Bödra (བོད་སྒྲ་), which literally means Tibetan sound, is a name given to a popular genre of Bhutanese songs. It is not clear when exactly the term was coined but many people argue that the term refers to a certain type of vocal music which originated in Tibet and later spread across Bhutan. It is one of the two main traditional vocal music, which can be found across Bhutan. The other one is zhungdra (གཞུང་སྒྲ་), which is a music associated with western Bhutan, the center of government in Bhutan. Unlike zhungdra, bödra songs are performed across the country and at almost all celebratory events.
There are two accounts of how the term bödra came to be used to refer to this type of songs. Some Bhutanese elders claim that bödra was originally performed by the bögarp (བོད་སྒརཔ་) officials of the government. Because the first government of Bhutan was formed by Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel (1594-1651) and his followers many of whom were böpa (བོདཔ་) or Tibetans, and the Zhapdrung’s political domination of Bhutan started from his temporary gar (སྒར་) or encampment, the government officials were referred to as bögarp. The songs which these officials commonly performed are said to have been called bödra. However, some contemporary bödra experts such as Tsheten Dorji assert that the genre is called bödra because the first songs of this genre originated in Tibet and were spread in Bhutan through cultural exchanges with the Tibetans. The cultural exchanges between Bhutan and Tibet often took place through the trade marts at the border, and through migration of people or pilgrimages going both ways. Vocal pieces, which were later composed in Bhutan but following the similar musical style as the earlier Tibetan imports, were also called bödra for reasons of style although they have nothing to do with Tibet and its musical tradition. A vast majority of songs of the bödra genre would belong to this second category of songs which are considered bödra but are fully Bhutanese in terms of origin, content and performance.
Bödra songs have shorter and faster tunes compared to zhungdra. They are sung with a very vibrant dance which is commonly performed in a gorgom (སྒོར་སྒོརམ་) circle. There are many lyrics which are performed with the long tune and slow dance of a zhungdra style and also with the fast, short tune and circular dance of bödra. Thus, it is not mainly the lyrics which distinguish zhungdra and bödra songs but the tune and vocal style with which the lyrics are sung. The bödra genre is easier to perform and also easier take part in as its tunes are not as difficult as zhungdra and its choreographic movements are more exciting. Bödra performances often have a lead singer who sings the main lyrics and the rest of the dancers join to sing the chorus. The words used for chorus are normally cryptic mantra like sounds such as oṃu oṃu maṇi padme huṃ, oṃ sang la maṇi padme huṃ, au sa le au, nangla jungse yo yo and sungyang sungyang sungyang. However, most bödra songs are performed without a chorus and the dancers all join in after the leader singer starts it. The lead singer also controls the rhythm and speed of the song and the movements of the dance.
The bödra songs cover a wide range of themes and subjects. Many songs are based on the environmental imageries such as the sky and sun (དགུང་དང་ཁྲི་གདུགས་), the snow mountain and snow lion (གངས་དང་སེངྒེ་), the meadows and the deer (སྤང་དང་ཤ་བ་), the lake and the fish (མཚོ་དང་ཉ་མོ་), the temple and the lama (དགོན་བཟང་དང་བླ་མ་), and the village and parents (ཡུལ་དང་ཕ་མ་). They also cover natural processes such as the heat of the sun, the light of the moon, the melting of glaciers, the flow of rivers, the flight of birds, the growth of trees, the blossoming of flowers, etc. Many of the bödra songs also deal with the tripartite world of the celestial heavens (སྟེང་ལྷ་), the middle earth of tsen spirits (བར་བཙན་) and the subterranean nāga world (འོག་ཀླུ་).
A large number of bödra songs contain religious content evoking singers to aspire for higher spiritual ideals and practices. Some songs are about specific religious figures such as Nangsa Obum. Many bödra songs make reference to holy sites in Bhutan or Tibet and to the various religious figures. Bödra songs with romantic themes are rare but there are many songs expressing nostalgia and melancholy about travel, familial relationships and spiritual longing. Most bödra songs deal with positive messages, happy moments and auspicious omens although some are sad songs. It is important to choose the song, which is appropriate for the event and the audience.
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.