Thursday, November 7, 2013

What is your name?

If I were to call out "Sonam! Come and show me your work!" in my class I would have five eager students bringing their books to me. Similarly if I said "Pema, what do you think?" three students male and female would answer in unison. I also have three Ugyens and two Kuenzangs!

Four of the five Sonams in Class 2!

Three Ugyens...

Two of the three Pemas...

and this is as close as my two Kuenzangs would get to each other!

In a country where the pool of names is fairly small (I would think there are under fifty common and mostly unisex names to choose from), there are many multiples of names in the school, or even within a class. Sonam Tshomo is such a popular name that many classes have a Sonam Tshomo A and Sonam Tshomo B!

It took a few months for me to realise that students in my class belonged to certain teachers at school. In Bhutan there are no family names; instead everyone has two or sometimes three given names, so there is no obvious way of knowing which family someone belongs to. At school I am called Madam or Mrs Andrea and Bob is always referred to in the community as Mr Bob. Even I've started calling him that! Almost no one here would know our family name as the second name here is not of significance like a surname is in Australia.

Named after Tshomo who runs the shop with her husband.

Mrs Pema's shop where we do most of our shopping in Chumey.

Another Chumey shop, also named after the proprietor.

Generally (or traditionally) parents don't choose the names for their baby - this is done by a lama some time after the baby is born on an auspicious day. Names can be given as homage to Bhutanese saints, places or as a blessing for a long and healthy life. In recent times I've heard that things are changing. I know a parent who made up a name (blending some traditional names to make a new name) - sounds like what is popular in the west. I've also heard of families visiting a number of lamas until they are given a name they really like!

Its funny not to speak about names with a pregnant lady in Bhutan. At home we can spend hours chatting about the pros and cons of various names, but it is a non-issue here. No dilemmas about which name the father prefers or whether a name reminds you of a school friend who's now in jail! Even once the baby is born it doesn't seem to be a popular topic of conversation. I guess it is not like you could say "Oh! That's an unusual name - where does it come from" or "Oh! I've never heard that one before, how do you spell it?"

A family in Chumey has a father with the first name Tenzin, and his three children all have the first name Tenzin too! This is because this family originates from Tibet and they go right to the top to have their children named: to His Holiness the Dalai Lama (his own names are Tenzin Gyatso). Consequently the children mostly go by their second names.

Our own Xavier has the middle name Tashi which means he fits in really well here in Bhutan! He is known as Xavier Tashi by all. When I mentioned that I would have liked to give Remy the middle name Yeshi (but in the end it became Alexander) it stuck and Remy is also called Yeshi by some people here.

I thought I'd research the meanings of some very popular Bhutanese names which isn't easy to do! After an hour of googling the best I could find was a website with popular Tibetan names and their meanings. I have selected some to share here. I love some of these names so much now I'm feeling like having another baby just to give it a Bhutanese name!

Which do you like the sound of?

Choden - one who is devout, religious
Choephel - the flourishing of the Dharma
Dawa - moon, Monday
Dechen - health and happiness
Dorji - thunderbolt
Gyeltsen - victory banner
Jamyang - gentle voice (the Tibetan name for Manjushri)
Karma - action, deed
Norbu - jewel
Pema - lotus
Phuntsho - excellence
Rinchen - precious gem
Sangay - Buddha
Sonam - merit
Tashi - auspicious, fortunate
Tenzin - holder of the teachings
Thinley - enlightened activity
Tshering - long life
Tshewang - life empowerment
Wangchuk - lord, mighty
Yeshi - natural state of awareness and wisdom
I love the names Yeshi and Dechen as they now remind me of some of my favourite students. And of course Tashi too. Could I hand over the responsibility of naming my child to a lama? I don't think so, I think I'd be like the modern Bhutanese who shop around until they're happy!


  1. I have long thought I wish I had started list of all the popular names and got to the bottom of their meanings so this is great Andrea. I will endeavour to add to the list next year. Thanks a million I love it. Personally I am drawn to Dema but I have no idea what it means.

    1. There's definitely room here for you to continue where I left off! I didn't even find out the meaning of Kuenzang and Ugyen which are so popular here. Look forward to see what you find out Vicky :)

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