Bhutan’s population is, in many ways, one large family. More than 90 percent of the people live on subsistence farming, scattered in sparsely populated villages across the rugged terrain of the Himalayas.
With rice as the staple diet in the lower regions, and wheat, buckwheat, and maize in the other valleys, the people farm narrow terraces cut into the steep hill slopes. Bhutanese communities settled in the valleys with limited communication in the past. It is for this reason that the sense of individuality and independence emerges as a strong characteristic of the people.
It is for the same reason that, despite the small population, it has developed a number of languages and dialects. The Bhutanese are, by nature, physically strong and fiercely independent with an open and ready sense of humor. Hospitality is an in-built social value in Bhutan.
Bhutan is comprised of a mosaic of different peoples who continue to live in valleys isolated from one another and the outside world by formidable mountain passes. Differing ethnic groups are also distributed according to the varying environments. It is possible to divide Bhutan’s population into three broad ethnic groups, though the distinctions blur in places.
Southern Bhutan is inhabited mainly by Nepalese farmers who arrived in the country at the end of the 19th century. They brought the Hindu religion with them as well as the Nepalese language, which is still spoken today over much of Southern Bhutan. There is not the same mingling of Buddhism and Hinduism as is apparent in Nepal, and the two tend to keep apart.
The central Himalayan region is the home of the Drukpa people, who are of Mongoloid origin. Most breed cattle or cultivate the land, and their dwellings are spread over a wide area.
The Northern Himalayan Zone, over 3,000 meters (9,000 feet), is the haunt of semi nomadic yak herdsmen. They spend most of the year in their black yak hair tents, but also possess dry-stone walled houses, where they spend the coldest months of the year and which are used to store their goods. Additives to a diet composed mainly of yak milk, cheese, butter and meat are barley and winter wheat, plus a few root vegetables grown in small fields.
Believed to be the earliest inhabitants of Bhutan, the Sharchops are of Indo-Mongolian type, though their exact origin is unknown (Tibet being the most likely source). At present, they live mainly in the east of Bhutan.