My friend, Rajesh, has a problem. He doesn’t know how to introduce me when we meet new people.
I studied engineering in college, and worked as the chief engineer in Bhutan Broadcasting Service before I made a complete career-shift and went to make documentaries and host TV shows (Q&A with Dorji Wangchuk between 2003 and 2005). I also led the BBS as the GM of administration and HR, as the No. 2 at BBS. I eventually resigned from there to go into freelance filmmaking and newspaper column writing for two years before I was inducted as the Director of the Royal Office of Media in 2009 to head the media relations and public affairs for the highest office of the land. I served there for four and half years. I am now into my third career as an academic and educator – again in another field altogether- communication and social science. I teach media, communication and wellbeing leadership.
So who, or what am I? An engineer, TV anchor, media exec, filmmaker, writer, PR guy, or a professor?
Well, I am all of these – and none of these. In the sense I never liked to be stuck with titles and designations – and in short to be labelled, which in Bhutanese popular culture, you are often remembered by those titles instead of the given name.
First of all, when you take the label too seriously (many do) you entrap yourself with a list of do’s and don’ts, between what is proper and what is not, and within the boundaries set by the society. For example, if you are a TV star, you are not supposed to be underdressed. Or if you are a professor you cannot go dancing.
Second, when you are stuck with a title or designation, slowly and unconsciously you build a false identity of yourself around that label, such as “Now I am a director. I need to stop hanging around with my drunkard friend in a pub”. You get deeper and deeper into that “identity” that after a while it feels scary to leave, to change, or to move on, or move out of it. In general, this is what I see happening with many people with power. You take root. You build yourself a comfort zone. You don’t want to step down, or step aside. Eventually, you will undo your own legacy.
Lastly, isn’t life too short to be limited to doing just one thing?
The world is a beautifully crafted and diverse place where, besides the different cultures and traditions of different countries, there are microcosms of subcultures in every profession with their own charm and rich experiences. For instance, the microcosm of engineers is totally different as compared to, let’s say, that of the doctors, or taxi drivers. The life of a filmmaker is a world apart from that of a bureaucrat, or of a minister.
I call each of these lives another mode of existence. Nothing more. Nothing less. Each has it own share of fun and fares – and of struggles and skeletons. To live a life in full is to experience as many of these different worlds.
Although we inhabit the same country, or the same city, at the same time, the world we see and experience depends on what we perceive of ourselves. That’s why the identity you build for yourself is important. That’s why not being stuck with something – a job or a profession, enables you to immerse into varied experiences and microcosms of the different worlds that the universe offers.
Someone said, “Keep moving – unless you are a tree”.
It was January 2020. My bags were packed, ticket booked and hotels too. I was planning to fly back to Macau after the New Year break in Bhutan when I received an “urgent email”. I was asked not to re-enter the university campus and was told to wait for further instructions. A public health warning was issued.
What happened next is anyone’s guess.
Disruptions on a global scale where dreams and destinations had to be put on hold, and projects and prospects had to be dumped altogether. To put it a la John Lennon, life happened when I was busy making other plans.
Fast forward to three years, and we are in 2023. And things have become even more uncertain. Maybe the looming threat of another Covid pandemic is real. Maybe it is the lasting damage brought about by it. Whatever. We live in a critical time and must now accept that uncertainty will be a norm hereafter.
I had written about how we as a nation must respond to the post-Covid era. (See ”Thoughts and dreams on the eve of the National Day”, December 18th, 2021, Kuensel).
In this article let me share a few things that I learnt as Covid caged us indoors – fearful and pondering, but left me a better me – and also as a fatter me.
1. Just do it! Nothing is permanent.
If I have to meet a friend, or a relative, I just call right away. If I want to go for a pilgrimage, I set off immediately. If I need to do a gyelwa (accumulation of merit), I just do it. I don’t put it off for some other time because that day may never come. And if another pandemic strikes us, that day will never come.
Bhutanese are master procrastinators. We live, and act and do things, as if we are immortals. We must remember an old Bhutanese adage: “one day we will fall sick, we will feel the pain, and we will die eventually”. Covid has delivered the greatest teachings of impermanence.
If it is something positive, just do it! Do not procrastinate. And if you cannot be nice, do not be mean (my late mom’s golden rule). Remember, nothing lasts.
2. My way – and the highway
A little surprising fact about me. I get easily disappointed when things don’t go my way. I used to be, “My way or the highway.” Now I am “My way and the highway”. Covid has taught me that the world does not dance to my tunes only. There are many things that I can do nothing about. And there is no use of worrying about them.
Now, whatever is within my reach, I do my best. Whatever is beyond me, I let it be.
At times, though, I slip into my old self – and my heart sinks seeing some things unfold in front of me – only to immediately tell myself, “Nope! You shouldn’t be bothered with something that you have no control of.”
I let life move on and I follow it with humility, gratitude and acceptance.
3. I am enough. I have enough
In August 2013, after a long career in the government, I packed my small car and set off for my hometown – Tashigang, where I was assigned to replace a runaway American professor, and teach a class of media students at Sherubtse College.
That short stint left an indelible mark in my lifestyle. I realised you don’t need much to live or survive. I experimented living on 10 pieces of clothing. I succeeded.
It is in our nature to keep wanting for more. Now I think twice, or thrice, before I make any purchases – especially clothes.
No brands or bigger cars can make up for what you are not. Instead, if you just keep repeating to yourself, “I have enough. I am enough”, you will feel complete and content.
4. Smile! You are alive
In case you are not up to speed with the latest stats, Covid-19 has killed seven million people around the world. That is ten times the population of Bhutan. Plus over half a billion have been infected.
And yet when I look around I see we are all alive but back to grumbling en masse. It is appalling to observe how easily we forget the good things that happened to us, and around us, or were bestowed on us. The fact that we are still alive, in the first place, is in itself a great achievement. Not everyone has been as lucky. So, smile!
Don’t take anything for granted – your life, your job, and your relationships – the people under your care, or those around you.
Do everything that excites you. There is another popular Bhutanese saying – we don’t take anything when you die. Of course, you do. Your karma will follow you. The gyelwa you do will accompany you. Your legacy will be immortalised after you.
We lost 2020 and 2021, for sure, and also 2022 for many of us. We have gone through so much. But 2023 is here. Embrace it with a new you, and not as your old self.
Nyilo literally means the day when “the Sun returns”. It is believed to be the shortest day of the year.
One folk belief of Nyilo – the winter solstice, is that the Sun returns from the South after paying respect to Shinje (Sanskrit: Yamaraj). Shinje is one of the Deities of Ten Directions (ཕྱོགས་སྐྱོང་བཅུ་, chokkyong chu).
Since Shinje is also the Lord of Judgement of Death, there are believed to be many dead souls waiting for the final verdict. Some of them escape with the Sun, or they tag along. These dead souls called Shinpo are believed to bring harm, deaths and diseases to the human world.
What this entails is that the days following the Nyilo should, therefore, be dedicated to doing rituals to push them away. This maybe the reason why annual kurims for health of the house or of the clan, or even village, are conducted in the winter months.
The general norm for performing annual preventive or propitiating rituals is as follows: life threats averting rituals to be conducted in Winter months, and prosperity-seeking rituals around the Summer solstice. The latter is when the Sun returns from the North, which is ruled by Kubera – the wealth deity.
What may be suggested is that in Summer, for example, one can conduct Drolma Yuldog, or Namgyel Tongtshog, while in Winter you can do Jabzhi, Mikha Kharam, or even Tordog.
I was born in a remote village in eastern Bhutan. My birth prophecy had a monastic life prescribed for me – unequivocally. From my mother’s side, I come from a long line of lamas and yogis. We can trace our family line to three important religious lineages and, like all eldest male members of our family, I was also brought up for a life of spirituality. However, fate took me elsewhere – to modern education in a Catholic school, higher studies in engineering in Italy, and awesome careers in the media, at the royal court, and finally in the academia.
A chance assignment took me to Athang Rukha in 2007. It was at a two-day walk from the nearest road back then. That trip followed a two-year voluntary work for a non-profit organisation. When that ended I stayed back to help the villagers build a temple on the spot, where what remains of the original structure was two pieces of mud wall, and three sacred relics that were left unattended in a hut.
15 years, three temples and many happy and historic moments later the resident lama, Ugyen Tshering, and I came up with an ambitious 5-day Tshobum-Rabney-Tshechu project. We wanted the Tshobum (literally meaning 108,000 Festive Offerings) to help the locals accumulate Tsho (prosperity merit) so that they do not return to being poor and destitute – and to offer gratitude to the divine and to those who held our hands. The Rabney, meaning “consecration”, was to sanctify the two additional temples I had built – one in Rukha and one in Lamga, during the the three pandemic years. Finally, the Tshechu was to put a final seal of Dharma in this virgin territory, which has mostly been practicing shamanism and animism.
In the days running up to the event, some people were worried if all the planned activities weren’t too ambitious. Even Gangtey Rimpoche, who was going to preside everything, kindly enquired if we needed anything – food offering (tshog), money, butter lamps, or mattresses and blankets for monks to stay. I assured everyone that I would provide all the necessary financial back up for this event, and in future too if so people wished or if the tradition required it.
Honestly, I didn’t know exactly the amount of hard work, both mundane and religious, that went on such occasions. I have rarely had the opportunity to be on the driving seat.
There were over several rituals and mantras, of varying length, that were chanted, accompanied by a full set of religious instruments, with some 50 monks. When one ended, another began, and they went for days and nights – and non-stop in both the old and the new temple. At various intervals, tea and broths had to be served, money offered and food (tsho) and ritual cakes (torma) cast away. Some at wee hours of the night. The cooks and attendees worked round-the-clock shifts. During the day there were more rituals and public celebrations and mask dances. In short, it was tough for everyone – from the Rimpoches to the young monks, and to the community.
I also didn’t know that this was a major religious undertaking. It was only when it was all over that we fully realised what we went through. We had just done what many affluent villages in the lower Sha region haven’t – and achieved what many can just dream of. After His Holiness and the Yangsey left the valley, I met the villagers and explained to them the significance – of what we just did, the history we created and our responsibility thereafter. I told them:
“First, the abode of Palden Lhamo, and the site where Terton Pema Lingpa meditated on his way from Bumthang to Gangtey, and which was later blessed by the Second Gangtey Trulku Tenzin Lekpai Dondrub in 1647, is your village. Although you are not the original inhabitants of this village, the destiny and the duty to be the patron now fall squarely on you.”
“Second, from now on you are no more the lowly hunters-gatherers or the outcast but a community that has hosted the Ninth Gantey Trulku Rimpoche and the 11th Thuksey Yangsey Rimpoche, together, and the village that has organised the first Tshechu (sacred mask dance festival) in the lower Sha region. Take pride and all the credits for this. You may not realise it now but when you reach my age you can claim that during your time, you hosted a Gangtey Trulku after close to 400 years.”
“Third, I am a Sharchop from eastern Bhutan. I accidentally landed here some 15 years ago. Now, forget about knowing every household, I also know the cows and dogs and to which family they belong. Our past karmic connections have brought us together. I was supposed to be a monk and fulfill my share of religious undertaking. I think this valley is where I was destined to fulfill them. So, please do not feel indebted to me because I had to put out so much resources. Instead celebrate that you are also well on your path to Dharma, and not going for another hunt.”
I am not sure if the people understood what I told them or what they achieved or witnessed, but over time I am sure they will. I am only glad that they believed in me, and laboured for over a month to prepare for the event.
As for me, they say, “one often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it.”(Jean de La Fontaine). I say that is darn right. Fate has swayed me here and there. But destiny? It finds you ultimately. You got to fulfill it. Somehow.
The 5-day event was a culmination and consecration of my 15 years of service to the community, and to the Dharma, which I will always cherish, and try building on it.
Invitation to all readers
If you are driving from Wangdue to Tsirang, or vice versa, and you are not in a rush, make a detour to Rukha from Taksha Forest Range Office. The drive to Rukha is around one hour, and small Alto cars can ply too.
The abode of Palden Lhamo is at Rukha Neykhang. Visit it! You will be blessed with good health since Palden Lhamo has a black pouch to store your diseases and obstacles. The caretaker is a jolly man called Aap Kingka.
Athang Rukha, Wangdue, 23 December 2022. Tshe Wang is a Buddhist religious ceremony whereby a lama confers a life empowerment blessing to disciples and devotees. Literally translated as “life confidence”, Tshe Wang ensures the recipient to be healthy and confident to lead a life towards self realization and of service to all sentient beings.
I had requested His Holiness Gangteng Trulku Rimpoche to confer a Tshe Wang to each and every person in the Rukha, on the last day, so that no one gets back to being what they were before I arrived in the valley in 2007. Meaning in abject poverty.
Rimpoche smiled, perhaps amused by another wierd request from me. 😂😂😂
Over the last few years I have also been reminding the people of Rukha that it is difficult to prosper but it is very easy perish, and destroy one’s hard work of many years and decades in an instant.
Furthermore, the village of Rukha has a history of vanishing. Between 1931 and 1933, a terrible epidemic wiped out the original inhabitants. The village remained desolated till all the land were granted to the Oleps by His Majesty the Fourth King in 1982. Until then the Oleps were forest dwellers practicing hunting and shifting cultivation – a practice that is locally known as tseri.
The presence and the blessings of a high lama is believed to deter any such terrible epidemic to occur again.
His Holiness not only agreed to bless them individually but even offered more. “Let me add Ta Cha Chung Sum Wang, since these people are farmers and have to disturb the earth and the environment,” Rimpoche said.
Ta Chha Chung Sum, which stand for Tandrin (Hayagriva in Sanskrit), Chhana Dorje (Vajrapani), and Jachung (Garuda). Their powers are believed to help the humans to ward off all negative forces from the nature and the supernatural. If this was the case then I thought the Ta Cha Chung Sum would also be useful to the Dessung boys and girls who have just started to work on a fishery project at the mouth of Harachu Valley. We invited them too for the blessing.
Having blessed the land with the sacred dances (chham) and having paid gratitide and 108,000 Offerings to the Divine (tshobum), the final day was a day of mass blessings by His Holiness Gangtey Rimpoche, and by the young Thuksey Yangsey – which is historic first in the valley, and which I am afraid may be difficult to make it happen again.
When I offered the Kusung Mendrel to thank the two Rimpoches for their blessings, His Holiness pulled out something from a bag and placed it on my head.
“This is most sacred phurba (ritual dagger) I have.” Rimpoche added.
As I received the blessing, I wished that the people of Rukha valley remain prosperous and never return to the state of poverty and destitutes, and that each and every person gathered here achieve realisation and work towards the benefits of all sentient beings.
And that our country remain the land of the peaceful dragon.
“This task falls on the jindha (religious patron),” His Holiness the Gangtey Rimpoche tells me with a smile. I nod obediently and take up my role for the occasion with honour, pride and reverence.
The task was to carry a large bowl of colored rice known as chhandru, which a lama would sprinkle around to mark the final act of consecration of a sacred place, monument or an object. This time the two new temples at Rukha and at Lamga are being consecrated.
As I accompanied His Holiness Gangtey Trulku Rimpoche (one of the highest reincarnate lamas in the Nyingma tradition) in a procession of monks and lay officials carrying the eight sacred symbols, with sounds of horns and trumpets blaring in front of us, my mind travelled back to the nostalgic memories of my first trip to Rukha in 2007 when I found this village in total misery. Then to 2009 when all of them received their permanent houses in place of the bamboo shacks. And then to 2014 when we consecrated the first temple in Rukha – in honour, and at the site, of the dharma protector Palden Lhamo (Kaladevi, or Sri Devi).
In Lamga, the sight of the thirteen women – lined up in a traditional reception style with a bangchung of rice, egg and josstick, took me back to 2015 when I visited them and they received me in a similar manner.
During that visit, I learnt that my friend, and their aging leader, Aap Mindru, had passed away and had left a death-bed wish to his family – to welcome me back to the village (this is accorded only to high lamas and officials) and to lead the village and help build a community temple in Lamga – among other things. He also left a piece of land if I wanted to build a house for myself (which I have refused until now). He was the only wise man of the village and I was both sad, and surprised by the wish and touched by the gift of a plot of land. Outside of my family there was only one person who left a death-bed wish left for me in my life.
I was financially unsound back then but I was determined to fulfill the wish of my Late friend – and become their leader. I promised to build a community temple together. We could start immediately but cautioned them that the progress would be slow, as I would have to depend on my salary only. My wife was more shocked by my promise because we had just struggled building the first one in Rukha, which was consecrated just a few months earlier by former Tsugla Lopen of Zhung Dratshang – in December 2014.
So, we worked when I had money, stopped when I became broke and resumed when I had saved enough to continue. Seven years later, ola! We did it!
His Majesty the King, at the recent National Day Address reminded that “there is nothing that the Bhutanese cannot do. It is just a matter of whether we want to do it or not”.
The Rukhaps – also known as Oleps, have done it. The Lamgaps, who are Phobjibs resettled here, did it. Just over a decade ago the Oleps were scrambling for food in the jungle or elsewhere – and living day by day – not knowing where their next meal would come from. And living in make-shift bamboo shacks. Yet in less than a decade, they were seeing a second temple being consecrated in their village. And now they are even joined by their urban members who drove into their village in their own cars. The villagers produced all the food and hosted some 50 monks needed for the three-day festival. The urban salary men and women pulled out one-third of the cash of 450,000 ngultrums required for the three-day festival. I covered the rest.
While there were outpouring of words of appreciation and gratitude to me for taking the lead, the Oleps and the Lamgaps have every reason to celebrate and take credit for the achievement.
There is an adage in Bhutanese: “Even if the privileged and the endowed give, but if those who receive cannot receive well, there won’t be any good outcomes.”
Therefore, the people of Rukha and Lamga are entitled to celebrate their extraordinary feat of doing all the hard manual labour – and above all, for believing in themselves and their dream, and come together and work towards it.
If only this is replicated among every Bhutanese across the whole country.
Athang Rukha – Wangdue. When the Rukhaps asked me to help them (re)build the temple at the site believed to be the abode of Palden Lhamo I had no choice but to accept. (As to why is another story for another time).
It was 2009, and when I looked around and toured the forested area, I thought, why not even a religious festival. Afterall, this regionel does not even seem to have received any form of Dharma (I later learnt that it did but because of remoteness, Shamanism prevailed again).
I had, of course, not the slightest of idea as to what really goes behind the religious dances. All I know is the sacred mask dances are sacred and they mimic the realm of Gods. And the masks are real deities bestowing the real blessings. And I wanted to cheery-top this region as a spiritual paradise, over its stunning natural beauty and a virgin territory. Many spiritual masters in the past conducted sacred mask dances as the final ceremony in the propagation of dharma – especially in Vajrayana Buddhism.
In 2020, I shared my vision with the newly-appointed resident Lama, Ugyen Tshering. He was bit shocked by my religious cluelessness but was kind to say it could be done. He knew the head dancer (chhampoen) of Gangtey Shedra.
Four months back when I approached His Holiness Gangtey Trulku Rimpoche with my wild request, which meant the monk-dancers had to be released from Gangtey Shedra, Rimpoche was bit surprised by my innocent request. I proposed that the sacred dances would be in conjuction with the consecration of the newly-built community tshokhang. He didn’t seem impressed and didn’t say a word on it.
I reached out to him again three months later during his short visit to Thimphu. His Holiness was still undecided but said he would look into it.
Again a week back I traced Rimpoche at his remote Winter residence in Sha Chitokha, in upper Wangdue.
“Oh! It is you again,” sighed His Holiness.
I gave a mischevious smile. 😁😁😁
“We can give a try. A few numbers this time,” Rimpoche told me. “Those that can be taken out,” He added.
I was so elated that I could barely feel my feet on the ground. I felt as if I was flying from Chitokha to Wangdue to Rukha, where I have been posted for a month to personally oversee the preparation.
Moral of the story: sacred dances are very sacred and you just can’t take them anywhere, and do what you like.
Anyway, His Holiness and 49 monks led by three khenpos (and not one) of the highest order first conducted a long ritual in the temple, carried out the invocation of the protector deity Palden Lhamo, sanctified the ground, and did an elaborate ceremony just to prepare the ground.
Now I undertstand why everyone was less excited than me. My apologies.
Nonetheless, my eternal gratitude for helping me fulfil a dream goes to Gangtey Trulku. And then to Khandrola for consenting to let the young Thuksey Yangsey travel to such remote and inhospitable area. His presence made the occasion special and more sacred.
And finally to the khenpos and monks – for the hard work that goes behind unseen. They conducted the ceremonies and danced during the day, and at night prepare the ritual cakes, and rehearsed the dances.
May their deeds bring peace and prosperity in the region, and in the whole country.
What next? May be an annual festival would be difficult for this humble valley. Perhaps to make to every three years and then to commemorate this visit of the Gangtey Rimpoche and Thuksey Yangsey by organising a Baza Guru Dungdrub (billion chants of Baza Guru mantra) would be best as the way forward.
Aum Boko squints her eyes and checks the scale very carefully. The cheese weighs 100 grams less than the agreed amount.
“This one is rejected!” she shouts.
People around burst in laughter. The person who brought the cheese protests, but Boko is immovable. She has been tasked to collect the local contributions.
The two communities of Lamga and of Rukha are preparing for the consecration of the two temples in their respective villages. The traditional practice in rural communities is for every household to contribute an agreed amount of rice, butter, cheese, oil and vegetable – basically things they produce, while they look for a sponsor (jindha in local language) to cover the other major expenses, such as offering for monks, and pay for imported items such as flour, fats, salt, sugar, meat, and tea. A large amount also goes to purchasing decorative items such as prayer flags.
For this event, I am the jindha. For over 15 years I have been one in this valley.
I first worked as a volunteer for a foundation that did their housings and sent children to school. When that project closed, I stayed back and helped the community stay together and work on collective projects like building community halls, and village temples. We built three – two in Rukha, and one in Lamga.
The deal has always been – I cover all the paid-out expenses, mainly buying the gilded statues and religious items, and roofing materials, cement, sand, stone aggregates, electrification and plumbing, while they did all the hard manual works.
It has been the greatest of collaborations.
So, a three-day grand celebration has been planned: one day of Tshobum – where we will honour our divinities, tutelary deities and our ancestors for their blessings and protection; one day of consecration (rabney) of the two temples at Rukha and at Lamga; and then close with a tshechu on the third day in honour of Guru Padmasambhava, and a tshe wang – a life empowerment blessing.
The covid-19 delayed both the construction as well as the consecration. It thus feels nice to be able to do this festival, as it will be giving a nice closing to my 15 years of service to the community. More importantly, we will celebrate their achievement of transforming from impoversished forest dwellers to successful farmers (Rukha is the only self-sufficient valley I know of in Bhutan).
As the day of the festival there is both the rush, and excitment. The valley will receive His Holiness Ganteng Trulku Rimpoche – the highest reincarnate Nyingma lama of Bhutan – whose lineage goes back to the 16th Century – to the great Terton (treasure revealer) Pema Lingpa. Sacred hagiography of Pema Lingpa relate his epic journey to look for the destined spot of Gangtey Gonpa.
This visit by the 9th Gangteng Rimpoche – the mind reincarnation of Pema Lingpa, will be a historic one. He follows the Second Gangtey Trulku, who visited the valley in the 17th century. We plan to commemorate this visit with annual Baza Guru Dungdrup – or even with a tshechu, from next year.
My smartphone alerts me with a new notification. Someone has added me to a WeChat group of natives from Tashi Yangtse. I am told that the group is planning a month-long recitation of the holy Kangyur canon, and that they are raising the funds to cover the initiative. I am not from Tashi Yangtse, but I have a connection there. It is happening in a temple that is dedicated to the choe-sung (dharmapala), which my family invokes regularly. I happily agree to contribute and make a transaction using a banking app.
Stories such as these have become a routine in the era of social media and mobile phones. In this article, based on a paper that I presented at the last International Vajrayana Conference, I share about how the tutelary deities and sacred places bring the Bhutanese people together. It was one of the findings from an ethnographic study that I conducted from 2018 to 2021 to look at the influences of technology on society – after being inspired by a provocative piece by Dzongsar Khyentse Rimpoche, What makes you not a Bhutanese?
Emergence of hybrid communities
Migration has depleted the rural communities. This in turn has led to the decline in farm productivity and land use, and additionally, as suggested by some scholars, to difficulties in sustaining the cultural and spiritual life. In the past decades, poor road connectivity and communication system meant that rural areas were abandoned for good by some, while others hardly ever returned there.
However, there are new promising trends and practices, which can be attributed to social media and digital networking platforms. Natives of the remote communities are connecting back to their families, relatives and to the protector deities. The reconstituted communities, however, adopt a hybrid mode, in that while some members meet in person, most engage with others online. The use of social media is, thus, contextualised to address time-space dilemmas, and integrated into local traditions to convey the vernacular languages, and the religious and ritualistic practices.
Repositioning of women
The era of the western education, which gained momentum in the 1970s, created some unsaid casualties – women and local languages. Their participation in the public discourse was limited as English language dominated the public forums such as the mass media. Even today women’s representation is poor when it comes to national leadership positions.
Social media and technology may change that scenario. The affordances of voice messaging apps such as WeChat has meant that anyone can express in their own language and post messages on the family or community WeChat groups. This has probably made WeChat the most popular social media in Bhutan. Almost all informal WeChat groups that I studied are either led by, or have active participation of, women, thus reclaiming the traditional role of women as the nang-ghi-aum (lady of the house).
Return of the vernacular
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, language is not just a means of communication. Wilhelm von Humboldt, the nineteenth century scholar, even went on to argue that our culture and our thought processes are influenced by the language we speak. Therefore, speaking a vernacular language sets the foundations for the appreciation and deeper understanding of one’s culture, timeless values, and the worldview.
Local languages are rich in moral values, belief systems and in collective imagination. Of particular interest is the finding from my study of the prevailing practices of anthropomorphism of the natural and the supernatural worlds, whereby we attribute human characteristics and behaviours to objects, gods, nature, or animals. It is perfectly normal to us to talk about Guru Sungjoen, dre-chhu, or tsho-korban. Whereas it does not sound well when we say them in English about speaking statues, demonic rivers, or runaway lakes.
Equally important is the practice of referring to deities and animals with kinship terms. In Tshangla, my native language, we call elephants – memay Sangye (Grandfather Buddha) and bears as ajang (uncle) omsha. We refer to the deity Jomo as ama (mother) Jomo, and in Bartsham, a village in eastern Bhutan, a tiny statue of Vajrapani in the community temple is fondly referred to as memay Chador.
Such rhetorical devices and sociolinguistic tools shape our identity as Bhutanese – of an interdependent self in harmony with not only the human world but also with the natural environment and the supernatural realm.
In the deities we unite
Instant personal communication devices extend religious practices and spirituality over space and time. Notwithstanding the technological determinism, though, tools are what they are: just a tool. Ultimately, it is the people and their sustained beliefs and values that will determine a societal relationship with technology. In the earlier International Vajrayana Conference, I had pointed out how, aided by the technological affordances of WeChat, users in Bhutan are practising and propagating Buddhist teachings such as compassion and loving kindness by saving yaks and pigs. What was inferred there was the inherent compassionate nature of the Bhutanese as the main catalysing agent.
In this paper, whether it is a community getting reconstituted, or an extended family coming together for the annual rituals, the binding force seems to be the tutelary deities and sacred places that provide a safe space and solace. For example, places like Dechenphu provide mental and spiritual support in a city that is increasingly perceived as unjust, greedy and stressful.
Why do all these matter?
The sociologist, Anthony B Smith, highlighted the importance of the “power of myths, symbols and memories to mobilise, define, and shape people and their destinies.” Along this school of thought, I also add the protector deities and sacred places as powerful centripetal forces to the existing symbols. This is vital for a small country like Bhutan where major discords and differences are not a luxury. In an era of divisive political era and discriminatory public policies, made worse by mindless and myopic bureaucratic rules that all seem to segregate rather than integrate, we must embrace and hold on to what unites us as people, as communities, and as a nation.
Nation building is a work in progress. And by nation-building I refer to the sense of nationhood, and that feeling of oneness as people. Nation-building is not the construction of hydropower dams or highways or hospitals. These are state-building. Furthermore, the existence of a country with simply a territory of human habitants does not guarantee a nation, as Massimo D’Azeglio, an Italian unification hero, famously pronounced, “We have Italy. Now let’s make the Italians”. Citizens must have a sentiment of unity, solidarity, and harmony, and work towards a common goal and a shared future.
Adding to the rural-urban migration impasse, there is now a growing concern of Bhutanese moving to foreign shores. Notwithstanding the gravity of the issue, in this day and age of instant communication technology, the world has not only flattened, to paraphrase Thomas Friedman, but has also shrunk considerably. Physical distance, thus, does not matter much as long as emotional distance is not created. Social media platforms such as Facebook and WeChat help maintain this vital emotional link to one’s place of birth, origin and people. However, stereotyping those who have left, or curtailing the opportunities of those who have stayed back will not be helpful in any manner. Instead, it might only exacerbate the problem.
In conclusion, on the eve of the National Day, each one of us must ponder on what unites us as Bhutanese and work on them. Given the role they play in national consciousness, sacred sites and deity citadels of national and local significance need to be protected by laws from the Parliament with some sort of a cultural heritage bill. I would go even further. Popular monuments like Paro Taktshang, which draws thousands of visitors every day, could be administered through its own Act, so that its power and influence can extend beyond the realm of spirituality.
Then, there is social media. Newer communication technology can create, what sociologist Benedict Anderson calls it, a “deep, horizontal comradeship” when he defined the nation as an imagined political community. It is essential, accordingly, that large state investments and initiatives be made to harness its immense power for public good – and for strategic national interests – such as bringing people together.
Dorji Wangchuk (PhD), Kawajangsa
(The original article appeared on Kuensel, the national newspaper, on 10th December 2022
(Excerpt of my sharing session with Samuh OTT, Thimphu)
I have been asked to share my views on the future of media and technology, and what was in store for the OTT. As a veteran of the Bhutanese media and technology industry, I am often asked these questions
Well, here is my take.
Going back in time, I predicted the decline of the Bhutanese mass media way back in 2006 when everyone thought that with democracy it would be the otherwise. (Check my article in the launch issue of Bhutan Times).
The mass media (print and broadcast), of which I was one of the pioneers, will die – unfortunately – unless the State intervenes with some form of subsidy. While subsidy may be a bad word in a free market, the public service media is necessary to sustain the concept of a nation. Simply put, if we want to stay united as one nation, we better take care of BBS and Kuensel.
The universal mandate of media is to inform, educate and entertain the people. While earlier the role was taken up by the mass media, in the new era it will loosely be divided between the social media, online educational services, and the OTT. This is what they call fragmentation of the audience.
The next big things will be virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) – something that the OTTs may like to take note.
Interestingly there will be a return of the good old radio in the form of podcast – meaning people will just download and listen the audio files at leisure – as passive listening mode and as on-demand-services.
Nation-building does not only mean building hospitals, highways and hydropower. What is more important, according to social scientists, is the concept of nationhood. Radio and TV bring the nation together. In the same song we listen, in the same joke we all laugh, in the same news we celebrate or being concerned about, mass media can keep the minds united.
Now the role of nation building will be played by the OTT and the film industry.
Regulators and naysayers will continue to stand in their way but that’s not just in Bhutan, but everywhere. We faced higher brick walls during our time. But if you believe in what you are doing, if you believe that it is good of the people and country, you keep pushing. You keep changing the boundary. You redefine the borders.
You will face consequences. Be warned. I faced them too. And it was not fun. But past your 50s, your heart will smile at you. Trust me.
You will tell yourself, “You did what you had to do, and not what others wanted you to be.”