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

Monday 17 March 2014

Nepal moments pictorially

Being in a foreign land can be exciting as well as amusing. My visit last week to Kathmandu and Lumbini in Nepal to attend Lumbini International Conference on Media and Peace was filled with spiritually stimulating moments as well as lighter, memorable moments. I posted a few lines and pictures on serious, contemplative subjects in my previous posts. In this post, let me share with you some lighter moments pictorially. 

A Bhutanese can feel pretty at home in Kathmandu. When you shed the national dress that sets you apart, you can be easily taken for a Nepalese of Tibetan stock from the hills. And if you speak some Nepali, the locals wouldn't have a second thought about your nationality. Although your ability to integrate into a foreign society instantly can be helpful in many ways, it can deprive you of some small privileges that foreigners enjoy, particularly if you are staying in a tourist hub like Kathmandu’s Thamel district. Thamel is so full of tourists that every local seems to exist and work only for tourists. For them, locals do not exist. Or so it seems. If you look like a Nepalese, handicraft sellers do not notice you even if you stand in their shops poring over their items for several minutes. They break into a big grin the moment an English-speaking, fair-skinned westerner pops in. ‘Welcome, sir. Anything you need, sir? This made of all pure baby yak hair, sir. Giving discount also, sir,’ a sullen-looking shopkeeper is suddenly inspired to praise his goods in a stream of sir…sir…sir. You can be forced to feel faceless. It’s something akin to the habit of bigger handicraft shopkeepers in Bhutan. When a Bhutanese walks into a handicraft shop and asks the price of an item, the response one usually gets is, ‘It’s expensive’ or ‘Do you want to buy it?’ In Thamel, a Nepalese-looking person is hardly noticed anywhere – in shops, bars, coffee shops, and restaurants. Even toilets seem to be all marked out for tourists.

Next time you are in Kathmandu, don’t forget to read the signboards. If signboards are character traits of a city, Thimphu and Kathmandu are unmistakably sisters. A small roadside shop in a corner of Gongabu in northern Kathmandu has put up this signboard.

And this ‘shose’ store in Gongabu.

The label on this Tuborg beer is packed with information and messages. Two lines that stand out are: Deserve to sit back/And enjoy responsibly. I like both the lines. The first line uses the word deserve intransitively, which sounds not quite correct but quite creative. Read it again and think of possible meanings. It is interesting, isn't it? The second line is the right thing to do. Comparatively, Bhutan’s Druk 11000 has hardly any text on the label.

And this on the doors of the toilets at a roadside restaurant between Lumbini and Kathmandu. This is cutely simple and straight.           

I noticed something on this signboard in English and Tibetan at the Boudha Stupa in Kathmandu. Doesn't the translation of ‘no entry’ in Tibetan read more polite than the Dzongkha translation which is mostly ནང་ན་འཛུལ་མི་ཆོག་?      

Saturday 15 March 2014

An afterthought for Lumbini

I visited Lumbini in Nepal last week. Two and a half millennia after the birth of Prince Siddhartha, who later became Lord Buddha, the Awakened One, the place is still imbued with deeply spiritual aura. Away from the dusty, noisy, and chaotic Kathmandu city, Lumbini is not only an oasis of tranquility, but also a spiritual haven. Located in the tarai region of Nepal, Lumbini draws people, especially Buddhists, from all over the world. Lumbini Garden, the exact spot where Queen Maya Devi gave birth to Prince Siddhartha, is a magnet to both locals and foreigners. It’s popularly known as Maya Devi Temple although the structure resembling a temple is, in fact, an archeological structure built to protect the spot in the garden where Lord Buddha is believed to have taken seven steps right after birth.

Some 30 kilometres away are the ruins of Kapilavastu Palace where Prince Siddhartha lived until he was 29. Walking over the ruins of the palace, it’s hard not to feel a sense of impermanence. It was the same place which was once bustling with life with Prince Siddhartha at the heart of a beehive of activity. Leading a princely life within the palace walls of the prosperous kingdom, Prince Siddhartha thought all good things surrounding him were going to last forever until he saw a sick person, an old person, and a dead body outside the walls of the palace. He immediately realised that all compounded things were immaterial and impermanent. And he was right. Nothing remains today of that great palace of King Sudhodana except what Prince Siddhartha sought outside the walls of the palace, the meaning of impermanence. Visiting Kapilavastu brings home, powerfully, the message of impermanence Lord Buddha taught. I suppose that’s what a pilgrimage does to the human mind. That’s because we can connect to the sublime because, as Buddhist masters say, each sentient being carries the seed of Buddhahood, that precious gem ready to shine forth when worldly obscurities are removed.

Sunday 9 March 2014

Images from Kapilavastu

This are the ruins of the western gate of Kapilavastu Palace in the Rupendehi district of Nepal. It is believed to have been heavily fortified. Gautama Buddha lived within the walls of this palace for 29 years of his life before renouncing the worldly life. Suddhodana, Lord Buddha's father, was a powerful Sakya king. Sakya kingdom, which included the Lumbini area, was later destroyed by a rival king and all members of the clan killed.  

Archaeologists have unearthed coins with Sakya inscriptions from this square area near the western gate of Kapilavastu Palace. People today believe that this would have been the exact spot where coins were minted before the palace was sacked. The moat is believed to have been beyond this gate and falls outside the enclosure today.  

Thursday 6 March 2014

Jigme Namgyal's kasho

The first lunar month is a holy month. It's called Chothrul Dawa or the Month of Miracles. Lord Buddha is believed to have performed different miracles in the first 15 days of the month to augment the spiritual merit of his disciples. In Bhutan, the holy month is observed by banning the sale of meat. Such government decisions to save life, I gather, is not new to Bhutan. The following decree of  Trongsa Ponlop from a book I just finished translating makes it abundantly clear. Gongsar Jigme Namgyal, the father of the first King of Bhutan, issued the decree in the Female Rabbit year of 1885, two years after he became Trongsa Ponlop.   
Shri Karma Vajra Guru Yey! To the people of the east of Southern Land – from this side of Pelela, north of Kheng Bhadey and Kher Kher on the southern foothills, south of Tshampa and Tawang [Arunachal Pradesh] on the Tibetan border; all the areas under the control of Chotse Ponlop. Dzongnyer Lezin, lamas and lopons, representatives, nyerpas, garp tozen [the lowest-ranking attendants], khochey ponchen [religious aristocrats], all chieftains, common people, religious figures, monks, soothsayers and astrologers, yoginis, hunters and fishermen, cowherds and shepherds, travellers and traders, wanderers, and children – bear this in mind.
According to all sutra and tantra texts containing the teachings of Lord Buddha, taking life carries the biggest sin among all non-virtuous deeds. Those who are inclined to take life will be reborn, soon after the moment of death, in the hell realms where they will be scorched in a burning iron chamber and their bodies cut into a hundred pieces by different weapons. Each day, they are killed between a hundred and a thousand times and revived for so many times. They undergo such suffering for several aeons.
If they are reborn as pretas [yi dwags], they suffer from hunger and thirst, and if born as animals, they suffer endlessly from servitude and being slaughtered. Even if they are reborn as humans, they will be afflicted with many diseases and will have a short life. They will die in the mother’s womb or right after birth. Should they escape death at this stage, they will be killed by weapons, lightning or hailstone, or meet their end falling off a cliff.
Refraining from taking life for even one day prevents one from being born in times of epidemics and war, averts sudden death, removes obstacles, and prevents diseases leading to a long, happy and peaceful life.
There are accounts of Gyalpo Jampai Tob, Lha Tshangpa [Lord Brahma], Lha Jajin [Lord Indra] and Songtsen Gampo averting degenerated times and reviving the golden era [bskal pa bzang po] through institution of laws based on ten godly virtuous deeds. Learned personalities and treasure discoverers have said with one voice that the people of Bhutan suffered from conflicts and diseases because of their unbridled proclivity for killing.
From now on, as long as the teachings of the Buddha flourish, whoever dwells in this land shall refrain from doing harm to any form of life, including humans and domestic animals, birds and wild animals, fish and other aquatic creatures thriving in the rivers and streams, insects and flies living on land, cliffs and trees. No human or non-human shall do them any harm. 
Manslaughter in particular carries the heaviest punishment. Involuntary manslaughter is punishable by phampi tungwa [a category of sin that brings worst consequences] and voluntary manslaughter is punishable by death sentence. Premeditated robbery along footpaths, killing over women and out of intoxication, killing not in the interest of dharma and sentient beings, serving poison, abortion by using musk and dye by prostitutes and nuns, foeticide – all of these shall be deemed to be an act of murder. Upon confirming the acts after investigation, individuals guilty of these acts, irrespective of wealth and reputation, shall be consigned to fire or river along with their victims. These acts shall not be pardoned.
Inflicting injury using assault weapons and purchase, sale and production of poison shall pay by having their hands chopped off. Courtiers who travel to the villages shall not be allowed to order the slaughter of chicken and pigs for their consumption or kill these animals by stoning and bludgeoning. They shall not be allowed to harass women and girls and take them as brides only to demand money later from villagers through deception and manipulation. No one shall be allowed to take any advantage of the villagers. Courtiers on official assignments shall strictly conduct themselves within the limits stipulated by the letter of assignment. Should there be courtiers misbehaving, village chieftains and elders should remind them to conduct themselves better. If they failed to take heed of the reminder, villagers can join force to deal with them physically. The authorities will not take offence. Even killing some intractable courtiers in the process shall be pardoned provided that the authorities are kept informed about it. However, if the villagers put a courtier to death without enough justification, the act shall be punishable.
Catching innocent fish is a big sin. It will result in one being reborn in the hell realm where one will be forced to swallow molten iron. No one shall catch even fingerlings from rivers and streams in the entire Zhongar region, including Kuri Shongmed and Menmo Sheri Murung areas. Whoever poisons water bodies for fish, whoever makes and owns fishing nets or snares, whoever blocks migration paths of fish and damages their breeding grounds shall have his hands cut off. Except when building bridges or embankments, digging water channels, and collecting fire wood by riverside, no one shall, after crossing a river, come back and play in the river or by the banks.
From the first day of the third month to the end of the tenth month, no one shall destroy hives of any kind of bee for honey and nests of all kinds of wasps for larvae. Those who do not heed this rule shall pay with their hands. No one shall commit the above crime on the pretext of collecting abandoned or fallen beehives and wasp nests.
Forest fire, not excepting one accidentally caused by agricultural activities like shifting cultivation, is prohibited. Not a tiny patch of forest shall be set on fire intentionally.
Besides those harming humans, domestic animals, and crops, no wild animal living on forest resources shall be hunted down using hounds or bow and arrows. One guilty of this offence shall lose his hands.
Apart from unavoidable and unintentional killing while working or walking, no one – not even children – shall kill insects, flies, frogs, and worms in sport.
Killing all kinds of birds, including fowls like the blood pheasant and the monal pheasant, using snares and building barricades shall be a punishable offence. One’s own domestic animals can be killed only according to the demands of cultural norms like periodic rituals, travel needs, and reciprocal visits. After raising them like one’s own children and employing them like servants, benevolent animals that provide our needs such as milk and fur shall not be put to death and their body parts traded for cereals, dyes, cotton, and textile. This offence shall lead to the loss of hands.
For propitiation rituals for deities, guardians and spirits, meat offering shall be limited to pork once in a year. Regular meat offerings shall be limited to dried meat, besides eggs and cash. And for the purpose of offerings, even if a piglet or a chick is sacrificed, hands shall be cut off as punishment.
Oracles, astrologers, mediums, shamans and yoginis shall, out of avarice, not practise harmful occult religions and speak of the need to sacrifice animals. Any such practitioner, who makes a slightest mention of animal sacrifice, shall have his or her mouth slit vertically.
Dzongpons should make copies of this decree and distribute them to the following with detailed explanation and guidance: lamas and lopons, representatives, keepers of dzongs, supervisors, bridge controllers and low-ranking garps, chojes, khoche and ponchen, chieftains, religious figures, ordinary people, traders and travellers, cowherds and shepherds, cowherds of Bumthang, hunters and fishermen, bird hunters, and innocent children. Moreover, village chieftains should remind the masses in general and following individuals in particular about the decree, frequently, every month: Soothsayers, astrologers, shaman, jomo, yoginis, mediums, bridge controllers, hunters, fishermen, bird hunters, cattle herders, shepherds, wandering children, travellers, traders, and cattle herders of Bumthang. If those who are responsible for giving directives do not do their job, their mouths shall be slit vertically. If people do not take serious note of their directives and fail to live up to them (directives), their ears shall be cut off from the base. If some go against the directives clandestinely pretending not to have heard about them, they shall meet their end. If dzongpons concerned do not execute the directives properly and in full measure, they shall lose their post.
We call upon eight groups of guardian deities, namely Chamdrel Maning Nagpo, Legoen Tragshed Sogdued, Drangsong Za, Tshangpa, Chabjug, Wangchuk, and Jajin to take ownership of the directives and punish anyone who fails to abide by them. We also call upon local deities such as Lhamo Remitey, Jangi Duepa and retinue, three manifestations of Leshin, Jomo Tshogtshong, and Dahungpa to follow suit. If these deities failed to exercise their might soon enough, let the displeasure and wrath of Pal Heruka (yab-yum) and Sangdag Thrinley Khachab befall them. Those who can write, make as many copies of the letter as you can. Keep it in each village, understand the content and follow it. All the people, big and small, bear this in mind!
Issued from Chokhor Rabtentse [Trongsa Dzong] on an auspicious day of the tenth month of the Wood Rabbit year. Bidza Haram!  

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.