Bhutan's traditional society has been defined as both patriarchal and matriarchal, and the member held in highest esteem served as the family's head. Bhutan also has been described as feudalistic and characterized by the absence of strong social stratification. In premodern times, there were three broad classes: the monastic community, the leadership of which was the nobility; lay civil servants who ran the government apparatus; and farmers, the largest class, living in self-sufficient villages. In the more militaristic premodern era, Bhutan also had an underclass of prisoners of war and their descendants, who were generally treated as serfs or even as slaves. In modern times, society was organized around joint family units, and a class division existed based on occupation and, in time, social status. With the introduction of foreign practices in recent centuries and increasing job mobility outside the village, however, emphasis has been placed on nuclear family units.
Social status is based on a family's economic station. Except among the Hindu Nepalese in southern Bhutan, there was no caste system. Although Bhutanese were endogamous by tradition, modern practices and even royal decrees encouraged ethnic integration in the late twentieth century. Primogeniture dictated the right of inheritance traditionally, although in some central areas the eldest daughter was the lawful successor. In contemporary Bhutan, however, inheritance came to be more equally distributed among all children of a family.
Except for the royal family and a few other noble families, Bhutanese do not have surnames. Individuals normally have two names, but neither is considered a family name or a surname. Some people adopt their village name, occasionally in abbreviated form, as part of their name, using it before their given name. Wives keep their own names, and children frequently have names unconnected to either parent. Some individuals educated abroad have taken their last name as a surname, however. A system of titles, depending on age, degree of familiarity, and social or official status, denotes ranks and relationships among members of society. The title dasho, for example, is an honorific used by a prince of the royal house, a commoner who marries a princess, a nephew of the Druk Gyalpo, a deputy minister, other senior government officials, and others in positions of authority.
Although adherents of Buddhism, Bhutanese are not vegetarians and occasionally eat beef, especially in western Bhutan. Pork, poultry, goat and yak meat, and fish are consumed on a limited scale. Rice and increasingly corn are staples. Despite a scarcity of milk, dairy products, such as yak cheese and yak cheese byproducts, are part of the diet of upland people. Meat soups, rice or corn, and curries spiced with chilies comprise daily menus; beverages include buttered tea and beer distilled from cereals. Wild vegetation, such as young ferns, also is harvested for table food.
Traditional clothing still was commonly worn in the early 1990s, and, indeed, its use was fostered by government decree. Women wore the kira, an ankle-length dress made of a rectangular piece of cloth held at the shoulders with a clip and closed with a woven belt at the waist, over a long-sleeved blouse. Social status was indicated by the amount of decorative details and colors of the kira and the quality of the cloth used. Men wore the gho, a wraparound, coatlike, knee-length garment, with a narrow belt. Both men and women sometimes wore elaborate earrings, and both sexes also wore scarves or shawls, white for commoners and carefully specified colors, designs, and manners of folding for higher ranking individuals. Only the Druk Gyalpo and the Je Khenpo were allowed to wear the honorific saffron scarf. Other officials were distinguished by the color of the scarves they wore: orange for ministers and deputy ministers, blue for National Assembly and Royal Advisory Council members, and red or maroon for high religious and civil officials, district officers, and judges (anyone holding the title of dasho). Stripes on scarves of the same base color denoted greater or lesser ranks.
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