Sharchop ngew culture

In January of 2015, I took my family for a road trip across Bhutan – from Thimphu in the West to my native Tashigang in the East. The journey was “historic” for my two daughters, who were 17 and 12. They had never been to that region before. As we crossed the midpoint – the town of Bumthang in Central Bhutan, and entered into the eastern half of the country, I stopped the car frequently to greet my relatives.

My maternal relatives are the simplest and the most genuine people on Earth. Truly humbling to be with them.

My cousins, nieces, nephews and even distant uncles and aunts presented themselves in droves – and invited us to their houses. “I am your cousin,” a distant niece told my daughters. “Your father and my mother are khotkin-mathang (cross cousins)”. My daughters were amused. My wife just smiled. She has been through that before – during our first visit in 1992.

“Your father and I are like siblings because we are aata and uusa (parallel cousins),” said another. Then one of my aunts went, “You look so much like your abee (grandmother),” she told my younger daughter and gave a big bear hug as tears rolled down her cheek. “You should have known your grandmother. We are cousins but more like sisters. I really miss her. I think you are her reincarnation,” she added. “Promise me that you will come to meet your abee (grand aunt) again.”

Wherever we went we were greeted with genuine excitements and hospitality. In Tongling it was as if 3 days were declared as holiday. No one went to work. They all came to see us – bearing simple and honest gifts of eggs, maize, ara, tengma, butter tea, etc. There was so much laughter, tears of joy, memories of my late mother and that of grandfather whom they said I personified in every respect. We sang, danced, ate, drank and cherished the moments that were so beautiful that no amount of money can even dream of buying.

My daughters with ajang Kinga, who is my father’s father’s sister’s son. He hosted us in Tashigang

Perhaps more than any of Bhutan’s nineteen ethnic groups, the Tshanglas (also known as Sharchop in Dzongkha, the national language) of Eastern Bhutan celebrate large family networks. In fact there is a popular saying that “there is no end to how many ngew (relatives) a Sharchop will have.” That’s because relatives are acquired not only through bloodline but also through marriages of family members. For example, the village of my younger brother’s wife considers me as one of them. “You should have informed us earlier, we are sognu thur (one family),” said one villager in Kheni in Tashi Yangtse. I was visiting that area with my students when I was teaching in Sherubtse College. I was rather embarrassed that I forgot the norm.

Tashi Lebay – A dance that wishes for another such day. Hope it really brings some more of such times

The ngew culture also demands that ‘family’ relations be maintained till the 7th degree although now the norm is till the 4th degree. One of my cousins once counted how big we were based on the 7th degree rule. He came up with a figure for me: 2,400 relatives from 10 ethnic groups in 20 districts and extending beyond the borders to 5 countries of the globe. Hilarious? Not at all. I instead find it extremely wonderful. After all, what is life or happiness if it is not about a shared life, community or togetherness. When I was teaching in Kanglung I used to visit one relative every weekend and share meals, get to know the younger members that I had never met before and return to campus filled with enough food supply for the coming week. Those were some of the sweetest moments of my life. To walk into a village and discover that everyone was related to me in one way or another, what can you ask for more from life?

At the core of this extraordinary ngew culture is the kinship address system. Tshangla-lo has over 30 terms to address your kith and kin. (See the kinship map below). That is almost double as compared to other languages or dialects. The rich vocabulary is indicative of the strong bonding culture.

Using a kinship term does not just serve a mere referential purpose. My research shows that in calling someone ajang or khotkin or kota, a deeper inter-personal relationship is established, an identity is created and a social cohesion is set into motion.

Conversely, one could also assume (and I still have to verified this) that the lack of its usage would drift families and communities apart. That is already happening as people migrate to urban areas, as family income rises and there is less inter-dependence, and, of course, as imported terms such as “uncle”, “aunty” and “Sir” are used more and more.

After a couple of days in my two villages of Pam and in Tongling, my daughters had lost the count of how many cousins they had. “I think we have more than 100,” said one of them. But they were both certainly moved by the whole experience – especially the words of from my maternal uncle, Lepo, 82, who told them, “You may be ashamed of our living conditions. But this is where your father belong to. Come back again and if I am still alive, I will tell you where we come from. Your ancestry. You will be really proud to know that.”

The whole experience left an indelible mark on my daughters because on their Japanese side there is huge vacuum. They don’t know even one single maternal cousin. Japan has almost completely lost that ngew culture.

Hopefully, Bhutan never will.


NB – This article has been adapted from a course assignment piece. Anyone interested in the ‘academic’ version may drop into the mail box in the CONTACT page.

Eastern Bhutan is untouched by modernisation. People have still retained their innocence.


My great-grandfather was once unjustly outlawed by the local governor and driven out of our ancestral home. These people in Merak protected and sheltered my family for a decade. They consider me as their sognu (clan)


Inducting them into Bhutanese rural life which is a universe apart from Japan


The million dollar view from my land. You can see Bidung, Radhi, Bartsam and Yangyer and as far as Thrumshingla. I agreed to losing an acre for the farm road to pass through to get to the village.


In front of our ancestral home in Pam – The Tsorgon Phai 

Trust our own doctors

Earlier this year I had a mild discomfort in my upper abdomen that radiated to my back. I went to see Dr. Sonam Dukpa (at Menjong Diagnostic in Thimphu). He ran an ultrasound on me and found that I had a mild inflammation of my gallbladder. He packed me off with, “It happens. Nothing serious. No chilli or fats, lots of water and exercise. Come back only if you have fever. Not prescribing you anything.” Dr. Sonam often talks in phrases. I have known him for years. I went away little perplexed though. But I followed his advice. Drank lots of water (I still do), avoided chilli (I don’t eat meat) and, of course, walked for three full days – trekking to Athang Rukha.

A week later I happened to be in Bumthang where I took the opportunity to meet my family lama, Rangshikhar Rimpoche. In between talking about my siblings about who is where and how they were doing, I sought his advice; some divination to check if my life energy was running low. After going through several scriptures and his prayer beads he pronounced, “There is nothing bad happening to you. You will be alright from the 29th day of this month. Last year was astrologically a bad year for you. So, some residuals extending to few months this year,” he reassured me. He was as humourous as alwaus but he continued, “I think it is good that you fall sick sometimes because when you are healthy you forget your Lama, your family, your friends and, above all, to pray.” I burst out laughing. “Yes, Lama, you are absolutely right,” I replied, accepting it for it was true. I am bit careless.

Then a month later, transiting through Bangkok, I decided to see a doctor there. So I went to a hospital. I thought I might as well get a second opinion. The doctor there run the ultrasound and the blood test again. And found that my gallbladder was OK. Dr. Sonam Dukpa was right and so was my lama. The blood report, however, showed a slightly elevated bilirubin – indicating some problem with liver but not that high. Instead, he prescribed me some tablets to reduce my back pain – to be taken for 7 days.


Few days later in Chiang Mai, over a breakfast, I was chatting with a German filmmaker and a friend of mine, on what we were working on – in terms of films and documentaries. He told me that he was doing something on the failure of allopathy. He went, “I don’t mean that western medicine is flawed but pharmaceutical companies are driven by profit thereby making people dependent on drugs they produce. They even have doctors, on their payroll, all over the world, prescribing medicines that we actually don’t need. We are getting poisoned legally. The world is sicker than ever. Did you ever ask why?”

“Wait!” I thought, “I have just been prescribed with some tablets in Bangkok.” While he was still going on with all the global pharmaceutical scams I ran a search engine on the medicine I had started taking. And Lord Google gave a shocking verdict. “Not approved for USA and Canada as extended use can cause cardiac arrest, heart disease and lever failure.” “What?” I thought, “The doctor who diagnosed that I had high bilirubin prescribed me that?” Bad news: I had already taken one pill. Good news: I had not taken the other 6. I dumped the $50 worth of medicines, the $150 in consultation fees into the garbage. I also realised that a strip of antibiotics that costs Nu. 40 in Bhutan costs around Nu. 400 in Thailand.

Having found my mini ‘enlightenment’ I started to be more regular with my 4 km daily jogging routine. The pain began to subside. As for my elevated bilirubin I emailed the medical report to Dr. Tshewang Dolkar (a traditional medicine practitioner based in New Delhi) who sent me some herbal medicines. I am alright now.

Role model – His Majesty with the medical team that assisted during the delivery of Gyalsay. While it is fashionable to fly to Bangkok, our prince was born on the Bhutanese soil

I am sharing this story because I know many people rush to Bangkok or Delhi on a slightest medical issue. Many pregnant women fly just to deliver babies. Well, just be careful. There is an industry out there. I don’t mean to generalise. In fact we had an excellent Thai doctor who attended to my wife when she had that head injury some years back.

You can avail of great diagnostic services that they offer. I still do my annual health check-up in Delhi or in Bangkok. What I am saying is to be careful with excessive, or unnecessary, use of pharmaceutical products – especially antibiotics and vitamins. Ask what you have been prescribed. Cross check with Dr. Google. Can you type? Of course, you can, right? Do it!

And trust our own doctors in Bhutan who are not profit driven. They might ignore you, frown at you or scold you. Just close your ears but take their good advices. I am also happy that the Health Ministry has cautioned doctors to be less generous with prescriptions. For certain ailments you can also try the traditional medicines hospital in every district. Get the best of both worlds – western and Bhutanese.

And finally, do not forget to say your little prayer every day – and move.


The Life Guards – His Majesty, Her Majesty and the new-born Crown Prince with the medical practitioners of Thimphu.

Letter from Japan

A simple gesture can move a nation.

His Majesty with PM Takeshita

Twenty-six years ago, on a bleak, chillingly cold and wet February day of 1989, in Tokyo, the Fourth King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, made a ‘small’ gesture at the State Funeral of the Showa Emperor of Japan. That one simple act of humility would define the relations between the two monarchies.

Almost without exception, on that day the people of Japan were in mourning. At Shinjuku Gyoen in an open pavilion the heads of state, from superpowers to kings from small monarchies such as Bhutan, had gathered from around the globe for the State Funeral for Emperor Hirohito.


The regal State Funeral was held on a cold February day at the end of winter in Japan. Usually along the Pacific coast it is dry and sunny as spring replaced winter. But not that day. There was a misty, freezing and cold rain. It almost seemed as if the heavens were reflecting the grief of the Japanese people.

World leaders from 163 nations, some former foes of Japan from World War II, were officially and formally present or represented for the State Funeral of a political monarch of a geopolitical partner, the nation of Japan. US President George H Bush, French President Mitterrand, King Juan Carlos of Spain and others were there too – dressed in appropriate (for them) Eurocentric mourning black, and not the Japanese culturally correct mourning white or national garb traditional for mourning. They were also warmly insulated from the near freezing temperature in the two white tents.

His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck was there too but in his traditional Bhutanese attire – the humble knee-length gho. He wore no gloves, not hat, no coat, no muffler or anything but a simple, honest mathra gho to survive the 3-hour ceremony.

Crown Prince Naruhito has high regard for HM. In 2003 I had a short audience with him and the first question he asked was, “How is HM?” (It was just before 2003 military operations) 

As the ceremony progressed officials and leaders were called upon, one by one, to pay their respects towards the Showa Emperor’s casket. The VIPs got up, walked towards the imperial coffin, bowed to it – reluctantly in some cases – turned and bowed to acknowledge the new Emperor, Akihito. Then, their official duty done, most left in their limos.

His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck the King of Bhutan, when his name was called, stood up, walked solemnly towards the imperial casket, stopped and bowed deeply and longer – showing his deep compassion for the man who had been the Emperor. He then turned and bowed respectfully to the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, new Emperor Akihito.

Then instead of leaving, like many others, he returned to his seat on the icy stand. As other leaders paraded, bowed twice and departed, His Majesty sat there alone, and endured the biting cold, in dignified mourning – for hours until the ceremony ended.

HM with Emperor Akihito

NHK TV, Japan’s national broadcaster televised the entire State Funeral live and telecast it globally. One of the NHK cameras, on several occasions, went back to the lone figure of His Majesty in the VIP seating. The announcers and the audience began asking, kare wa darey deska? (Who is he?) Soon they found out, and was introduced as the young King of Bhutan. His Majesty was just 34.
The TV commentator also added that the Bhutan King genuinely shared the grief of all Japanese people and is staying until the end of the ceremony. This simple genuine gesture raised the mood of a grief stricken nation and teary smiles. His Majesty became very popular, which in turn led to Japanese people knowing about Bhutan. He received wide press coverage. A newspaper almost covered a whole page with his portrait.

Almost three decades later the Japanese people still talk with awe and fondness about that simple and genuine action of His Majesty the King. It generated immense goodwill, which continues to strengthen the bonds the Japanese and Bhutanese people even today.

An unofficial portrait of the King of Simplicity. After the abdication, His Majesty never travelled out to any country – leading a simple life that only He can do 

In 2006, His Majesty has gone on to make another ‘simple’ and yet profound gesture. He abdicated the Golden Throne of Bhutan in favour of His Majesty Jigme Khesar and also established democracy. Perhaps in the simple life that he now leads (he is seen cycling regularly, mingles with ordinary citizens and hitches rides on taxis) one can find an exemplary role model in the greatest monarch of our times. Truly the King of Simplicity – a real Pelden Drukpa.

And as His Majesty turned 60, an important age by Buddhist belief, one can only be proud of having been his subject and pray that the universe shower him with good health so that he continues to inspire, and cycle, and touch more lives and hearts – not just in Bhutan but in the whole world.

(A longer version of this article is published in Bodhisattva King – a book edited by Thierry Matthou and Tshering Tashi for the Sixtieth Birth Anniversary) 

(In 1989 I was a student in Italy from where I watched the telecast ‘live’ – with my wife translating the running commentaries. In 2003 when I visited NHK I met one of the production directors of that historic telecast who shared the story to me)


Early 2000s- In Khasadrapchu School during a mid-term plan review visits, HM sat down in the dusty football field to have some conversation with the children. After the chat was over HM asked a child to hold his hand and “help” him get up. The scene was so cute with the kid struggling to pull HM up. (Notice that HM is drinking out of a plastic cup the same tea also served to the kids)