On the occasion of the just-concluded visit of Her Imperial Highness Princess Mako of Japan to Bhutan, I repost a photo story of the State Visit of His Majesty the King of Bhutan to Japan in 2011 that took the relations between the two countries to a different height.
The State Visit of His Majesty the King to Japan was more than just a visit. It was a journey. A journey of life, hope and friendship. Something unexplainable which can perhaps be expressed only through images. Pictures they say tell thousand words. So while I try to put together my thoughts and reflections, here is a photo reportage.
The Imperial Family sent a car from their fleet for the Royal Couple. Among all arrangements, the security detail was impressive (but what is not impressive about Japanese way of doing things). They were there to protect the VVIP at any cost.
Japanese Emperor Akihito was not well. So His Imperial Highness Crown Prince Naruhito stood in for the Emperor. Crown Prince Naruhito had visited Bhutan in 1987 and said he “has fond memories.” (photo source – Reuters)
Japanese Prime Minister Noda called on His Majesty the King on the day the King arrived in Tokyo. The PM had also just flown in from the APEC Summit in Honolulu
The photo that moved a nation. At the Guard of Honour in the Imperial Palace, His Majesty pays homage to Bhutan – Japan friendship by bowing down to the two flags. This scene made every Bhutanese proud and brought every Japanese to tears.
(photo courtesy – Reuters)
His Majesty the King greeting the children at the Welcoming Ceremony (Imperial Palace)
In an unprecedented move, perhaps defying the standard protocol, the Empress called on His Majesty at the place where the King was staying.
The State Banquet in honour of His Majesty the King and Her Majesty the Queen. In his banquet address His Majesty paid homage to the emperor and to the people of Japan for the special bond. I sat next to Honorary Consul to Bhutan, Hitomi Tokuda and the beautiful wife of trade minister Yukio Edano. Edano is famous for his role as the cabinet secretary in the post March 11 disaster. I also shared a wonderful joke with finance minister Jun Azumi. I also heard the most beautiful Bhutan’s national anthem played here by the Imperial household orchestra.
Fans and wellwishers wait for the King and Queen outside the Kieo University Hall. Everywhere we went ordinary people and photographers became a part of the scene.
His Majesty receiving Honorary Doctorate in Economics from Kieo University. “Our generation is called upon to rethink, to redefine the true purpose of growth. And in doing so, to find a growth that is truly sustainable.” The King said in his acceptance speech
His Majesty addressing the joint session of parliament in Tokyo. His Majesty expressed his solidarity with the people affected by the earthquake and also supported Japan’s aspiration as permanent member in the UN Security Council. “Bhutan not only believes in the need to expand the United Nations Security Council, we are convinced that Japan must play a leading role in it. You have our full commitment and support.” The Speech was televised live by NHK and webstreamed by the Diet secretariat.
At Meiji Shrine. People as far as Kagoshima in South Japan were following the State Visit through newspapers, live TV reports and updates.
Butlers, chefs, cleaners and staff of Akasaka Palace, where the King was staying in Tokyo, line up to bid goodbye to the King and Queen
In Sakuragako School in Fukushima those who weren’t invited wrapped the building making the Japanese security details quite nervous.
Inhabitants of Fukushima cheer the Royal Couple with Bhutan flag in response to King’s much-appreciated gesture to visit the region. Someone wrote to me “HM’s visit to Japan was like as if the real dragon showed up out of the blue clearing out the gloom and brought happy smiles to the Japanese people with the sun light after the storm
The Japanese security looked very nervous when His Majesty did what he love doing – dive into a crowd (photo courtesy – Yukio Tanaka)
There were excitements, smiles, gratitude and curiosities all around. Some said they could finally smile after a long time
Children and adults alike – all were either curious or touched by the royal presence in their locality.
People came out of their houses and work places and waived Bhutan flags all along the 100 km or so ride from Fukushima station to Soma Port.
“Remember there is a dragon in each one of us,” His Majesty told the children in Sakuragako School who also put up few cultural performances.
Hard evidence of a tragedy. A fishing boat still stands on top of a 20 meter wall. In some places here the tsunami reached 40 meters.
Soma City – Fukushima. His Majesty joins in for the prayer ceremony led by venerable Dorji Lopen – Bhutan’s second highest monk. “No nation or people should ever have to experience such suffering. And yet if there is one nation who can rise stronger and greater from such adversity – it is Japan and her People. Of this I am confident.” The King had told in his address to the Japanese parliament.
HM King and Queen thanking the people of Fukushima for love and affection and the unexpected warm reception. (photo courtesy – Hiroko Kobori)
Many people came out with banners that read “kadrinche”, “tashi telek”, and “Joen pa legso” . Some had even decorated their homes and gates. It was simply moving to see how much this visit meant to them
His Majesty and Her Majesty surprised the hosts in Kyoto by turning up at the Governor’s banquet in hakama and kimono. One female journalist confided to me that she nearly fainted
Men in Black. We wore our national dress throughout the Visit except on the day we left Japan. It is almost rare that we have any pictures of ourselves from these tours. But we made exception for Japan.
Some of the Japanese media covered the State Visit until the very end. We bid them farewell recognising deep in our hearts that they had done a great service to the relation between our two countries. Japan Times dedicated an editorial.
The entire Japanese foreign ministry team joined the Kyoto Governor and stayed on and waived as His Majesty and Her Majesty waived back from the aircraft. There is no goodbye word in Dzongkha, our national language. Only “see you again” and this really goes for this wonderful land and wonderful people.
My Facebook timeline is flooded with pictures of the snowfall in Thimphu.
It is heartening to see people getting joy out of simple things like a snowfall. I have never understood this pleasant collective euphoria – and the disappointments in the past years when it didn’t snow.
It is heartening because if GNH means anything, it is the ability to find joy in those small things in life that give you togetherness and make you feel, share, forget and live your moment. It is finding happiness and contentment in what modern capitalism has long melted them away as things trivial.
I have taken the liberty to copy-paste some pictures out of the pages (mostly of my friends so that no one sues me for copyright. Need to be careful these days) and have given my own narrative and captions. Enjoy till it lasts. And, of course, to paraphrase an Indian teacher in remote Bhutan, Let them snow!
On the sixth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, here is my story of how I was caught in the Japan during those dramatic days.
March 11, 2011 – I was at a lunch in Akasaka (downtown Tokyo) with two of my friends, Sakitsu san from the NHK World and Ogawa san of Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS). I was on an official visit to prepare for the State Visit of our King, which was to happen two months later.
As we were eating, chatting and sharing the old times, the building started shaking. Mildly at first. “It’s normal,” one of them reassured me. But the quake only intensified and things started falling down around us. Some people started screaming outside. Sakitsu took out his phone and was rather shocked by what he saw on the mini-screen, “It is a big one. It hit off the coast of Fukushima. Tsunami alert along the Pacific Coast.” The emergency siren rang. Immediately he excused himself and rushed off. Ogawa, seeing me little dazed, asked me to follow him to his office – the TBS building, which is probably one of the safest buildings in Tokyo. I followed him. In the streets people were running all over the place. Another shake. I felt like I was trying to walk down the aisle of an airplane midair under severe turbulence. A big earthquake had just hit Japan.
The 9.2 magnitude earthquake has released an energy that was equivalent to 30,000 times the power of the atomic bomb that was dropped over Hiroshima during the World War II. But more than the earthquake (because Japan was prepared for it) it was the tsunami it triggered that devastated the north-eastern coast.Scenes of cities beings washed away, like in the movie Day After Tomorrow, were flashed on TV news over and over again. At the time of posting this article, over 3,000 people have been confirmed dead, as many were still missing and over quarter of a million have been left homeless or directly affected.
The response to the disaster was quick. Over 1.2 million people were evacuated within minutes after the tsunami alarm went off along the Pacific Coast – from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu islands in the South. Relief and recovery teams went into action even before the first wave of Tsunami hit the Iwate prefecture (which was closest to the epicenter). Trains, airports and subways were suspended and elevators in every building in Japan were disabled with clockwork precision. The Self Defence Force (Japan’s army) was put into action and the Parliament suspended the debate and the session to allow the government to deal with the crisis.
But what really amazed me was not the Japanese efficiency at work. Rather the courage and the dignity with which the people, even those who were directly affected, dealt with the tragedy. It is often said that the worst of times brings the best and the worst in us. In the case of Japan, it brought only the best. Although left with nothing for themselves and for their family, people lined up in the usual orderly manner – to get some food, buy some supplies or to make telephone calls from public fixed lines. The sense of community was simply moving. For all their technological advancements the core value of Japanese society, the social harmony, was still strong. Usually emotions would run high and looting and riots would take place where desperation sets in. This has happened in recent tragedies and turmoils all over the World. But not in the Land of Rising Sun. I couldn’t help but admire my in-laws (my wife is a Japanese) more than ever before for their great courage and the highest sense of civility.
My journalistic instinct was to go to the affected area but back home everyone was worried for me. I was instructed to leave the country with the first flight that I could catch. It was an order I couldn’t refuse. However, the country had almost come to a halt. I spent the time glued to the TV, rescued by my sister in-law and in her house, getting every bit of information that was coming out from Narita Airport. The transport authorities had shut down everything to assess the damages and the safety -and there were no flights in and out of Tokyo. The radiation leak from Fukushima nuclear plant presented another bigger concern.
Finally on 13th March I made it to Narita and boarded a flight bound for Seoul. Life in Tokyo had almost come to normal after two days although the after-shocks and the threat from the Fukushima nuclear plant kept coming. I called up Ogawa, Sakitsu and my sister-in-law, Junko, for taking care of me and sending me home safely. As the flight took off from Narita airport, I bid goodbye, for this time, to this country that had given me so much but that was going through, what Prime Minister Kan described as, the worst crisis since the WW II.
As we climbed higher I looked out of the window and saw the earth moving away and clouds slowly covering my second homeland. A deep sadness engulfed my heart. If there was one positive thing for me out of this incident, I realized how much my friends here and my in-laws cared for me and how much I have become closer to this country. I also realised how unpredictable life could be – even for a nation.
And as the aircraft veered right on its final trajectory towards Seoul, a bright light appeared in the horizon. It was Mount Fuji, beaming with the winter snow still covering its summit. Standing above a blanket of dark cloud that was now covering everything below us. I smiled tearfully at the sight and offered a little prayer. “Yes, Mount Fuji,” I thought, “You are the spirit of this Nation. Rising above all adversities.”
Whatever destruction or despair Mother Nature may have thrown on this Land, suddenly I felt confident that like Fuji san (as the Japanese refer to their favorite mountain) the people here would stand tall, rise above the situation to rebuild their nation and move on. They have done that in the past.They will do it again.
That is the strength of the Land of the Rising Sun.
To eat or not to eat meat is a personal question and not an ethical or religious issue. The government should be allowed to do its job – how best Bhutanese can access meat, rather than default the system while engaging in the hypocrisy.
I turned vegetarian a little over two years back. It was purely a personal decision – with no religion or health issues involved. Of course, there were encouragements from different quarters including a rimpoche-friend who advocates against eating meat. But let me share one good reason, perhaps, that made me take the final step.
While attending a Buddhist conference in Kathmandu, a panellist asked the audience, “Do you know what you are eating? Do you know where your food come from?” She was in the panel discussing about why Buddhists eat meat and why they shouldn’t. Now her question reminded me of some horrendous things I saw in slaughterhouses across the border – many years back. And really, back then it didn’t strike me anything. Maybe I was too naïve or too insensitive. But in recent years I have also heard more terrible stories of animal feeds being used in these farms. Now I am not saying that these are true stories. However, as the nutritionist said, do you really know what you are eating? Now, I wasn’t 100 percent sure about what the animal, I was eating, was fed with. Seriously. The food safety standard in our region is not that great.
Then there was also the fact that I was homing in to 50 and I felt that my body didn’t require meat anymore. I guess I have enough storage of essential vitamins like B12 that come from red meat. It does not leave our body like potassium or magnesium. We don’t run the risk of B12 deficiency easily. So I thought if I don’t need it why have some animals slaughtered, which brings me to the question of what Buddhism says about it.
From the few readings that I made, the confusion seems to have started off with the monks in Gautama Buddha’s sangha itself. They depended on the generosity of lay supporters as they went on their morning rounds for food alms. Obviously, they couldn’t dictate what people offered. In a predominantly Hindu India, people only refrained from eating beef but not other types of meat or fish. So the monks would face a simple choice – eat meat or starve. This dilemma became worse in the Tibetan highlands where no grass grows and where green vegetable is in short supply. Furthermore, Mahayana and Vajarayana Buddhism are less dogmatic than Theravada and leave this critical decision to personal choices that you can make based on your sampa (true intention). So if the intention is to survive, it is OK. But if the kill is for greed, anger or jealousy, it is not ok anymore.
Going back to Buddha, what do the scriptures say? A line from Dhammapada V 130 reads,
“All tremble at the rod. All hold their life dear. Drawing the parallel to yourself, Neither kill nor get others to kill.”
Since Buddhism encourages interpretations here are some. First, we should refrain from intentional acts of killing, but it not necessarily from the consumption of animals that are already dead. Secondly, we should not intentionally ask someone to kill for us as in, for example, make a bjob to kill a yak for us. But we cannot prevent anyone from killing either because that may be his or her traditional lifestyle or the main economic activity to feed the family or send children to school – or both. We need to be realistic too and not just religious or idealistic.
In conclusion, what should we do (as Buddhist, if I may say)? Well, just as people adopted to eating meat for practical reasons to stay alive, if one could that by staying away from meat, then just do it. And do some readings, talk to doctors, get your vitamin level tested. If you are not a toddler and you are in pretty good shape, chances are that you don’t require meat at all. And take small steps. I stopped eating pork and then after a month I stopped beef and few months later, chicken. Don’t be over ambitious.
By the way, I am the only one in my family who stopped eating meat. I still eat fish and eggs. As said, I have not been coerced by anyone to stop meat nor would I force anyone to do that either. The choice should be personal and should come from within – from our sampa. Only then it sustains.
50 years is a great target for my generation. When we were growing up in the 70s we were given the country’s fact-sheet where our life expectancy was a miserable 35 years. So I remember praying to Buddha for a life way past that age.
So my generation has already lived 15 years more than what we “expected”. I achieved that on February 14, 2017 – on the so-called Valentines Day. In addition to the milestone of outliving the official life expectancy, I present here, in a five-part series, my life’s ups and downs in 50 pictures.
Part I : Early years and schooling
1967. Tongling. Radhi (Trashigang)
I was born in a hut above this village. My family was driven out from our ancestral home in Tongling. This place is called Drung Gonpa. Drung as in Drungpa (sub-district governor) and gonpa means temple. There is a temple there, which was founded by my maternal great-great-grandfather, the Tongling drungpa, in the early 20th century. People called it Drungpa Gonpa because it belonged to him. I grew up with my grandfather, Khandola, who was a hereditary lay-lama, my great-grandmother, whom we addressed as Ashi, my mother and my elder sister. My father was away in a distant place and I rarely saw him. I later learnt that he was drafted into the army following the border clashes between India and China of 1962. So my grandfather took charge of me and I grew up as a young novice – learning how to make ritual cakes – hoping to one day succeed him as a lama. I grew up drinking goat milk and walking with grandpa to the villages of Chaling, Radhi, Khardung, Tshenkar, Jonla where he was invited to conduct rituals and religious sermons. He rarely accepted the gaybcha (offering to monks for the service). I don’t remember his reasoning.
1972. Phuntsholing. Earliest photographic record.
When I was 5, my grandfather passed away. So my hereditary duty to become a lama also died with him. My father, who was working in Bhutan Government Transport Service (BGTS) as a driver, came to back to the village and took me to Phuntsholing.
There, he enrolled me in Phuntsholing Primary School in class Infant ‘C’. I aced the class that year. I and an Indian boy, whose father sold Murphy radios in Phuntsholing, were given double promotion. We were directly moved up to Infant ‘A’. In those days it was normal for good students to skip grades. The government was in a hurry to get students out of school and fill the newly established civil service. We were basically fast forwarded to the job market. (How times have changed….)
1974. Loyal Studio, Phuntsholing.(Photo. To my right is my father. To my left my uncle)
Two years later I moved to Don Bosco Technical School in Kharbandi. My father rarely was home (he went on driving duty) and my mother had to be in Tongling to nurse my great-grandma. So I was packed off to a boarding school. I was only 7 and I remember Father Philip, the Selesian principal, refused to take me in. So my father, who had earlier worked as a royal chauffeur, got a kasho (royal edict) from HRH Ashi Dechen Wangmo Wangchuck (a real angel for many Bhutanese of my generation). The trip to Thimphu also coincided with the Coronation of the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. At the celebration ground in Changlingmithang, I received my largest sum of money until then, Nu. 5, which lasted for good 3 months. On my return journey from Thimphu all I can remember is taking a detour to Dawakha over a scary Baily bridge over Chuzom – and vomiting all the way to Phuntsholing in his white BGTS International truck that had the map of Australia on the door (I would later learn that those American International trucks were a gift under the Colombo Plan. They were such powerful beasts).
Don Bosco Technical School was renamed as Kharbandi Technical School. Go Go hairstyle was the fashion and Levis blue jeans was our dream but we were all barefoot (see picture). I was 13. I was a good student but I was naughty and I rarely studied. I would be all over the place. Still, I loved science, history and geography and was a champ in general knowledge (GK). On the vocational side, I did carpentry, welding, plumbing and was majoring as an electrical technician (I still do all the carpentry and electrical works at home). I loved sports too but was fat and unfit to be really good at anything. More than that it was perhaps because I had a hobby – almost an addiction – movies. Dharmendra and Clint Eastwood were my favorite stars. I never missed any movie in Norgay Cinema and so I found myself slipping out of the dorm regularly at night – braving darkness, snakes, scorpions and very vigilant dorm councillors. When I got caught I was reprimanded with toilet cleaning jobs and watering the trees (my early contribution to green Bhutan). I was also beaten very badly, at times. The Selesians were not angels. Corporal punishments were a norm. My father even encouraged them. (So much for all the controversies on the issues these days.)
1982 – Bhutan Photo Studio, Phuntsholing. (Photo: Front row: L-R. Kencho Tseten (Executive Engineer, His Majesty’s Secretariat), Nagphey Dukpa (Executive Engineer, Thimphu Thromde), Chencho Tshering (Joint Managing Director, Mangdechu). Standing: L-R. Thinley Wangchuk (Principal, Institute of Zorig Chusum, Tashi Yangtse), Kado Rinzin (Businessman, Gelephu), Yours Truly (in white pants, white shirt inspired by Bollywood star, Jitendra ☺)
Although the school and the government provided everything we needed in school, we were always broke with no pocket money to buy other stuff. I had one set of cloth that I could dress up to go to town. We went around in Bata slippers and played football barefoot – all the time. So my friends and I were so excited to receive our second pair of canvas shoe on the eve of the annual sports day that we decided to take a photo. By the way, taking photo in a studio was also very expensive. That year I was also about to finish my matriculation (that was a term for school leaving certificate exam), which was one of the highest qualifications someone received in those years. Can you imagine the excitement in my family? It was as if I was getting the Nobel Prize. When I matriculated few months later, my father also bought me something I was nagging for years – leather top boot and Levis jeans pant. He paid a hefty sum of Nu. 50 just for the shoe. His salary was Nu. 150. (Today I never refuse anything that he asks. He sacrificed a lot for us.)
1982 – Phuntsholing, Study tour to BGTS Workshop.
In December 1982 I completed my matriculation. But as we were about to set off for the 14-day study tour to India (those days we had such privileges too) a bolt from the blue struck me. My paternal uncle, who was an engineer and whose education my father sponsored, and who was planning to reciprocate by sending me for pre-university (PU) studies to Shillong, was killed in an accident. I saw my life and dreams blown away in an instant. We were planning that I studied medicines and become a doctor. And there was no way that my father with his salary of a truck driver could afford to send me to Shillong. We were not accepted in Sherubtse because our school followed the Megalaya Board of Exams. During the entire 14-day trip to India where we visited Calcutta, Jamshedpur and Ranchi I cried almost every night. It was double blow. I lost my dearest uncle and I also saw my dreams fade away. Not being able to do PU also meant that I would never go to a university. I felt lost – completely thrown off from my path. I was just 15. Yes, life dealt me with a devastating blow at a very young age.
1983. Dewathang, Samdrup Jongkhar
After our India trip, we went to Thimphu where we had to report to the Manpower Directorate (that had just been renamed as the Royal Civil Service Commission) to take up jobs in the government. I was barely 16 and I wanted to continue my studies. Since Sherubtse was not possible the next best option was to head for Dewathang to study at the Royal Bhutan Polytechnic and become an engineer.
Life will often present you with a wall. If you cannot climb over it, don’t keep banging your head. Take a detour.
But at the Directorate of Manpower, a long stand-off with the employment officer (very cruel guy) began. I persisted and endured one week of Thimphu’s cold and hunger till a divine hand intervened. I was allowed to go to Dewathang. After borrowing Nu. 50 from a cousin I headed to the East. From that on, I never looked back.
Royal birthdays should be celebrated as a day of togetherness and as a reiteration of one’s commitment towards one’s country. The irreversible journey that we have undertaken in democracy will keep us divided more and more. It is only in the institution of monarchy that we will be united towards a common dream, goal and aspiration.
My father was one of Bhutan’s first drivers. In fact he had the License No. 4. He was a royal chauffeur for few years before he was sent to the newly established Bhutan Government Transport Service (BGTS) in 1966. In the seventies I spent my childhood school holidays taking free rides with him.
Since his black-coloured BGTS truck was one of the very few vehicles plying on the “highway” (sometimes the only vehicle on the road that day), my father would stop for everyone seeking a ride. After a while the truck would be brimming beyond its capacity that some passengers would protest, “There is no space, driver sahib. Don’t stop!” My father would pull his head out of the driver’s cabin and shout back, “Let them on board, as we move ahead you will all fit in.”
No one dare challenge him. BGTS drivers were very powerful guys those days. As the new entrants climbed on board and before they could settle in properly my father would mischievously zoom off. People would tumble on each other. There would be laughter. There would be laments. There were screams. Someone has his legs trapped while another has lost his slippers. There would also be some discussions over some extra spaces someone is occupying. Everyone would cooperate and slowly things would settle down. The journey would continue.
The rides were long and hazardous. The roads were narrow and slippery. Sometimes landslides and boulders would have blocked the way. Men would jump out and start clearing them with bare hands. While they worked, women would pull out the lunch packs and ara and zow. An ad hoc picnic would be spread on the road itself. Everyone shared or would be invited to eat and drink. The journey would resume. The progress was always slow. Night fell midway into the journey. It was scary. My father would be more focused. To his aid, someone would start chanting a prayer. Everyone would join in. We always got to the end of the journey. Safe and sound, as a cliché goes.
On 5th February we celebrated the first anniversary of the birth of HRH Gyalsay. I did onboard Bhutan Airlines bound for Bangkok. There was the inflight announcement wishing him “Happy Birthday”. Cakes were served. But for me such days, and birthdays in general, are also a time for serious reflection.
Our country has embarked on a journey – the journey of democracy. Notwithstanding the challenges, the ride has been relatively smooth so far. Other countries have gone through much rougher times.
Still, living abroad these days (I am doing my doctoral studies in Macau), I do catch up with my friends when I am back to Thimphu. Between some bar talks here and some whispers there, I am often confronted with laments and lauds, hopes and fear, screams and applauses.
The first defamation suit against a journalist has been withdrawn. A puzzling sigh of relief can be felt in the industry. Its impact will be there for long – or forever. A feature film has been denied certification. Those affected are screaming against invasion into their creativity and against curtailment to the freedom of expression. Some people claim that their feet have been stamped while others feel that their legs are trapped. Reactions are, far too often, knee-jerk.
For me, we are all going through a process – and a steep learning curve. As the truck of our democracy safely negotiate the muddy bends and shake a bit, everyone will ultimately find a space. However, we should never stop dreaming or working towards a better future or system – or prevent or scorn at someone who is doing that. No system is perfect and no laws are cast on stones. We should accept that they are created by imperfect human beings. There will always be room for improvement.
The mass is getting more vocal. New technological platforms are providing unlimited access to information and news to everyone. The so-called digital divide is now a passé. Even my illiterate sister is heavily on WeChat. Information is not a monopoly of the few. New political parties are in the offing. The overall progress is slow – but we are progressing nevertheless. The old power centres, such as the bureaucracy, are figuring out where they stand in the new era. Others who are too old to climb on to the truck will be left behind.
Where we really need to stop is to claim that the grass is green only on the other side. We can take inspirations and best practices from others. I don’t argue with that. But scrolling through facebook pictures of our compatriots standing in front of high-rise buildings and exotic shopping malls in foreign lands, many of us seem to fantasize that everything is messy in Bhutan while it is perfect ‘out there’. We give up too easily. Or we resign to any issue with a popular phrase, pha lay pha (meaning ‘out there in a foreign land’). We say (and some even claim without having been anywhere) that pha lay pha ghi people are better and brighter; and that, out there, the system is just and perfect and that societies are fair and equal. Maybe, in terms of public infrastructure, things are more convenient in some developed countries. But as a saying goes, the world is a just place and life is not fair anywhere. Out there, there are more countries with bad services and systems than there are with good ones. There are challenges everywhere. But, most importantly, in terms of people and sense of humanity, I feel, it is still a blessing to be a Bhutanese. I say, “still”, because we are also changing.
Democracy comes with more freedom and choices but also with more challenges and responsibilities. It is slippery, at times. In the confusions and confrontations brought about by the changing times, what we, as Bhutanese from all walks of life, must always remember is that We. Are. In. This. Together.
We are in the same truck – part of the same process. There is no ‘us’ or ‘they’. And no one should feel indispensable, indestructible or immortal. Personal interests or egos should not override our sacred duties or official positions.
If there are boulders blocking our system, we remove them. If there are disagreements we discuss and solve them. If we have extra resources we share. If there are criticisms we accept. If people are screaming we listen. We should never forget that on either side of the so-called rules, policies, systems and fancy designations, we have real human beings with faces and families. That’s why GNH is a human-centric development and governance approach.
And whatever happens, remember we have the good fortune of our Golden Throne that has steered us safely along the bumpy and winding road from the not-so-easy historical past. It is an institution that continues to work selflessly for the people. Where in the world do people have such luxury?
Therefore, as we come together to celebrate the first birth anniversary of our Gyalsay, who is a manifestation of our collective moelam, we can make the occasion more meaningful by inner introspection rather than outer displays of posters and advertisements. We can remind ourselves of who we are as people, reflect on how we are doing as a nation and work together towards our common destination as a country. This way our Gyalsay, and our children, will inherit a stronger Bhutan.
This is more than a celebration. It is our sacred duty as citizens.
(I have written an article, titled ‘2008 and Beyond’ in Bhutan Times in 2007, using the same metaphor)
There has been a great deal of discussion in Bhutan lately on changing the way we teach history in school – including a recommendation to resume teaching it in the national language, Dzongkha. The role of teaching history is not to improve the national language but to instil national pride and identity.
First of all, any debate is better than no debates at all. Although public discussions do not tantamount to much these days, for the sake of my own satisfaction and my duty as a citizen, let me share my views on this very important topic.
For me, the essence of history goes beyond improving the national language or becoming a global citizen. Studying history should instil a sense of national pride and understanding of who we are as people and where we came from as a nation. Then as we read the world history we come together as humanity in mutual solidarity and learning from each other.
And hence, it doesn’t really matter whether it is taught in English or in Dzongkha. It should be taught in a language that best reaches the hearts and minds of the audience. More importantly, it should be taught by people who are passionate about history. There is no doubt that teaching in Dzongkha could provide a rich languaculture experience. But where is the capacity – let alone the passion or the motivation.
In any case, to be frank, the way it is done now, it is serving at nothing. And the fallout could be a declining sense of national pride and loss of the collective identity. Every man will start fending for himself.
I love history. When I was in Sherubtse I used to often sit in history class, which was taught by a superb Indian lecturer by the name of Somaranjan (whom they lost, by the way). I also conducted couple of guest lectures on the European Renaissance and the Advent of Modern Mass Media in Bhutan. I used to also spends long evenings talking with another history lecturer, and my good friend, Sumjay Tshering.
However, I am yet to meet one student who is passionate about the subject. That’s because learning history is reduced to memorising dates, names and places. As Einstein once said, what is the use of remembering something that you can find written somewhere? If I may requalify Mr. Einstein, in this day and age of Lord Google and Prophet Wikipedia, facts and figures are only important to us to the extent that we know where to look for them. Of greater importance should be to understand the question why than the question what.
The way history is taught is fundamentally wrong. The topic is treated as linear and isolated occurrences of events. Worse still, every event is viewed with a telescopic lens focusing on the specific event only. And hence, students of history can provide names of people and places and dates – in a chronological order – more or less.
But history is not linear. It is lateral. It is contextual. It doesn’t take place in isolation. Hence, when we teach or talk history we need to give the broader contexts.
Take for example the Treaty of Punakha 1912. If we look at the Treaty with a lens pointed at that event only, we might feel that we actually got a bad deal. How did we bind ourselves to the British – to advise us on foreign relations?
Now, broaden the horizon of that era. Look at what was happening around Bhutan. The British had been ruling India for over 200 years. They had colonized half of the Earth’s landmass. They had crushed without mercy every attempt of the Indian independence movement. Now shift your eyes towards the north. Again, there, the British had gunned down over 700 Tibetan ‘soldiers’ forcing their way to Lhasa. The Qing Emperor had issued new threats by claiming sovereignty over Nepal and Bhutan. They sent armies to Tibet to crush rebellions. The Great Game was still on. There was every chance that we could have been wiped out. And mind you, history has seen empires and kingdoms far greater than us vanish at the hands of colonial powers.
If we give bigger geopolitical contexts to the Treaty, we then not only understand the event better, we also begin to appreciate our leaders more – in particular the masterstroke of Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck. His foresight, statesmanship and wisdom have kept us safe and independent when all other more prosperous nations from that era disappeared. We feel proud as Bhutanese. We feel grateful. The fact that we even managed to extract a treaty out of the British was an achievement in itself.
Take another example – and another dimension. The founder of Drukyul, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, promulgated the Chayig Chenmo (the Great Code of Law) in 1637. However, the year is just a ‘number’ unless we can bring some interesting context to it. What if we said that Chayig Chhenmo was ahead of the much-celebrated American Constitution by a good 150 years? To point out that we were ahead of the Americans? Now isn’t that a factually interesting comparison that would catch the ears of a listener? Wouldn’t our students, and people in general, take more interests in history?
One more example. Everyone knows that Tibet invaded Bhutan in 1644. The Bhutanese repealed them and as a mark of victory Drukgyel Dzong was built. That’s it. However, the 1644 and 1648 military invasions were not as simple as that. They were meticulously planned, armed and launched by the Mongol warlord, Gushri Khan, who was a descendent of Genghis Khan. It was a formidable army of combined Tibetan-Mongol forces. And by the way, the Mongols, since the time of Genghis, had not lost a war and their empire once stretched from the Sea of Japan to western Europe. The 1648 mission was not just to capture Zhabdrung or to retrieve Ranjung Kharsapani but to occupy Bhutan – once and for all. In fact they entered in three different places – Paro, Punakha and Bumthang.
To cut the long story short, the Bhutanese forces led by Tenzin Drukdra launched a surprise attack in Paro, one night, and completely eliminated the invaders and captured their generals. The 1648 loss was perhaps one of the very few battles that the great Mongols ever lost in history. Tibet was also enjoying a period comparable to the times of the Yarlung dynasty.
But somehow we prevailed. Isn’t that music to our ears? Doesn’t this mean anything to you as Bhutanese? Wouldn’t you now look at Drugyel Dzong with a bigger pride?
By the way, the Treaty of Punakha was signed in 1910 and not in 1912. But I am sure you were really absorbed by the narratives here that you didn’t bother about that minute detail, right? That is the essence of learning history. The bigger picture is more important. I am not saying that you learn the facts wrong. What I mean is that one should internalise the meanings instead of memorising the numbers.
Our country’s prime resource is our people – to paraphrase His Majesty the King. What we learn, believe, have faith in or take pride for, will ultimately determine whether our country will reach for greater heights. And if the national pride is today missing or lacking, I would put the blame squarely on our inability to appreciate history. By “we” I include the society in general – and not just history teachers or curriculum designers.
As a result of history being taught badly no one takes interest in this subject these days. This is evident from the fact that it is never a part of our daily conversation or of any social gathering. There has not been one major conference or workshop on history as far as I can remember. We don’t even have a history Society that would serve as the authority on the subject.
As is life, so is a nation. It is only through knowing your past that you can cherish the present and move confidently into the future.
My prayers as we close the 109th National Day celebration is that we could resolve to take greater interest in our own history.
In January of 2015, I took my family for a road trip across Bhutan – from Thimphu in the West to my native Tashigang in the East. The journey was “historic” for my two daughters, who were 17 and 12. They had never been to that region before. As we crossed the midpoint – the town of Bumthang in Central Bhutan, and entered into the eastern half of the country I stopped the car frequently to greet my relatives.
My cousins, nieces, nephews and even distant uncles and aunts presented themselves and invited us to their houses. “I am your cousin,” a distant niece told my daughters. “Your father and my mother are khotkin-mathang (cross cousins)”. My daughters were amused. My wife just smiled. She has been through that before – during our first visit in 1992.
“Your father and I are like siblings because we are aata and uusa (parallel cousins),” said another. Then one of my aunts went, “You look so much like your abee (grandmother),” she told my younger daughter and gave a big bear hug as tears rolled down her cheek. “You should have known your grandmother. We are cousins but more like sisters. I really miss her. I think you are her reincarnation,” she added. “Promise me that you will come to meet your abee (grand aunt) again.”
Wherever we went we were greeted with genuine excitements and hospitality. In Tongling it was as if 3 days were declared as holiday. No one went to work. They all came to see us – bearing simple and honest gifts of eggs, maize, ara, tengma, butter tea, etc. There was so much laughter, tears of joy, memories of my late mother and that of grandfather whom they said I personified in ever respect. We sang, danced, ate, drank and cherished the moment that was so beautiful that no amount of money can even dream of buying.
Perhaps more than any of Bhutan’s nineteen ethnic groups, the Tshanglas (also known as Sharchop in Dzongkha, the national language) of Eastern Bhutan celebrate large family networks. In fact there is a popular saying that “there is no end to how many ngew (relatives) a Sharchop will have.” That’s because relatives are acquired not only through bloodline but also through marriages of family members. For example, the village of my younger brother’s wife considers me as one of them. “You should have informed us earlier, we are sognu thur (one family),” said one villager in Kheni in Tashi Yangtse. I was visiting that area with my students when I was teaching in Sherubtse College. I was rather embarrassed that I forgot the norm.
The ngew culture also demands that ‘family’ relations be maintained till the 7th degree although now the norm is till the 4th degree. One of my cousins once counted how big we were based on the 7th degree rule. He came up with a figure for me: 2,400 relatives from 10 ethnic groups in 20 districts and extending beyond the borders to 4 countries of the globe. Hilarious? Not at all. I instead find it extremely wonderful. After all, what is life or happiness if it is not about a shared life, community or togetherness. When I was teaching in Kanglung I used to visit one relative every weekend and share meals, get to know the younger members that I had never met before and return to campus filled with enough food supply for the coming week. Those were some of the sweetest moments of my life. To walk into a village and discover that everyone was related to me in one way or another, what can you ask for more from life?
At the core of this extraordinary ngew culture is the kinship address system. Tshangla-lo has over 30 terms to address your kith and kin. (See the kinship map below). That is almost double as compared to other languages or dialects. The rich vocabulary is indicative of the strong bonding culture.
Using a kinship term does not just serve a mere referential purpose. My research shows that in calling someone ajang or khotkin or kota, a deeper inter-personal relationship is established, an identity is created and a social cohesion is set into motion.
Conversely, one could also assume (and I have not verified this) that the lack of its usage would drift families and communities apart. That is already happening as people migrate to urban areas, as family income rises and there is less inter-dependence, and, of course, as new borrowed (imported) terms such as “uncle”, “aunty” and “Sir” are used more and more.
After a couple of days in my two villages of Pam and in Tongling, my daughters had lost the count of how many cousins they had. “I think we have more than 100,” said one of them. But they were both certainly moved by the whole experience – especially the words of from my maternal uncle, Lepo, 82, who told them, “You may be ashamed of our conditions. But this is where your father belong. Come back again and if I am still alive I will tell you where we come from. You will be really proud to know that.”
On their Japanese side there is huge vacuum. They don’t know even one single cousin from their mother’s side. Japan has almost completely lost that ngew culture.
Hopefully, Bhutan never will.
NB – This article has been adapted from a course assignment piece. Anyone interested in the ‘academic’ version may drop into the mail box in the CONTACT page.
Earlier this year I had a mild discomfort in my upper abdomen that radiated to my back. I went to see Dr. Sonam Dukpa (at Menjong Diagnostic in Thimphu). He ran an ultrasound on me and found that I had a mild inflammation of my gallbladder. He packed me off with, “It happens. Nothing serious. No chilli or fats, lots of water and exercise. Come back only if you have fever. Not prescribing you anything.” Dr. Sonam often talks in phrases. I have known him for years. I went away little perplexed though. But I followed his advice. Drank lots of water (I still do), avoided chilli (I don’t eat meat) and, of course, walked for three full days – trekking to Athang Rukha.
A week later I happened to be in Bumthang where I took the opportunity to meet my family lama, Rangshikhar Rimpoche. In between talking about my siblings about who is where and how they were doing, I sought his advice; some divination to check if my life energy was running low. After going through several scriptures and his prayer beads he pronounced, “There is nothing bad happening to you. You will be alright from the 29th day of this month. Last year was astrologically a bad year for you. So, some residuals extending to few months this year,” he reassured me. He was terrific always but he continued, “I think it is good that you fall sick sometimes because when you are healthy you forget your Lama, your family, your friends and, above all, to be pray.” I burst out laughing. “Yes, Lama, you are absolutely right,” I replied, accepting it for it was true. I am bit careless.
Then a month later, transiting through Bangkok, I decided to see a doctor there. So I went to a hospital. I thought I might as well get a second opinion. The doctor there run the ultrasound and the blood test again. And found that my gallbladder was OK. Dr. Sonam Dukpa was right and so was my lama. The blood report, however, showed a slightly elevated bilirubin – indicating some problem with liver but not that high. Instead, he prescribed me some tablets to reduce my back pain – to be taken for 7 days.
Few days later in Chiang Mai, over a breakfast, I was chatting with a German filmmaker and a friend of mine, on what we were working on – in terms of films and documentaries. He told me that he was doing something on the failure of allopathy. He went, “I don’t mean that western medicine is flawed but pharmaceutical companies are driven by profit thereby making people dependent on drugs they produce. They even have doctors, on their payroll, all over the world, prescribing medicines that we actually don’t need. We are getting poisoned legally. The world is sicker than ever. Did you ever ask why?”
“Wait!” I thought, “I have just been prescribed with some tablets in Bangkok.” While he was still going on with all the global pharmaceutical scams I ran a search engine on the medicine I had started taking. And Lord Google gave a shocking verdict. “Not approved for USA and Canada as extended use can cause cardiac arrest, heart disease and lever failure.” “What?” I thought, “The doctor who diagnosed that I had high bilirubin prescribed me that?” Bad news: I had already taken one pill. Good news: I had not taken the other 6. I dumped the $50 worth of medicines, the $150 in consultation fees into the garbage. I also realised that a strip of antibiotics that costs Nu. 40 in Bhutan costs around Nu. 400 in Thailand.
Having found my mini ‘enlightenment’ I started to be more regular with my 4 km daily jogging routine. The pain began to subside. As for my elevated bilirubin I emailed the medical report to Dr. Tshewang Dolkar (a traditional medicine practitioner based in New Delhi) who sent me some herbal medicines. I am alright now.
I am sharing this story because I know many people rush to Bangkok or Delhi on a slightest medical issue. Many pregnant women fly just to deliver babies. Well, just be careful. There is an industry out there. I don’t mean to generalise. In fact we had an excellent Thai doctor who attended to my wife when she had that head injury some years back.
You can avail of great diagnostic services that they offer. I still do my annual health check-up in Delhi or in Bangkok. What I am saying is to be careful with excessive, or unnecessary, use of pharmaceutical products – especially antibiotics and vitamins. Ask what you have been prescribed. Cross check with Dr. Google. Can you type? Of course, you can, right? Do it!
And trust our own doctors in Bhutan who are not profit driven. They might ignore you, frown at you or scold you. Just close your ears but take their good advices. I am also happy that the Health Ministry has cautioned doctors to be less generous with prescriptions. For certain ailments you can also try the traditional medicines hospital in every district. Get the best of both worlds – western and Bhutanese.
And finally, do not forget to say your little prayer every day – and move.
Twenty-six years ago, on a bleak, chillingly cold and wet February day of 1989, in Tokyo, the Fourth King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, made a ‘small’ gesture at the State Funeral of the Showa Emperor of Japan. That one simple act of humility would define the relation between the two monarchies.
Almost without exception, on that day the people of Japan were in mourning. At Shinjuku Gyoen in an open pavilion the heads of state, from superpowers to kings from small monarchies such as Bhutan, had gathered from around the globe for the State Funeral for Emperor Hirohito.
The regal State Funeral was held on a cold February day at the end of winter in Japan. Usually along the Pacific coast it is dry and sunny as spring replaced winter. But not that day. There was a misty, freezing and cold rain. It almost seemed as if the heavens were reflecting the grief of the Japanese people.
World leaders from 163 nations, some former foes of Japan from World War II, were officially and formally present or represented for the State Funeral of a political monarch of a geopolitical partner, the nation of Japan. US President George H Bush, French President Mitterrand, King Juan Carlos of Spain and others were there too – dressed in appropriate (for them) Eurocentric mourning black, and not the Japanese culturally correct mourning white or national garb traditional for mourning. They were also warmly insulated from the near freezing temperature in the two white tents.
His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck was there too but in his traditional Bhutanese attire – the humble knee-length gho. He wore no gloves, not hat, no coat, no muffler or anything but a simple, honest mathragho to survive the 3-hour ceremony.
As the ceremony progressed officials and leaders were called upon, one by one, to pay their respects towards the Showa Emperor’s casket. The VIPs got up, walked towards the imperial coffin, bowed to it – reluctantly in some cases – turned and bowed to acknowledge the new Emperor, Akihito. Then, their official duty done, most left in their limos.
His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck the King of Bhutan, when his name was called, stood up, walked solemnly towards the imperial casket, stopped and bowed deeply and longer – showing his deep compassion for the man who had been the Emperor. He then turned and bowed respectfully to the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, new Emperor Akihito.
Then instead of leaving, like many others, he returned to his seat on the icy stand. As other leaders paraded, bowed twice and departed, His Majesty sat there alone, and endured the biting cold, in dignified mourning – for hours until the ceremony ended.
NHK TV, Japan’s national broadcaster televised the entire State Funeral live and telecast it globally. One of the NHK cameras, on several occasions, went back to the lone figure of His Majesty in the VIP seating. The announcers and the audience began asking, kare wa darey deska? (Who is he?) Soon they found out, and was introduced as the young King of Bhutan. His Majesty was just 34.
The TV commentator also added that the Bhutan King genuinely shared the grief of all Japanese people and is staying until the end of the ceremony. This simple genuine gesture raised the mood of a grief stricken nation and teary smiles. His Majesty became very popular, which in turn led to Japanese people knowing about Bhutan. He received wide press coverage. A newspaper almost covered a whole page with his portrait.
Almost three decades later the Japanese people still talk with awe and fondness about that simple and genuine action of His Majesty the King. It generated immense goodwill, which continues to strengthen the bonds the Japanese and Bhutanese people even today.
In 2006, His Majesty has gone on to make another ‘simple’ and yet profound gesture. He abdicated the Golden Throne of Bhutan in favour of His Majesty Jigme Khesar and also established democracy. Perhaps in the simple life that he now leads (he is seen cycling regularly, mingles with ordinary citizens and hitches rides on taxis) one can find an exemplary role model in the greatest monarch of our times. Truly the King of Simplicity – a real Pelden Drukpa.
And as His Majesty turned 60, an important age by Buddhist belief, one can only be proud of having been his subject and pray that the universe shower him with good health so that he continues to inspire, and cycle, and touch more lives and hearts – not just in Bhutan but in the whole world.
(A longer version of this article is published in Bodhisattva King – a book edited by Thierry Matthou and Tshering Tashi)
(In 1989 I was a student in Italy from where I watched the telecast ‘live’ – with my wife translating the running commentaries. In 2003 when I visited NHK I met one of the production directors of that historic telecast who shared the story to me)