Of Sungkeys and security checks


Sungkeys (literally meaning Protection Chord) are amulets, lockets, objects or simple chords and strings that are blessed by high lamas and are believed to protect you from danger, misfortunes, bad dreams, obstacles, envies, natural disasters or tragedies. You wear them around your neck.

The Guru sungkey (on the left) was given to me by late Khenpo Karpo after I helped him develop print leaflets – when he launched Oddiyana Foundation, way back in 2004. It came with a warning that it should not be touched by anyone who smoked – lest it loses its jinlap (blessings/power). The right one is obvious. I received it in Tangmachu in 2009 during the Royal Tour to Lhuentse. 

My sungkeys have travelled with me across the globe – unhindered and unquestioned. Not even when I was passing through Islamic countries such as Qatar or the Christian Orthodox city of Bucharest – or even in the Evangelical heartland of Dallas Texas, did anyone cast a doubt or raised questions about them. In Bangkok, one security guy even sought blessings on his head from the one with our King.

Ironically, in our Vajrayana Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan, an airport personnel was almost grabbing them after the hand-held metal detector wand beeped while passsing over my chest. I instinctively slapped his hands away and pulled them out myself from behind my shirt to reveal what they were. More surprisingly the security went again, “What is this?”. I replied, “Whaaaat?” (In Dzongkha). I was totally speechless.

I have no idea whether it was the arrogance or ignorance that he was displaying. Someone said, it may be both. I thought mine was a stray incident and didn’t bother to even remember it until I saw another similar (mis)treatment that was posted on Instagram – thankfully by a Bhutanese and not by a foreigner. Apparently, he was asked to take them off and put them on a tray (even shoes go here) and run them through the X-ray machine.

Key takeaways:

1. Sungkeys are VERY personal items and can turn off people if you touch them or show any disrespect. Some sungkeys like tshenthups (I don’t have one) cannot be touched by others – other than the wearer. It is believed you cannot even go to toilet with them on.

2. If you don’t want to come across a clueless airport security and a potential desecration, I suggest removing them and putting them safely inside your bag before passing through the X-ray.

3. Be careful not to wear or carry animal parts such tiger fangs or ivories – or bullets, as sungkeys or as prayer beads, if you are flying out of Bhutan. These are prohibited items – and carry hefty fines and even jail sentences in some countries.

4. Our airport authority and law enforcement agencies may want to look into this incident and update their SOPs, if necessary. They should not relax the security, obviously, but they need not be draconian or illogical either. There are ways to do a good job. Sungkeys do not pose security threats. Their purpose is to achieve the opposite. That way, I found the police at Tashichho Dzong more civil.

5. And lastly, our people should be careful not to touch people’s bodies and personal items indiscriminately. Otherwise it won’t be long before a visiting tourist slaps a million-dollar lawsuit for (sexual) harassment and defame the whole country. The global #MeToo movement has made the ultra-sensitive westerners more sensitive now. 



– Please pass this message around. Hopefully my fellow parents will talk about this important traditional practice to the children. If you are a teacher, please share this with your students. Please do 😢😢😢

– My elder daughter recently complained of getting nightmares and bad dreams for days. I told her to wear the Yidam Tandrin sungkey which I had bought for her. She did and from then on she slept better. Coincidence? Maybe. But why be distrustful?

–  This issue might look trivial but there is no use of talking about big things such as cultural preservations or wholesome education if people don’t even gets these basics right


Bennett editorial cartoon


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