Mystery of Bhutanese names

“There is no such thing as surname or family name in Bhutan except for the royal family and a few other families.”  Dasho Rigzin Dorji’s paper, Forms of Address in Bhutan clarifies several issues that many visitors to Bhutan wonder about.

Dasho was 29 years old when he wrote this insightful paper in 1976 while working as a young diplomat, in the Royal Bhutan Mission now the Royal Bhutan Embassy in New Delhi. In his paper he states that when women marry, they do not take their husband’s names; and children usually have different names from those of their parents.

Even today, a majority of Bhutanese family do not have surnames. If the father’s name is Dorji Tashi, the mother’s name can be Ugen Zam while the son can be Dorji Penjor and daughter Kinley Zam. The surnames or the lack of it has put many Bhutanese in awkward situations, especially while applying for overseas visas.

Unlike most of the English-speaking world, Bhutanese new-borns do not have a name at birth; a citizen of the world at birth. However, they can go on to have at least three names.

The first name is given shortly after a child is born. Usually, the parents or grandparents will consult an astrologer who will first chart a ketsi or horoscope and accordingly give a name to the child. In most instances, this name is hardly used, as traditionally, parents feel more comfortable to get the name from a Lam or a monastery.

The second name is the one that is mostly used.

Family members go to a high ranking or accomplished monk to get this second name. One of the most revered Buddhist masters, His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-1991) was a popular source for names. The Vajrayana master, scholar, poet, teacher, and head of the Nyingma school, usually gave the name Tashi.

Monasteries are popular source for the second name. For example, one of the most popular monasteries in western Bhutan for dispensing names is the Chimi Lhakhang. Also known as the fertility monastery, newly weds and childless couples seek blessings from the monastery. Most of the Chimis and Kinleys are the result of the Divine Madman’s blessings. It is interesting to note that names like Chimi are gender neutral but the second name helps determine the gender. For example, Chimi Dorji is a man while Chimi Om is a woman.

The third name is choe  ming or religious name, least known and hardly used. For a layperson to be eligible for the religious name, the person has to either attend thri or a special blessing that can last a month or take refuge in the Buddha through a simple ceremony. It is customary for the Central Monastic Body to give choe ming to monks when they are ordained. However, this name is mostly used only after death for rituals. For example, Desi Jigme Namgyal’s choe ming was Gongsar Drime Sherab.

While there are exceptions, Bhutanese have two names but the second name is often not the surname. In the past, it was common for Bhutanese to adopt the name of their village as their first name making their personal name as the second name.

In Dasho Rigzin’s paper, he provides examples of using the name of villages. If a person’s name is Sonam and he is from a village called Tangsabji, then he might be called Tangbi Sonam. Note how the name of the village is abbreviated for convenience, as it would sound odd to say Tangsabji Sonam. If a person’s first name is that of the village, the second name will be used during conversations.  For instance in the case of Tangbi Sonam, only Sonam will be used.

It is not necessary that the first name of the person have to be that of the village. There are cases where the name of the village is used as the second name. For example, Sonam Ura. The second name is the village Sonam is from. In cases like this, phonetics determines the placement of the name. In the past, the practice of adopting the name of the village as the first name made sense. It helped identify the person but with development over the years this practise has waned.

Father William Mackey (1915-1995) who lived in Bhutan made notes on the mystery of Bhutanese names. As the Canadian Jesuit lived mostly in East Bhutan, he said that everyone he met was a pa, a Khaling pa, Wamrong pa or an Uzurong pa. All these are villages in eastern Bhutan.

So how do you know who’s who? There is a story of another Canadian teacher in Eastern Bhutan who asked her class of 10-year-olds how people would know that a boy and girl with different names were brother and sister.  The whole class cracked up laughing. “Everyone knows they’re brother and sister.”

Bhutan is a close-knit society and someone is somebody to someone. Older and senior people are referred to by their titles or their age. For example, in Western Bhutan, elders are either called Au, Achu, Ahzang, Jojo or Ashim, Ani, Angay. In the East, older men are called, Ata, Ahzang or Mimi or grandfather. Similarly, older women are called Ana or older sister or Abi or grandmother. The older treat the younger ones with compassion and would called Nuchu or younger brother, etc.

In Western Bhutan, the younger sisters call their older sister Ashima if it is used alone. If it is followed by personal name, then it becomes truncated to Ashim. It is interesting to note that, ladies can also be referred to by their home Dzongkhags or districts, For example, Haa-zam or a lady from Haa, a Dzongkhag  in Western Bhutan. A lady from Zhemgang in Central Bhutan would be called Khenzam, a woman from Thimphu could be called Wang-zam and a lady from Paro could be called Paro-zam.

Bhutan is a reverential society treating not only the elders but also, those with rank with great respect.  In the formal circle, some with ranks are called Lyonpo or Minister or Dasho or Lord or Lopon or teacher.

The Late Dasho’ paper says that if a person is or has been a senior attendant of His Majesty the Druk Gyalpo or any other Royal Family Member, he is addressed as Gooba by the public.

In conversation or correspondence, Gooba becomes Goob when followed by the personal name. Dasho’s paper is full of examples and in this case, he said if the person’s name is Pema Wangchen, he is addressed as Goob Wangchen. However in correspondence, the full name Goob Pema Wangchen is to be used. The title of Goob could be used in addressing any person as a form of politeness.

Dasho Rigzin Dorji’s eight page paper on the Forms of Address in Bhutan is the first exhaustive record of the forms of address in Bhutan. In addition, his paper covers in great detail the titles of the Royal Family, which has not changed much over the course of time. The paper gives insights and covers the titles of the executives, the judiciary, local government, Central Monastic Body and the Armed Forces.

Today, many parents still prefer go to monasteries or monks and astrologers to get names for their children. While the monastery still dispense limited and simple names, some of the monks’ imagination have grown. As a result,  the younger generation have fancy names derived from legends and various biographies. While many Bhutanese no longer have three sets of names, the monks continue the tradition and a culture of having surnames have emerged.


Dasho Rigzin Dorji gave his paper to Dr. Brian Shaw when he was Secretary of the then Special Commission.

Contributed by 

Tshering Tashi