SubjectsTibet and Himalayas
The Driglam namzha is often described as Bhutan’s code of etiquette. Drig (སྒྲིག་) denotes order, norm and conformity. Thus, driglam literally means the way (ལམ་) of maintaining order while namzha (རྣམ་བཞག་) refers to a concept or system. Driglam namzha is thus a system of orderly and cultured behaviour, and by extension, the standards and rules that constitute it. The system also encompasses the zacha drosum (བཟའ་བཅའ་འགྲོ་གསུམ་), which refers to physical behaviours, including manners of eating, chewing and walking.
Local tradition often traces the origins of Bhutanese etiquette to the Buddhist vinaya or monastic codes of discipline. For instance, slurping while eating or prancing while walking are described in the vinaya as behavioural flaws that should be eschewed by monks and are considered unbecoming for a cultured person. Thus, in Bhutan good manners are to a great extent defined by Buddhist ethics of wholesome physical, verbal and mental conducts. In this respect, the concept of driglam, like beyzha (འབད་བཞག་) or jaluchalu (བྱ་ལུགས་ཆ་ལུགས་), refers in a broad sense to the good manners adopted by individuals that are heavily influenced by the concept of Buddhist good conduct.
As Buddhism spread through the Himalayas, such wholesome comportment was codified and implemented as norms of conducts in courts and monasteries alike. In Bhutan, the earliest effective codification and institutional level implementation of driglam as a formal code of conduct perhaps started with Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651) and his cohort. Throughout the centuries, their codes of etiquette were enforced in Bhutan’s administrative centres and state monasteries, and the common people emulated the centres in adopting the practices.
In modern times, the Bhutanese state has further promoted driglam namzha as a marker of Bhutanese identity. The Parliament discussed the topic many times before passing resolutions on its preservation and promotion, mainly to counteract the invasion of western culture. The growing concern about the decline of Bhutanese customs and need for strengthening of driglam namzha culminated in the royal decree of 16 January 1989, a milestone in the history of driglam namzha. Since then, driglam namzha has been considered an official set of ceremonial conducts for which special trainings were conducted. Several books were also published on the subject. Unfortunately, driglam namzha was viewed in some quarters as an authoritarian imposition of official culture, which reinforced hierarchy and existent power structures. Thus, it failed to receive the genuine and universal support it deserves in Bhutan. Although driglam namzha is taught at official programmes such as orientation sessions for fresh graduates entering government systems, there is much disinterest among the youth to take driglam namzha. It has also been criticized by international human rights activists as an imposition of mainstream Bhutanese culture on minority groups.
Driglam namzha, in essence, deals with eschewing certain physical, verbal and mental behaviours and adopting civil and courteous conducts of the body, speech and mind. Ideally, external behaviors should reflect wholesome values such as humility, self-control, calm and compassion while also displaying sensitivity and respect towards others. This is especially applicable to leaders and elders, as they are looked to as models for the people. By being courteous, one develops as an individual as well as provides a civilized mechanism for the harmonious functioning of society. It goes beyond the colours of scarves and numbers of bows that many people associate with driglam namzha, and carries intrinsic value in being an expression of civility, tact, propriety, decorum and elegance. By recognizing these values driglam namzha can be sustained and celebrated as part of unique Bhutanese heritage.
Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel in a series called Why We Do What We Do.