Book Review of ‘Bhutan: The Unremembered Nation’

By Dr Brian C. Shaw

My considered advice: If you haven’t already, Buy these books!  

True, they are not cheap, the present edition is paper-bound, and the many illustrating photographs (over 80 in the first 100 pages of text alone) are reproduced in black-and-white (otherwise the offering price would be much higher). If necessary, take a loan from your mother-in-law: this is a good investment in ideas, history, and citizenship. If stock has depleted, please don’t hesitate to put your name down for the certain re-supply. 

Then: please, read (and re-read) these volumes, carefully, chapter by chapter. Take your time. There is a great deal to take in and ponder. You might even – to your own surprise – want to take notes as you go along, as your memory is jogged. The details are often dense, rightly so to give authority. Take time to talk about the stories with your elders, your children, your young friends: even email or WhatsApp those relatives who are sojourning in Australia and send them the good news.  

Back in September 1968, an advisory committee met to plan a Gazetteer of Bhutan. Present were four Bhutan officials (including Home Minister Lyonpo Tamji Jagar and [later Lyonpo] Dago Tsering, and four Indian officials (including the Minister of Education, Secretary for External Affairs, and the Political Officer in Sikkim). The work, modeled on the extensive series for India, was to take up to three years to complete. Its eight chapters were to cover “details of the country’s location, border, area, population, climate, history, customs, manners, everyday life etc.”, and was to “contain useful material on the social life of the people and recent economic developments”. The project was delayed, and then shelved permanently as part of the many readjustments following the untimely demise of HM the Third King. 

In the early 1980s, people in Thimphu were grumbling to me: “The changes are happening too fast – we can’t cope up”. Still, after some time, the people were quiet. Then, around the mid-1990s, I heard it again: “Change today is too much – we can’t cope. Help!”  

Some help has now arrived. This work is not a Gazetteer: it is a love story for Bhutan’s old culture, with extended glosses on change management.  

It doesn’t include everything: there is no mention of sword-making, Royal Food-tasters; “chilip” is not in the Glossary of either volume, while “jaga” is (in Vol. 1). There is sometimes repetition, in adjacent paragraphs – but there is no harm in it: matters repeated may stay in memory longer. Bhutanese names are correctly cited in the Bibliographies.  

Dasho Dr Karma Ura, author of this long-gestated two-volume treasure (an elaboration of his doctoral thesis to Japan’s Nagoya University), has all along had two excellent visions. First, by dedicating the work to HRH The Gyalsey (who, although not quite yet of formal text-reading age, has already shown a thirst for knowledge and sensitivities beyond his years), the hope is to excite and inform – not only our future Monarch but also our youth – about the rich heritage of DrukYul. Second, from the first lines, respect and homage is paid to all who have helped (and continue) to preserve, extend and validate this heritage.  

 The utility of this work is of course to both inform and excite comment, discussion, and debate about change management. The central question is: how best to accommodate the past to enhance the present and somewhat shape the desired future?  

In partial answer, the author has drawn on much contemporary research, along with his own. In his Introduction (shared in each volume) he states that traditional knowledge and practices “are in danger of being lost in the pace of development and modernization”. Understanding the past well allows better-founded policies for change. He has attempted, with wit and a high level of success, to “create a clearer portrait of Bhutan” before major changes began in the 1960s.  

Volume One looks at the themes of community and livelihood, starting with the birth of “mothers’ houses”, looking in detail at aspects of family and village life, livelihood, trade exchanges, and the rhythm of farm life. Glossary and Index are helpfully appended to each volume.  

Vol. 2 broadly reviews visual and other arts, and the complex tapestry of faith and ideals, along with commentary on defenders of the community, and on monastic life. The final chapter reflects on the influence of the person and teachings of “The Timeless Guru” Rinpoche, “relevant in the future as he has been in the past, wherever human beings realize that they have the potential to raise themselves to pure vision.”  

The first volume sets the scene, as it were, and for many will be the more interesting. Yet the second delves more deeply, into ideas, institutions and abstractions. All chapters present valuable information and insights. The account of the fate of Tsango village and its (continuing) pre-Buddhist rites stands out (pp 112-122). Dasho Karma wrote the details before reading Prof. Toni Huber’s magisterial two-volume “Source of Life” (which he rightly calls his – Huber’s – monumental work). Huber greatly informs about central and eastern Bhutan (and their northern and eastern neighbours) in the past – and raises a host of new queries to be researched.   

The volumes would valuably supplement courses for Desuup and Gyalsung skilling enterprises: they would be valued in all school libraries. Embassies abroad, too, could do valuable cultural extension work by awarding sets to Bhutan’s well-wishers and related organisations. (Even in today’s tight economy, this should not be too great an ask.) 

One may hope these volumes will be extended in physical size in future editions (perhaps with more durable paper, somewhat larger text, real colour photographs, and even– at the publishers’ goodwill – reduced price). They are the staunch, home-grown basis for a future, post-Gazetteer library, for when we tire of digital screens in our fast-moving 21st century.  

Like it or not, we are all made of star stuff, literally the dust of the cosmos. As a species, we humans have evolved in shape, size and features, have come to self-awareness, and always seek to understand our circumstances and our fate.

Before internet technology arrived, we asked questions, told stories, made music, took solace in merriment, song and dance. We yearned to learn of our relations with other living things, with inanimate objects, and with natural phenomena. 

This yearning – and its cousin, hope – is the stuff of all our human culture. It energises us with restlessness. Now, there are new threats: to prepare well, we must better comprehend the past.

But until we pass, there are things to be done. Dasho Karma has with insight, originality, imagination and industry brought together these lustrous memory shards of the past that show what worked, how and why, and at what cost: and how future matters can have a stronger and deeper foundation.   Kadrinchhey la!

The writer also known as the ‘Hong Kong Chimi’ has published multiple research papers on Bhutan in International Journals and is a recipient of the National Order of Merit Gold for his services to Bhutan

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