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

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.

When more choetens lost their nangten, the government resorted to the only preventive measure it could think of. Consequently, village chipoens (now called tshogpa) spent sleepless nights guarding choetens in their localities. It helped. And that eased the initial sense of anxiety and wariness resulting in the relaxation of security. After a few years, the choetens were completely left on their own. The nangten hunters re‐emerged.

By that time, the desecration of choetens did not touch the people as much as it had. Their duty was now only to report the case to the government, and, of course, fill up the empty hole. The government did investigate the case and imprisoned some perpetrators for life, but most of the time, the whole ritual was all about looking into the empty hole and filling it up.

Now, after more than fifteen years, we hear the same story. Every year, more choetens lose their nangten, and we keep updating the list. The latest news is from Pemagatshel – the desecration of an old choeten in Khar Gewog. But that is not all. The dzongkhag has lost the nangten of 17 choetens in the past one year – seventeen choetens in a year. It is not just in Pemagatshel Dzongkhag. The unfortunate malice plagues the other 19 dzongkhags too.

However, choeten robbery in Bhutan seems to be the same old news now that it barely weighs heavily on our national conscience. Seventeen choetens in a year is alright, says a religious friend of mine when I share the Pemagatshel news with him. Alright? More than a choeten a month, and alright?

In fact, less important issues have occupied our people more than the robbery of our choetens over the past several years. The National Assembly did seriously deliberate on it once. But the deliberation did not result in any wise decisions to tackle the menace except confining the perpetrators to life imprisonment. That is only correct, but when the evil cannot be stopped, or even curbed, the whole issue calls for more concrete actions. And what action has our government taken?

Taking actions is, however, one thing, and talking the issue is quite another. Since when did the government stop talking about choeten robbery? We continue to talk about our cultural heritage and spiritual values. But if what constitute our cultural heritage and spiritual values are not the subject of our talk, what are we actually talking about? If we forget talking about an issue, there is no question of taking action.

However, from a different perspective, one might argue that we have done enough. We have filled up the holes and even plastered with cement desecrated choetens. But, even though the mended choetens may look better, they are not as good as the original ones. So, essentially, the actions we are taking at the moment are not worth it. They are, in fact, a symptom of our love of the body and disregard for the soul.

In short, the issue is about what we are thinking as much as what we are doing. We should remember that we are not just talking about the loss of the nangten of our choetens, but the loss of our national nangten


  1. This is the sad old story and a day may not be far when all our choetens that dot the landscape are all desecrated and yet we will never have a clue as how best we could have protected them for posterity.
    I think, a proposal submitted by Pemagatshel dzongda to our government about retrieving nangtens from intact choetens and consolidating them inside a securely built new choetens in each village could be the only answer to vandalism; though sound brazenly unaccountable to many,is the only logical answer if we want to save the few remaining intact choetens in the country. All otherchoetens, including the desecrated ones will still remain sacred with reinstatement of proper inner zung or sokshing (life force) sans treasures.
    The vandals are after treasures. Treasures are not the most important part of any choetens, its life force (sok shing) is.

    1. I agree with you, Gyembo. I wrote this article more than five years back. But the situation I described in it is still the same. And our government doesn't seem to do anything concrete.