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Khartam: Riddles

Riddles are popular in Bhutan and used as a both an intelligence test and for entertainment. There are numerous types of riddles throughout Bhutan that are referred to by different names according to dialect. In fact, there is no single common term to refer to riddles. It served as an oral method of enhancing IQ and the imagination of the people as well as a leisure time activity that didn’t require any tools or gear. In the Tshangla speaking areas of eastern Bhutan, it is known as Khartam. In Trashi Yangtse, it is known as Sholong and in Mongar, Shelong. Nomenclature varies even within the same district, as people of Ura valley in Bumthang call it Migto Goto Nyam Nyam, in Tang call it Megpa Chop Chop and in Chumey Phiko Dingding. The people of Shar valley in Wangduephodrang call it Shey Shyep while people in Paro, Thimphu and Punakha call it Drap Drap Khyep Khyep. In lower Kheng region, it is called Alum and in other parts of Zhemgang, people call it Zha Zha Lhaitam. The Nepali speaking population in the south call it Gao Khane Katha, or ‘stories to take castles’.

The riddles are oral exchanges between two or more people. The person who asks the question or presents the riddle does so in a certain format and style with some accompanying phrases that mark the riddle games. The respondent or the person who is supposed to solve the riddle then gives an answer. The answer is correct, the respondent wins and may symbolically gain a point. If the answer is incorrect, the person who asked the question wins a point.

The following is an example of riddle in Dzongkha:

བྱིའུ་ཅུང་ཁ་ནག་མཇུག་སེར་མོ། །ཆུ་འཐུང་པ་རྒྱ་མཚོའི་གཏིང་ལུ་འཐུང་། །ངལ་གསོ་བ་བྱག་གི་རྐེད་པར་གསོ། །ལམ་འགྱོ་བ་པདྨའི་ཐང་ལུ་འགྱོ། །འདི་ག་ཅིག་སྨོ?

The little bird with black beak and yellow tail,

Drinks from the depth of the sea,

Rests at the middle of the cliff,

And walks on the lotus plains.

What is it?

The answer is a traditional bamboo pen, which has a black nib and yellow body. The scribe dips it in a pot of ink and then places it on his ear when he pauses from writing on the plain paper.

In some parts of Bhutan, people play the riddle by offering and demanding token bets. For instance, in the Tshangla language, a riddle goes:

Ngam thungkey mutumu gyenkhan hang gila?

What is the thing that looks like a fist from the sky?

If the respondent does not know the answer, the person posing the question demands a khar, or a castle. The respondent has to offer a khar and the person reveals that it is a banana flower, which hangs downward like a fist from sky. In western Bhutan, the khar is replaced by a dzong or fort. In southern Bhutan, a village or town is demanded. For example, the first person would present a riddle such as follows:

Shu ruki surki, tawkoma phurki? Yo ke ho?

A thin tall person wearing a turban on the top. What is it?

If the person does not know the answer, the first person demands a village or town. The respondent must offer a town or village by name and the respondent will verbally claim the town and share the answer. If the respondent knows the answer, he may demand a village or town first to share his answer. The answer is a millet plant which is thin and tall with a corn like a turban on the top.

In some parts of northeastern Bhutan, the first person would state the riddle with a standard phrase:

Shelong do shelong

Mizug ringku chigi ghola cheka jondey yokhan sho? Chi la?

A tall slender person wearing [something] on only half its body, what is it?

(a prayer flag)


Sholong do sholong

Yuyi phetsi nang nge ngultrum tsukla, jurui phetse nang nge sertam tsukla sho chi yin?

What are silver coins contained in a turquoise bag and gold coins put in a coral bag?



A common riddle in central Bhutan is:

Migto guto nyam nyam.

Two bulls are about to meet but separated by a ridge. What is it?

(two eyes)


A red monk is meditating in the depth of a red cave. What is it?


Some riddles can be a bit crass, such as this one in the Khengkha region:

Saro bak bak, namdo harhur rahen? Alum zhayo?

What is the thing which falls downward to the ground with a thud and lets a stench rise upward?


The variety of riddles is numerous and the there are many different styles of riddle across Bhutan. Riddles are also presented in the local dialects and most can be enjoyed only in the relevant cultural context. The questions make sense, are humourous, and entertaining and the hints work effectively in the relevant cultural settings. Thus, a person who is not familiar with the belief systems and cultural practices in the area cannot often guess the answer; for example, a person who unfamiliar with traditional bamboo pens and scribal habits could likely not guess the answer for the first riddle above. In addition, some riddles are easy and the clues very clear but others are very vague and the answers difficult to discern. The riddle about two bulls obstructed by a ridge and red monk in a red cave are relatively common and easy to guess, while those about the plantain flower and millet are very rare and difficult ones, almost exclusive to people who use these plants or live in places where the plant grows in abundance.


Karma Phuntsho with contribution from Sonam Chophel. 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. Sonam Chophel was a researcher of the Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research.

Bhutan Cultural Library Riddle Bhutan
Khartam: Riddles

A summary of the types and nomenclature associated with Bhutanese riddles.

Collection Bhutan Cultural Library
Visibility Public - accessible to all site users (default)
Author Karma Phuntsho , Sonam Chophel
Editor Ariana Maki
Year published 2017
UID mandala-texts-40746