to the land. She was
personally threatened with eviction but the relative nor the
court could not do so simply because the land and house
were her personal property and everyone in the village
acknowledged this ownership. At one point after her brother
was taken prisoner,  she almost relented but finally sought
 protection from the queen. Her brother had served as a
personal attendant to the queen. Citing the folk saying 'in my
house I am king' Thinley Bidha was given a fair trial
eventually. Serving as her ownjafami or solicitor she not only
managed to hold on to her property but also won back her
Two important points become clear, that the nature of
ownership and 'legal relations are between persons...a person
owns not an object itself but a right to do certain things with
or in regard to that object' (Gluckman, 1965). In this case
Thinley Bidha's land could have been coerced from her by her
enemies but the rights would still have been vested with her
as per customary law as acknowledged by fellow villagers.
Secondly, if the land was held in a feudal tenancy mode, the
case would not have arisen at all. The landlord would simply
have reassigned the land to another tenant without so much
Farmer as Land Owner
What are the implications of this fact that farmers in the past
have always made land use decisions themselves, including
crucial forest and pasture resources? There is no feudal lord
to manage the estate. The state until the 1960s did not
intervene in local resource use and management choices. But
with increasing legislation and rationalisation on a Western
model, as recommended by development experts, local
resource use is increasingly regulated by the state. Farmers
legally lost common property resources such as pastures and
community forests through such legislation. However, the
state's lack of resources to completely monitor and enforce
the legislation has created space for farmers to continue to
manage the resources within certain constraints imposed by
the legislation.
For instance, even today, in most villages in Bhutan,
customary rights still govern access to village forests. There is
clear demarcation between one village and the next by the use
 of laptsap, cairns of stone serving both as boundary markers
and village entrance guardian spirits. People from other
villages may not collect firewood, timber, or graze their cattle
beyond these boundaries. If they do so, they are made to pay
compensation and in the case of illegal grazing, cattle are
retained until the fine is paid. The fine is used for community
activities such as sponsoring numerous village ritual
ceremonies in the village monastery.
The community forest is held as masa or public land on
which villagers collectively pay a tax to the state. Thus, village
members themselves cannot abuse the resources in the
common forests with impunity. There are sacred groves where
trees may not be felled. Also, the resource extraction process
should not harm a neighbour's property such as felling trees
from near a neighbour's house. Excessive felling of timber for
commercial profit would not be permitted unless the whole
village benefited. Additionally, some villages enforce a ridum
or forest closure during certain times of the year. When a
ridum is in force no one may enter certain parts of the forest
since it is believed that the rigamem or forest spirits are not to
be disturbed during these times. Interestingly, these times
also correspond with times when trees and other forest plants
are flowering and seeding and disturbances would interfere
with the production and growth cycle. These customary
regulations are sometimes overridden by state laws such as
the Forestry Services Division granting permits to collect
timber and other resources from a village's traditional
common forest, causing much resentment among the
Can farmers regain historical resource use rights? The
answer to this is difficult given the new dynamics and market
forces in action. There is much to be gained for short-term
profit and the fear of losing all control over Bhutan's natural
resources has prevented the state from moving towards
handing over community forests back to the farmers.
However, the important distinction is to be made between
open access resources and common property resources. Ifthe
 latter pattern is legalised then the former is not a threat since
rights in the land and resource belong to a village and they
are responsible for any decisions they make.
With regards to this, Ostrom (1990) debunks Hardin's (1968)
myth of tragedy of the commons, which has become an
'accepted way of viewing problems' with common property
resources. She shows that these models view individuals as
prisoners with constraints imposed on them, which they
cannot change. She instead gives the actors in her models
agency who are viewed as being able "to change the
constraining rules of the game". Ostrom's model shows
alternatives to overcoming the problem of the commons other
than privatisation and state control. Actors have the ability to
negotiate with each other and discuss best strategies for the
use of the resource. They then enter into a contract agreed to
by all parties, and this results in an equitable sharing of
resources on a sustainable basis.
From the description of the village forests above, they are far
from being open access resources, which are free for all.
Rather, strict customary laws govern their use. This is often
undermined when outsiders impinge on the rights a village
through bureaucratic procedures or with state approval.
Thus, rather than protecting and controlling resources, state
laws undermine traditional customary laws which are
recognized by a village and its members. In effect, they create
a situation whereby previously common property resources
are turned into open access resources.
As a first step, the government can re-recognise customary
laws operating in a village forest and stop issuing resource
use permits to outsiders from such forests. The village
institutions are already in place and are recognised for other
purposes such as for gewog yargay tshochung or village
development purposes. In a very simple process, the village
forests can be handed over to the villagers for their own
management and use without state interference.
 Part II: Origins
In Part I, I have attempted to deconstruct the existing
representations of Bhutan as a feudal society prior to the
advent of modernisation. The next question then arises, if not
feudal, then what? I use different conceptual lenses to answer
this question, as Worby (1995) writes 'the solution to this
puzzle lies less in a changed reality that has suddenly been
registered in the 'data' and more in the changing
observational and conceptual lenses through which that
reality has been viewed and represented.' The different
conceptual lenses are analytical tools developed from a
multidisciplinary approach. Thought processes from
ecosystem and landscape ecology, paleoecology, social
history, and political economy are stitched together to present
a varied and patched mosaic of lived experiences on the
landscape of Bhutan. To the conventional tools of the
historian, that of narrating significant events in a temporal
sequence, I add spatial dimensions.
'The total effect of austere mountains, rock, and river was
that nature had laid out a grand and eternal stage for human
action' (Burch, 1997), is the central them on which this
dimension is built. When looking at the early history and
origins of Bhutan, most historians write of obscurity and
myth and lament the lack of written sources. Aris (1979) in a
bold attempt not only gathered existing written Bhutanese
and Tibetan sources but also conducted interviews and
visited places of historical curiosity to him. The product was a
doctoral dissertation and a book titled 'Bhutan: the Early
History of a Himalayan Kingdom' (1979). Commendable as his
work is one might raise questions about what constitutes
history. Does it consist only of the collection, analysis, and
interpretation of written "primary" sources into a structured
narrative? Whose history is it anyway? In a country where
oral traditions are the preferred mode of sharing stories and
experiences even today, among an increasingly literate
populace, dependence on written sources alone is "annoying"
as  Aris  himself admits.   Nonetheless,   Aris  has  presented  a
 basic temporal structure based on the available written
sources. I will attempt to add to this temporal framework
some spatial history and "thick description". What dramas did
human actors play on nature's stage? By looking at history
through the lens of landscape ecology, and adding multi
dimensionality, will a more nuanced and fuller picture
The Thesis
The current model of the origins of the different ethnic groups
in Bhutan are that Tibetan people invaded western Bhutan,
pushed out the indigenous people and extended their
influence over other indigenous groups in eastern Bhutan. No
one claims this model since it is too flimsy and most
importantly, unauthenticated. However it has become
accepted such that even guidebooks for tourists visiting
Bhutan reproduce this model for popular consumption. The
latest one gives the following version (Armington, 1998):
The Sharchops, who live in the east of the country are
recognised as the original inhabitants of Bhutan. They
are Indo-Mongoloid; it is still unclear exactly where
they migrated from and when they arrived in Bhutan.
The Ngalong are descendants of Tibetan immigrants
who arrived in Bhutan from the 9th Century. These
immigrants settled in the west of the country...The
third group is the Nepalis, who began settling in the
south of Bhutan in the late 19th century...Minority
Groups: several smaller groups many with their own
language form about 1% of the population...
This "empty land" model which gets filled with various ethnic
groups is problematic for several reasons. For one, the area's
prehistoric era is completely dismissed. For another,
historical complexity is simplified and the forces impinging on
the historians themselves are seen as neutral. The "original
inhabitants" or the Sharchops are more accurately described
as Tsangla. This denomination is derived from being the clan
 descendants of Prince Tsang-ma of Tibet (Aris, 1979). The
Tsangla identity emerged only in the 17th century as a
conscious construction of a monk-historian, Ngawang, and
his works (Aris, 1979). Meanwhile, the "Tibetans" in the west
couldn't be more anti-Tibetan. Several wars were fought with
invading Tibetan armies. Ballads, songs, and stories
ridiculing the Tibetans became popular. Most importantly, the
land tenurial system cannot be explained by the Tibetan
model as shown above. Yet the empty land model is
unquestioned largely since the Tibetan bias of Tibetologists,
which assumes everything in Bhutan came from Tibet, is not
challenged. The empty land model is an untested assumption
built on another untested assumption.
Instead of the 'empty land' model, I am more comfortable with
Clifford's representation01", which introduces a new dynamics
to the system, of layered hybridity. Cultural patterns are
conveyed and altered along routes of immigration, trade, and
war leading to new "roots" or communities and identities.
There is no "original inhabitant" existing in a cultural
vacuum, unchanged and unique. Rather I 'focus on
hybrid...experiences as much as on rooted' ones. In this
model during prehistoric times, Palaeolithic peoples dispersed
from east to west, from the upper reaches of the Yellow River
in China to present day Yunnan province and thence east to
Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur,
Shillong, Myanmar, and as far west as central Nepalcliii
(Allchin, 1982; Marshall, 1997; Ross, 1990). Kosambi (1965)
writes: 'eastern parts of India...were penetrated by prehistoric
people from Yunnan and Burma.' The movements of these
peoples, how and in what patterns they occurred are
explained by Fagan (1990):
Population movements associated with Homo
sapiens...should not be thought of as migrations,
certainly not in terms of the kind of mass population
movements that characterize later migrations in
human history. These millennia-long population
movements were gradual, dictated in large part not by
 the innate human curiosity of what lay over the next
horizon, but by a myriad of complex environmental,
climatic, and entirely pragmatic factors...they were
short term responses to ever changing local
conditions, often triggered in turn by larger global
climatic fluctuations throughout the last (Wurm)
glaciation...our remote modern ancestors were part of
a complex world ecological system that affected all
animal species on earth.
One can then imagine this gradual movement from east to
west and later from north and south, adding layers to the
previous layers. It also important to keep in mind that if there
is movement in, then movement out is also possible. The
focus has entirely been on the north to south influence, that
of Tibet on Bhutan. But earlier records also show important
refugee princes from India seeking refuge in Bhutan, for
instance the Sindhu Raja fleeing and establishing a kingdom
in the 7th century. Most historical personalities arrive as
refugees, written sources document their arrival, and their
exploits in detail. The sources never mention mass migrations
of people as popularly imagined. The idea of mass population
movements within a short period of time is problematic. In
this empty land scenario, then the Tibetans arriving in west
Bhutan would simply have filled up the land and carried on
as in Tibet. The land tenurial system should reflect this
similarity but it does not. Rather, a more sensible explanation
is that singular Tibetans scholars, saints, and princes, arrive
in Bhutan as refugees, bring "high Tibetan culture" and
religion which is layered onto existing native practices.
Chhoki (1994) differentiates this habitus as the nexus
between the "sacred" and the "obscene". The sacred is
represented by Tibetan Buddhism, which is adopted as the
state religion while the obscene is the animistic religion,
which the people practiced in the villages. Chhoki finds the
coexistence of the two in a village in west Bhutan, she writes:
'The nenjorm-pawo (indigenous ritual specialists) themselves
 describe their complex as having native origins, in contrast to
the monastic tradition which came to Bhutan from Tibet.'
The prehistoric and historical landscapes of Bhutan can then
be thought of as consisting of mosaics or patches of diverse
peoples. This diversity is not only in space across the
landscape but also in time and "depth". By this I mean that if
we look under one layer of religion, culture, and land use
practices, we will encounter other vibrant layers of local
practices as Chhoki's (1994) work makes clear. With this I
attempt to build an analytical framework for exploring this
thesis below.
Mosaics and Connectivity
Mosaics are perhaps most simply and clearly described by
E.O. Wilson (1995) in a forward to Forman's (1995) book
'Land Mosaics: The Ecology of Landscapes and Regions:'
...the real world consists of finely fragmented habitats.
The pieces range from radically altered urban parks
and gardens to remnant pockets of the original
environment. Across periods, living species arrive,
impinge, dominate, yield, and disappear in this
kaleidoscope. The vast majority of the inhabitants we
never see, because they are too small and obscure:
creepy-crawlies, immense in diversity, from insects to
fungi and bacteria.
All together, they are as important as the towering
trees and the birds on which our attention is
ordinarily focused.
This conceptualisation of land and landscape as patches or
mosaics provides an understanding of the processes
occurring on the human cultural and historical landscape in
Bhutan. Forman (1995) explains patch as a 'particular type
that differs from adjacent land.' A mosaic then is an
aggregated  pattern  of patches,  within the  patches  there  is
 internal micro heterogeneity as well. Prior to Bhutan's
unification, people constantly 'arrive, impinge, dominate,
yield, and disappear,' changing the nature of the patches. The
whole country was what Aris describes as 'one valley
kingdoms' with fixed and jealously guarded and well-
recognised borders (sa-tsam). On a larger scale these one-
valley kingdoms may be seen as patches on a complex
At a continental level, Bhutan is a mountainous frontier land
rising abruptly from the Gangetic plains of India and ending
again at the edges of the Tibetan plateau. Over the years,
refugee kings, princes, priests, and monks fled to the safety of
the mountains from north, south, east and west. An ancient
name by which the Tibetans referred to Bhutan is Lho-mon
Kha Zhi roughly translated as the southern barbarian land of
four approaches. So at this larger scale, the plains of India,
plateau of Tibet, and mountains and hills of Bhutan may be
viewed as three patches across which kings, saints, traders,
and lamas moved both in and out of Bhutan as political,
economic, and ecological circumstances demanded.
The comings and goings are recorded by Bhutanese, Indian,
and Tibetan sources, scantily and in some cases with biased
political motives. Patch dynamics can explain these patterns
and processes even if the details of specific and particular
events are unknown or unrecorded. For explicative purposes,
history is thus released from the tyranny of the few and
biased written "primary" sources. One can at least imagine
what were the general patterns and processes across these
By connectivity, I do not mean to impose a totalising master
narrative, which unifies these diverse mosaics into a single
monolithic understanding of Bhutanese national history.
Connectivity in landscape ecology is understood as 'how
connected an area is for a process' (Forman, 1995) such as
understanding how and why species "arrive, impinge,
dominate,   yield"    and   how   the   people   in   these   patches
 interacted with people from other areas. We know that they
traded, exchanged ideas, fought, married, formed alliances,
and eventually were unified into the peoples of the nation
state of Bhutan. It is the legacy of these actions, which are
reflected in the land use systems.
People as Ecological Beings
In calling for a 'humanist environmentalism' Cronon (1998)
laments the nature and culture dualism that Western
societies view the world with. He instead expouses a holism in
which humans are intrinsically connected by complex webs of
linkages and are a part of nature. Cronon (1992) writes:
...human acts occur within a network of relationships,
processes, and systems that are as ecological as they
are cultural. To such basic historical categories as
gender, class, and race, environmental historians
would add a theoretical vocabulary in which plants,
animals, soils, climates, and other nonhumans
become the coactors and codeterminants of a history
notjust of people but also of the earth itself.
This basic realisation, which gained ground only recently in
Western thought through the efforts of postmodernist
thinkers, has always been the way pre-modern peoples
viewed their place in the world and in history. Chief Seattle's
call is echoed worldwide and finds common ground with
diverse beliefs from Hindu and Buddhist mythology to Dayak
swidden cultivators. In a strange way then, the post-modern
ideal is a lived reality of pre-modern peoples.
For the task at hand, such a holism and connectivity allows
for an ecological interpretation of history or as Worster (1992)
writes, using 'ecology to help explain why the past developed
the way it did...this new history rejects the common
assumption that human experience has been exempt from
natural constraints.'
 Landscape Ecology due to its integrative and spatial nature is
my choice from the various ecologies for the analysis. This
provides an alternative way of looking at Bhutanese history
since the narrative texts that exist are few and as Aris (1979)
writes of one such text, the Gyalrig, '...the schematic
preoccupations of a local historian can so color his writings
as to alter the true order of reality.'
The substantive nature of the narratives are not disregarded,
they are the 'data' or evidence I will rely on. However, the
cause and effect interpretation is from an ecological and
political economic perspective and not from 'schematic
preoccupations.' (Although why Ngawang, the Author of the
Gyalrigs wrote what he did is of interest.) Narrative as Cronon
(1992) writes '...succeeds to the extent that it hides the
discontinuities, ellipses, and contradictory experiences that
would undermine the intended meaning of its story. Whatever
its overt purpose, it cannot avoid a covert exercise of power: it
inevitably sanctions some voices while silencing others.'
Layers Upon Layers, but Still Pockmarked
In this section I look first at the larger regional population
dynamics of people from prehistoric times to the present. I
will then try to explain what the origins of the people of
Bhutan are using the regional analysis and spatial landscape
patch dynamics. The underlying assumption is as presented
in the thesis above, of 'millennia-long population movements
(that) were gradual, dictated in large a myriad of
complex environmental, climatic, and entirely pragmatic
factors.' By this, I reject the idea of local autochthony and
instead, depend on paleoecological evidence, which has more
or less established the east to west movement in the eastern
Himalayas and the later historical evidence of strong Tibetan
In the absence of written evidence, what the landscape would
suggest is that the current identities of the various ethnic
groups are a complexity of layers upon layers of history, as
 described above, and a single 'pure' lineage and identity is not
tenable for any of today's politically defined ethnic groups. By
the same token then, the land use systems are a reflection of
these layers and simple labels such as 'feudalistic' does not
capture the complex nature of land use.
Specifically, external influence cannot be discounted but
neither can they explain everything. One can only conjecture
that as Clifford writes 'hybrids' are the norm. Of external
influences impinging on existing native 'tribal' ones and
thereby producing a 'uniquely' Bhutanese land use pattern
and identity. Languages in Bhutan provide some clues and
linkages to understanding this situation. In Bhutan, today,
there are 19 languages grouped under four main language
groups; Central Bodish, East Bodish, and Bodic language of
the Tibeto-Burman family and an Indo-Aryan language (van
Driem, 1994). Nineteen is a conservative grouping which can
be divided further into dialects, literally by the major river
valleys that flow north-south through the country. How can
this situation be explained? If the analytical framework
developed above is applied, one can then imagine a 'sacred
language' made dominant through regional power dynamics
and layering onto existing languages. Regional dominant
lingua franca such as Ngalop in west Bhutan, Bumthap in
central Bhutan, and Tsangla in east Bhutan gained
ascendancy but did not totally wipe out earlier languages.
Thus, a layer model emerges. There are subordinate local
groups, dominated by a larger regional identity such as
Ngalop, Bumthap, and Tsangla, which finally is overlain with
a national layer, 'Bhutan' extending across the entire country.
Even in eastern Bhutan, popularly believed to be the original
inhabitants, as explained above, if we look under the layer of
the Tsangla language, various local dialects are discernible
such as Dzalakha, Chalikha, and Brokpakha. Needless to say
these language speakers are bilingual, speaking both their
local dialect and Tsangla.
In the same way, land use systems of earlier local patterns
and systems are layered as a regional system, onto which is
 layered a national system. Thus, the evolution of land use
systems from tribal to feudal to modern is not supported.
Rather, they exist all at the same time but in layers. Looking
at the national level, the Land Act and various other
legislation would seem to be in effect, but a closer look would
reveal customary laws governing land use systems. The
pattern of connectivity informs that there may certainly have
been borrowing and exchanging but the existence of one
'original' system evolving into a multitude of others is not
In contradistinction to a feudal system, historically land use
decisions especially regarding forests have been made by the
people themselves without major state intervention as is
being done today. The past generations of villagers have
bequeathed to us a pristine environment and it would be well
worth the effort to learn from them and share the burden of
managing and conserving Bhutan's natural resources. Also,
causal explanations for land use systems in Bhutan need to
be rethought giving preference to indigenous 'layer models'
rather than Tibetan ones.
i The word minap today is loosely used to refer to any one from a
rural   area.   It  has   acquired   the   meaning,   which   literally   means
person in the dark or ignorant person.
i Ura (1995) refers to them as drami.
i Attendants of the regional governors recruited from the peasantry
i Some many argue that this is evidence of a feudal society (Weber,
1947)   but  if we  look  at  the  United  States,   tax  dollars  similarly
support the entire state apparatus. Yet no one would dare call the
US a feudal society.
i   During the  reign of the  second  king,  Ura  (1995)  mentions  the
following nobility to whom people paid taxes:   "the king, the Elder
Queen, the powerful aunt of the second king ,...  and Lame Gonpa
Dasho Phuntso Wangdi.
 i Usually recruited as children, they start "work among the lowest
menials...fetching firewood and water" designated as "tozen, literally,
'food eaters"" and work their way up to zingap or attendants in
general, to changgap or personal attendants to the governor, to
junior chamberlain, to junior chamberlain, to chamberlain, and
sometimes to the govership itself (Aris, 1994). The former of the
present monarchy, Jigme Namgyal, rose through the ranks in a
similar way although his final ascendancy depended on "tactics of
blunt coercion" (Aris, 1994).
i The wang have been variously describes as a "tribe" and clan and
several explanations as to their origins exist. The most popular is
that they came to Bhutan as part of an invading Tibetan-Mongolian
army, felt in love with the country, married the local girls and settled
i ... the representational challenge is seen to be the portrayal of
local/global historical needs to focus on hybrid,
cosmopolitan experiences as much as on rooted, native ones. In my
current problematic, the goal is not to replace the cultural figure
'native' with the intercultural figure 'traveller.' Rather, the task is to
focus on concrete mediations ofthe two...
i Interestingly, faunal penetration from east to west in the Himalayas
also extends as far as central Nepal. One such example is the red
panda (Ailurus fulgens).
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