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 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.
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.
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.