10 Cultural Universals: Rituals

Bhutan is known as the happiest country on Earth.

And yet, the peaceful Buddhist nation, sandwiched between India and China in the Himalayas, is preoccupied with death.

People of Bhutanese culture think about death five times a day. And, surprisingly, this doesn’t provoke negativity or darkness; it provokes happiness and joy.

The Bhutanese understand that death and life walk hand-in-hand. And their quasi-celebration of death is best represented in Bhutanese rituals.

Rituals, Values, Beliefs

Rituals, tied in with values and beliefs, are part of the 10 Cultural Universals.

Rituals are shared events, often traditional, that are distinctive to a given group or community.

As UNESCO puts it:

“They are significant because they reaffirm the identity of those who practice them as a group or a society and, whether performed in public or private, are closely linked to important events…to a community’s worldview and perception of its own history and memory.”

How do Bhutanese rituals demonstrate their perception of death?

Death Ritual

Death rituals in Bhutan are so enriching, because Buddhists believe not in death, but in reincarnation. Therefore, the focus is on the rebirth of the soul into a new life; not on the death and ultimate termination of the departed’s life here on Earth.

According to Eric Weiner’s BBC article, “Bhutan’s Dark Secret to Happiness”:

“Ritual provides a container for grief, and in Bhutan that container is large and communal. After someone dies, there’s a 49-day mourning period that involves elaborate, carefully orchestrated rituals.”

The rituals during this 49-day period are performed to help ensure that the departed soul improves its state in rebirth. Although praying happens every day of these 49 days, the more elaborate rituals occur on the 7th, 14th, 21st and 49th after the departed’s passing.

Rituals include 108 prayer flags being erected in the deceased’s honor. The local astrologer is also asked for their recommendation on a favorable cremation day prior to the 7th day ritual.

The gewa, or “feast of giving,” occurs on the 21st day. One person from each household in the village attends the feast.

In a wonderful article, written by Kunzang Choden, Choden explains how Buddhist beliefs inform these rituals:

“Buddhists believe that a person’s consciousness has to be separated from the dead body. This is done by a religious practitioner through a powerful ritual: phowa. All the rituals and rites that follow are not so much for the body, but for the consciousness, which may hover around the family because of attachments.”

These acts are also a sort of a grief cleanse for the living, with one man calling the 49-day process “better than any antidepressant.”

And the death rituals do not end at the 49th day. Every year for three years following a death, prayer flags are erected in the departed’s honor, with rice, alcohol, and other items offered up by family, friends, and other attendees.

This is how values, beliefs, and rituals can blend into a culturally-rich experience that caters to the soul.

10 Cultural Universals: Beliefs

Imagine you’re in the Amazonian jungle.

You’re with a tour group, camera in hand, thrilled to spot a colorful exotic bird or a dragon in antiquity. You’ve got your finger on your camera’s shutter button as if it were the pulse of culture.

And that’s when you see culture in all its natural glory:

A woman standing, alone, extracting the fruit of nuts from a palm tree, cracking them open with ease.

When she turns, she is shocked to see a tourist group descending upon her. You and the crowd surround her, not asking for permission to take her photograph. Simply click-click-clicking away, capturing culture on camera.

The woman drops the nut on the jungle floor and appears to be having a panic attack. In complete shock, she cannot breathe, and she grows hysterical. She works herself up into such a state that she has to be taken to the hospital.

The episode leaves you and your fellow tourists wondering, “What frightened her so?”

Range of Beliefs

Beliefs are often interconnected with values and rituals, which is why all three are grouped together in the 10 Cultural Universals.

Cultural beliefs range from seemingly trivial superstitions to more significant and impactful convictions.

Let’s take, for instance, the Chinese belief that the number, 4, is bad luck. This superstitious belief is rooted in the language of Mandarin – “4” (, SÌ) sounds like “death” (, sǐ) in Chinese.

This is why you won’t find a 4th floor button on a Chinese elevator. A superstition, seemingly trivial to others, but it does affect building construction throughout China.

More impactful beliefs – such as beliefs about gender roles, healthcare, education, etc. – are more involved.

For instance, religious faith and belief sometimes holds unexplainable healing powers, which the believers site as miracles. In some cases, the health of patients who are provided a placebo improves.

What heals them? Is it belief? The Holy Spirit?

As Eric Vance writes in Unlocking the Healing Power of You:

“Scientists have known about the placebo effect for decades and have used it as a control in drug trials. Now they are seeing placebos as a window into the neurochemical mechanisms that connect the mind with the body, belief with experience.”

Beliefs can also have far-reaching consequences, if ill-informed.

For instance, sometimes cultural beliefs interfere with health-seeking behavior.

According to an article published in the African Journal of Disability:

“In a study on the abuse of disabled children in Ghana, the cultural belief that disabled children were cursed, led to such severe stigmatization that children were often hidden away by their parents, or left at a river to die.”

Cultural beliefs are often innocuous, but they can sometimes be harmful. As they were in the case of the Amazonian woman.

All-Powerful Beliefs

The scenario detailed in the intro actually happened to Michael J. Balick, PhD, Director of the Institute of Economic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden when he visited Brazil.

In his own words, Dr. Balick explained what had frightened her so:

“She was convinced that the people had stolen her spirit. And it was the belief, not the clicking cameras, that caused the physical reaction.”

Our beliefs are so deep-seated that just such an ambush can make us physically ill.

This is one reason why understanding another’s cultural beliefs will make you more sensitive to how they walk through the world. You can then apply this understanding to alter behaviors that, in another culture, might be considered harmful.

10 Cultural Universals: Hearts & Hearths, How Shelters Tell Stories of Culture

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Yurt, adobe, Siheyuan, izba, stilt, igloo, turf.

Some of these housing types, you may recognize; others, you may not. But each of them illustrate character traits of a culture…that is, if you’re willing to look closely.

Along with food, clothing, and transport, shelter is a basic cultural element in our series on the 10 Cultural Universals.

The homes we choose to live in tell a story of who we are. They are historical artifacts that provide archeologists a look into the past, and they are modern snapshots that inform others about who we are and what we deem most important in life.

Whether the focal point of a home is the kitchen, a social room, or even a temple built within, our hearts are revealed by our hearths.

So let’s take a look at both.

Hearts & Hearths

What can a shelter tell us about the culture and about life in a region?

Here are some things to consider when discussing the cultural elements of shelters:

  • Climate – The climate of the region determines the needs of the home. Stilt houses in Cambodia, for example, to avoid flooding, or thick insulation in locations with hard, cold winters.
  • Structural materials – Structural materials for homes are best sourced locally. You’re more likely to find bamboo used in construction in Asian countries than in the West, or adobe clay in the desert than in the arctic.blog43-6
  • Social elements – Whether the residence is built around a courtyard, likethe Siheyuan homes of China, or is set up with individual rooms for more independent and private living or a single room for more commune-style living,  the social elements of each culture determine a home’s layout and design.
  • Aesthetic – From the vaulted ceilings of Italian homes to the bamboo roofs of Bali, from the ornately designed doors of Icelandic turf houses to the homey thatched cottages of England, the aesthetic and architecture of a home is obviously the most eye-catching and expressive element of the culture. Aesthetics tell us what the culture finds beautiful and most comfortable.

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In essence – and in reality – home is where the heart is. Each form of shelter is a monument to the people. This is why homes around the world inform our understanding the people who inhabit them and the culture they engender.

10 Cultural Universals: Tuktuks, Gondolas, & Travel

From tuktuks in Thailand to gondolas in Venice, transportation takes on unique forms across the world. And these unique forms epitomize local culture.

Part two of transportation in our series on the 10 Cultural Universals will outline two compelling forms of transport and how they influence local culture.

The TukTuk

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Versions of a tuktuk, also known as an auto-rickshaw, can be found everywhere in the world, from South America to Asia. But tuktuks are particularly emblematic of Thailand.

Though they originated in Japan, they were embraced by Thailand, where they were imported during the 1930s. Eventually, the Thais took over production and Thai-made tuk-tuks were born.

Bangkok is packed with the three-wheeled open-air motorcycles. The smaller ride can wheel in and out of narrow alleyways and amongst all the traffic, where a traditional four-wheeled cab might get squeezed.

While these taxis should logically be the cheaper option, tuktuk drivers know what they’re doing.

As Greg Rodgers of tripsavvy put it, “The road-hardened drivers are experts at somehow convincing travelers to pay more than they normally would for a comfortable, air-conditioned taxi to go the same distance.”

This is the culture of Bangkok. An overabundance of colorful tuktuks and their tuktuk drivers, trying to make a buck off of fresh-off-the-boat types.

Haggling is part of the game, part of the culture. But, as Rodgers notes, unless you know what you’re doing, a traditional metered cab is probably a cheaper and more comfortable option.

The Gondola

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Certain iconic forms of transport spring to mind when thinking of a specific place or culture. The gondola is one of them.

Navigating the city’s historic canals, the gondola – and the singing gondoliers who guide them – is emblematic of Venetian culture. 

Dating back to 1094, the gondola’s structure was specifically designed to navigate the shallows of the Venetian lagoon. By 1562, gondola culture had evolved and been so embraced that the boats were excessively ornamented, so much so that legal restrictions were placed on their decoration. Thereafter, they became uniformly black and were allowed only three types of flourishes – a prow, a curly tail, or a pair of seahorses and a multi-pronged ferro.

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In the early years, gondolas were often shared among four people – three gondoliers and a fourth man who remained onshore to book the gondola for public transport.

Nowadays, gondolas are almost exclusively a tourist attraction – one that can bring in around $150,000 annually for your average gondolier.

That’s not without putting in the work. The profession is now controlled by a guild, where training and a comprehensive exam is required. Not only must gondoliers be incredible oarsmen, they must also have adequate foreign language skills, and intimate knowledge of Venetian landmarks and history.

Needless to say, this form of transport – like unique forms in many other places in the world – has become a cornerstone of the city’s culture.

When you think gondola, you think Venice.

When you think tuktuk, you think Bangkok.

When you think bicycle, you think Amsterdam.

This is how culturally significant transportation can be.

10 Cultural Universals: Transportation Culture & Social Movements

Amsterdam is a bicycler’s paradise.

Motorbikes are ubiquitous in Bali.

Knowing your way around the subway or the Tube is essential in NYC or London, respectively.

People all across the world have a common need: to get from here to there.

Whether on foot, by bus, or aboard a gondola, the methods of travel in every nation or region are unique and practical to the culture born there.

Last week, we discussed traditional clothing and how clothing culture evolves with the times.

This week, we’ll take a look at transport and its evolution, a topic which falls under the same umbrella of basics – along with food, clothing, and shelter – as part of our series on the 10 Cultural Universals.

Practicality and Culture

Each culture has its own public and preferred methods of transport. These methods vary across regions, based largely upon two things:

1) Practicality – the most functional mode of transport, considering the landscape and infrastructure of the area

2) Social norms & values – the social norms and values that drive these transport choices

The favored method of transport is often chosen due to the type of transport culture that’s cultivated in any given region. It’s also chosen based upon practicality (which usually influences why society cultivates that type of transport culture, in the first place).

The Bicycling Capital

Let’s take Amsterdam, for example.

‘Bike Street: Cars are Guests’

Amsterdam is often called “the bicycling capital of the world,” and this is largely due to a social movement that happened in the ‘70s.

While prior to WWII, bicycling was already the predominant form of transportation across the Netherlands, car ownership exploded in the ‘50s and ‘60s and was soon so popular that roads were congested, and bicyclists were literally shunted to the side.

With more motor vehicles zipping around, the number of road fatalities sky-rocketed. 3,000 people – including 450 children – were killed by drivers in 1971.

‘Stop the Child Murder’ Social Movement

This is when a social movement formed, called ‘Stop de Kindermoord’ (Stop the Child Murder). The movement’s name was derived from journalist Vic Langenhoff’s article of the same title, which he’d written after his own child had been killed on the road.

The Middle East oil crisis of 1973 also informed the move toward reinstating bicycling as the primary form of transport. As the Dutch’s reliability on foreign oil was shaken, the motor vehicle seemed less sustainable than previously thought.

Thus, the Dutch government renewed their investment in bicycling infrastructure – with more cycling paths, smoother biking surfaces, parking facilities, bike-sharing programs, and clear signage and lights.

Biking is now a daily part of most Dutch people’s daily lives, which means that children grow up with this cycle-centric primary socialization. This makes for a homegrown biking culture, ever popular in a world promoting greener transport options.

In this way, Amsterdam’s traditional and revitalized biking culture is ahead of the pack, and forward-thinking “smart city” cultures are following in their bike tracks (see: Barcelona, Mexico City).

Next week, we’ll discuss transport culture further.

10 Cultural Universals: Fashion, Tradition & Cultural Clothing Movements

Last week, we talked about the dignity of food culture with tips from Anthony Bourdain.

This week, we’ll discuss another topic within the same theme of cultural fundamentals: clothing.

Grouped together with food, shelter, and transport, clothing is one of the 10 Cultural Universals.

It’s easy to understand why.

Clothing viscerally represents culture in a way that’s often traditional, fashionable, and practical, all at once.

Clothing tradition also evolves with the times, as we’ll discuss in the section below, entitled “Cultural Clothing Movements.”

Tradition

In many parts of the world, traditional clothing has gone by the wayside, traded in for modern Western clothing.

Or, in some cases, traditional dress is worn only for special occasions, like births, weddings, funerals, or other big life events.

In some parts of the world, however, traditional clothing is still everyday wear.

For instance, it is not uncommon to see the Newar people of Nepal wearing traditional woven clothing in everyday life.

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Women’s dress is called Kurta Suruwal and includes a patterned blouse, covered by a draped scarf, and loose pants cinched around the ankles.

If married, women also wear Tika – a red powder – on the browline of their forehead.

Fashion

Many Nepali men, on the other hand, have transitioned to Western wear. It’s more common to see men wearing jeans and t-shirts or button-ups than it is to see them in traditional garb.

In this way, some part of Nepali culture has moved away from the traditional to what might be considered modern fashion.

Cultural Clothing Movements

Sometimes, culture evolves as social freedoms do. Often, it takes a movement to progress these changes.

For instance, in the case of forced hijab in Iran.

For nearly forty years, Iranian social codes have obliged women to wear the hijab in public. This has been Iranian law since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

But recently, with the help of social media, widespread protest of forced hijab has compelled some to shed or revolt against this cultural tradition.

This protest is not a complete rejection of the tradition or the hijab, itself. Rather, many believe it should be a woman’s right to choose whether she wears the hijab or not.

Masih Alinejad is one of the advocates driving this movement for social change. Alinejad started a Facebook page in 2014 called My Stealthy Freedom, in which she posts pics of Iranian women out in public, removing their hijabs.

While the regime has cracked down on the revolt, the campaign for freeing women of forced hijab is going strong and may just result in a cultural clothing revolution.

This is how clothing traditions evolve and how culture, inevitably, changes.