Tsangmo: A Poetic Genre

One of Bhutan’s common oral traditions is the poetic genre called tsangmo (རྩང་མོ་). Tsangmo is written as གཙང་མོ་, the one from Tsang, which may reference its likely origins in the Tsang region of Tibet. The genre also has a variant version (རྩང་མོ་), meaning ‘the one with twigs/thorns’. The Dzongkha Development Commission (DDC) uses the second orthography, which some cultural experts suggest derives from the use of twigs in their performance. In Tibet, some popular poems that are identical to the Bhutanese tsangmo genre are those songs attributed to the 6th Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706/1746).

Tsangmo poems are typically made up of four lines, each of which contain six syllables and usually convey one main point. For example following tsangmo verse is used to express an intention for a meeting of romantic nature:

ཁྱོད་ནི་རྒྱ་མཚོའི་ཕ་ཁ། །ང་ནི་རྒྱ་མཚོའི་ཚུ་ཁ།།

ལས་དང་སྨོན་ལམ་ཡོད་ན། །རྒྱ་མཚོའི་སྦུག་ལ་འཛོམས་ཤོག།

You are on the other side of the sea

I am on this side of the sea.

If we have the karma and aspiration,

May we meet in the middle of the sea.

In response to such a friendly tsangmo, if so inclined, the other person might sing a similar friendly tsangmo, such as:

ཤར་ལས་སྐར་མ་གཅིག་ཤར། །ནུབ་ལས་སྐར་མ་གཉིས་ཤར། །

ལས་དང་སྨོན་ལམ་ཡོད་ན། །ནམ་མཁའི་སྦུག་ལུ་འཛོམས་ཤོག །

A star shines from the east,

Another star shines from the west.

If we have the karma and aspiration,

May we meet in the middle of the sky.


However, tsangmo exchanges can also be antagonistic or aggressive, employing various types of criticism, insulation, ridicule and/or insults. Such tsangmo poems are called dralu (དགྲ་གླུ་), in contrast to the friendly ones called nyenlu (གཉེན་གླུ་).

ལམ་མའི་མཇུག་གི་ཨོམ་ཆུ། །དུག་ཆུ་ཨིན་པར་མ་ཤེས། །

ཧུབ་ཅིག་འཐུང་པ་འགྱོདཔ་ལས། །ཁ་སྐོམ་ཤི་རུང་མི་འཐུང་། །

The well water at the end of the road,

I did not know is poisoned water.

As I regret having had a sip,

I shan’t again even if I die from thirst.


ཁྱོད་ནི་ཁ་ཤ་དྲ་དུམ། །ང་ནི་གོས་ཆེན་དྲ་དུམ།།

གཅིག་ཁར་བཙེམ་དགོ་མནོ་རུང་། །འཇའ་འཇའ་འདྲཝ་རང་མིན་འདུག།

You’re a piece of rag,

I am piece of silk.

Even if you wish to patch them together,

They would not look so nice.


Tsangmo poems are sung mainly by young girls and boys in an exchange although they can also be sung solo or as a group without any dialogic exchange. The poems are commonly sung in two different tunes, one without filler and another that incorporates the filler sound soya (སོ་ཡ་). It is common to find farmers singing tsangmo as entertainment to offset the tedium of field work. Today, they are also sung in schools and on TV and the radio on culture-based talent contests.

Tsangmo is a rich and artistic tradition popular in central and eastern Bhutan although it is also known in western Bhutan. While most participants sing well-established tsangmo poems, some villagers can extemporaneously compose context-appropriate songs as they engage in a dialogic exchange.


Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.