The Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs (MoHCA) will be looking into the issue of Lhatshog mask images on a brand of T-shirts being sold by a company named Karmakora.
The matter came to the attention of the ministry after Karmakora’s new T-shirts with the Lhatshog Zhelbab printed on it lead to some controversy after images of the T-shirt came out in the media and social media. There were some critics on the social media saying that the T-shirt is culturally inappropriate.
This issue follows’ BICMA banning the screening of the movie Hema Hema based on the use of Lhatshog masks which was not found to be culturally inappropriate. BICMA had received advice on the issue from the Department of Culture after the department’s views were sought.
Currently under the Movable Cultural Property Act of Bhutan, 2005, there isn’t any section or clause that states the use of cultural properties like Lhatshog Zhelbab is not allowed for entertainment purposes.
A senior MoHCA official said,” Though it is not explicitly stated but anyone with even a little knowledge must know what religious items should be used and what shouldn’t be used. As of now, we don’t know what we should do about the T-shirt with the mask but there is a need to look into the matter. As Bhutanese it is our responsibility to preserve our culture.”
A senior official from the Department of culture said, “As of now, we can’t say it’s appropriate nor inappropriate to use the religious mask because it is not stated in any law that the person or an organization is not allowed to use the religious mask.”
The official said that as citizens people should know what they should use and how.
He said, “As a Buddhist it is not a sign of respect to our religion and our Lhatshog. There are people who wear the shoe with the picture of Lord Buddha and Chenrizey printed on it and this is not a good trend. Just because it is not stated in the rule book, it doesn’t mean that we can do whatever with it and those who do, it clearly show how disrespectful they are to their own country, religion and spiritual figures.”
Kinley Wangchuk the brainchild behind Karmakora said, “We printed this T-shirt to explore and diversify means to promote Bhutan and Bhutanese culture through a medium like T-shirt printing. While some would believe that the use of mask on a T-shirt would be inappropriate, I think there is nothing wrong in it. Our intention is to promote Bhutanese culture and provide a platform for the local artisans to showcase their artworks.”
Kinley pointed out that sacred religious masks are exhibited during tshechus and are the staple and almost sole entertainment with visitors taking pictures and videos without any restrictions. In addition, he said, different mask and Thangkas are sold to tourists who would misuse it.
“I believe the problem is not with Karmakora printing the T-shirt with the mask but it is with how people use it. As a Bhutanese citizen, everyone has respect for our spiritual mask, spiritual figures and I as a Bhutanese would not dare to dump the T-shirt with the Lhatshog Zhelbab in a bin”.
Denying a purely commercial motive he said that he is selling the T-shirts within the country at affordable rates while the same shirts outside would fetch much higher rates.
Pawo Choyning Dorji, the producer of the movie Hema Hema, said, “I would like to congratulate Kinley Wangchuk for coming up with this T-shirt and I would like to buy one because it feels good when our people come up with such innovation. I wouldn’t ask why Kinley Wangchuk was approved to print a T-shirt but I feel a T-shirt with Lhatshog and the use of Lhatshog mask in the movie is a same thing.”
Pawo said that he did not feel it was justified to bar the movie because most of the actors in the movie had used Lhatshog mask which the authority thought was not in keeping with the culture of Bhutan.
Pawo also pointed out in support for both the T-shirt and his movie there is no section or clause which states that the use of religious mask are not allowed for entertainment purposes.