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ALTERNATE NAMES: Bhot; Bhotia; Bhute
LOCATION: Bhutan, Nepal, and India (southern Himalayan region)
POPULATION: Over 1 million
LANGUAGE: Bhutia; Tibetan; Hindi, Nepali
RELIGION: Forms of Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Bhutanese; Buddhists; Hindus; Vol. 4: Nepalis; People of India


Bhutia (also Bhot, Bhotia, Bhute) is a generic term that identifies several socially unrelated groups of India's northern mountain rim. The name Bhutia, thought to be derived from "Bhot" or "Bod," which means "Tibet," reflects the Bhutia's origins. The Bhutia are believed to have emigrated southward from Tibet in the 9th century AD or sometime after and settled in the Himalayan mountain ranges along the Indo-Tibetan border. Although they are Tibetan in origin and retain Tibetan cultural traits, many Bhutia groups have adopted elements of Hindu culture. Bhutia society is transitional, representing a blending of Hindu-dominated South Asian and Buddhist Central Asian cultures. Although the various Bhutia groups of the Himalayas exhibit social, cultural, and religious differences, they do have certain features in common. All live in a mountain habitat and traditionally have been involved in trade across the Himalayas between South Asia and Tibet.


The Bhutias occupy a narrow belt of mountainous territory that lies along on the southern flanks of the Himalayas. This zone extends from the kingdom of Bhutan in the eastern Himalayas, through Nepal and the northern mountain states of India, to the mountains and plateaus of the Ladakh region of Kashmir. Population data for the Bhutia are unreliable, although their numbers exceed 1 million. They make up approximately 50% of Bhutan's population (approximately 400,000), and form minorities in Nepal (200,000) and India (200,000).

The Bhutia in the Garhwal region of India are the focus of this discussion. They live in three mountain districts known collectively as Uttarakhand (in 2008, the Garhwal and Kumaon regions of Uttar Pradesh became the 27th Indian state, known as Uttarakhand. Raputs form the main element in the state's population). In the north lie the main ranges of the Himalayas, with peaks reaching over 7,600 m (25,000 ft) above sea level. Much of this area is under permanent snow and totally uninhabitable. Bhutia settlements are found at altitudes up to around 4,500 m (15,000 ft) in valleys carved into the mountains by streams flowing in a general southwesterly direction. Winter conditions at these elevations are severe, and the Bhutia spend this time of year in the lower valleys.


The Bhutia speak various dialects of the Bhutia language, a member of the Tibeto-Burmese branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. The dialects found in Uttarakhand belong to the Central Bhutia group, and include Rankas, Chaudansi, and Darmi. Some Bhutia communities, such as the Joharis of Pithoragarh District, have forgotten their own dialects and use the language of their southern neighbors. All Bhutia groups are multi-lingual and know Tibetan, local hill (Pahari) dialects, and Hindi as well as their own tongue.


All Bhutia groups in the Himalayas have their own folklore and traditions. In Uttarakhand, both the landscape and folk culture are dominated by Nanda Devi. At 7,817 m (25,645 ft), the mountain Nanda Devi towers over the other peaks in the region. Like many other Himalayan peaks, the mountain is identified with a deity, the Hindu goddess Nanda Devi. For more than 1,000 years, central Himalayan rulers have legitimized their authority by claiming a relationship with Nanda Devi. Nanda Devi, a form of Shiva's consort Parvati, is the focus of a local cult and figures prominently in the life of the Bhutia and other peoples in the region. Folk songs are devoted to Nanda Devi, pilgrimages made in her name, and the goddess is honored at the Nandashtami festival.


Bhutia religion varies according to the specific Bhutia community involved. In Bhutan, for example, Bhutias are followers of the Tibetan form of Mahayana Buddhism. In the Central Himalayas, however, only the Jad Bhutia profess Buddhism. Other groups are Hindu, or their religion reflects a mixture of Lamaistic Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism. Hinduized groups such as the Johari Bhutia use the services of Brahmans while performing puja worship to the Hindu deities. Gabala, the god of trade, is among the most popular deities and is worshiped along with other Hindu deities such as Mahadev (Shiva) and Nanda Devi. Some gods (e.g., Saai and Laandey) are exclusive to the Bhutia, who also have their own clan deities. Ancestor worship is an important part of Bhutia life, and Bhutias also believe in ghosts and spirits. When disease or other misfortune befalls a community, a magician-priest becomes possessed and identifies the cause of the trouble. The villagers then perform the appropriate rites or sacrifices to appease the offended deity or spirit.


All the Hindu festivals are celebrated by the Bhutia of the Central Himalayas. Some have particular significance and are the occasion for religious fairs. An annual fair is held at Bageshwar in mid-January. Bageshwar lies at the confluence of the rivers Gomti and Sarju, and participants take ritual baths at this sacred place and offer water to Shiva in the Bagnath Temple. Bhutia traders and customers from the entire region attend the fair to buy and sell woolen clothing, shawls, carpets, ponies and other livestock, and miscellaneous goods. Some festivals that are exclusively Bhutia in nature center on the community's seasonal migrations. At the Lapsa festival, which falls in October when the Bhutia are leaving their summer quarters, prayers are offered to the goddess Nanda Devi for a safe journey down the mountains. Bikhid and Asadh Shankranti are festivals related to the spring migration to the summer pastures. The Losar, the Tibetan New Year, is also an important festival celebrated by the Bhutia community. Losoong, which marks Sikkimese New Year, is celebrated in December by Bhutias in Sikkim.


The Bhutias of Uttarakhand show a considerable degree of Hinduization in their life-cycle rituals. Horoscopes may be drawn up by Brahmans, and a naming ceremony is held about three weeks after birth. Male children undergo the mundan (head-shaving) ceremony when they are around three or four years old. Infants are carried around on the backs of their mothers or elder sisters, tied in place with a length of cloth. For the seasonal migrations between winter and summer quarters, infants in arms are usually placed in a cylindrical basket strapped to their mothers' backs. As soon as they reach six or seven years old, however, Bhutia children are expected to assume a role in the annual migration of the family and its herds.

The Bhutia cremate their dead, except for children and those who died of tuberculosis, smallpox, or leprosy. It is customary for the men of the community to each carry a log of wood to the cremation ground for the funeral pyre. The final funeral ceremony, called dudhung, is usually performed in the family's summer residence. As traditional customs disappear, the dudhung is giving way to the Hindu forms of sraddha rites. The sraddha is an important ceremony involving numerous rituals, a feast, and the giving of gifts to Brahmans in the name of the deceased. It is believed that if the rites are not performed properly, it will adversely affect the soul of the departed.


A traditional institution of the Bhutias is the Rang-Bang, a meeting place or dormitory for unmarried youth. Young girls and boys from the village (and surrounding villages) gather in the evenings in a vacant house for dancing, drinking, and music. A considerable degree of sexual license is permitted. Couples pair off and spend the night together, going their own ways in the morning. Such meetings sometimes lead to courtship and marriage. Care is taken not to violate any taboos such as having sexual relations with a member of one's own clan. Today, the Rang-Bang is rapidly disappearing as an institution under the increasing influence of Hinduism and Hindu social values.


Bhutias in Uttarakhand typically have two settlements, one for summer and one for winter. The main village is the summer settlement, situated at elevations between 3,500 and 4,500 m (11,500–15,000 ft), where the community lives from May to October. These villages serve as bases for pasturing animals in summer and trade across the mountains into Tibet. Women, children, and livestock are left there while the men travel to the Tibetan market centers. Houses are built with stone walls and slate roofs and set in the middle of a patch of cultivated land. The harsh winters in the highland valleys force the Bhutia to descend to lower elevations for part of the year. They spend November to March in villages situated at altitudes between 1,500 and 2,500 m (5,000–8,000 ft). These winter quarters are not exclusively Bhutia settlements. Bhutia live in villages alongside Brahmans, Rajputs, Shilpkar, and other castes of the area. The more affluent among the Bhutia have both houses fully furnished, but most people must transport all of their household goods between the two residences every time they move.


The Bhutias of Uttarakhand are divided into eight subgroups based on factors such as religion, territory, and dialect. Each subgroup is again divided into clans, lineages, and sublineages, which serve to regulate marriage. The Johari Bhutia, for example, are defined on a territorial basis (they inhabit the Johar Valley). They marry within the Johari community, but are divided into 14 exogamous clans. Being the most Hinduized of the Bhutias in the region, they also have three endogamous social classes (Nitwal, Bharet, and Kunkiya) that function much like Hindu castes. The Kunkiya are regarded as ritually impure by the Nitwal and Bharet groups, who do not interdine or intermarry with them. Cross-cousin (i.e., father's sister's daughter, or mother's brother's daughter) marriages are preferred. Formerly, Bhutias had considerable freedom in selecting partners, but arranged marriages are becoming more common. "Bride-price" is paid and marriages solemnized according to Hindu rites. Women have traditionally had a considerable degree of freedom and equality in Bhutia society. However, as Bhutia communities come more under the influence of Hinduism, women are slipping into the lower status assigned them by Hindu society.


The dress of Bhutias varies throughout the region, although many groups resemble the Tibetans in their appearance. In Bhutan, Bhutia men wear long, loose-sleeved robes (ko) tied at the waist. Women wear the kira, a woven dress fastened at each shoulder by silver buckles. In Uttarakhand, as elsewhere in Bhutia country, clothes are of wool and usually made at home by Bhutia women. Male dress consists of tight-fitting trousers, a long coat that fastens on one side of the neck, woolen boots, and a white turban. The turban is sometimes replaced by a round "hill" cap or, at higher altitudes, by the warmer Tibetan-style hat. The traditional female dress is the Chyung-bala. The bala is a skirt, and the chyunga is a tunic-like smock that is open down the sides to the waist. A full-sleeved blouse is worn under the chyunga. A pair of embroidered boots and a white sash worn around the waist completes the outfit. A white, hood-like cap, multi-colored at the back and reaching down to the waist, is worn on the head. Jewelry includes earrings, nose rings, and an array of necklaces and chains around the neck.


The staple food of Bhutias is rice, supplemented by millet, barley, wheat, and, in some areas, potatoes. Bhutias, whether Buddhist or Hindu, are nonvegetarian and eat beef, pork, and mutton. A typical meal in Bhutan might consist of thugpa, a meat soup prepared with herbs, red rice, and a meat curry or omelet. The Johari Bhutia of Uttarakhand have abandoned beef-eating, but still relish other meats. Lentils and vegetables, along with chutneys, are commonly taken at meals. The local version of Tibetan tea—made with tea, butter, and salt—is known as namkin chai. The butter is derived from the milk of goats, zebu cattle, and the yak. Bhutias can drink alcohol, both liquor distilled from rice and molasses and fermented rice-beer. Chang, a beer made from millet or other grains, is popular. Liquor is also offered when worshiping spirits and local deities.


Education levels and literacy vary among the numerous Bhutia groups of the Himalayan region. Bhutan lags behind India and Nepal in the area of education, literacy among Bhutanese adults in Bhutan standing at 47% (2005). Compared to this, literacy among the Bhutias of Sikkim is 67.9% (according to the 2001 Census of India), above the norm among the Scheduled Tribes of India. In Uttarakhand, where literacy in the state stands at 72% (Census of India, 2001), the attitude of the Bhutias to education is positive, and the literacy rate is higher than the average for tribal groups in India. Nonetheless, the yearly migrations are disruptive to education, and drop-out rates are high, especially among the children of lower-income Bhutias.


Many Bhutia customs reflect the influence of Tibetan culture on Bhutia life. In the days of Tibetan trade, the Bhutias were exposed to lamas and their teachings. They would build "Mana Walls," stone walls with the Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum inscribed on the boulders, for the safety of the village and its inhabitants. Bhutias believe that this mantra has great powers to protect against evil spirits and misfortune. The Bhutias are also greatly influenced by the Tibetan dragon symbol, which features as a prominent design in their handicrafts. Like virtually all Himalayan peoples, the Bhutia have a tradition of folk songs in which the mountains figure prominently. Dancing is popular, with both sexes usually participating. Some dances are performed at the time of weddings, and others contribute to the evening's festivities at Rang-Bang gatherings.


Bhutias were traditionally engaged in pastoralism and trade across India's northern border. They would carry food grains, gur (molasses), utensils, clothing, woolen goods, and assorted manufactured items north into Tibet. There they would barter these goods for salt, wool, borax, musk, and yak-tails. The closing of the Tibetan border in the 1960s destroyed this trade. Bhutias were forced to turn to cultivation, their secondary occupation. In the Uttarakhand region, however, Bhutia land holdings were commonly too small for self-sufficiency, and many people had to seek other employment. Today, about one-third of the area's Bhutias are engaged in agriculture, and a similar number are involved in weaving and embroidery as a cottage industry. Some have turned to manual labor, and only a very small percentage of Bhutia continue in their traditional occupation of trade and commerce.


There are no sports that can be identified with the Bhutia community in general. However, certain groups have developed individual skills. The Bhutanese, for example, are well known for their archery skills, and they stage competitions for festivals and national holidays.


Living mostly in isolated villages and leading semi-nomadic lives, few Bhutias have access to modern forms of entertainment. However, their lives are enriched by the activities associated with religious fairs and festivals, social events, and folk traditions such as dancing and singing.


Bhutia women in the Central Himalayas have a reputation as excellent weavers and embroiderers. Not only do they make their own clothes, but in the past they traded their blankets, rugs, and shawls to Tibet. Today, many women continue to produce these items for local markets as part of a thriving cottage industry.


Bhutia communities are found in the Himalayas from Bhutan to Ladakh. Each group faces problems that reflect its specific social, cultural, economic, and political context. The Bhutia, for example, are well aware of the deforestation and environmental degradation that is rampant in the Himalayan foothills. Bhutia in Uttar Pradesh are deeply involved in the Chipko movement, a popular environmental movement aimed at preventing the cutting down of trees. Historically, all Bhutia groups depended on trade with Tibet. The political events that brought an end to this trade have resulted in profound changes in the life of the Bhutias of Uttarakhand. They do not have the land to support themselves and so must purchase food grains. They have also seen a decline in the numbers of their livestock. The cutting off of wool supplies from Tibet has affected their weaving industry, leading to impoverishment for many. The plight of the Bhutia was recognized by the state government, which designated them a Scheduled Tribe in 1967. Many Bhutia have abandoned their traditional occupations and turned to labor, office work, and government service.

In 2008 Baichung Bhutia, well-known international soccer player from Sikkim and currently captain of India's soccer team, was solicited to run with the Olympic torch in India, but he refused to carry the torch to show support for the Tibetan independence movement. "I sympathize with the Tibetan cause. I'm against violence but I thought I should stand by the Tibetan people in their fight," Bhutia said. His actions won him praise from the Tibetan community and its supporters in India.


Specific issues relating to gender vary considerably among the Bhutia. For example, Buddhism treats women as equal to men, and so Bhutia women in Bhutan, where the official religion is Buddhism, fare differently than their counterparts in the Indian Himalayas, especially among those groups who have adopted Hinduism. In the Indian state of Sikkim, for instance, though agricultural chores are shared by men and women on a relatively equal basis, women are primarily responsible for taking care of poultry, hauling water, cooking, and other household chores. Bhutias are classed as a Scheduled Tribe in most states in India and, as such, are not subject to the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955. Custody of children and of household property is determined by customary law, which relies on elders to resolve custody issues. Child marriage and the dowry system are unknown among the Bhutia, though daughters have no rights of inheritance to their fathers' properties, even when there are no sons. All land is registered in the male's name, Bhutia society being patrilineal in nature. Bhutia women who marry outside of their ethnic group forfeit their rights to any property.

Bhutia women in Sikkim tend to have benefited best from access to education with over 60% of them being classed as literate, whereas in Ladakh, where the status of Bhutia women is generally low, many women have never attended school at all.


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Prasad, R. R. Bhutia Tribals of India: Dynamics of Economic Transformation. New Delhi: Gian Publishing House, 1989.

Shashi S. S. The Nomads of the Himalayas. Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan, 1979.

Singh, K. S. ed. People of India. Vol. 3: The Scheduled Tribes. Delhi and Oxford: Oxford University Press with the Anthropological Survey of India, 1994.

—by D. O. Lodrick