Bhutan music Dungchen

The Musical Trail of Bhutan: Reliving the Past of the Eastern Himalayas

Bhutan music and dancing

Music has always connected us for many ages. In today’s times, we listen to music in order to relax. We could never have imagined music giving a new path of discovery, as in Bhutan. Bhutan: The Land of the Thunder Dragon has a deep-rooted connection with the strings of sound. It isn’t just a mere blend of beats and rhythms. It has a connection to the mind and soul embodied within the audience. There are many social values, chronicles recited by the teller in a tune. These ballads have passed on by generations. Therefore, it has great significance not only to an individual but to the whole community.

The traditional Bhutanese folk songs involve us in deep thought, disconnecting us from reality. In addition, the teller and listener create an interactive bond. This allows the essence of music and its intention to have a long-lasting effect. Meanwhile, thoughtfulness is the key aspect of their music. In order to emerge with various perspectives.

Bhutans’ music can bifurcate into many subgenres, from old folklore to a hint of modern fusion. Traditional music has been part of Bhutan till now. On the other hand, modern music has also gained a wide popularity. For now, let us see the different types of music in Bhutan.

Traditional Music

Songs and Music of Bhutan
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Folk Music

It plays an integral part in including the audience while transferring knowledge. Eventually, having a motive to change minds. Some listen to be in the moment and, for some, it brings about a change within themselves. The demographic of the audience varies from elders to children. The lyrics are composed in their local languages “Dzongkha” and “Choke”. These songs vary from one area to another, with slight variations. Furthermore, they usually include various forms of dance performances. Folk music mainly has a social and historical context with a message which should reach out to the public. Therefore, it is a serious business to involve people for a long span of time. So, to put up such a grand show, everything should be perfect, such as facial expressions, gestures, movements, etc. Furthermore, there are many subtypes of folk music.

The instruments used in both traditional Bhutan folk and modern music are : Lingm, Chiwang, Dramnyen. The lingm is a six-holed flute that has two types: the dong lingm and the zur lingm. The dramnyen is a type of seven-stringed lute with a long fretless neck. The chiwang is a type of fiddle. Meanwhile,in Boedra, it symbolizes a horse.


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Boedra is one of the traditional folk musics in Bhutan. It developed in the 17th century and is sung during festivals such as tsechue and other important occasions. Furthermore, it originated from Lhodra Dzong in Tibet via the Silk Road. For instance, trade played an important role in transmitting art. Back then, music was considered one of the modes of communication. The Tibetans earlier used to sing folk songs, boezhay and Bhutanese drukzhey, leading to the spread of Boedra . Over time, the influence of Bhutanese culture led to the complete evolution of music. As a result, Boedra has differed from Boezhey in many ways. There are other different origins of Boedra. One of them states that Boed Garps popularised them, who travelled through villages on official tours. Boedra or the Melody of the Boed Garps is the name of the song that they sang.

Most of the time, Boedra is accompanied by dance performances. During the performance, the dancers, including both male and female, form a circle. These dance performances have a special essence, which is the uncertainty of the steps. The dancers are never in sync but their movements are in accordance with the rhythm of the song.


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Zhungdra, which means The Principal Melody, is one of the most vital subgenres in traditional Bhutan folk music. It emerged with Boedra during the 17th century. Yet, Zhungdra is considered to be the folk music of the centre of the valleys and Boedra to have evolved from Tibetan court music. It is tough to understand Zhungdra as it includes more Tibetan words. It is challenging to sing as well as understand Zhungdra. Even trained singers find it difficult to execute the melodies of Zhungdra. Hence, it has less popularity among the younger generation.

The Zhungdra can be dance-oriented. It is done by forming a line and holding hands facing the guests of honour, as a sign of respect. They move in a slow, synchronised motion, with the flow of the lyrics.

Zhey Zhem

Zhey Zhem
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Zhey Zhem include the elements of both Zhungdhra and Boedra in the melody and rhythm of the dance. They are well choreographed vocal performances. Moreover, they are performed only during specific local festivals. The Zhey is executed by men, which is quick-stepped, whereas the Zhem is presented by women, which is more of a flowing movement. They revive the moments lived in Bhutan’s past. Hence, considering itself to maintain the authenticity of their glorious past for decades. Originally, they were done barefoot without any sort of particular dress code, until the 1970’s. Further, wearing of long gowns, headgear and traditional boots were and still are adorned.

Contemporary Zheys vary regionally. Zheys is the longest of the songs. Although on other occasions,the Zhey performers perform the shorter versions of Zheys. The coming of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to Gasa in 1616 identifies the composition of Zhey. There are major and minor zheys. Major zheys include Goen Zhey of Gasa, Nub Zhey of Trongsa, Woochupai Zhey of Paro. In addition, a few of the minor zheys are Auley of Laya, Locho of Sha, Bonghur Zhey of Haa.

The Goen Zhey is of central importance among all zheys. Although most Zheys, like Wang Zhey, Nub Zhey, Talopai Zhey and Paropai Zhey developed following the coming of Zhabdrung from Tibet in 1616. Nub Zhey is one of the longest Zheys, comprising twenty-five different episodes, each lasting a minimum of five minutes. Goen Zhey consists of twenty-one episodes and the Layapai Aulay of over fifteen episodes.


Tsangmo is very popular in Bhutan, and known for its literary composition. Interpersonal communication, in a call and reply fashion, is its main aim. The narrator must engage with the opponent, who responds to the subject of love, hate, abuse or ridicule. Consequently, the debate will end with an announcement of a winner or a draw . The usage of metaphors and symbols would convey a clear picture of the message.

The structure of Tsangmo is fine. It consists of four lines with two couplets. It self-contains each couplet. The first usually makes a statement or describes a scenario. The second one makes a statement or a conclusion based on the first. Tsangmo cannot be danced but only sung.


Lozey, Ornaments of Speech, is similar to Tsangmo but has their differences as well. Both men and women more often recite it rather than sing. However, the oral transmission of the recitation should prevent being monotonous in order to make it interactive. The structure of Lozey is irregular and it can be either long or short. Lozey is of two kinds: one, a narration, usually referring to a legend; the other, an exchange of feelings, or different opinions.

The dzongkha speaking communities of western Bhutan commonly witness Lozey. It is also another form of entertainment. A rich oral poetic composition creates the Lozey. Furthermore, for the most part, it involves culture, tradition and literature.

Religious Music

Religious music

Bhutan is primarily a Buddhist country. Buddhist teachings and rituals heavily influence the country’s religious music. Dance accompanied with masks and costumes portrays the lyrical substance, and includes saint biographies as well as chants. The monastic music is, in fact, Bhutan’s most well-known music in the world, and it’s a beautiful sight to see when the monks sing and perform it.

The Cham dance is a form of worship which is a part of Tibetan Buddhism. The founder and Lama of Bhutan, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, was the one who had introduced the masked dance in Bhutan. Tsechus, or monastic feasts, hold these performances. The monks use traditional instruments during the dance performances.

The Cham dance represents Buddha’s teachings, good triumphing over evil as few of the themes. Many of these religious songs are sung in ‘Choke’.

Modern Music

A picturesque image
A serene view of Bhutan


In Bhutan, popular songs and music, known as Rigsar, began to emerge in the late 1960s and have steadily grown into a new culture. On the other hand, it is not a logical evolution of the folk song tradition. As a result, rather than political or geographical, sociological reasons describe their origin.

Modern music discontinues the link between nature and the theme of the subject. They are extremely popular, especially among youths. In rural places, many are progressively singing them. Because they are far more readily available than traditional tunes. Many of the students, college graduates and teachers compose Rigsar songs. The themes of these songs reflect their minimal link with religious teachings.

A lover speaks to his or her beloved in the majority of Rigsar song recitals . However, in terms of understanding, visuals, they fall short of the depth of classic songs. Rigsar songs focus strongly on individual thoughts. This shift in focus from collective to inner awareness reflects the growing urban society. On the other hand, old social connections and ties are rapidly disappearing.

The earliest instance of Rigsar songwriting originates from the late 1960s. The first modern Bhutanese song was Zhendi Migo, influenced by Sayonara, a song from the Hindi film ‘Love in Tokyo.’



Group participation is one of the distinct features of traditional songs and dances. People unfamiliar with the tradition may think it possible for any individual to perform. However,a group is always associated with a dance rather than just an individual. By their participatory quality, traditional songs directly engage the audience. Furthermore, dancing does not discriminate. Irrespective of their status, people of all aspects of life can attend a dancing session. It is usual to find the king and queens or ministers dancing with ordinary people.

On the other hand, group participation has very limited accommodation in modern songs . Lyricists never visualize a choreography that would blend with their songs. Besides, Rigsar songs are mostly solos. Rigsar songs are, moreover, composed in isolated studios. They are mainly for commercial purposes. Moreover, sales are their target for the audience. The audience is more attracted to the creation of such a mechanical medium.

Religious Values

Religious values

Buddhism has a significant impact on Bhutanese culture. All societal ideals are based on Buddhism. Cultural and social values are often identical. Since religious principles influence Bhutanese values, ethics, and rules of conduct.
The importance of human life is one of the most common spiritual themes in folk songs. Folk songs often address impermanence, which is important to Buddhist teachings. Life is impermanent. As a result, everyone is reminded of the significance of leading a moral and fulfilling life.

Many passages sung are the narratives of saints’ and prominent figures’. They include repeated messages specifying the importance of the sacrifice of worldly riches to gain spiritual goals. A variety of symbols and metaphors express them.

Bhutanese always emphasize good auspices. Every occasion must start and conclude on a good note. The importance of an auspicious beginning or end to any event is of important social value. Some songs are solely written to achieve this goal. Tashi Tashi is the song that always ends the singing and dancing events. This song has a few different versions. These songs express prayers for a good crop, plenty of rain. It concludes with a wish for everyone to gather in a spirit of satisfaction and well-being next year.


The fading history of Bhutan

The traditional folk and Rigsar songs promote different values in their own way. However, due to modernization, the youth of Bhutan prefer modern music under the influence of other cultures. Since it’s clear for them to understand as well as learn such notes. As a result, the spread of Rigsar songs poses a risk to the values and sustainability of traditional songs and music, as well as traditional Bhutanese values.

Even though Rigsar songs are in popularity, traditional songs have their own significance. Hence, the rich culture and heritage of Bhutan should reach out to the younger generation. The Royal Academy of Performing Arts (RAPA), Royal University of Bhutan Institute of Language and Cultural Studies (ILCS), Music of Bhutan Research Centre (MBRC), The Bhutan Foundation, and others are among the institutions that promote traditional music. The youngster’s choices, as well as the rise of films and television, have influenced modern popular music. The unified performance of musical significance and practice in Bhutan, on the other hand, is wonderful and even dreamlike.

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