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Written By

Bianca de Loryn

College/Division

College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

1 June 2021

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11 December 2020 is International Mountain Day

What is life like in Bhutan? Linguistics PhD candidate Pema Wangdi tells us more about growing up in a country with some of the tallest mountains in the world, how people used to find love and why prayer flags matter.

The Kingdom of Bhutan is one of the highest countries in the world, with elevations from 200 metres up to 7,000 metres. The steep mountains and deep valleys have turned Bhutan into a sanctuary for many rare plants and animals — such as the red panda and the clouded leopard — and they have helped to create a unique society with 19 different native languages.

“I have always been fascinated by how human languages work,” Pema says, who was born and raised in Bhutan. From day one in school, he had to learn two new languages — the national language Dzongkha, and English. At that time, languages were simply a tool for him to get into university, and to study economics.

From economics to linguistics

However, there are lots of economy graduates in Bhutan. So, when Pema applied for a job with the Royal Government of Bhutan, he was asked to work on dictionaries and language materials from English to the national language Dzongkha, Classical Tibetan, and other languages of Bhutan.

His job also brought him to a number of communities in Bhutan that would all have their own language. “I learned that all the indigenous languages of Bhutan are closely related, but distinct,” he says. “That is when I developed a passion for studying the many languages of Bhutan and comparing them with the national language, Dzongkha, and with Classical Tibetan.” In 2001, he left Bhutan for three years to study linguistics in Australia. “I am the first person from Bhutan to undergo a formal training in descriptive linguistics,” he says.

Pema Wangdi
Mountain peaks in Bhutan
PhD candidate Pema Wangdi while doing research in Bhutan

People are losing their mother language

While working in the mountains of Bhutan, he made a discovery that worried him. He noticed that the young people in a village close to where he grew up started to lose their native language, Brokpa. “As soon as they moved out of their communities, they started to speak our language — not their own language,” Pema says. “I thought, ‘my language is trying to kill that language’.”

When a language becomes unpopular

Today, there are only 5,000 Brokpa speakers left in Eastern Bhutan. In addition, it is surrounded by a dominant language, a language that people speak rather than their own native language. This is why Brokpa is now considered ‘endangered’ and in need of special protection — similar to, and just as important as, the clouded leopard and the red panda, which are also endangered species.

“We need to create awareness among the native speakers and develop literature for the community as well as for outsiders,” Pema says. “I want to create awareness of the importance of every language in Bhutan and the Himalayas.”

Tall mountains divide people and and their languages

Tall mountains and large rivers can have major effects on the development of languages. This is why countries like Papua New Guinea and Bhutan have so many different languages. Mountains divide people and can make simple things very difficult, such as trading, communicating with people from other regions or even finding a partner.

“It's all surrounded by mountains. You might have mountains on both sides, and there's a river in between,” Pema says. “Twenty, thirty years back, there was no road. Now there is a road between my home village and the neighbouring villages,” Pema says. Contact between people of different villages could be difficult. Sometimes it could take more than a day’s walk simply to get from one village to the next.

“It was difficult to interact on a day-to-day basis,” Pema says. “You could do that within one village. But from one village to another village, for example, could be more difficult.”

Suspension bridge in Bhutan

Schools, love and spiritual life in Bhutan

Before roads connected most parts of Bhutan, people also had to walk when it came to looking for love. This means they usually wouldn’t look too far, and would generally remain within their own valley, which in Bhutan is called 'gewog'.

“Gewog means ‘block’, and several villages would constitute one gewog. One block or gewog would contain like sometimes nine, ten villages, or sometimes even twenty villages,” says Pema. “They would share the same language and the same culture.”  And this is where people would find love, get married and start a family.

The school in the mountains

Mountains also played a big role when Pema was still a child, starting with his walk to school every morning. There was only one school further down in the valley, and he was lucky that it was not far from his house. “I had to walk. So, while going down in the morning, it would take us about twenty minutes. But going up, on the way home, it would take about 45 minutes, or sometimes more than that.”

Mountains have a spiritual meaning

Being surrounded by mountains all the time also means that the people of Bhutan don’t look at mountains from a tourist perspective, and they don’t feel the need to climb a peak for Instagram’s sake. “People don't really go into the mountain for recreation. That is, they are living there almost all the time,” Pema says.  “I think they don't feel the need to have that recreational mountain climbing as people would have in other countries.”

Instead, some mountains may hold a spiritual meaning. “We have sacred places in much of the mountainous area,” Pema says. Instead of planting crosses on the mountain peaks, as is custom the European Alps, for example, in Bhutan people install colourful ‘prayer flags’.

Buddha Dordenma in Bhutan's capital Thimphu

The purpose of a prayer flag

Prayer flags can serve a number of purposes.

“Prayer flags are believed to bring about peace, love and compassion in the world. The prayer flags are also believed to generate positive karma for the dead as well as the living,” Pema says.

“Especially, when someone in your family dies, this is done to show respect for the person who has died,” Pema says. “So, a family would go up to the mountains wherever there is a good view and wind direction. They would climb up as far as possible and then install these prayer flags so they could move in the direction of the wind.”

Collecting positive energy

“People believe that these flags accumulate merits and positive energy, and it helps for the person who has died. Also, they believe that it's good for the community, such as getting rid of the obstacles in your life,” Pema says. Mountains are also sites for religious ceremonies. “People make smoke offerings. They go up there, make a fire, make some smoke and pray. Sometimes, people would invite important lamas (spiritual leaders) as well to conduct ceremonies.”

Hiking to the valley of a dying language

The language that Pema studies, Brokpa, is spoken in a valley not far from where he walked to school. “It's a different valley. You cross a mountain in between. There are two main villages, and several smaller villages. One village is one day's walk from my village. The other one is about three days’ walk from my village.”

Even though the villages are not very far away, as the crow flies, Pema had no knowledge of this language before he started his research. “I didn’t speak that language, because is totally distinct from my native language. And interestingly, all the speakers of the language that I am studying, almost 100 per cent of them, speak my language.” This is, Pema explains, why his work is so important: to preserve an endangered language of the mountains of Bhutan.

Diversity matters – not only when it comes to languages

In English, 'Brokpa' means ‘highlander’. Pema Wangdi is currently working on a comprehensive grammar of Brokpa, which is a Tibeto-Burman language that is spoken by about 5,000 people in Sakteng and Merak, two villages in Eastern Bhutan.

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