This banner features ripe pine corns above Tandin Ney in Thimphu. Picture taken on April 15.

Monday, 23 April 2012

When Thimphu becomes one

It's a poor mobile phone picture 
Last Saturday, I watched the grand finale of Bhutan Lil’ Champs at the Clock Tower square in Thimphu. A huge crowd had gathered at the otherwise empty place an hour before the show began. The show was supposed to start at 6 pm, but by the time the presenter appeared on the stage, it was already 6:30 pm. By that time, the crowd had swelled and the sky had become dark and overcast. Huge, sporadic drops of rain had made some people in the crowd predict aloud that it was going to rain.

At long last, the presenter, Tawchu Rabgay, introduced the judges of the show after he sang Nyilam Nangluya Mena Mo (Isn’t it in a dream?), one of the first rigsar songs that originated in Sherubtse campus in the college’s heyday. It was composed and sung by one Tashi, a popular singer then. It is a haunting, soulful song of a lover trying to come to terms with separation from his love. In the song, the dejected lover likens himself to ‘the rocks on the earth’ and his love to ‘the stars in the sky’.

As Tawchu Rabgay introduced popular singer Ugyen as the ‘cheychey’ (darling) of the Bhutanese people, the crowd broke into a thunderous applause. Young boys craned their necks to catch a glimpse of him from behind an impenetrable wall of cheering people. Unable to see the singer, one of them shouted to his friend in the front, “I presume he is in the same black gho.” His friend didn’t care to respond, but he was right.

Halfway through the first song, the sound system failed completely. The excited crowd fell silent for a moment and then became noisy. The organisers scurried about trying to fix the problem. A chilly gush of wind laden with rain droplets swept through the crowd, and everybody shouted in unison, “It’s raining!”

Without the help of a microphone, the organisers had no line of communication. But as the crowd became increasingly restless and impatient, Tawchu Rabgay reappeared on the stage, raised his joined palms to the forehead in a gesture of supplication, and made an apologetic bow.   

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Walking Tarayana

This insightful article on Bhutan and the Bhutanese written by Ms Mieko Nishimizu, former World Bank Vice President, appeared in Bhutan Observer in March, 2009. It was translated into English by the author from one of her column series published in Sentaku, a monthly magazine published in Tokyo, Japan. I hope you will enjoy it. 

It was my maiden visit to the Land of Thunder Dragon, Bhutan, and the day before heading to live in a remote village. Immersion exposure to rural poverty had by then become an indispensable feature of my official itinerary everywhere.

During obligatory rounds of Thimphu, the nation’s capital, a Minister upon hearing my plan declared there was no poverty in Bhutan. “My country is poor, if measured by such yardsticks as per capita income. But, we are not like other developing nations. Agriculture may be near subsistence. But, farmers are well off, and there are no beggars in towns. There is no poverty in Bhutan!” Half in doubt and half in disbelief, yet I could not ignore his pronouncement.

The village was far from the capital city itself. A full day’s journey eastward by car, to the heart of the nation called Trongsa. Another day’s journey skyward on foot, on a rugged near vertical mountain path.

At last came a village into view, where time drifted more slowly. It was the time of joy – of good harvest and winter readiness. Ripe mountain peppers (zanthoxylum piperitum) bowed their heavy branches and perfumed the air everywhere. Yonder, over wave after wave of mountain range, sparkled the silver-whites of the Great Himalayas. A beautiful place in the country, this village called Bemji was.

No electricity or piped water, but Bemji boasted a primary school, a health clinic, and even a veterinary clinic. Etched into the sunny side of the slope below was a thousand- layer paddy field, home to an ancient variety of red rice. Life of Bemji’s rice-growing farmers was prosperous far beyond my expectation.

Too substantial to be called farmhouses, Bemji’s homes carried the air of lesser manor houses that dot the English countryside. The ground floor reserved for livestock was whitewashed earthen walls of substantial girth and height. The second floor for family quarters, and the third floor for altar and guest, were constructed of finely fitted woodwork. Auspicious symbols in many-colors danced on the walls and window frames. Between traditional roofs of cedar shingles weighed down with rocks against the mountain wind, shone silver corrugated metal ones. Subsidized for forest preservation, apparently.

Friday, 20 April 2012

How Oxford dictionaries define Bhutan

I am a regular user of online dictionaries, particularly Cambridge dictionaries at and Oxford dictionaries at I learn the English language from them every day. In my rare moments of pride, they have made me realise how little my knowledge of English usage is. A few days ago, I was curious to know how the Oxford dictionaries define our country, Bhutan. I was rudely surprised to find this definition: a small independent kingdom on the south-eastern slopes of the Himalayas, a protectorate of the Republic of India; population 691,100 (est. 2009); languages, Dzongkha (official), Nepali; capital, Thimphu.

I thought this entry was not fair. So, I decided to immediately write a quick note to them. This is what I wrote. 

Dear Sir/Madam 
I am a Bhutanese citizen and a regular user of your online dictionaries at This morning, I was surprised by your definition of my country, Bhutan. You have defined Bhutan as "a small independent kingdom on the south-eastern slopes of the Himalayas, a protectorate of the Republic of India...". First, an "independent kingdom" cannot be a protectorate of any country. Your own dictionary defines the word protectorate as "a state that is controlled and protected by another". Bhutan is not controlled and protected by another country. It is a sovereign country with a constitution, an elected government, more than a 100 years old monarchy, a robust army, an independent judiciary, UN membership, and so on. I will be grateful to you if you could kindly explain to me why you decided to define Bhutan in this way. I am asking this question as a private citizen. 

Yours sincerely 

And this is their response to my email a day later.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

A day in Phobjikha

Phobjikha valley in Wangdue 
It was a beautiful day, the day I visited the famous Phobjikha valley in Wangdue a fortnight ago with some of my colleagues. Pelela was awash with rhododendron flowers in full bloom. If winter makes this mountain pass between Wangdue and Trongsa treacherous, spring brings glorious beauty to it. But in fact, the mountain is equally beautiful during winter. I remember crossing it last December when it was under a thick blanket of snow. Snow made the road dangerous for motorists, but it made the towering mountain sparkle with beauty.

The resplendent beauty of the majestic mountain, however, paled in comparison to the surreal magnificence of the Phobjikha valley. At the height of spring, the valley was still grey. The vast grey expanse stretched as far as eyes could see. The small stream that meandered its way through the valley sparkled in the morning sun. Grazing cattle dotted its marshy banks. From the far end of the valley, a lone crane called out loud and clear before it took wing. No cow lowed. No herders bothered them. All was quiet and peaceful until some wood cutters started their work on the fringes of the valley. They sent the blaring sound of power chain saw across the peaceful valley. It went on for hours on end harshly drowning the sounds of chirping little birds that continuously fluttered across the valley floor.

Friday, 13 April 2012

More please – the stories of the silent majority

Bhutan Observer received this beautiful letter from Ms Meiko Nishimizu, former World Bank Vice President for South Asia, in February 2009 in response to reporter Rabi C Dahal's story Ungar Diary. The story received the award for the Most Valuable Story (GNH story) in the second National Journalism Awards in 2010. I am reproducing this letter because it is so beautifully written with a lot of food for thought for us the Bhutanese. 

Dear Mr. Rabi C Dahal,

Your Ungar Diary was a pure joy to read. Yes, Ungar is Drukyul, not Thimphu or Paro. That is how the bulk of her people live.

It was a joy because too many who roam the corridor of power and money tend not to see what you saw. Yes, they are “from villages” themselves. Of course, they “visit the rural areas.” But, one cannot see what you saw, unless one lives that life of basic human hardship even for a few nights.

Villagers of Ungar are fortunate. For too many, solid roof overhead is a mere dream, CGI or otherwise. They are invisible, and suffer in silence. Real life-experience like yours is the only way to see the world through the eyes of the invisible people.

No wonder, a Thimphu highway, urban “beautification” projects, domestic airports … Undoubtedly all necessary one day. But, I question, “What’s the priority? Why now?” What’s the priority, when all that money can make the simple dream of rural roads, electricity, or safe drinking water of the silent majority now? Why now, when today’s urban bias in public investments only end up accelerating the unnecessary rural-urban migration?

It was a joy because I am convinced that good journalism, like yours, is critical in changing that bias. In many countries where politics has become a money-making business, I know good journalists are the only remaining friends of the silent majority.

And, it was a pure joy, because that silent majority will harbor instability, extremism, and even revolution, if gone unattended for too long. These are the people who have nothing to lose.
Frustration of social, political, and economic exclusion, handed down generation after generation, will ignite a wrong fire in their belly.

All it takes is one, just one, trigger for them to scream “we’ve got nothing to lose!”. Today’s terrorism, in South Asia and beyond, all started like that.

So, as I see it, poverty alleviation is not a socio-economic cause. It is a national security issue, of the highest order.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Following the herd

In the last two weeks, two of my old friends – civil servants both – came to meet me in my office, at different times. I hadn’t met them in years. With both of them, I ended up talking about our professions. One of them brought more feedback on the Bhutanese media while the other updated me on the state of the civil service.

The government officials, my friend told me, fear the Bhutanese media for being misquoted. They don’t want their division, department, ministry or sector to be reflected in a negative light. They also fear the media when they are caught unprepared because that’s when they are most vulnerable and are most likely to tell the truth. He told me that younger and more educated civil servants are more open towards the media and they discuss the issues the media carry more frequently. The ‘bosses’, he said, are more likely to consider the media sort of a ‘problem creator’. It’s a fresh perspective on the media. It comes from a remote dzongkhag where my friend works.  I think his observation is generally true.

The other friend brought me news about the civil service. After a few years in the civil service, he is more confident about himself but less vocal about the government system. He said now he was more mature and knew what to talk about and what not to, particularly with the bosses. He said that if one wanted to rise in the system, one should respect the well-established hierarchy and with it opinions and ways of doing things according to the hierarchy. Which, he explained to me, meant that the dzongda’s opinion or ways of doing things, for example, always mattered more than a planning officer’s however more professional or innovative the latter’s is.

Friday, 30 March 2012

The year's at the spring

Peach blossoms in Thimphu
Spring is the season of hope and rejuvenation. It’s the time of the year when winter’s chill stings no more and the myriad birds sing. They sing of profusion of blossoms, of rejuvenating nature, of blabbering brooks and the whole new world.

The spring season, I think, is nature’s lesson on impermanence and rejuvenation. It is beautiful but short-lived, it dies but comes again. 

The refreshing sights of peach blossoms around Thimphu always remind me of Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche’s film Travellers and Magicians. As the film ends, the monk tells the dashing young civil servant, who separates from the beautiful girl he falls in loves with, that peach blossoms are beautiful but their beauty is fleeting. They are beautiful because they are fleeting. And in the same vein, they are fleeting because they are beautiful. That seems to be the truth John Keats, that fleeting beautiful soul, was referring to when he wrote “Beauty is truth, truth beauty…” in his Ode on a Grecian Urn. Had he lived longer, he would have written an ode to the beautiful spring season. But, being a ‘beautiful’ human being that he was, he did not live long.

I do not intend to philosophize about the spring season. I am so often moved by the beauty of the season that I try to find expression.

One night last week, I tried to recollect some of the vivid descriptions of the spring season and vaguely remembered these lines by Robert Browning.

The year's at the spring
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hillside's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in His heaven -
All's right with the world!

Sunday, 25 March 2012

To handcuff or not to handcuff

(This article first appeared in Kuensel in 2007 when chimis submitted in the National Assembly that the use of handcuff should be banned in Bhutan)

The debate is whether it is correct to use handcuffs, or, for that matter, fetter someone in irons. The concern chimis submitted to the 86th National Assembly was relevant, but half‐baked. They wanted the use of handcuffs to stop altogether. They presumably looked at handcuffing only from the humanitarian point of view, which is all but complete.

Yes, handcuffing is inhuman and degrading. But when there are justifiable grounds for use of handcuffs, it makes sense. The argument should, therefore, fall somewhere between when it should be used and how.

To fetter arrestees and detainees in irons is no exception to the Bhutanese security system. Security personnel around the world use handcuffs and manacles for various reasons. Primarily, handcuffs are used for security reasons. Desperate arrestees or detainees can be up to anything. They can pose a physical risk to security officials and people around. They can attempt escape, they can attempt suicide, or, they can even display unhealthy scenes in public. It is in the interest of both security officials and public that handcuffs are used. In some countries, hardened criminals are handcuffed even in court. There are stories of security officials being physically attacked by arrestees and detainees to make their escape. How many of us have not heard of security officials jailed for dereliction of duty just because a detainee under their watch has escaped? Therefore, handcuffs.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

From bongkharang to drugs – where are we moving?

Picture: Bhutan Observer
(I wrote this article to a newspaper in 2006)

Once upon a time, we ate bongkharang (dried wheat used as food grains) in our schools. Teachers served us every meal. Those who served us more bongkharang would become our favourite teachers, not those who taught better. The teacher’s announcement of ‘second share’ would lead to a near-stampede in the dining hall. In the mad rush, some younger pupils would get jostled to the ground. Every Saturday, we would be led to a nearby stream in a ceremonial line for ‘washing’. Every few months, our heads would be shaved clean. Everything seemed ritualistic. It was during bongkharang time.

In those days, teachers took care of children more than parents, especially in the remote areas. Now, since parents are more exposed and educated, teachers have a smaller role and government no longer has to buy shaving blades and soaps for children. While we might think that our children today are in more secure hands of their parents, the instances of children going astray are more today than in those days.

In those days, Marijuana plants grew aplenty on the campus, but we knew it only as a food for pigs. We associated nyozey (intoxicating substance) with alcohol only. Substance abuse was little known to us until we got more exposed to the outside world.

The mock election dilemma

A mock election campaign being staged in Paro College of Education 
(As the second parliamentary elections draw near, I thought we might like to look back at how Bhutan prepared for the first parliamentary elections. I wrote this article in March 2008 when mock elections were held )

The primary round of nation‐wide parliamentary mock election is over and results are declared. The two winning parties, Druk Yellow Party and Druk Red Party, will contest in the general elections in which votes will be cast for candidates, not parties. The voter turnout of close to 51% is encouraging, but not impressive. It was reported that elections went smoothly despite some hiccups in some constituencies.

The success of any mock election, though, does not rest with smooth voting and relaying of results. The important considerations should be how our people voted and how much they understood the concept of voting beyond the mechanical use of electronic voting machine. The purpose of mock elections should go beyond sensitizing our people to the use of EVM and voting procedures. The mock elections should inform our people of the basic concepts of democracy like analysis of political agendas, choice of leadership, exercise of their rights and, above all, the significance of going to the polls.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Little Buddhas under threat

Picture: Bhutan Observer
(This article was first published in Bhutan Observer in 2007)

I was in Class V when the first – and the oldest – choeten in my village lost its nangten (relics). Then, the people in my village did not know what it was. Was it vandalism? Theft? Robbery? Sacrilege? It was simply beyond their knowledge and imagination. The police were, however, immediately alerted. Two uniformed men rushed to the site, looked into the small empty hole in the choeten and left. Barely a year later, another choeten in the village was robbed of its nangten. Once again, everybody looked into the empty hole in the choeten and went back home.

Within a few years, my village became poorer by a few of its treasured choetens. Although the holes in the desecrated choetens were routinely plugged by village masons, there was nothing the villagers could do. And, indeed, there was nothing the government could do.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Ta She Gha Chha: A book review

(This book review was first published in Rabsel: The CERD Educational Journal in 2005)

Long time ago, while meditating in a cave in the mountains, the great Tibetan saint Jetsun Milarepa wanted to move to another cave on a particular day. He knew that the day was inauspicious to undertake the journey. But he thought that for a yogi like him, who had moved beyond the influence of the ordinary, there was no such thing as auspicious or inauspicious. So he left his cave for the other one with his prized possession, a clay pot.

The belief could not influence Jetsun Milarepa’s decision. But he, nonetheless, believed in the inauspiciousness of the day. Likewise, we have numerous beliefs which influence and guide our behaviour and conduct, or at least our thinking. This is what Ms Karma Pedey’s 154‐page book Ta She Gha Chha: The Broken Saddle and other Popular Bhutanese Beliefs, the latest book by a Bhutanese author, is all about.

Ta She Gha Chha. The title of the book itself could be an enduring metaphor for the fundamental characteristic of popular Bhutanese beliefs – supernatural elements taking the centre stage in the human drama of trials and tribulations, sins and retribution, death and disaster. It could also be a metaphor for the established link between human world and the world beyond. In the context of popular beliefs, the moment something happens to us, we attribute the cause of it to something, and that is often supernatural and otherworldly.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Sherubtse in retrospect and prospect

(This essay won the Best Essay award in a college-level essay writing competition on the theme ‘Sherubtse in retrospect and prospect’ in the year 2002) 

Sherubtse College
Sherubtse, the peak of learning, as the name suggests, is the highest institute of learning in the kingdom of Bhutan. Located away from the hustle and bustle of town, Sherubtse offers a tranquil atmosphere conducive to serious pursuit of knowledge. A symbol of the country’s dreams and aspirations, hopes and expectations, the name of the institution is synonymous with the country’s quest for a ‘place in the sun’. Home to some of the finest scholars and educators from far and near, Sherubtse lives out the best that is thought and valued in our system. Sherubtse represents the country’s intellectual evolution and march forward toward an educated and civilized society. She has indeed travelled a long journey towards realizing the best human potentials and excellence carrying forward the noble vision of her wise founding forefathers. Decades have rolled by laden with the fruits of Sherubtse’s noble deeds. Still, this ‘teeming womb’ of dreams sublime and deeds noble marks each day with a worthy thought or a deed. This small institution is great not just because it has done exceptional deeds but essentially because it has dared to dream big. It is due to her ability to dream big dreams with faith and determination that she has been able to manipulate all impediments and negotiate herself to the present position of glory.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Drukyul’s destiny

(This essay was first published in Tarayana Foundation's book of tribute Drukgyel's Destiny in 2004)

Drukyul's Destiny has been inextricably linked with deeds of noble note. Shaped by a people's faith and pride in their kingdom, forged by repeated wars, chiseled out of dire circumstances, engineered by the visionary monarchs, Drukyul's Destiny is an invaluable legacy of the past, priceless possession of the present, and peerless gift to the future.

For Bhutan, the tryst with Destiny began at the dawn of history, as early as the 8th century A.D. when Guru Padmasambhava brought the light of dharma to our land. Then, in the 13th century A.D., Phajo Drugom Zhigpo and an influx of great religious figures came and blessed the land and sowed the seed of a Pelden Drukpa.

But, the tryst with Drukyul's Destiny began almost three centuries and eighty‐eight years ago when Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgay, the founder of this tiny land of ours, snatched it from the jaws of wars and disintegration. Since then, Drukyul's Destiny began to take shape.

Drukyul's Destiny. For it, wars were fought, lives sacrificed, hardships endured. For Drukyul, the sail on the solemn ocean of Destiny was not one of ease. A myriad of external threats had to be overcome. Numerous wars with Tibet in the north and British India in the south. Frequent internal strife had to be negotiated. From Paro to Mongar, Dagana to Gasa, a note of discord sounded and drowned the symphony of fraternity. But, in the nick of time, Destiny sent his own son and Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck came. And he carved and shaped the destiny of this our land.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Tracing the source of Gamri

(I wrote this article eight years ago when I first visited Sakteng)

Children of Sakteng                               Photo: Bhutan Observer
From Trashigang town to Phongmay to Joenkhar to Thragthri to Sakteng, the lamentable cry of Gamri is loud and clear. The journey from Phongmay to the plain of bamboos is long and tiring. One climbs up the mountain ranges with Gamri always flowing by one’s side – now by right, now by left. One imagines that one would reach the source of the stream long before one reaches the plain of bamboos.

After hours of walk, Gamri ceases to make its lamentable noise. One fancies that the stream has suddenly disappeared altogether. But next moment, Gamri reappears – this time in all its beauty. It quietly flows across the plain of bamboos. Sakteng is here, but the source of Gamri is lost beyond many high mountains.

This is a fairy land. With identical little houses clustered together against the vast emptiness of the glacial valley, the majestic mountains surrounding the valley still snow-capped and sparkling at the approach of summer, the gently undulating plains dotted with grazing yaks and woolly sheep, and silvery Gamri flowing across the length of the valley, it is idyllic and picturesque. This is Sakteng, the plain of bamboos.