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.