Until lately I haven’t given a thought about culture. I didn’t care what culture is. Oxford dictionary defines culture as ‘the customs and beliefs, art, ways of life and social organization of particular country or group’. By this definition, it includes our thought, music, literatures, language, customs etc. In Bhutanese context, it should include our diverse languages and dialects, our various arts and customs, our oral and written literatures and so on. By ‘our’ it should include way of life of all citizens of Bhutan be they are Ngalong, sharchop, Nepali or other sub-groups. Culture is also not restricted to all things that are ancient like boedra, Zhungdra, masks dances or folk tales. Culture is not static as we believe it. Culture is dynamic forces compatible with change. Thus, even wearing pants and shirts can be called as culture though this culture originated from west. By same measure, even our so-called ancient cultures originated either from India or Tibet as all of us know Bhutanese are comprised of Aryan and Mongolian races.
So what really is culture that most of us Bhutanese refer to? When country proclaimed that our development philosophy is Gross National Happiness, one of its pillars is culture preservation.What did we really mean by it? Today our leaders and public alike talk about importance of preservation of culture. But do we really mean what we talked all the time. A singing show organizer talks about how they preserve culture with songs. But I haven’t seen them singing even sharchop songs forget other like khengpa songs or songs of southern Bhutanese. Another reality show talks about promotion of our culture which is language. I haven’t seen them speaking language other than dzongkha. A leader in national television talked about how relics are important part of our culture? But I haven’t seen Hindu relic being displayed anywhere. Even among Buddhism, only Drukpa Kagyu is promoted. While such activities and preaching is good for some forms of culture, are we really preserving the culture holistically? Or are we selective in preservation of culture.
While I was in primary school, I was made to talk in dzongkha. As a child it was really difficult to do so. But school authority was stressing it as our culture. Recently, I was watching a show in national television about contribution of film industry towards preservation of culture. He said that most people of Bhutan couldn’t speak dzongkha before onset of film industry. Now thanks to movies, everybody speaks dzongkha. He concluded that film industry thus preserved our culture. Recently, I met one of my younger relatives. He was talking to me in dzongkha. I asked him why he wasn’t talking to me in mother tongue. He said dzongkha is national language and culture. I accepted his reason that dzongkha is national language which mean nationally acceptable but I was bit taken aback on culture part. But promotion of one part of culture mustn’t forget about demotion of other part of culture. Today, it seems that many people feel ashamed to talk in their local language because the promotion of some form of culture had made other form primitive and inferior.
Isn’t my mother tongue a part of culture. Isn’t dress of Merak a part of culture? Isn’t Bonism a part of culture. After all, culture is inclusive of all elements present in a way of life of each group or country. What made most Bhutanese think only dzongkha language is culture. What made people think only Drukpa Kagyud is our religious culture. What made people think wearing gho is only promotion of culture. Everybody makes noises about people not speaking dzongkha but what about almost extinct Olepkha? Everybody made mountains out of anthill when people don’t wear gho and kira but nobody cares about Bjobs and Lhops preferring ghos to their dresses.
Who is responsible for such narrow definition of culture? Is it our monastic education system responsible for such narrow definition especially monkish education? Or is it our educated forefathers who believe in supremacy of culture of western Bhutan because most of them were either from west or settled in west. Or is our generation mistaking our nationally accepted way of life as only acceptable culture? May be all of these are correct. I was shocked when only Nyima District Dratshang in Pema Gatshel was converted into Kagyud. What made people think that Kagyud is superior to Nyingma. I was shocked when my wife told me sharchop will be not taught to our daughter despite being our mother tongue.
In some ways, some of our passive cultures are being colonized by dominant culture backed by influential group in the country. Today, we have dzongkha commission, culture department and home and cultural ministry. I haven’t seen Royal Academy of Performing Arts singing sharchop or nepali folk songs. I have never seen commission preserving khengkha or kurtoepkha diligently. So, it will be not wrong to say, promotion of narrow aspect of culture was promoted by our policy makers and administrators. Perhaps, the culture is what dominant society defines. And culture in future will be depending on what is handed over to our next generation.
People and state must understand that culture should be promoted holistically. One culture mustn’t be preferred over others. If dzongkha is our culture, so is nepali. If zhey of west is our culture, so is aloo of east. Our culture department must preserve diverse culture. Theymust promote sacred places of Mongar just like they promote sacred places of Paro. And promotion of other aspect of culture must go beyond tokenism. If concerned authorities restrict promotion of culture to all western Bhutan’s aspects of life, people will discard other cultures thus losing part of civilization. We have seen how Bon civilization was replaced by Buddhism because influential people of time chose to. We have read how Paganism was replaced by Christianity because of sophistication of its people and its superior military. In Bhutan, promotion of some culture is a major reason why other form of culture is on verge of extinction.