Massive Rice Offering in Wangdiphodrang in Zhabdrung Rinpoche’s time- Final Part

Considering that Punakha fortress was built in 1637, 1627 can be ruled out. We can also rule out 1747 or any later years for one reason. The biography of Desi Sherab Wangchuck (1797-1765) gives us different administrative divisions of Wangdiphodrang and a different number of households. Those administrative divisions are conspicuously silent in TB (The treasure book of Female Earth Sheep Year that clarifies like mirror the taxable fields and taxable houses of the eight-parts of Shar.)

In the biography of Desi Sherab Wangchuck, Tsirang and the villages and households under Tsirang drungwog were clearly enumerated. There is no mention of Tsirang drungwog or any village in Tsirang in TB. It seems that Tsirang was yet to be incorporated into the tax system at the time of writing TB. It can then be confidently said that TB was updated in Punakha dzong in 1687. A stronger reason still for proposing 1679 as the most probable date of TB is that it directly links harvest-fresh offering of paddy (dbang yon thug phud) to the blessings or empowerment given by Zhabdrung Rinpoche who is mentioned by his grand full title.

We do not know when the passing away of Zhabdrung was made publicly known, but it is thought that it was kept secret for a long time, although Zhabdrung himself directed that the secret be maintained for 12 years.

His state funeral (dgongs-rdzogs) was publicly performed only in 1754 (Ardussi, forthcoming Ch. 3). The direct emphasis on Zhabdrung in TB indicates that tax collection needed invoking his charisma and personal authority.

Estimates of the population of Bhutan have so far not been found in old texts. What is usually found is counts of households known as gungs or houses (mi khyim or khyim) because households were the basis of tax. In fact, even if the occupying family came to an end through deaths or lack of issue, the house as a tax-basis continued through tsa-tong (rtsa-stong, literally empty root household) system whereby the tax of the empty house was paid by any family who took over its properties. TB lists the houses and vegetable plots in Wangdiphodrang at that time. The purpose of recording the number of houses or households in other old documents in general was related to taxation, distribution of mangyed, or enthronement gifts (khri-ston gnang-sbin) by the government (Ardussi and Ura 2000; Je Ngawang Lhundrup’s biography of Tenzin Rabgay KMT 2005, p.159).

But the counts of those household liable to taxation did not include households and families that were not paying taxes for one reason or other. TB also omitted such households. Ardussi and Ura (2000) estimated the total population of Bhutan by going through the household data found in the passages related to the enthronement of Zhabdrung Jigme Dragpa I (1725-1761) in 1747.

They also estimated total population for other years – 1796 and 1831- from additional sources. A fraction of the population was added to represent those who did not pay taxes and were thus not listed in the biography.

However, I came across certain official agency who estimated past populations of Bhutan by absurd ‘backward projections’ at 3% a year, a logic that will show that Bhutan had no human being at a certain point in medieval period! His enthronement account is part of the biography of Desi Sherab Wangchuck (reign 1744-63). In that article, Ardussi and Ura also estimated the population of Wangdiphodrang in 1747, which is summarized here.

According to the biography, there were seven major administrative units of Wangdi districts: Shar (Dangchu) drungwog, Jena drungwog, Jargang Penlopwog, Gaseng drungwog, Naynying drungwog, Uma Penlopwog, and Tsirang Drungwog excluding Indians subjects.

The total number of households under Wangdi including Tsirang drungwog was 3,701 under 36 different locations of major settlements by names. Tsirang drungwog was part of Wangdi district in 1747. The total number of households in1747 is uncannily close to the number found in TB in 1679.

According to household level data found in TB, in 1679, there were 3,232 households in Wangdi who were paying yearly rice offering in various quantities to the government. When Tsirang drungwog’s villages are excluded to facilitate comparison, the household number in Wangdi district in 1747 was 3,566. Between 1679 and 1747, about 334 new households were established.

Like the rest of Bhutan, since 1679, the number of rural households had not increased significantly over three centuries in this district. The 2005 population and housing census found that Wangdi district had 6,227 households (p.47). Out of this total, 4,773 were rural households. In the special demographic dynamics of Bhutan influenced by several factors including monkhood, immigration had played a greater role than internal growth or decline. Once immigration from north or south ceased, population changed slowly.

On an average, each household paid 359 kg (257 dre) of rice as fresh harvest offering for blessing, as rice tax was known euphemistically. If a kilogram of rice is valued at Nu 60, the value of yearly rice offering by each household in Wangdi district was Nu. 21,590.

TB furnishes us detailed data to do certain estimation. At the aggregate level, the results show that 3232 households listed under 74 villages grew paddy in 26,693 terraces. The district of Wangdi as a whole had to pay paddy offering equal to 1,635,195 dre which is equal to 817,597 dre of rice, which is further equal to 1,144,636 kgs of rice, when a dre is multiplied by 1.4 to convert to a kg. The value of rice offering in the district as a whole was Nu. 68,678,220 when a kg of rice is costed at Nu 60.

We do not know the acreage of rice cultivation in the district at the time of Zhabdrung Rinpoche or nearly three decade after his passing away when TB was drawn up. TB does not give data on area by such measures as langdo. It however meticulously records the number of terraces owned by a household head who is mentioned by name along with his or her house and vegetable plot. It would seem that the acreage and output of rice were higher compared to today’s level. The fields left fallow today due to breakdown of irrigation channels brought from intake heads far away; lack of labour; competition from Indian rice; absorption of rice fields into urban lands; and relatively higher wages in non-farming sectors; are the bases for this observation. One could physically verify whether the numbers of terraces mentioned in TB are still being farmed both at village and district level.

Total rice production of Wangdiphodrang in 2010 according to the Ministry of Agriculture statistics was 7,645,000 kg of paddy (DoA 2010, p.7) which is equal to 3,822,500 kg of rice. For crude estimation, I assumed that 2010 paddy output level to hold for 1679 in Wangdi district.

When the rice offering of 1,144,637 kg that is recorded in dre equivalent in TB is divided by 3,822,500, about 30% of the rice production in 1679 was offered to the government of Zhabdrung. That amount of rice could be sufficient to feed 3000 persons a year Maximum offering by a household was 1,680 kg of rice (worth Nu 100,800) and the minimum offering by a household was 14 kg of rice (worth Nu 840). Top five and lowest five individual patron-tax payers from Wangdi district in terms of yearly rice offering are shown in the above Table.

Villages who made maximum amount of rice offering were in descending order of amount; Rumed, Zarmading, Samdrugang, Ula, Phakhatsemdong, Rutoedkha, Draphug, Phu and Jala. The villages which had the maximum number of terraces were in descending order; Kunzaling, Nishokha, Jala, Neynyingnyingpa, Gaylingdrongtoed, Kashi.

The correlation between the quantity of rice offering and the number of terraces owned by a household was not strong. R2 between the amount of rice offering and terrace number was weak: R2 = .29. There was no proportionality. It seems size of offering was dependent on motivation, and not land size. But the number of households in a village and the number of terraces in a village were strongly correlated; R2 = .85. These two variables went together.

It is instructive to compare more information found in TB, pertaining to 1679, and data on landholding today. Land titles have increased from 3,232 to 7630 over 333 years. TB shows that in 1679, out of 3,232 households in Wangdi, 82.5% of householders in whose names paddy land titles occur were male while 17.5% were female. Land records in 2012 show a near reversal in the way landownership is recorded in Wangdi district. In Wangdi district at present, men have 29.2% of the land titles in their names while 70.8% of land titles are held by women. In the country as a whole, land records in 2012 show that 53% of land titles are held by women and 47% are held by men. Women in Wangdi are mistresses of rice terraces, an unbeatable record in at least one aspect of gender equality.

By Dasho Karma Ura

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