Shopping for poi

Come try this

Walk into a shopping mall, and you’ll be greeted by customers sampling various perfumes.

Walk into the Norling Building in Changangkha, and you’ll also be greeted by customers sampling various perfumes. But there’s one big difference. The customers in the Norling Building, in Nado Poi shop to be exact, would be trying out different types of poi – traditional incense sticks for religious offerings.

That, at least, is what I saw the other day. I went to Nado’s to buy some poi, and bumped into a group of Taiwanese tourists. They, like children in a sweetshop, were excitedly trying out various types of incense – lighting the sticks, comparing fragrances, and identifying the best offerings to take back home.

Nado, an ex-monk from Tharpaling Monastery, started the incense factory more than two decades ago. The factory, Nado Poizokhang, has come a long way. They manufacture at least 13 types of poi, ranging in price from Nu 30 per packet to Nu 370 for a packet of their top-of-the-line Zurpoe.

Producing poi needs at least 30 different ingredients and one whole month of hard work involving no less than 12 full time employees. Most of the poi is consumed within the country. But a good amount ends up in homes and monasteries abroad.

The next time you are in the Changangkha area, I recommend that you try out the wonderful fragrances at Nado Poi Shop – you’ll add a whole new dimension to your shopping experience.

Wangduephodrang Dzong

Image of hope

I was in Wangduephodrang on Saturday. I’d gone there to visit the De-Suung training program. After meeting the De-Suups, I stopped by the Wangduephodrang Dzong to see the massive renovation that the dzong was receiving.

While returning to Thimphu, I stopped briefly on the other side of Punatsangchhu to take in at the grandeur of the Wangdue Dzong, and, as usual, marveled at the brilliance of Zhadrung Ngawang Namgyel. He had chosen the site personally, on a ridge overlooking the confluence of the Punatsangchhu and Dangchhu rivers, to defend His newly unified Drukyul against intruders from the South. He had succeeded beyond measure: the dzong, which straddled the high, narrow ridge, was impenetrable and dominated the Wangdue skyline for centuries.

Today, I was back in Wangduephodrang. But this time to join the nation in mourning. The mighty Wangdue Dzong, which stood magnificently for 374 continuous years, was no more. It had been gutted by fire yesterday evening. The fire reportedly started near the entrance of the dzong, and within hours, strong winds had fanned the fire through all buildings completing the destruction in a matter of hours.

Tragically, the very strength of the dzong – that it was virtually impenetrable – prevented all efforts from suppressing the inferno. The entrance was on fire, and the rest of the fortress was inaccessible.

So soldiers, under the personal command and supervision of His Majesty the King who himself had rushed from Thimphu, scaled the southern walls, broke into the monasteries, and rescued the many sacred relics that were in the dzong.

An entire nation is in mourning.

We have lost an important part of our history – a living, breathing monument that until yesterday served, as intended and without interruption, both the civil administration and the monk body. Yesterday evening, almost four centuries of continuous and daily offerings of butterlamps and prayers came to a sudden halt.

We are in mourning. But, miraculously, and against all hopes and expectations, we have, in our possession, the real essence of the Wangdue Dzong. Most of scriptures and statues and artifacts would have been consumed by the fire, but relics – the sacred treasures, many of which had been built and installed by the Zhabdrung himself – are safe. And that’s what really matters.

What also matters is that we begin the process of rebuilding the once mighty dzong immediately. We can rebuild our dzong, as in moments of national tragedy, our people, all of us, come together, easily and naturally, to think and act as one, under the command of His Majesty the King, the source of all our hopes and inspiration.

So there’s no doubt that the Wangdue Dzong will be rebuilt – bigger, better and stronger – and that it will once again, in a few years, dominate our western skylines.

Father and child

Two characteristics that all Bhutanese men should be proud of: knowing how to cook, and taking care of their children. I, like most Bhutanese men, like to cook. But my wife has made it quite clear that I’m more of a nuisance than a help in the kitchen, and my family only grudgingly accept what I cook. So my main responsibility at home revolves around taking care of our children. I enjoy that responsibility, and feel fortunate that I, like most Bhutanese men, can spend quality time with my children.

Today I looked for Bhutanese fathers with their children. And within minutes – literally minutes – I was able to capture these ‘father and child’ moments:

Lop Ugen Dorji, Kelki HSS, with Phakchung Dolma, 4 years, and baby Pema Yutsi on a walk

Kinzang Wangdi driving behind bikers Sangay Ngedup, 9 years, and Kinga Yeedzin Dema, 7

[Continue Reading…]

Happy Losar!

Art by Chimi R. Namgyal, a self-taught digital artist, who creates the most amazing ‘paintings’.

The printers were not able to do justice to Artist Chimi’s work, so I’m still trying to get the job done, at another press, in a manner that will reflect the original quality. Please email me if you’d like a copy of this ‘belated’ Losar card.

Meanwhile, I wish all my readers a very happy Losar!

Freeing horses

Free me ...

Several of you identified the image in the last “Big picture” as a horse. That is correct. Well done.

But Passang’s answer was the most accurate. He said that the image was a “Picture of the horse (lungta) on a faded prayer flag.”

The big picture is, quite literally, a painting of a horse on an old prayer flag. In fact, the prayer flag, with the lungta (or windhorse) printed in the middle, is clearly visible in the painting. To Karma Wangdi, the artist, that lungta, drawn within a square border, looked confined and trapped. So he set it free. That’s why he painted the white horse, emerging from the prayer flag, and galloping at full speed, to freedom.

Karma Wangdi, popularly known as Asha Karma, says that the aim of the lungta prayer flags is to release one’s good nature and positive energy so as to accumulate merit and fortune. But he feels that the lungta printed on the prayer flags are, themselves, confined within a square border. Worse still, Asha Karma laments that most of the prayer flags today are made from non-degradable polyester material that trap the lungta for decades, long after the prayer flags have done their work and have come down, littering the landscape.

So Asha Karma has been busy freeing the lungta from old, discarded prayer flags. He’s been doing that for the past 13 years, during which time he’s completed no less than 40 paintings depicting horses of in various shapes and sizes, all furiously galloping away to their freedom.

Free ... at last

And to help him on his mission, Asha Karma has trained dozens of young artists in his studio at VAST to also allegorically free horses from old prayer flags.

But he and his young volunteers have also literally freed countless lungtas – they’ve visited popular prayer flag sites (like Sangaygang and Dochula) to collect and properly dispose old, discarded prayer flags.

Passang should contact me to claim his prize, a copy of one of Asha Karma’s paintings. For the rest of you, I’ve uploaded some photos from Asha Karma’s “windhorse series” in the gallery.  Enjoy.

Secrets of our leaders

In my last post, I invited you to think about what was causing a part of the Trongsa Dzong wall to be perpetually wet.

“Andrea” and “YPenjor” put forward some good guesses. But, alas, modern cement is not to blame. It isn’t a hidden lake. And sub-terrain water seepage is not the cause. Nor is leakage from the rooftop. Or seepage from recent plumbing.

The answer is history.  Yes, history!

No one could quite tell what was causing that particular part of the wall to stay wet throughout the year. And that wet patch would not be covered by modern cement or traditional clay or lime whitewash.

So finally, a small part of the inner wall was broken to investigate what was causing the wall to get wet. But it turned out that that wall was not the inner wall. Instead, it revealed a secret chamber, one that was full of rock salt!

Salt, as we all know, attracts moisture. And because the secret chamber stored salt, its outer wall was always wet.

During the old days, when our country was closed to the outside world, salt, which couldn’t be produced domestically, was a precious commodity. All of it was imported from Tibet in the form of rock salt. Our early rulers obviously stored as much of it as possible, to be used whenever the source was cut off.

The idea, it seems, was to ensure that excessive dependence did not compromise our sovereignty. If so, that idea is even more relevant today.

The inner wall, and its valuable contents, has since been resealed.

But the next time you visit the Chokhor Rabtentse Dzong in Trongsa, look for that wet patch. It’s on the wall facing the Taa Dzong. Imagine what other secrets lie within and behind those walls.

And marvel at the great extents our leaders have gone to, to nurture and protect our national security and sovereignty.

The wall

The Trongsa Dzong has a wall that seems to be perpetually wet – any one know why?

Social media and politics


Mountain Echoes, a literary festival, starts this Friday. The festival, which has already become Thimphu’s biggest annual literary event, will take place at the Tarayana Centre.

Please take part in the festival if you are interested in art, literature and culture. It runs through 24th of May and is open to the public.

On Monday, 23rd of May, I join Gopilal Acharya, David Davidar and John Elliot to discuss social media in Bhutan. Please join us if you are interested.

I’ll be talking about “social media and politics in Bhutan”. So I’m interested in listening to your views: has social media had an effect on politics in Bhutan?

Zhabdrung’s gifts

Zhabdrung's Zhabdrung

Here’s a story from Sombaykha to commemorate Zhabdrung Kuchoe:

Topche was a nyagay – a strongman. About two hundred years ago, he left his village, Nakhikha in Sombaykha, to serve in Zhabdrung Jigme Drakpa’s court.

In addition to being famous for his great physical strength, Boed Topche, as he was known, was also an exceptional swordsman. Legend has it that he would fight nonstop against the Zhabdrung’s enemies. And that at the end of each day, he would have to soak his hand in a bowl of hot water to dislodge the sword from his bloodied hand.

At the end of Boed Topche’s career, the Zhabdrung summoned him and commanded that, for his outstanding services, he could choose something – anything – to take back to his village. But Topche would not identify anything, insisting that serving the Zhabdrung was his reward.

When the Zhabdrung repeated his command for the fifth time, Topche gazed at a statue of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, a statue built by Zhabdrung Jigme Drakpa himself, and submitted that that statue would remind him of his master and lama.

The protector

As Boed Topche traveled to his village, farmers from all over Sombaykha gathered to welcome him back, and to receive and accompany the sacred statue in a ceremonial procession to Nyebji Goenpa. But as soon as the statue was installed in Sombaykha’s main monastery, the entire village became mute.

Upon hearing the incident, Zhabdrung Jigme Drakpa summoned Boed Topche and gifted him another statue to accompany the statue of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. That statue was of the Talo Gyalpo, the Zhabdrung’s guardian and a protector deity of the Punakha region.

Our elders tell us that Boed Topche ran from Talo to Sombaykha in a single day. And that the villagers were able to speak again soon after the Talo Gyalpo was also installed in Nyebji Goenpa.

Zhabdrung Jigme Drakpa’s statue of Zhabrung Ngawang Namgyal is still in Nyebji Goenpa. And Sombeps still worship it as their most sacred relic.

HM's Zhabdrung

But Nyebji Goenpa now has another precious Zhabdrung statue. Earlier this year, during the birth anniversary of His Majesty the King and about two hundred years after installing the Zhabdrung statue, the villagers in Sombaykha congregated to receive and install another image of Zhabdrung NgawangNamgyal. This one – a beautiful gilded bronze statue – was gifted by His Majesty the King.

Happy Losar

Lopen Tshewang Tenzin, a lharip instructor at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum in Thimphu, tells the story behind the Thuenpa Puenshi:

A golden era it was for the kingdom of Varanasi. The king, his prime minister and the people all claimed the credit. In the end, they sought the wisdom of the reclusive hermit.

“The golden era has been brought about by the four friends in the forest,” said the hermit. The bird, the rabbit, the monkey and the elephant had devoted their lives to propagating good deeds.

The king and his entourage went into the forest to see the four friends. They sat atop each other beside a large fruit tree. The bird was on top because it had sown the seed. The rabbit was next as it had forsaken the sapling as food and protected it. Under it, the monkey had seen the sapling grow limb and leaves. At the bottom was the elephant who first saw the tree at about the same height as itself.

Their merit translated into Varanasi’s good fortune.

The image of the Thuenpa Punshi is ubiquitous in Bhutanese houses. It is believed that the goodwill emanating from the image in a house will benefit the village. Likewise, images in a village will benefit the kingdom and the world at large.

Lopen Tshewang Tenzin has composed a thangka to illustrate the story of the Thuenpa Puenshi. He has allowed me to use it to wish you a happy and prosperous Iron Female Rabbit Year.

Losar Tashi Delek!

Lopen Tshewang can be reached at +975-1768-3152.