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 

18 thoughts on “Sharchop ngew culture

  1. Great work la. You reminded me to count mine and i got 64 ngews as of now. I am sure the list would go on….Thank you so much…informative piece and enjoyed reading ….
    Are yoy married to a Japnase woman?


  2. I am impressed! The Sharchop’s NGEWs are as numerous as their population. But I am told that the reputation of the Sharchops being the most populous is a fallacy. I am told that Khengpas outnumber all other ethnic groups. A large population of Khengpas can be found in Mongar, Dagana and some other parts of the country.

    What is your view on this?


    1. At Yeshey, I went through the raw data of last census of 2005 and I can firmly say that Tshangla (and not Sharchop, as this term is generic of everything east of Pelela) is the largest. However, I am unable to comment if Khengpas are effectively larger than the Tshanglas as the data I got did not provide any information on khengpas dispersed in other parts of the country other than the figure for Zhemgang. The places you mentioned, Monggar and Dagana, are in my view relatively small settlements with very small head counts. In addition to those two places there are Tashigang (Tongling), from where my mother comes, and Lhuntse (Tongling) in Gangzur gewog. Both the Tonglings have less than 100 people each. So pockets of khengpas outside Zhemgang are not large enough to bring the total up by any comparable measure.


  3. Sonam Jamtsho

    Dear Ata (not Sir because I could be one of your cousins as I am from Radhi, right next to Tongling 😉

    An informative piece as always. I would love to go through the academic version as well la.


  4. Karma Tenzin

    Recently started to read your columns.

    so much of learning from your write us. I would certainly recommend others, especially, my children to read as well to. I certainly liked this of yours ‘when you stop learning, you stop living’. Hope I produced it correctly.

    Any future articles on corruption, national security and geo-politics of Bhutan?


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