Though Bhutan is often referred to as the last Vajrayana Buddhist kingdom, you can still come across animistic traditions and beliefs being practiced by the people.
Form of Buddhism practiced in Bhutan has absorbed many features of Bonism such as nature worship and animal sacrifice. Also worship of a host of deities, invoking and propitiating them. According to Bonism these deities were the rightful owners of different elements of nature. Each different facet of nature was associated with its own specific type of spirit.
For example, mountain peaks were considered as the abodes of guardian deities (Yullha), lakes were inhabited by lake deities (Tshomem), cliff deities (Tsen) resided within cliff faces, the land belonged to subterranean deities (Lue and Sabdag), water sources were inhabited by water deities (Chu gilhamu) and dark places were haunted by the demons (due).
Every village has a local priest or a shaman to preside over the rituals. Some of the common forms of nature worship being practiced are Cha festival in Kurtoe, Kharphud in Mongar and Zhemgang, BalaBongko in WangduePhodrang, Lombas of the Haaps and Parops, JomoSolkha of Brokpas, Kharam amongst Tshanglas and Devi Puja amongst our southern community.
These shamanistic rituals are performed for various reasons ranging from to keep evil spirits at bay, bring in prosperity, to cure a patient or to welcome a new year. A common feature in all of these rituals is the sacrifice of animals like oxen, fish, chicken or goat.
Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom and people often refer to it as the last stronghold of Vajrayana Buddhism. Buddhism was first introduced by Indian Tantric master Guru Padmasambhava in the 8th century. Until then people practiced Bonism a religion that worshipped all forms of nature, remnants of which are still evident even today in some remote villages in the kingdom.
With the visit of Guru Padmasambhava, Buddhism began to take firm roots within the kingdom and this especially led to propagation of Nyingmapa (ancient or older) school of Buddhism.
Phajo Drugom Zhigp from Ralung in Tibet was instrumental in introducing yet another school of Buddhism – the Drukpa Kagyu sect. In 1222 he came to Bhutan, an event of great historical significance and a major milestone for Buddhism in Bhutan, established the DrukpaKagyi sect of Buddhism which is state religion. His sons and descendants were also instrumental in spreading it to many other regions of western Bhutan.
By far the greatest contributor was Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal. His arrival in 1616 from Tibet was another landmark event in the history of Bhutan. He brought various Buddhist schools that had developed in western Bhutan under his domain and unified the kingdom as one whole nation-state giving it a distinct national identity.
The Buddhism practiced in the kingdom today is a vibrant religion that permeates nearly every facet of Bhutanese lifestyle. It is present in the Dzongs, monasteries, stupas, prayer flags and prayer wheels punctuate the Bhutanese landscape. Chime of ritual bells, sound of gongs, people circumambulating temples and stupas, fluttering prayer flags, red robed monks conducting rituals stand as testaments to the importance of Buddhism in Bhutanese life.