Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Separating Myth and Legends from History


BOOK: The HISTORY of BHUTAN
Author: Dr. Karma Phuntsho 
Bhutan history is not among the favourite subjects among the students. An average Bhutanese would know more about history of some other countries than they know about our own country. The history told to us in the school were merely fragmented events of perceived importance, lavishly glorified and often giving an impression of fairy tales. The core element of historical narrative is missing, isolating events and historical figures at superficial levels.

It can be justified that history taught in schools, which remains the only historical narrative most of us live with, is only foundational reading and therefore can’t be used as the yardstick to measure the width and depth of historical content on Bhutan, but even beyond school our frustration will only grow to discover that there aren’t much to explore further.

The History of Bhutan by Dr. Karma Phuntsho therefore is the answer to a national longing for a comprehensive narrative that connects the dots and illuminates the dark corridors of our historical memory. It not only provides a better alternative to the only few historical sources we depended on, which are ironically documented by either Indian or western historians, but also gives an unbiased account based on in-depth researches.

The 599 pages of the book contain captivating details and authentic accounts of our historical events, from the prehistoric period to the modern period, through a long thrilling medieval period. Bhutan history suddenly begins to sound real and without the gross exaggerations it’s already so compelling.

This book is definitely going to disappoint some of us who pride in our fairy tale like history, where we were made to believe in superpowers and flawlessness our historical figures, but knowing them with their humanly weaknesses and them with the abilities overcome the odds gives us stronger reasons to appreciate their contributions.

I grew up hearing secretive stories of assassination of Zhabdrung, and I remained confused till recently as to how Zhabdrung, who went into permanent retreat on his own in Punakha Dzong, could be assassinated. This book presents the detailed account on the question of succession after Zhabdrung, and how controversies emerged over the incarnations. In fact, the game of politics played over multiple incarnates gave rise to the beginning of the era of lay rulers. Only this book clarified that the stories of Zhabdrung I heard were of different incarnates and not of the great Zhabdrung himself.

The detailed accounts of different plots, conspiracies, rebellions, and assassination during the internal conflicts over long period of time make our history one of the most thrilling to read from a general reader’s point.

The accounts on the wars we fought with Tibet and later with British India make us see how we struggled, opposed to the easy victory we were told, to defend the sovereignty of this tiny nation even in those times, and one can’t help but feel proud of how our leaders played their cards well since Treaty of Sinchula, and how over the century they managed to amend the treaty to ensure our sovereignty. It’s the terms and use of certain words in these treaties that saved our independence when over 500 princely state disappeared to make up the republic of India, including Sikkim in 1975.

We like to believe that everything fell in place after the emergence of Jigme Namgyal and very much so after 1907 after King Ugyen Wangchuk was enthroned as the first king of Bhutan, but this book will surprise us with accounts of how much they had to go through to establish their dominance and maintain it. The same struggle to suppress fractions of power continued even during King Jigme Wangchuk’s time. The changing dynamics and political issues both from within and outside during the successive kings, beyond the lists of developmental activities we read in our textbooks, and how they used their tact and steadfast leadership to overcome those, gives us stronger reasons to appreciate and truer meaning to our loyalty to the golden throne.

Without reading this book, no Bhutanese can truly separate Myth and Legends from true historical accounts and therefore understand the depth of our history and appreciate the magnanimity of this last surviving kingdom between the two biggest nations on earth.

If so much resources were there, why couldn’t earlier historians bring them to us? Well that when we must acknowledge Dr. Karma Phuntsho’s unique strengths as a Buddhist scholar with mastery over choedkey, complemented by his experience as academic researcher at Oxford. These two attributes of his gave him special access to the hidden world of Bhutanese history in Buddhist texts and those that were archived in British libraries in England.

This review was first published on READ RIGGS, and later on BOOKNESE.COM

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Without Gol Building- Well-Tempered Phuntsholing

Gol Building was a fairy tale we used to hear from the handful of people from my village who had been to Phuntsholing during our childhood. It was the largest and the tallest building known to Bhutanese back then. The reputation lived on during recent times even after much bigger and taller buildings were built around it, perhaps out of nostalgia.

Picture I added on Google Maps in 2017
Built in 1968, the building dominated the landscape and stood as an iconic landmark right at the border gate, fascinating both Bhutanese and Indian for decades. However, by the time I saw the building, it has lost its glory, age showing all over it and completely neglected. Only recently, it got a fresh coat of brownish painted and began to glow again. But unfortunatly, it was like a dying person recovering for a brief moment before he takes his final breath; now it’s gone. Demolished. 
Gol Building as seen from across border

With the massive old structure removed, Phuntsholing town lost a part of its history but gained a big breathing space. Everyone who has ever been to Phuntsholing will miss the building that carried a formidable personality and been part of many personal and family tales. But the vast open footprint of the building will serve as a refreshing memorial of the great structure that has housed thousands of memories.


How I wish we had the option to preserve the building as a heritage site and convert it into a museum. With that opportunity reduced to dust and trucked away, the next best thing to ask for is a park, a green patch of refreshing space to escape from the suffocation of ever congesting town.

I read about the National Housing Development Corporation Limited (NHCDL)’s plan to built another massive structure there. From a commercial perspective that location is a gold mine, and therefore, it’s simple logic to think of building a massive commercial centre there, perhaps MBK of Bhutan. If it was a private property that’s what’s going to happen for sure.

But fortunately, it’s a government land and therefore we have the option to look beyond commercial aspect and use that space intelligently to transform Phuntsholing into a Well-Tempered City. Whatever big plans we had, MBK or Mustafa, can be taken to Phuntsholing Township Development Project among Amochu, where we have enough space for any ambitious project.

Phuntsholing Township Development Project, Amochu
However, should NHDCL pursue their plan and build a massive structure to replace Gol Building, we not only fallback to an ill-planned town but also congest the traffic beyond manageable limit. We then won’t be any different from Jaigoan.

For a visitor from North, when I first land in Phuntsholing the chaos there is almost unbearable but I begin to appreciate the significant difference when I cross the border to India and return in a while. Phuntsholing suddenly seems so quiet, pleasant, green and refreshing. I feel a sudden sense of security and peace. And that, ladies and gentlemen is what defines Phuntsholing, and that’s what defines Bhutan. Therefore, leaving that space for a green park will enhance that definition of a Bhutanese town. For a government organisation that’s far more important goal than any commercial growth. Moreover, once the Amochu Township flourishes, there is going to be a shift in centre and NHDCL would be grateful that they decided to build where the future is.

Commercially so, the new ambience of Phuntsholing will attract hundreds of neighbours to stroll through the park and dine in local cafés and restaurants, changing the pattern of inter-border spending, which was for the longest time only outward. For a country, economy should be looked at and tended to from a broader perspective and not from one organisation’s growth and benefit, if any. No organisation should think and act independently, we must go forward interdependently or fail.

A new building will overwrite the memories of Gol Building, but a park will forever be a tribute to the historic building that stood as witness to everything that has gone through Bhutan Gate to transform our country. 

Monday, June 24, 2019

Let’s Not Make Hontey a Funeral Food

Hontey is a food that needs no introduction. People would know more about hontey than they know about Haa, the origin of the food. It’s possibly one of the very few things Haa is known for and proud of, and we leave no opportunity to brag about it.
Assisting my mother in making hontey 
Though it’s just a buckwheat dumpling with shredded turnip and turnip leaf in it to talk about, the long list of spices that go into it is mind boggling. It’s for this reason that honey has remained an exotic food until recently. Back in our childhood, we had to wait for a year to feast on hontey because not everyone could afford to get all the ingredients just like that. We collect and store ingredients throughout the year and make that one event big during the Lomba.


Now, with prosperity of the country we could afford the ingredients any day and they are available in the market, so whether good or bad, hontey is not an annual delicacy anymore. My mother prepares it every time her children come home.

But, no matter how easy it becomes to prepare hontey, one thing about it doesn’t change and should not change; it’s a food of celebration. We have always associated hontey with lomba, the grandest celebration in Haa. Lomba is our new year celebration, annual family gathering, it’s our Thrulbub, it’s our annual rimdro and funnily our collective birthday celebration, and the central piece of the event is the hontey.

However, in the last few years, I have seen hontey in the wrong place at the wrong, yes at the funerals. How did the celebration food suddenly appear at the funeral? To cut the long story short, it’s a fashion gone wrong. Apparently, some influential people served it at one funeral and the story spread among the Haaps. Then it became a social pressure for the next bereaved family to match up to last funeral- apparently we compete even in conducting funeral, from size of the buffet to the number of cars in the convoy.

It won’t be wrong to assume that some people in Thimphu tasted the first hontey at the cremation ground, and also that for some people cremation ground was the only place they have seen hontey thus far. For these people, hontey is increasingly becoming a funeral food, unless we make an effort to invite them over during lomba and reorient them otherwise.

It’s clearly an urban trend as long as it remain in Thimphu but the influence has swept across Haa now. Every time there is a death in Haa, a good number of people are gathered to make hontey on top of hundred other things to do. It’s become an uncomfortable obligation on the families and their good neighbours. It’s almost becoming a scary tradition that's weighing heavy on families that are not so well to do. And good neighbours are getting sick of making what they once loved doing during lomba.

Actually, if we cared to notice the obvious, it's so explicit in our practised of taking a bangchung of hontey to the mourning homes during lomba. When a death happens in a family, they don’t make hontey during the lomba as a sign of mourning. Making hontey means celebration, which the family won’t do as a mark of respect for the departed soul. They are rather offered hontey by neighbours, like condolences. How did we fail to understand this?

It’s not too late to turn around the trend. We are the first generation of Haap that added hontey on funeral menu. One more generation and it will become an irreversible culture. Let us undo our mistake. Let’s not celebrate death.

Let’s keep hontey for celebrations.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Great Walls of Thimphu

If we organise a competition to select the best compound wall in Thimphu, which organization will win? 

Of course, there will never be a compound wall contest, but I wonder why organizations compete to build extravagant walls. What are they trying to protect? What are they trying to hide?

Isaac Newton once said, “We build too many walls and not enough bridges…” and this is so true about us, in literal sense. In villages, we build compound walls and fences to protect our crops from animals, but here we neither have crops nor animals. And yet we have the strongest and biggest of walls built around our offices! By chance, if the walls are built to keep intruders away, then it’s common sense to know that they can walk through the gate or climb over the wall.

Supreme Wall
Looking at the enormity of the walls that are being built around government offices in Thimphu, it seems like Thimphu is in the state of war, and that each warring office is trying to protect itself from neighboring enemies and invaders. That certainly reminds us of the Great Wall of China protecting Chinese empire, but today even that famous wall is a mere tourist attraction with no defensive function.

But since Thimphu is a peaceful city with no stray cattle, the only thing walls are contributing to is isolating one part of a place from the other, blocking thoroughfares and depriving pedestrians the right of way.

My Neighbourhood 
For example, in my suffocating office neighborhood: ECB is adjacent to ACC but for me to get to ECB I have to take a detour from near Zorig Chusum; RAA is adjacent to RSPN but I have to walk all the way around from MoH gate; same is the case between MoH and NLC; MoE and UN House; MoH and Bhutan Telecom. They are divided by Berlin walls of their own. Pedestrians have no option but to follow the motor road to get from one place to another. No offices have left thoroughfares. And that’s just around my office in Kawajangsa.

So Close, yet so far!
It’s understandable for private property owners to enclose their estate within the four walls and station guard dogs (and put “beware of dogs” sign on the gate), but public offices should be kept as accessible as possible. The leadership of the organizations should think broadly at a national level.
Tri-Junction
It’s Bhutan on either side of the wall after all, and if offices talk to each other and mutually agree to share parking spaces and make free access, it will only save resources for the country. Building walls between offices only creates differences and distance between offices. I wonder who pays for these walls! I am sure no one can be a bully like Donald Trump to demand Mexico to pay for the wall that he wants along his border.
So much investment to disconnect
Compound walls don’t come cheap and it’s taken from the limited public money. Instead of walls, the money can go into useful infrastructure like roads, toilets and park facilities to name a few.
Highly secure- but from what?
I once asked a friend in Royal Audit Authority how they failed to catch government institutions wasting huge amount of money in walls. She laughed and told me that building wall around office is an official requirement. Baffling! So, on one hand it’s official mandate to waste precious budget on building walls, and on the other hand we hear officials cry about not having budget for replacing a broken tap in the office toilet.
Their roofs are almost touching, but they are completely disconnected
Construction of walls and fences of any sort around public offices should be discouraged, rather a set of CCTV cameras purchased at the cost of tiny fraction of the wall would effectively do the job of securing the area.

As long as the walls remain just as physical barriers it’s fine, but we know things just don’t stop there. The physical walls are either the result of diplomatic differences between the leaders of the organisations, or the cause of it. It is the symbol of mistrust and isolation. Walls, as you see, will never promote goodwill, and we have seen enough bureaucratic walls in Thimphu, one becoming a bottleneck for other and other not failing to take revenge. The whole little territorial dramas finally hits the general public the hardest; having to visit five different offices across their walls to get approval for a single work, when ideally one office could easily get across to other four offices online and get the work done on one table. 

Walls, therefore, is injurious to our harmony and our efficiency. 


“In the recent past, it has become evident that institutions in our country are all asserting “independence” and seeking greater “autonomy” at the expense of overall harmony. There is limited communication and coordination among agencies and this invariably leads to a lack of coherence.”- His Majesty the King, 17 Dec, 2013

Friday, May 17, 2019

Bhutan’s Killer Highways

In 2011, somewhere below Nobding in Wangdue, I don’t want to remember, my car was hit by falling boulders but I survived to tell the story because a chunk of rock that sliced though my windshield landed near my right foot without hitting any part of my body. I still wonder how that was possible. I still feel grateful. ( I could never sue anyone for it)
Haunting Memories from 2011
Since that fateful night, I have become a little paranoid about travelling alone, travelling in the rain, travelling across deadly slopes and the charm of travelling is replaced by by fear of being crushed by huge boulders and buried under mudslide.

Famous- Reautala on the way to Zhemgang from Trongsa
Over the years, roads became wider but safety didn’t chance much. In fact with bigger roads bigger damages were inflicted on the slopes and we are seeing deadlier landslides. Every highway has a leading landslide spot and a few supporting ones that are crippling the traffic every monsoon and claiming precious lives.

We have seen several deadly accidents with multiple casualties, the recent bus accident at Basochu being one of the worsts, which should have served as harsh wakeup call for us to relook at the way we build roads. But looking at the way Damchu-Chhukha bypass was built we seemed to have learnt nothing substantial. This road though done so recently using all the modern machineries and high-tech equipments doesn’t look any different from the ones our grandparents built using crowbar. The short span has at least four death traps that will gradually become slaughter houses.

One of the four deadly stretches on Damchu-Chhukha bypass
With all the impending landslide, no accidents shall be unexpected. It’s simple physics to understand that the rocks that are held loosely on the slope will come rumbling down due to gravity. And that road being the busiest, we are only to count the number of dead bodies over the year. I can already see prayer flags being offered at two spots on that stretch where the accidents have occurred, and lives lost. If nothing is done, we shall run out of space to offer prayer flags.

Strangely, in the so many deaths due to road accidents I have seen drivers being blamed and charged, but never have I heard of a case where road contractor or official being taken to court for murder. Yes, it should amount to murder. When talking about road safety we always point at speed limit, drunk driving, etc. but never about the condition of the road. Drivers are fined for violating road safety rules and endangering their own lives and lives of other, but did road safety officials ever charge road contractors for endangering public safety due to their negligence and their incompetence?

Building road along the mountain must be a big feat but it comes with a huge price tag, and when one is paid the price for a job it’s their responsibility to ensure the road is built and that all related damages are rectified and that there won’t be landslide from above or below the road. Sadly, we can see how this is grossly neglected, perhaps it’s not even in the mandate. I don’t like to believe this, but I heard that some loose ends are intentionally left to ensure that there are repeated slides and road blocks so that the contractor or organisation can have excuses to have more works. Such a bad logic.

Whereas, at Chhuzomsa in Wangdue, a Japanese company has done a marvellous bridge and on the two ends of the bridge they have solidified the entire hill using pressurised concrete, so that there will never be any sort of landslide or shooting boulders. That’s the level of professionalism in the way Japanese work; they leave no loose ends, the only thing they leave behind is legacy of outstanding quality. Unfortunately, they are not building our roads.

Japanese Legacy at Chhuzomsa in Wangdue. Look at those hills!
The method Japanese used to seal the loose rocks into solid concrete to prevent landslide is called shotcrete. This method, which is extensively used in hydropower projects, can help make lot of our landslide prone areas safe. I have seen it used in Tala Project and now in Punatshangchu projects, but I haven’t seen it used outside the hydropower box. Except by Japanese. Why is it not used in making our roads safe?
Shotcrete
Another method I have seen being using in hydropower projects is rock-bolt, where a long anchor is used to bolt the loose exterior rock onto the solid interior rock mass. This will ensure that all those creepily hanging rock you see on our highway will not come down on us. But that’s only if we are willing to invest in safety.

Rock Bolt
During many of my meditative driving modes, when my wife’s lost in her own thoughts and when I am driving across scary slopes I thought of many way to prevent landslides and shooting boulders. In fact, in my head, I use shotcrete, rock bolts and even build RCC walks and then contemplate massive landslides. But even in my imaginative simulations walls don’t stand a chance against the force of nature. There is no way humans and our technology can stop the forces of nature when it’s on the move, but that doesn’t mean we can't divert it. Any powerful force can far easily be diverted than stopped.

Tunnel roads
That’s exactly what’s going wrong with the way we are managing our landslide prone roads; we try to stop slides by building walls and therefore the massive force of the slide then takes along the entire road itself. The best solution to that is hiding the road from the path of the slide using tunnel or half-tunnel technology

Half-tunnel, about which I read many years ago, could be our best chance at making our deadly roads safe for driving across in any season. Half tunnel will hide the road and all properties, including us in the artificial cave and whatever falls from above, no matter how powerful, will just fly over our head. This is what I mean by diverting the force of nature and not trying to stop it. It could be expensive to built but when it’s done the amount of recurring cost, lives and property it will save on top of preserving the condition of the road for sustained period of time will make the huge investment all the worth. 

Half-Tunnel


Otherwise, how can we stop a force like this: On Trongsa-Zhemgang highway
Talking about the huge cost of adopting the solutions I mentioned, I am reminded of an analogy someone shared with me (there must be a name for it as well); A poor man goes to a shop and buys a pair of Nu.400 shoes, while a rich man buys a pair of Nu.3000 shoes. The poor man’s shoe wears out in four months and he buys another pair. Every four months he has to buy a new pair. The rich man’s pair of shoes last for good five years, while within that period of time the poor man has to buy 15 pairs of the cheap brand, costing him Nu.6,000. Poor man who was trying to save money lands up paying double the price at the end.

Same happens with us as a so-called-poor country. We think we are poor country and go for the cheapest way out, but at the end the recurring maintenance cost will be far greater than if had invested in the best. We may be a poor country but we have to carry a rich country mentality. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Memories of Playing Degor

The first game I was introduced to as a child growing in dusty playground of Yangthang was degor. The game needed just a pair of disc-shaped stones and a bunch of friends. In 90s it was a luxury to play any other game that required any equipment. It took a strong string to make a working bow and a sharp metal to make a arrowhead, both of which were hard in find in the village those days. Therefore, degor remain the most popular pastime.

Now when go home I don’t see anyone playing degor. In fact the huge craters we created on either end of the degor range over many years have disappeared, without leaving any trace of so much memories. Now the elders have shifted to fancy modern archery and young ones are on mobile phone games. Degor has become a game from stone age for them.













However, this seemingly outdated team game actually may be the ancestor of all the other indigenous games that emerged over the years, be it khuru or archery. With the history of centuries of monastic influence and dominance, the game that monks predominantly played could be traced back as the first of its kind, if proper research could be carried out.
Degor was the only form of entertainment that wasn’t forbidden in the monastic institution in the past. Monks could be seen playing it outside their Dzong or dratshangs. We have heard of incidences of monks getting punished or even expelled for engaging in game of archery, which is forbidden for monks. This prohibition, though not vividly written anywhere could be because of the contradiction between the nature of the game and the basic Buddhist conducts. Archery, unlike degor, is a lavish game that involves possession of bow and arrows, colorful flags and women dancers. Degor on the other hand is just a pair of rocks, which is why monks were confined to playing just degor.
The pair of rocks is but not as ordinary as one would assume, I remember scouting by the riverside for hours looking for the best pair of degors, while we could see the elders crafting out their pair from a large chunk of rock and carefully chipping it over hours at end. Each piece was so unique that we could identify the owner.

After the game, everyone left their degors in the playground, while some would find a safer place to hide theirs. No one would touch someone else’s degor, though some close friends would switch at times.



The most exciting part in the game of degor is the drama and suspense of scoring. The degor that has land on the target can be knocked off any moment by an opponent or at times accidentally by a team mate. Therefore, we would keep those sharpshooters with bigger degor toward the end to do that job. Similarly, a degor that’s nowhere close to the target can be pushed in onto the target, often accidentally. So the drama is intense until the last of degor has landed. 


Then the suspense of scoring begins. Because the target that’s a wooden peg nailed into the ground and is not visible, we can’t say whose has scored when there are more than one degor around the target. We have to hold on to our celebration until each degor is scrutinized by the two team leaders. We use indigenous measurement system of tho (Stretch between the tip of thumb to the tip of middle finger) and sow (breadth of a finger) to negotiate scores. Any degor within a tho range will score a point unless countered by an opponent’s degor that’s closer. There would be another round for drama while negotiating point, especially if we have someone who could cheat smartly by kicking away opponents’ degor or kicking in a teammates’ degor in a blink of an eye.

The excitement, drama, and all the noises have faded away with time, the playground looks desolate with haunting silence. We don’t even see monks playing degor anymore. The glamour of modern games have outshined the simple game of two stones.

Monday, February 04, 2019

Two Precious Years to Mature- by Removing Class X Cutoff Point

(Re-sharing my facebook post made on Feb 4, 2019) 


Unlike in the past, class X graduates are now barely 14-16 years old. When such young teenagers don’t qualify to study in class XI and if their family can’t afford them private school education then they have to go out trying to make a living on their own. 

They are not yet ready to make good decisions for themselves, and they are not physically ready for laborious jobs or worse for marriage. But once out of the school, they are on their own and vulnerable to all sorts of social ills and abuses. We all know that.

Government allowing them to stay two more years in the school, by sending to to class XI, is a blessing of two precious years to grow, mature and become more ready to face the world. 

There are many examples of people who went to private schools after X because of their bad results, and had their awakening in the two years, thereafter acing their class XII exam and doing so well in life now. Therefore, these two precious years are vital in allowing children to grow from child to young adult. Not everyone will make the best of it but what’s important is the opportunity that must be there. 

Talking about the whole cost of giving scholarship to thousands of otherwise disqualified candicdates, we must remember that it’s a priceless investment in our national Human Resources Development. Of course, like Tenzing Lamsang suggested, we could reduce pressure on the cost by giving it just to the needy one. But at the end everything will be worth it.

Constitutional or Not, In my opinion, without trying to play with legal words (which I don’t know), if Constitution could speak it would say, “I’m so happy that you did more than what I thought would be possible.”

Simple example could be that of our forest cover, we are required to keep 60% of our country under forest covered, but having 71% is not unconstitutional. It’s rather a pride. So is the move to give free education till XII.

Some are questioning what this move would do to the quality of education. Well, rethink equality of education. What schools and teachers can do to transform these children into good human beings (without caring about their exam marks) will determine the quality of education. We often mess up in thinking that the exam marks determine the quality of a human begin. We must stop that.

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