Tsanglakha: The Main Language of Eastern Bhutan

Due to its topography and environment of high passes, deep valleys, big rivers and thick forests, Bhutanese communities have mostly lived very isolated lives until recent times, when the motor roads were built. As a result, the Bhutanese people have a rich cultural and linguistic diversity with over two dozen languages spoken in the country. The languages of Bhutan are still poorly studied although it is generally established that except for English and Lhotsamkha/Nepali, all Bhutanese languages belong to the Tibeto-Burman or Sino-Tibetan language family. Within this family, most of Bhutanese languages fall in the Central and East Bodish sub-groups.

Of the four main language groups of Ngalong/Dzongkha, Bumthang-Kheng-Kurtoep, Tsangla and Lhotsamkha/Nepali in Bhutan, the first two belong to the Central Bodish and East Bodish respectively. The last belongs to the Indo-European language family. Tsangla language is a major Bhutanese language which linguists are yet to classify into the more well-known sub-groups of the Tibeto-Burman language family.  It is put currently classified under the Other Bodic language category.

The Tsanglakha (ཚངས་ལ་ཁ་) or Tshangla language, also known as Sharchopikha (ཤར་ཕྱོགས་པའི་ཁ་) or the language of the easterners, is spoken as a native tongue in the districts of Samdrupjongkhar, Pema Gatsel, Tashigang and Mongar, which are more densely populated than other parts of Bhutan. The area of native Tsangla speakers lie to the east of the Kurichu river although not all to the east of Kurichu speak this language. It is also spoken in small pockets of Arunachal Pradesh in India and in southern Tibet, where the language spread with groups which emigrated from Bhutan. Today, with a lot of Tsangla speakers living in towns across Bhutan, the language is also widely spoken in other parts of Bhutan and is one of the languages used by radio stations and the music industry in Bhutan.

The native Tsangla speakers roughly constitute about 40% of the Bhutanese population. Like all other local Bhutanese languages and unlike Dzongkha and Lhotsamkha, Tsangla is a spoken vernacular and has no written form although some linguists have started to develop a system of writing Tsangla. It is also not clear why the language is called Tsangla, although some native speakers make the grand claim that it is the celestial language of God Brahma, who is known in Bhutanese literature as Tsangpa (ཚངས་པ་).

Linguists have also begun studying the language and developing a lexicon and grammar for the language although it still remains a spoken language. Like most other Bhutanese languages, Tsangla also exists in many dialect forms to develop a uniform system. The Tsangla dialect of Mongar, for instance, would vary significantly from the dialect of Pema Gatsel although the two are mutually intelligible.

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.

Bhutan Cultural Library Tashigang Tshangla Dialect Trashigang



An introduction describing the traditional domain of Tshanglakha, also known as Sharchopikha.

Collection Bhutan Cultural Library
Visibility Public - accessible to all site users (default)
Author Karma Phuntsho
Editor Ariana Maki
Year published 2017