When a rock art saved me

It was late October 2002. I was with the Bhutan Broadcasting Service then.

With my cameraman, Sonam Loday, and soundman, Tshering Norbu, we were on the last day of our trek to Singye Dzong. After our lunch break we thought we had got closer to our destination and so we sent our guide ahead. We have been filming along the way, since we left our camp in Thangkarmo,  and we continued to do that day too – which actually slowed our progress.

Journey starts through sub-tropical green area of Khoma

Then the Sun was almost at the horizon when we realized that we were nowhere near our destination. We packed our gear and zoomed off. I started worrying but managed to hide it from my two younger colleagues. The trail was never ending. Did we miss our path? We were told that at the intersection of Doksum, we should take the valley to the left, which we did. The one to the right would have taken us to another valley – Rongmateng.

Late afternoon turned into evening, which also gave way to the darkness. And still no sign of inhabitation or religious sites whatsoever. Usually they are marked with prayer flags or chortens. Nothing except dense jungle and total darkness made creepier by a furious sound of the river gushing below us. We kept going. My two colleagues followed me. They thought I knew the way. But I was already panicking. We were warned from Khoma not to undertake the journey for it was late autumn and the yak herders would have already left for lower valleys. In fact it was our second day that we had not met any soul. Did I push too far? Did I put the lives of others at risk? My heart started pounding even faster because of such thoughts. I was breathing faster and because of pantings and hyperventilation I was getting dizzy. My vision was getting blurry. We slowed down and I said to myself, “If we don’t get to our destination in another 10 minute I am as good as dead.”

Then as we turned around a corner I thought I head some prayer flags fluttering in the darkness. Was I hallucinating? I stopped and I pointed my flashlights. There besides a string of worn-out prayer a flag was a small rock carving of Guru Padma Sambhava and a marker, ‘Way to Singye Dzong’. “Yes!” I thought. “We are on the right track. Thanks, Man. You save my life” I silently told Guru. We stopped, dropped our loads and I took out my small towel from my bag and covered my face. Out of sheer joy and relief, I cried silently. It was dark and so we couldn’t see each other’s faces. We could only hear gasping for air from the brisk walk and from the very high altitude we were already at. With my energy recharged, literally, an hour later, at close to midnight, we reached our campsite.

During our week-long stay in that area we saw nothing but rocks and caves. There is actually no dzong in Singye Dzong. Dzong is a metaphor. Every ancient Dzongkha word, I was told, has three meanings – the outer, which we are all familiar with, the inner and the secret. It is called chi nang, saang. The nang meaning of dzong is “a peaceful place” – a sanctuary. In fact the place is so peaceful and exudes an energy that you can feel right to the core of your heart.

Singye Dzong valley. (Photo courtesy: Thuenlam.bt)

I am sharing this story in light of a recent news report that rock carvings of religious figures would be banned in Bhutan. I hope that people who make such decision will also read my story. Had it not been for that small rudimentary work of rock art, which are now being termed as religious desecration, I wouldn’t be alive or I would be telling a different story.

The presence of the sacred and the spiritual energy is found both outside and inside the temples. While others may not have such a dramatic story like mine, I have had friends who visited Bhutan and felt powerful the energy everywhere. The presence of a chorten here, a rock carving there, water-driven prayer wheels in a distance and prayer flags everywhere, exude energy like nowhere else. Hence, I am not sure how these things are sacrilegious. Do we really need to regulate them? Shouldn’t we be actually encouraging such religious pursuits?

Just asking.

Never ending mountains before the abode


Hema Hema – a Bhutanese Narrative

Using an unconventional method of storytelling Dzongsar Khyentse created hauntingly beautiful film where there is no hero or a villain; where the journey is undertaken from, and into, within. With heart screeching lines and poignant background score, you don’t watch Hema Hema, you become part of it.

I am glad that Hema Hema – the latest film by Dzongsar Khyentse, is not banned or barred, as it was reported in the social media but that the film is under review. Having watched it several times, I would like to share my analysis of the film here. I may add that I am not associated with the production of the film in any way. My sole intent is to offer a deeper reading into the film as a communication scholar while also providing a holistic view of the key messages.

Hema Hema is a film that deals with our mundane struggle with something called identity. While identity is socially constructed and determines one’s place in a society, it is also because of that same identity that one feels constricted in life. The film, thus, is an antithesis: how about a two-week getaway where your identity is concealed and where you could exult in the freedom of being unknown.


A man known as ‘Expressionless’ (Tshering Dorji) makes it to such an event – convened once every 12 years by a god-like patriarch called Agay (Thinley Dorji). Expressionless is last to arrive at the secret venue where he joins few hundreds of other participants. Except for Agay, everyone wears a mask to hide his or her identity. They are also strictly prohibited from revealing themselves or trying to find out the identity of others. Punishments are severe and even inhuman.

As the festival rolls on, primal instincts and desires take over. Expressionless falls for ‘Red Wrathful’ (Sadon Lhamo) and thereafter things get out of control. He is thrown back into the worst of human confusions: fear, which leads him to commit a murder.

Hema Hema offers complex and coded meanings and messages that it is hard to decipher them all. Nonetheless, one key message is the rendering of bardo – a state where one is completely stripped of any identity. If having an identity is suffocating, losing it, or not having one, could be scary.

The film is also loaded with metaphors – and follows the dictum: show but don’t tell. Technological invasions into our lives and degradation of traditions are subtly portrayed. The film, however, does not take the high moral ground. Rather there is a silent scream of questions. As Expressionless goes back to the festival for the second time – twenty-four years later, he is betrayed by his cellphone. At the festival the mild and meditative sound is replaced with pungent techno music. The boedra dances have made way for hip-hop moves. The convener of the festival is a young and anonymous leader who speaks from behind a red curtain. Agay is old and frail. These are strong metaphors for what is going on around us these days.

The film, as Dzongsar Khyentse told in an interview, was inspired by our behaviors in the social media where we get a false sense of anonymity – and freedom. However, one can never be free from one’s conscience, which is the Ultimate Jury. In the final moments, Expressionless removes his masks and explodes in remorse for the crime he had committed and the deep regrets that he has been living with ever since. The resolution is simply beautiful: one has the choice to hide behind a mask, provided by the online world or by the real life, but one cannot hide anything from one’s conscience. It will always follow you and bug you.

In terms of production, Hema Hema is a celebration of Bhutanese ingenuity. While the writer-director had prior experience, all other key personnel were Bhutanese youth who have not been part of major projects before. And yet, Jigme Tenzing’s cinematography is mind blowing. Having sat as jury in international film festivals I can say that it is world-class. The performances by the lead actors, Tshering Dorji and Sadon Lhamo, are as good as they can get. One can feel the emotions, fear, desire, lust and even sadness. This was not an easy task with their real faces wrapped behind passive masks.

Everything in Hema Hema – the festival, dances and rituals, is fictional. Hence, to bring the audience to the present-day reality, the film starts and ends in a nightclub in Thimphu where a cocktail waitress (played by Zhao Xun) contemplates on her life. Symbols and semiotics are maximized. Every object, character, costume, music or landscape is masterfully chosen to blend with the overall message.


Hema Hema is by far the best from Khyentse Norbu’s repertoire. It is a courageous film. Critics have often cited The Cup as the best. I would disagree. The Cup was, no doubt, an honest piece but it was more a film and less an art. It had a straightforward storyline and a number of obvious subplots. Hema Hema, on the other hand, is more an art and less a film – in that different viewers can deduce different meanings, as they uncover layers upon layers that are intricately woven like eastern Bhutanese textile.

My own experience of reading the film (I have watched it over ten times, as I am writing an academic paper) is that Hema Hema almost hypnotizes you. It is hauntingly beautiful. There is no hero or villain. The journey is undertaken from, and into, within – and for and against oneself. It grabs your soul and shakes it – with heart screeching lines and poignant background score. You don’t watch Hema Hema, you become part of it. This is what distinguishes this film.

This work, therefore, is a major breakthrough in, what I would term as, Bhutanese Narrative, which could be Bhutan’s contribution to the world cinema. Western and Euro-centric storytelling based on Hero’s Journey has long dominated the cine screen that any new or original style has been seen as a welcome respite – even in Hollywood. This happened with the New Iranian Cinema and later with the likes of Wang Kar Wai and Zhang Yimou. With adequate support and more engagements with film scholars and with other Bhutanese filmmakers emerging and perfecting the new narrative style there is an opportunity for Bhutan to spearhead another cinematic revolution that the world is eagerly yearning for.

This blog entry is the same version that was published in Kuensel, December 31, 2016


UPDATE. January 15, 2017

BICMA denied the certification of the film based on “inappropriate” use of the religious mask. The full report on Kuensel.