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

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.

Ta She Gha Chha is a comprehensive documentation of popular beliefs from across Bhutan. It contains over 400 beliefs, the logic and reasoning behind some of which are elucidated. Some of the beliefs which have social, spiritual, or environmental significance are explained with modern reasoning. But the author does not make it a point to give modern reasoning to all the beliefs for she believes that “attempting to decipher and unravel [their] mysteriously illogical significance with modern reasoning will smother the sensational experience that popular belief[s] bestow upon [their] believers.” The logic, and sometimes reasoning, behind some of the beliefs is, however, self‐evident.

The book contains all kinds of beliefs – logical and illogical, senseless and sensible. This is what was intended. The author wanted to record what Bhutanese believe, whatever they are, not the sense their beliefs make or the sensible beliefs. There is no distinction made between religious and secular beliefs. While one cannot draw a clear‐cut line between them, at a closer look at the beliefs, most of them originated in or stemmed from Buddhist beliefs. Some of the beliefs like what Milarepa held have Buddhist astrological reasoning behind them.

Ms Karma Pedey’s book is not just an anthology of popular Bhutanese beliefs. It briefly defines and examines their significance and role in the human society. It also takes a brief look at some of the popular beliefs in different cultures around the world and puts the Bhutanese beliefs into a broader context.

In his forward to the book, Mr T S Powdyel, Director of Centre for Educational Research and Development, writes that beliefs “are an affirmation of the intimation and presences of powers that lie beyond us and inform our thoughts and behaviour.” Beliefs, he says “are a window to the inner life of a community and a society.” Ms Karma Pedey writes in her introduction that a belief crosses the realm of rationality and reasons” but believes, though, that it “can still be very “alluring amidst the growing fascination of modernity.”

Before dwelling on the main subject, the reader is given an insight into how the Bhutanese beliefs work on Sir James Frazer’s law of similarity and law of contact. The author also briefly mentions that the popular beliefs could be grouped under different branches of beliefs like ongpa, takpa, namtog, tendi zam, and tendi nyem, but the groupings in the book are not based on them.

In the Bhutanese society, if you are sick, you are possibly harmed by an evil spirit, which is often the case. But take heed! Do not consult a doctor – your health will deteriorate if you do so. Propitiate the spirit that harms you, and you are well! Do you wish to have a stable life? Go buy a goat and raise it, and you are no more a rolling stone!

For the Bhutanese, an animal or an insect can be good as well as bad. The cat is considered a gem. But the noise of two cats (two gems) fighting in the night in your house augurs disputes and feuds in the family. A single bee hovering around your head brings you good news from your loved ones, but a swarm of bees settling on your house does not bring you a lot of good news! A rat that bites the upper part of your body (which, of course, is more vulnerable) in your sleep is a kind rat for it bodes something good for you, and the one that nibbles the lower part of your body is an evil one.

If your wife has a thick moustache, do not despair! Why? You might like to ask. But if she grinds her teeth in her sleep, you certainly have a reason to despair! Do you have a mole on your face? If you have one, you might have to find out where it is exactly located to find out your fortune.

If you are an expectant mother who wants to know the number of children you will bear, prepare a gold ring and a long strand of hair to carry out the trick to find out. Next, you might like to learn to do a prenatal study of the sex of your child. There is no need of an obstetrician. Observe the changes happening to your own body, and you will find yourself planning for a girl or a boy! But in the meanwhile, be faithful to your spouse for your infidelity will deform your child. And also mind you, do not blow out the birthday candles of your child. It means blowing off luck.

If you are unmarried and would like to know who your future spouse will be, you have to count a certain number of stars for certain number of days at the same time and go to sleep. The person that you see in your dream is your future spouse! However, if you do not love the person who you dreamt of and want to go for the one you love, you have a way out! Simply get a strand of hair of the one you love and prepare a magic potion out of it for yourself. But how? Burn the hair... and go on.

In the Bhutanese beliefs, dreams are prophetic informers for you. If you dream of cow‐dung, human excreta, and dead bodies, do not interpret them negatively. Expect good luck and financial gains. But if you dream about feasting, butter, or monks, brace yourself for death and disaster.
A stolen flower blooms better than the one acquired otherwise. But beware, if you steal something, you will be possessed by ah lha, the deity of thieves. And your kleptomaniac tendencies cannot be got rid of.

Make sure you do not start a journey on the day of ta she gha chha, the day on which, if you travel with a saddled horse, your horse will die and the saddle will be broken. Jetsun Milarepa moved to another cave on such a day, and his horse and saddle, in fact, his everything – the clay pot – was broken.

But even if you are at home, be careful of breaking a glass in your hands, particularly if you have a limited number of glasses. That spells ill omen and you have to break another deliberately.

On simple analysis, the popular Bhutanese beliefs are a mix of superstitions and Buddhist and Bon beliefs. As Bhutan is a highly spiritual country, beliefs seem to have been invented and fostered to teach and instruct, coax and discipline. Most of the beliefs have a moral, spiritual, or a social significance.

For instance, the eyes of a person who defecates on pathways, it is believed, will be affected by smoke. Apparently, there is no connection between defecating on pathways and smoke affecting one’s eyes, but it teaches that it is not morally and ethically good to defecate on pathways. Likewise, does slamming a door shut displease the spirit of the door or human beings? Or does dirtying a lake harm the spirit of the lake or ourselves? And why should a liar become a bear’s victim, logically speaking?

While beliefs that concern auspiciousness or evilness of days, months and years, and the temperament of a person being determined by the time and circumstances of his or her birth are mostly based on Buddhist astrological calculations, those concerning spirits and natural elements are mostly based on Bon beliefs like shamanism and nature worship. It seems that Buddhist or Bon concepts which are of significance in day to day life have become popular beliefs. Some of the beliefs which originated in religion have become so popular that over time they have lost their religious context and significance. Ta she gha chha is a case in point.

Ta She Gha Chha, which draws on the rich reservoir of beliefs in the older Bhutanese, also contains some of the author’s own and her family’s and friends’ experiences concerning popular Bhutanese beliefs, adding a personal touch to the book. It should make a fascinating reading to all. But, take heed! If you cannot finish reading the book at a sitting, do not leave it open for the devil will complete it and grasp its fascinating content.

In the meanwhile, if you are planning to travel somewhere, see if the evil day that broke Jetsun Milarepa’s pot affects you too. If you are going to remain home, observe your cat and the hearth fire. If your cat wipes its face with its paws and if the fire crackles and sparks go flying, expect a guest. And remember, when the guest is come, do not let a hot tempered member of your family prepare emadatsi for him or her because the curry will be excessively... (Well, what do you expect?).

Written in simple English with a fine literary touch, which at times tends to be informal and communicative, Ta She Gha Chha will greatly appeal to all people who have a keen interest in and sense of folk culture. The book can also appeal to critical, sceptical and cold modern minds by virtue of its quaint and eccentric contents.

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