The number of chortens and Lhakhangs being vandalized in the country has reached an alarming level, with a total of 319 incidents recorded since 2018. As of 31 July 2023, there have been 32 chorten vandalism offences and four lhakhang vandalism offences recorded. Division IX Trashigang dealt with the highest number of cases at 47.
In response to the escalating situation, the Department of Culture has been organizing caretaker workshops across the country to raise awareness on the management of cultural heritage. These workshops aim to remind caretakers of their shared responsibilities towards preserving Bhutan’s cultural heritage.
The Department is also collaborating closely with the Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) to enhance the security of chortens and Lhakhangs through the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Additionally, they are working closely with the Zhung Dratshang and local communities to protect Lhakhangs. Recently, a workshop was jointly organized by the Department of Culture, Dzongkhag Development, and the Zhung Dratshang, which involved Tensum Lopens from across the country.
The department said that despite these efforts, chortens located in remote areas are particularly vulnerable to vandalism. The department has been actively raising awareness among communities about the need to be vigilant.
“When a chorten is vandalized, relevant stakeholders come together to restore it. However, there is no guarantee that such incidents will not occur again, as repeated cases are rare. It is crucial for everyone to understand that chortens are a shared heritage, built to ensure the well-being of the people and community. Therefore, the responsibility to safeguard them should be shared by all, and relying solely on one institution is not feasible,” the department stated.
In the case of old chortens, it is difficult to trace the offerings made to them. To address this, the Department of Culture and Dzongkhag Development, with the assistance of cultural officers, have made it mandatory to list the offerings placed in new or restored chortens.
The RBP shared, “While discussions on chorten and lhakhang vandalism often focus on individual cases, it is important to consider the underlying issues. The lack of a robust security system makes them an easy target for uncivilized individuals. The frequency of vandalism is lower in areas where people frequently pass by and report any incidents to the police.”
“However, identifying the exact timing of the vandalism is challenging, and by the time it is reported to the police, it is often too late. The speed of reporting plays a crucial role in the investigation process, as it allows authorities to reach the scene promptly and gather evidence.”
Repeated vandalisms are common, especially in cases where chortens are not built with strong materials, such as concrete. This makes them vulnerable to theft and further acts of vandalism.