The Bhutanese cultural world has a rich range of non-human spirits some of whom are considered to be yullha (ཡུལ་ལྷ་) or gods of the territory and zhidak (གཞི་བདག་) or lords of the settlement. The yullha and zhidak deities, sometimes also called nedak zhidak (གནས་བདག་གཞི་བདག་) or lord of place/settlement or nep (གནསཔོ་) or host, form an important part of the local history and cultural identity and life of the community. Some of them are also considered kyelha (སྐྱེས་ལྷ་) or birth god by the people who are born within their domain. As guardian deities of villages and regions, they play important roles in the religious consciousness and the life of the people.
The Bhutanese believe in the presence of powerful invisible forces of nature alongside visible humans, animals, birds and insects. In the Bhutanese worldview, which was received from Pre-Buddhist belief systems and reinforced by the Buddhist religion, the world is teeming with many types of sentient beings. People believe in a wide range of invisible spiritual beings including lha (ལྷ་), dud (བདུད་), tsen (བཙན་), gyalpo (རྒྱལ་པོ་), lu (ཀླུ་), ludud (ཀླུ་བདུད་), mamo (མ་མོ་), damsri (དམ་སྲི་), dre (འདྲེ་), srinpo (སྲིན་པོ་), sondre (གསོན་འདྲེ་), shindre (གཤིན་འདྲེ་), tshomen (མཚོ་སྨན་), noejin (གནོད་སྦྱིན་), menmo (སྨན་མོ་), theurang (ཐེའུ་རང་), sadag (ས་བདག་) etc. These beings are said to have different characters, temperaments, powers, habits and existential status.
The visible beings such as animals, birds and humans share the same physical space with these non-human spirits. High mountains are considered to be abodes of mountain gods just as forests residences of forest deities, cliffs as citadels of cliff or rock spirits, trees as home of tree spirits, rivers and lakes as homes of water spirits, and so forth. Among these spirits, some are considered as overlords and longterm residents of the places while most, like humans, are seen as temporary dwellers or visitors. Those who are longterm inhabitants are perceived to possess extraordinary powers and thus considered as the overlords of their territory. These spirits generally belong to the category of lha, tsen, dud, klu and gyalpo classes of non-human spirits, and are attributed personal traits, sensibilities and temperaments which are associated with the type. The gyalpo type, for example, is said to be possessive, temperamental and demanding of timely offerings and respects.
Stories abound of the feats of the local territorial deities, their rivalry and conflicts with neighbouring ones and the boons they grant faithful subjects. Often, there are also descriptions of the palaces and citadels of these deities which are not visible to the human eyes. There are also accounts of their families and retinues. Some people, who go missing for days and weeks, upon their return narrate accounts of their visits to such a mystical world of local deities, which exists on an entirely different spatio-temporal dimension. Many female spirits in the nearby lake or pond are considered consorts of the male territorial deities in the area. There are also many stories of how the territorial deities appear in a dream and impregnate local women, particularly when they are alone in remote areas. The children of such human-spirit liaison are considered as drang or bastards of the deities and considered to possess superhuman strength. Many strong men in Bhutan’s history were considered to be such offspring of a local territorial deity and human mother.
The local community relates to the territorial deity with much affection. They are referred to with terms of endearment such as aap or papa, agay or grandpa, ama or mama, ashi or elder sister and jowo or lord. While people fear them as relentless local overlords, they are also seen as benevolent guardians, who were tamed and put under oath by Guru Rinpoche to look after the local communities. Thus, people see them as protectors and also as divine powers who maintain harmony and wellbeing in the area and render them support in their endeavours in life. In addition to the seasonal offerings to the deities they make, people also pray to the deities when they embark on a journey, start a project or face a difficulties in life. School children today go to make offering to the local deities before their exams. During village archery matches, the villagers would often invoke their deities to come to their support.
A valley can also have many territorial deities with differing extent of domain and range of influence. Some deities are thus more well known and considered more powerful than others. As a result, they are also more frequently worshipped. Many villages would have priests who would carry out daily rituals of offering to these deities and the deities would also be included in the list of gods worshipped in the family’s annual rituals. People who are born in the territory of the deity would also consider that deity the birth god and pay regular homage.
The belief in the territorial deities, much like the belief in clan gods, help bring a great deal of psychological stability to the members of the community. The people feel protected from natural calamities and harms. They also fear the wrath of the deity if they commit unbecoming actions or cause conflicts in the village. A quarrel in the village is believed to lead to the displeasure of the deity and some supernatural punishments such as a windstorm or hail storm. Thus, the belief in the deities help maintain social order and harmony. Most of the citadels and residences of these deities are also fiercely protected from exploitation by people. Thus, large stretches of Bhutan’s natural landscape were conserved in their pristine form as they are believed to be residences of the deities and spirits. People are forbidden from extracting natural resources from some of these places and, in other cases, people are even restricted entry either always or during certain periods.