The bomena night dating practice found in central and eastern parts of Bhutan is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented folk traditions of Bhutan. Known varioiusly as chyiru shelni (ཕྱི་རུ་བཤལ་ནི་), or prowling at night in Dzongkha, nachung tsholwa (ན་ཆུང་འཚོལ་བ་) or searching for girls in Chocha-ngacha, yamlang deley or going out as young men in Tshangla, and bomena or in search of girls in Bumthang-Khengkha, this practice was the main form of dating and courtship practice that existed in pre-modern Bhutan. The practice is also attested in early societies in Japan and some parts of Tibet. Thus, it is not unique to Bhutan but the Bhutanese are perhaps the most recent group to see this practice decline with the arrival of urbanization, more modern lifestyles, and the growing shift towards more conscientious and consensual modes of romance and courtship.
In part due to the lack of proper understanding of the practice and partly due to the influence of westernized urban bias towards the primitive folk practices of rural communities, modern Bhutanese urbanites, particularly those who are engaged in development and gender issues and who carry out their conversations in English, have inaccurately used the misnomer ‘night hunting’ in English to refer to this traditional practice although neither the word ‘night’ nor the word ‘hunting’ exists in the original terms used to refer to it in places where it is practised. The misnomer leads to a serious misinterpretation of the practice and leads the audience to think that there is a degree of exploitation and abuse, objectification, and animality involved as the word ‘hunting’ would imply.
In real practice, bomena is a practice of young men walking out at night to see a girl for romance or sexual relationship. As the traditional Bhutanese cultural context did not provide adequate space for courtship, let alone open dating like in modern westernized cultures, this practice of seeking companionship under the cover of the dark was the most feasible alternative. Young men, thus, would sneak out of their houses after their families went to bed. While some may have a prearranged date to go to and thus travel alone to the young woman’s house, others may be simply trying their luck and go in groups. Although they start in groups and may help each other in getting into the houses, they slowly disperse as each find his way to his intended young woman.
As most Bhutanese houses are two or three storied buildings with human habitation mostly on the top floor, getting into the house is often a great challenge. Young men would often carry an instrument to undo the wooden latches of the main door or find a way through a window or from the roof through the attic. The lack of internal door locks and the easily moveable window shutters in traditional Bhutanese farmhouses helped the young men find a way in. If a young man had already set a date with the young woman, she could help him by leaving the door unlatched. The houses are also often guarded by fierce dogs at night and the young man have to overcome this obstruction, which they may do by befriending the dog in advance.
Once in the house, a new visitor has to also figure out where the intended young woman is sleeping, generally in stealth under the cover of darkness. This is not easy as many traditional Bhutanese families all slept in one large room, which is used as the kitchen, living and bedroom. A search could be foiled with a wrong step or movement, with visitors stepping on the family cat or bumping the kitchen utensils, thereby waking up the whole family. If a strict parent is aware of the visitor, he or she may light the candles and chase him away or even throw sticks or other things in his direction. However, most parents accept the culture and ignore the intruder unless the young woman complains. This is often the case if the parents roughly know who the intruder is and wishes to accept him as a groom. By the same token, the parents may sternly chase away a visitor who they do not wish to have as a suitor. In rare cases, there are also accidents as a result of escaping angry parents in a rush.
The male visitors often figure out where the young woman goes to bed by studying the family at other times such as Losar celebrations when the young people go on drinking rounds singing and dancing even after families have gone to bed. Such occasions give them the opportunity to spot where different members of the family sleep. However, there is no way of fully ensuring where the intended young woman is sleeping if the visitor is visiting her for the first time. Thus, stories abound of young visitors approaching the wrong bed such as the granny’s and being yelled to get out or of being gently chided for the mistake or even of quietly enjoying the visit.
If the visitor is successful in finding the young woman without disturbing the rest of the family, he may still have to make a lot of effort to persuade her to accept him. At this point, the young woman also finds out who the visitor is and tests his earnestness. First visits often involve a great deal of persuasion of the young woman to let him in to share her bed. One tactic is to propose long term commitment and marriage, especially if the boy comes from a good family. This has led to the Bhutanese proverb about boys “promising even the whole estate at night”. If the young woman accepts, the boy spends the night with her and normally consummates the relationship with her. If she refuses, he may go on to try another young woman or return home.
The successful prowler normally leaves the house before daybreak without the knowledge of the parents. If he has overslept and is caught, he may be made to take the hand of the young woman or given a warning never to return again. There are many hilarious stories about how young women dexterously smuggle their boyfriends out of the house if they have overslept. If the couple wishes to announce their relationship, the visitor may deliberately stay late. They may do so also by coming to the house before the family has gone to bed. If the family accepts the relationship and their relationship is made known, the couple are considered to be married.
Night prowling was a practice infused with much anxiety and excitement for young people. Thus, it was seen as rite of passage which young men undertake as sign of maturity. As it can involve a lot of rivalry and competition, young men also play pranks on each other. The culture does not entail as much of the emotional stress common to the romantic courtship and love affair buts it also has less of seriousness and sensitivities of human love. However, one cannot generalize all nigh courting and visits as jovial and sexual encounters without strong emotional feelings. Most marriages in societies where this dating culture is practiced resulted from initial encounters at night following this culture.
Towards the end of the 20th century, new Bhutanese elites, primarily government functionaries who visited rural communities on their duty, used this dating tradition as an excuse to take undue advantage of rural girls. Facilitated by local officers, who would set the rendezvous, they would visit the girls or have the girls brought to them through coercion or provision of incentives. The girls are sometimes falsely promised a good future in the city. The officials justified their actions by comparing it to the traditional culture of night prowling. This has led to many cases of single motherhood and children without fathers, who cannot avail citizenship according to current Bhutanese law.
As a result, bomena culture has come to be viewed in very contrasting terms. In some quarters, it is viewed as an exciting archaic practice of philandering and thus accepted by many urban men. Yet others disdain it as an exploitation of young women and a chauvinistic practice of a patriarchal society. More recent movements such as the campaign for gender equality and female empowerment led by international and urban Bhutanese women have also had an impact. They painted a negative picture of it and presented it as primitive practices antithetical to social progress based on the identification of this culture with the exploitation of young rural women.
Today, this Bhutanese dating tradition has become a topic of such amusement and interest, derision and discussion that it has attracted even serious research and study. In the meantime, the bomena culture itself is disappearing rapidly due to socio-economic and technological changes. Young people today mostly adopt contemporary global practices of writing love letters, meeting on social media forums or going out on more public dates to start relationships. Night prowling is also no longer viable as most Bhutanese houses have metal doors and window latches which cannot be opened easily. The rise of burglary has also rendered the intrusion into other peoples’ homes a very risky venture. Besides, almost all houses are electrified giving parents the ability to switch on the light instantly and chase the visitor away and reveal his identity. With the onslaught of globalisation, the bomena culture has now been rendered outdated and irrelevant, and is virtually a vanishing memory of the past.