The history of Bhutan | Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel | The cultural heritage | The national costume

The national costume

The majority of all Bhutanese are convinced that the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel was the »inventor« of their national costume: the go for men and the kira* for women. These costumes represent an every-day material symbol of Bhutan's national culture. Until today, the pride in being Bhutanese is manifested in wearing a go* or a kira.

Since 1989 the national costume has been laid down by law as dress for official occasions such as visits in the dzongs. But it is also worn at almost every other occasions, such as at the monastery festival or while working in the fields; what varies is the quality of the material and of the weaving. It is only in the extreme east, south and north that some ethnic groups still wear their specific traditional dress.


The go of men

The term »go« for the costume of male Bhutanese is a local form of the Tibetan gö and means very generally »clothes«.

For the Bhutanese the cut of the go is a variation of the Tibetan male costume (chuba), as designed by the Shabdrung. Like the chuba, the go is a coat which overlaps considerably in front and is tied by a belt. In Bhutan, however, a lot more cloth is pulled up through the belt than in Tibet. This allows a spacious belly pocket in which Bhutanese men can keep utensils of daily use, such as their bowl, betel, mobile telephone or knife. It furthermore gives the legs more space to move freely.

The women's kira

The term »kira« for the traditional costume of the women literally means »dress for wrapping up«. It consists of a rectangular piece of cloth which is sewn together from three lengths of cloth in the direction of the warp. The cloth is wrapped around the body in such a way that it makes a big fold in front. It is held together below the shoulders by two brooches and around the waist by a sash as tight belt. It is then pulled up through the belt so that the cloth makes a spacious belly pocket, in which articles of daily use can be stored. Women wear a blouse under the kira and cover it with a jacket. Although all kiras are worn in the same way, the amount of patterns, each of which has its own name, seems enormous. As this dress does not have a specific cut, different fashions only show in the patterns.

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.  .  A dark era
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Bhutans religion
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Like the overwhelming majority of all Bhutanese, this family wears national costumes. The lady wears a kira, the gentleman a go. The boy is a young monk and is dressed accordingly.
Photo by Guy van Strydonck

The kushüthqara kira with white background counts among the favourite ones of the twentieth century. This pattern, made with silk supplementary weft, is originally from the region of Lhuntshi, but is nowadays widespread in all of Bhutan.
Photo by Jon Warren

What seems to be an antagonism to the observer, is actual reality in Bhutan: the archer uses modern equipment for the traditional national sport, and he also wears imported tennis shoes, jeans and a go from the 17th century.
Photo by Christian Schicklgruber