The evolution of the dating and marriage culture in Bhutan
Courtship and marriage in Bhutan have seen a huge shift since the child marriage era to the love letters writing in the 90s and now the urban dating period.
‘This guy from work today said that he loves me,’ said a shocked Belgian friend who is in Bhutan as a volunteer
‘Our generation ‘proposes’ and not ‘ask out’,’ joked Rinchen in response.
‘Unlike the current Gen Z generation, there is a thin line between ‘I like you’ and ‘I love you’ for many who grew up in previous generations and haven’t had exposure to foreign culture,’ I added
This was a casual conversation in a cosy corner of a café among a group of friends catching up.
It can be observed that the youth of Bhutan have caught up on the words and practices common in the modern dating culture like ‘talking’, ‘ask out’, ‘official relationship’ and ‘hook-up’. Marriage in the traditional or western way and grand receptions are also increasingly seeing the light of the day in recent years. However, it hasn’t always been the case in Bhutan.
Courtship and marriage in Bhutan have seen a huge shift from the child marriage era to the present modern dating day. In the olden days, many unique marriage practices were present in different parts of the country. There was Ngenzhung – a custom of arranged marriages existing in lower Kheng villages of Ngangla and Bjoka, Chungngen – childhood engagement between newly born babies proposed by the parents or relative with a promise to encourage them to marry in the future. And then, there was Serga Mathang Kothkin (Golden cousins) - cousin marriages prevalent in eastern Bhutan. In the central and western parts of the country, parents belonging to the higher social class usually arrange the marriages of their children with others in the same circle to multiply their wealth. All these traditional practices amounted to less courtship or dating but directly into marriages.
That doesn’t mean that there was a dearth of marriages based on mutual affection. Based on the account of our grandparents’ stories, men and women flirted in the field while working. A man would make a pass at a woman and if she reciprocates, then he progresses to the next level by bringing her a gift (silver or gold plated betel nut boxes and clothes were the most common). This culminated into moving either into the man or the woman’s family home and they would be considered married. No celebration or signing of documents — the Marriage Act of Bhutan only came into being in 1980.
In some cases, the tease during the day developed into an arrangement to meet at night. The foundation of the much-popularized ‘night-hunting’ culture in Bhutan. It isn’t that any man can knock at a woman’s window at night and she’d let you in. The exchanges happen during the day between two people attracted to each other and then proceeds into the night.
In the 1950s, public schools operated by Bhutanese for Bhutanese were established and modern education began. The schools and colleges that emerged were co-educational. By the late 80s and 90s, Bhutanese saw their brothers and sisters writing love letters to the person of their interest. Those were the days when boys and girls would sit in groups with an English dictionary in hand to write a love letter! The word ‘propose’ came into the courtship culture around this time.
Just like the professional postman, a friend of the man called the ‘postman’ brings the proposal to the woman either verbally or as a written letter and goes on to fix ‘dates’ later to further the relationship. The ‘dates’ then were walks where you wouldn’t even dare to hold each other's hands.
Back then, many students studied in boarding schools and receive packed food from their parents once in a while. Sharing that with your ‘boyfriend/girlfriend’ is equivalent to the modern-day of 'taking someone out'.
Because the word ‘love’ is synonymous with solely romantic love to this first literate generation, people shied away from saying it in public and said it only to their boyfriend or girlfriend. The proposal itself came with the word love – ‘Dorji gi choe lu ga way lo mey – Dorji loves you’) – there was no transition of dates from the 'like' phase to the 'love' phase and then marriage. The first date in itself is a result of a ‘love proposal’ that many from this generation have experienced. After completing their studies together, they settled down as married couples. This was when court marriages took place as a marriage certificate was necessary for the census registration. Marriages were simple with no big fat wedding.
Then came the millennials and the Gen Z creating their love stories and writing their own rules for marriage with urban dating. With the launch of the Internet and television services in 1999, the Bhutanese were exposed to foreign culture. This exposure and influence have hugely shaped the lifestyle of the youths of Bhutan including the dating culture.
Dating and courtship in Bhutan among the youths today is pretty much the same experience as in other countries. The majority are seen to follow the phases of a relationship practised in other countries going from ‘seeing each other’ to ‘dating’ and being in an official relationship. Add the ‘talking stage’ to that for relationships that begin online — thanks to mobile phones.
Unlike most of the previous generations where couples marry as soon as they get a job, the current generation is delaying marriage and have more than one relationship before taking the plunge. They are also seen dating and marrying people from different ethnicities unlike in the past.
In addition to the court marriage where a marriage certificate is obtained, more celebrations are seen today. Young couples are having wedding ceremonies in the traditional Bhutanese way (something only the old money families did in the past) and having a reception like many other countries. While most of the married couples stay in a joint family with their parents, there is an increasing number choosing a nuclear family life.
For a country still known to many as a land of monks and monasteries, Bhutan is one of the most mesmerizing countries adapting to modern culture while keeping its roots intact. And the dating and marriage culture is one of the many aspects of this tiny kingdom that saw its share of intriguing evolution contributed by globalization and modernization over the years.