Friday, June 18, 2021

The Amazing Institution Called Rotary

The Rotary Year 2020-2021 is about to end. And our Club is thanked for our contribution to humanity. Every year a number of Club Members of the Rotary Club of Thimphu make personal contribution to the Rotary International’s World Fund. This year too we did our part – most of our Members donated personal money for the cause of the Rotary.  Ofcourse what we contributed is not even one thousandth of what the Rotary community contributed to Bhutan. But it is about leaving our footprint – which we have never failed to do, year after year.

Although the above Thank You Note is addressed to me personally, in reality the Club is being thanked. My name appears since in my capacity as its Secretary, I am the primary contact for The Rotary Foundation (TRF)

This Rotary year, the global community of Rotarians has helped do humanitarian projects worth US$139.00 million across the glob. You can imagine – if the Rotary Foundation can do so much in a pandemic year, how much would have been done during normal times.

It is an amazing institution made up of amazing people with equally amazing spirit of giving.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Rotary Club of Thimphu is Honored

Few months back, an independent international consultant contacted me with a request to contribute a write up, on what we at the Rotary Club of Thimphu, considered our most meaningful community service project. The article was sought for inclusion in the Rotary International magazine. Two things were to be understood clearly:

1.  The project I choose should not be one funded with funding from the Rotary Foundation

2.  It is not necessary that the project and the write-up I submit will feature in the Rotary magazine since the project and the write-up would be assessed at the global level – among over 35,000 Rotary Clubs worldwide, made up of over 1.2 million Rotary members.

I chose our 3-years signature project – “BHUTAN2020” that was launched in 2018 and which will be concluded this September.

Under this project valued at AS$ 1.00 million, the Rotary Club of Thimphu with support from Disaster Aid Australia (DAA), would deliver 120 patented SkyHydrant water filters to 120 of Bhutan’s largest schools.

If it were not for the pandemic, we would have successfully concluded the project last month itself – two months ahead of schedule. The fact that the Rotary International featured our project on their magazine, in preference to million other endeavors, means that we did well.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Lockdown Can Wait

Thimphu’s THIRD LOCKDOWN when it was announced 3 days back was abrupt and instantaneous, and without warning. Considered from the point of prudence, it was spot on.

Even as the lockdown was being announced of which I was clueless, I was driving down to town to make some purchases. When I reached a certain outlet, the place was jam-packed with shoppers. I refused to enter. I moved back to Motithang to do my purchases at the regular store where I generally do my shopping. That store was also jam-packed. It dawned on me that something was not quite right.

I was told a LOCKDOWN had just been announced – effective 6.00PM. It was few minutes past 6.00PM.

Through the door, I told the store owner that I am not entering his shop. I requested him to deliver what I wanted - at home. I rattled off the items I wanted ---- he agreed.

Hours later I got a call from the storeowner informing me that he would soon deliver my order. I said no thank you – it is not necessary. I do not want them.

The reason: I did not want him to bring the virus into my home. I feared that if there were any undetected active cases in the community, he would surely have picked it up – given the massive throng in his store.

The lockdown was good and necessary …. I would call for it again and again. But the way it is to be implemented needs serious pondering.

I am told that people were stranded on the road for hours. A number of vehicle accidents were reported.

The reason: Upon hearing of the lockdown, people did not heed the call for lockdown – instead they rushed out to stock up. They choked up the traffic, they jammed up the shops – so bad that some shop owners voluntarily downed shutters, because they could not handle the crowd.

The result of all these was that the rule of physical distancing was ignored. People compromised their safety – if there are undetected active cases in the community, you can guess the outcome of this mindlessness:

Our FOURTH LOCKDOWN …. very, very soon.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Greening The Dustbowl

 Someone had said it quite accurately:

“If nature and the environs contained within it are to have a chance, the human race has to go extinct.”

The good news is that nature and the environment is destined to survive because at the rate we are going and the direction towards which the human race is headed, its extinction is assured.

Even as we speak of lofty ideals and achievements such as GNH and position our country as a nation with negative CO2 emission, our forest cover is shrinking and our mountainsides bear ugly scars of digging and wanton destruction.

Recently I was made aware of an initiative by a voluntary group called the "Bhutan Forest Restoration" headed by Sonam Gyeltshen, at the Kuenselphodrang – to restock the mountainside with trees, through planting tree saplings. It is an encouraging effort that will perhaps contribute to the greening of the capital city that has now been turned into a dustbowl. How bad the situation is can be determined every morning when you notice that your car’s body is swathed in a thin layer of fine dust. It is clear what we are all breathing, all day long.

Thousands of tree saplings are being planned to be planted on the mountainside of Kuelselphodrang. I am not sure how successfully they will follow through the plan. Nonetheless I am encouraged that we are, for once, putting our money where our mouth is. Thus, I decided to contribute one Stihl earth auger to help speed up the digging of holes for the saplings.

On an average it was recorded that the STIHL auger dug more than 3 sapling holes per minute during its maiden test run this morning. More than a thousand saplings have been planted by the day's afternoon today at Kuenselphodrang.

I am not a rich man that I can afford to donate equipment worth close to Nu.70,000.00. The truth is that a seriously generous person offered me Nu.50,000.00 as Semso - upon the demise of my late dad. Of that money, I donated Nu.15,000.00 to pay for the tuition fee of a young girl of Class 10 in Punakha. So now the balance Nu.35,000.00 is being surrendered for the sake of our natural environment – by partially covering the cost of the Auger, that will help restore back to nature, trees that we robbed from it. I will find the balance money, somehow.

I believe that this is more meaningful and practical - than offering the Semso to some sleazy lama or a temple somewhere. It is my belief that God has no need for houses or roads, or that he would be found going hungry.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Reason And The Tradition Behind The Observance Of Holiday On The First Day of Snow

Currently I am chasing the truth on when exactly coining began in Bhutan. Some say 1790 - others say something else. I am now even confused about the term “Matang”. I was dead set on calling it “Maartang” with the belief that the word is an amalgamation of two separate words: “Maar” = Red …. “Tang” = coin. But now I find that would be completely wrong – because the term “Matang” was used even before the time of Zhabdrung. There was no red colored coins then.

To add to my confusion, another very rarely used term popped up: Nyingtang Gatikha. This is said to be a silver coin hammered in a mint in a place called Gatikha.

So I began to hunt for anything related to Nyingtang Gatikha. My search has so far yielded noting, except that Nyingtang is a Bhutanese term meaning “old coin”. But all has not been in vain. While not related to Nyingtang Gatikha, I stumbled on to something that perhaps very few Bhutanese would know about:

The reason and the tradition behind the observance of holiday on the first day of snow.

The oral account of the source attributes the tradition to His Majesty King Jigme Wangchuck, the Drukgyal Nyipa. It started in Domkhar Palace in Bumthang. Domkhar Palace was supposedly constructed as a honeymoon Palace for His Majesty Jigme Wangchuck and his queen Her Majesty Phuntsho Choeden.

His Majesty Jigme Wangchuck used to spend his summer months in Domkhar and Wangdichhoeling Palaces. Winter months were spent in Trongsa Dzong, Thruepang Palace, but mostly in Kuenga Rabten Palace.

After the first day of the arrival of snow in Domkhar, His Majesty King Jigme Wangchuck would serve a grand feast to all the Boegarps and Zingarbs and the Chaangarps serving at the Dzong. He would then announce that from next day they could go home for a break.

With the arrival of snow in Domkhar, His Majesty would then move to his summer residences – Trongsa Dzong, Thruepang Palace and Kuengarabten Palace. Thruepang Palace was built to accommodate Her Majesty Queen Phuntsho Choeden who was not allowed dwellings inside the Trongsa Dzong. When His Majesty desired the company of his queens, he would either visit Thruepang Palace or Samchoeling Palace where his second queen, Her Majesty Ashi Pema Dechen resided.

The above historical account was narrated to Lam Kezang Chhoephel of APIC, by the late Sonam Wangdi of Koortoe Jarey who served in the courts of both the 1st and the 2nd Kings. He was a member of the inner circle of the 2nd King – known as Nungsheb. He began as a Tohze at the age of 13, to fill-in for his deceased father who also served as a Chaangarp at the court of the first king.

His Majesty the third king was born in Thruepang Palace.

In keeping with tradition, on the seventh day of his birth, the child prince Jigme Dorji Wangchuck had to be taken outside in the open air. The most trustworthy, virtuous and providential person was chosen to carry the child prince.

Sonam Wangdi was chosen for the honor. In appreciation for that act, Her Majesty Phuntsho Choden would gift Sonam Wangdi two woven Thermai Gho and Nu.3,000.00 every year, until his death in 1980.

Sonam Wangdi was also a member of the retinue of over 300 who accompanied Trongsa Poenlop Ugyen Wangchuck during his visit to India in 1906. Of the number of places the entourage visited in India, Sonam Wangdi recalled visiting the Gatikha mint. In his words, Sonam Wangdi described the sound of minting, thus:

Graap …. Tsing …. Graap …. Tsing …. Graap …. Tsing…. Graap …. Tsing…. !!

It is amazing that Gatikha Mint was still operational in 1906. I will need to cross check this. The sound “Graap …. Tsing” appears to describe the minting of coin on a mechanized coin press, and not the sound of hammering. The sound “Graap” would denote the sound of pressing the planchet and “Tsing” would be the sound of the finished coin hitting the ground or on to a pile of coins inside a holding ampule.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Making Up For Nature's Occasional Quirks

Achieving success is dependent on a great number of factors all coming together: financial muscle, human recourse, dedication, hard work, perseverance, commitment, experience, knowledge and wisdom. And yet, even if you do have all that at your command, there is every chance of failure.

On the other hand, dismantling a great evil requires nothing much – only courage and willingness to perform ones duty and obligation. If we are able to dismantle evil, good will definitely prevail – there is no chance of failure.

This is what I said in one of my earlier articles on this Blog – that since achieving greatness seems a remote possibility given what we are, let us shift gear and work at dismantling evil that is hindering progress and growth. We have gotten into the bad habit of missing the forest for the trees.

All these thoughts came flooding back into my mind when I stopped by the following display board erected at Dochu-La, yeserday afternoon on my way back from visiting a project site in Wangduephodrang:

The huge display board at Dochu-La. A collaborative work between the TCB and the Rotary Club of Thimphu. The display board depicts all the peaks of the Eastern Himalayan mountain range that can be viewed from Dochu-La on a clear day.

A close-up of the Display Board containing full information depicted on it. More than two years since its installation, I am glad to note that the board has not faded, mainly because of the media used in its printing.

There is no denying that Dochu-La is the most visited tourist site in Bhutan – more than 95% of all tourists visiting Bhutan drive up to Dochu-La pass. By contrast, the much-touted Taktsang provably does not get even 20% of the tourists, given its location.

Visitors drive up to Dochu-La with only one purpose in mind – to view the great expanse of the snow-capped Eastern Himalayan mountain range. Unfortunately, most of the time clouds that blanket the mountain range block the view. It is painful to see the look of disappointment on the faces of the tourists. Although every body must accept that nothing is certain in nature, it is incumbent upon us, the hosts, to try and make up, if we can, for nature’s occasional quirks. Thus I requested the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) to install a large display board depicting the full mountain range that can be viewed from Dochu-La, on a clear day. I offered to provide the necessary photograph - free of cost, including the supervision of the printing of the image, and construction and installation of the board. They agreed and thus the huge display board came up - as it stands now - so that on days when the mountain range is not visible, the visitors can walk over to the display board and see the view that they missed.

Now, hopefully, the visitors will moan: Awwwww ---- we missed it!! Instead of cursing: Awwwww ---- what a waste of time!!

Let us learn humility in doing small things, which we can - so that big things, which we are unable to, could fall into place.

One small but meaningful dismantling has been the removal of the Immigration gate at Hongtsu. I have been going hoarse asking for its removal because it was stupid to harass the tourists going up to Dochu-La to stop and make entry at the gate. After all, Dochu-La is within the same Thimphu Dzongkhag. Incredible as it may sound, it has taken many decades for the decision makers to see the folly of their decision - but I see that the gate has finally been removed.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Life’s Journeys And Its Rewards

People ask me: 5 years, 60 months and 1,825 days of having worked for the Rotary, what do you have to show for it. I dare say, many, many things – of which two are my crowning glories. One is that I have tirelessly worked to give back to society from which I have taken. I believe that I can live with myself in peace in the knowledge that I have had the opportunity, and took it, to pay my dues to society, in full. The other is the heartwarming acknowledgement, such as one of the following:


28 May 2021, 07:30 (4 days ago)

Hi Yeshey

The truth is when you move on from Rotary, you are leaving Bhutan and the world a better place.

The WASH Forum, your words, the words of Kaloy Manlupig from the Philippines, confirmed to me I have done the same.

My journey with Rotary is also coming to an end, I turned 74 this year (at 67, Yeshey you are still young), originally, like you I was going to resign at the end of this Rotary year. Since attending the Wash Forum I have decided to give Rotary one more year, the work you and your Club have done in Bhutan, what Kaloy has done in the Philippines, they are great stories and they need to be told and shared, they are the stories that will attract new members to Rotary, so for the next Rotary year, that will be my farewell gift to Rotary.

I may ask you from time to time when you are available to share your story by Zoom.

It is my intention once Covid19 is put to rest, to do a farewell tour to thank all the great people I have had the privilege to know and work with on my journey, you and Bhutan are on that list.

Please stay in contact and when your books are published, please accept this email as my order for an autographed copy of each.

Thank you Yeshey.

Looking forward to that day when we meet again.

Best regards



I exit the Rotary at the end of this month. The institution of Rotary is like no other. This is an organization where the more you give even more you receive. But certainly I can say with confidence that if you have nothing to give, this organization is not for you.

Nine years back while I was photographing birds in the wilderness of Sengore and Yongkala, someone had nominated me as a member of a new Rotary Club that was being established in Bhutan by the erstwhile DPT government. To this day I am clueless as to who that person was. Whoever he or she was, I thank the person for giving me the opportunity to serve. I also thank the DPT and its leadership for their service and surrender and self-sacrifice. The Rotary Club of Thimphu is their gift to the nation and the people of Bhutan. And the Club did not disappoint - it has delivered community service projects in excess of Ngultrums one hundred and thirty million - in the last 9 years since its establishment. Additionally, Nu.25.00 million worth of projects (7 of them) are in the pipeline.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Bhutan’s Early History: Separating Fact From Myth - VI

Coining Journey of Bhutan: Setting the Record Right

In a doctoral dissertation submitted by one Mrs. Smriti Das, it is recorded that Gongzim Ugyen Dorji, on behalf of the Royal Government of Bhutan, wrote two letters to the Political Officer of British India Government in Sikkim: one on August 10, 1909 and another on September 18, 1909. The letters requested the British Indian Government for an increase in their annual subsidy to Bhutan, on the grounds that the Indian government was making lot more profit from Bhutan’s Duars, than the subsidy of Rs.50,000.00 they were paying Bhutan annually.

Of interest to me is the second letter which, in addition to seeking an increase in the annual subsidy, goes on to categorically mention something in the tone of:

“…. to allow Bhutan to mint coins in the British mint in Calcutta – free of charge, and that necessary silver would be provided by the Bhutanese state.”

During the entire reign of Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck, no machine-milled coins were ever issued. Only in 1928 during the reign of his son the 2nd Druk Gyalpo, our first milled silver Thalas appeared. Thus, it is clear that the British India Government had not agreed to mint our silver coins in their mint in Calcutta.

However, sometime in 1910 and thereafter, there appeared few beautifully hammered coins engraved entirely with Bhutanese motifs. After this period, Koch alphabets ceased to appear on our coins. Right from the beginning of our coinage until towards the later part of 1800’s, our coins were hammered with Koch alphabets. All that changed during the time of Choetse Poenlop Jigme Namgyel. He can be credited for introducing Bhutanese motifs in the design of our coins - perhaps during 1870's.

It is now clear that the first machine cut coin dies were indeed supplied by the Government of India mint in Calcutta, sometime in and around 1910, as requested. But it is also clear that the coins of that period was not minted in any modern minting facility, as assumed by some. Looking at the coins of that period: 1910 – 1927, it is evident that the coins would have been continued to be manually hammered, but using the machine cut dies.

The following are most likely two of the coins that would have been hammered from the dies requested for in the letter of Gongzim Ugyen Dorji dated 18th September, 1909:

As can be seen, the detailing is precise and uniform, and the quality of engraving is uncluttered – far, far superior to anything that can be achieved from hand-cut dies. However, the coins are neither reeded nor rimmed - and it is clear that they have been hand-trimmed and perhaps even filed, after they were struck. Generally it is noticed that a large majority of the machine-milled coins of the world are reeded and has a raised rim. A coin’s rim is the up-raised flat part of the coin that completely encircles the perimeter on the front and back of the coin. The thin space that runs around the circumference of the coin is referred to as the edge of the coin. The edge is most often reeded and runs around the entire circumference of the coin. For an example take a look at our Thala which has a rim as well as a reeded edge:

On the other hand our Zangtrum is unreeded and has a plain edge. But it has a raised rim:

In his article "Coinage of Bhutan", Nicholas G. Rhodes wrote:

‘In 1906, Ugyen Wangchuck, accompanied by about three hundred retainers, travelled to Calcutta, where he visited many places of interest, including the Mint. He took a lively interest in everything he saw, and returned to Bhutan with many ideas for the development of the country. In particular, he must have considered the possibility of improving the standard of the coinage, and in 1909, Gongzim Ugyen Dorji, presumably on the King’s instructions, asked the Government of India for permission to have a Bhutanese coin die prepared in Calcutta. The request was agreed to, and the Calcutta mint was instructed to supply dies from a design supplied from Bhutan'.

This is yet another proof that our coins of 1910 and thereafter were struck from machine engraved coin dies.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

A Most Rare Find!

When one is passionate and dogged in the pursuit of one’s aspirations, it appears that things will eventually fall into place. In trying to put together a book on the coining journey of Bhutan, I have been through thousands of hours of search and research. Thankfully, not all of them have been in vain – in fact some of them have been providential – as if it were preordained. I have stumbled on the most unexpected encounters and discoveries - as if some unseen hand was guiding them my way.

There are many hundreds - perhaps even thousands of coins that are still missing from my collection. But it is not my endeavor to get them all – it is impossible. I just want to be able to include as many verities as possible.

Coins are one thing – but dies are another. They are even more rare and extremely difficult to come by, if at all. Through the writings of a coin historian, I managed to track down and photograph half a die – a reverse die or the hammer die – belonging to Desi Kitshelpa Dorji Namgyel. What I needed was a complete set of dies – both the obverse, as well as the reverse dies - to go into the book so that readers can get to see how coin dies look.

Few months’ back, I came by the information of the existence of a set of coin dies with someone not far from Thimphu. Even more fortuitous, the brother of the person in whose possession the dies were supposed to be happened to be a long time friend of mine. After doggedly chasing the friend for months to introduce me to his brother, he finally relented and, subsequently, yesterday I managed to photograph the set of dies that are presented in the following. I am clueless as to whom the dies belong to - the current owner of the dies do not either. The only thing I can tell you without hesitation is that the die is a fine work of art – the engraving is so exquisite that it is unbelievable that the dies were hand cut during late 1700’s or early 1800’s. It is in mint condition, as you can see below:

A set of 2 coin dies: The hammer die and the anvil die, accompanied by a gold-washed Maartrum. The complex cascading of colors in the background is provided by the myriad of hues of the dharshings (colored prayer flags) that stand guard over the Chorten in front of the Dechenphodrang Lhakhang in Thimphu.

As is clearly evident, the hammer die has seen many thousands of hammerings – the severely battered butt end of the punch is proof of it. But amazingly the die’s faces are in mint condition – there are no signs of any wear or tear on them.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Bodeful Times

Once again the annual Cordyceps collection season is here. Although so far no COVID-19 cases have been reported from the villages that engage in the annual harvests, we still need to be vigilant.

I do not know if it is a cause for worry – but I am a little unnerved by a sudden and overwhelming interest in, of all things, silver coins! In recent times, the whole country is abuzz with talk of Betangs – or more accurately – Boetrums. These are Tibetan silver coins that are most often confused for ours – even by the National Museum in Paro. I prefer to call them by the name “Boetrum” which is a combination of two words:

Boe    = Tibet

Trum = Coin

These coins are also known by other names, depending upon their period of coinage, such as: Tangka, Kong-par Tangka, Gaden Tangka, Srang etc. They look like these:

Something is fueling demand for these coins. Amazingly it appears that the entire country is being combed for these coins. Even a villager in one of the remote villages in Tangmachhu, Lhuentse tells me that the entire village is aware of the hunt for these coins. In Thimphu, Paro, Punakha and Wangdue, everybody seems to be talking about the demand for these coins. Someone from Taang in Bumthang asked me about the matter.

Some have opined that there is a newfound demand for them in China or Tibet China – I am not sure which. Regardless of whether the persons seeking to buy these coins are Bhutanese or non-Bhutanese, I would still be worried – because I wouldn’t be surprised if our northern borders end up being used as the exit points for these coins.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Bhutan’s Early History: Separating Fact From Myth – V

Coining Journey Of Bhutan: Setting the Record Right

Few days back I met up with Ms. Pema Choden Wangchuk – Curator at the Royal Textile Academy. I had gone to deliver some images that she had lost when the Academy’s server crashed. The images were from my assignment with them that resulted in the editing and production of their catalogue titled 'THAGZO: Textile Weaves of Bhutan'. In the course of our conversations, I gave her following advise, since she loves research work:

“Don’t trust even the primary sources because they too cannot be trusted to give you the truth all the time. In the course of my research, I have come across primary sources who would rather further their own agenda, than give out the truth. It is important that we cross-check every fact, revalidate every narrative”.

But it turns out that I had failed to practice what I preached. Just a few days back I found out that I have myself been a casualty of faulty history that I had failed to recheck and revalidate.

For years I have been bewildered with something that remained inexplicable – related to our earliest milled coins. Bhutan’s record keeping culture is so poor that there is not much information that can be had within the country. Thus we end up having to glean through outside records, to learn of events that happened inside the country. Not to say that outside sources are without faults.

Going by the information circulating among the community of world numismatists, it is recorded that for the first time ever, Bhutan issued our earliest milled coins in 1928 – all three of them - in the year of the Earth-Dragon (Sa Druk Lo):

One Silver Thala

Two sizes of Bronze coins called Zangtrums

It was noticed that there was a problem with the obverse of the silver Thala – the word ‘Druk’ was rendered wrongly - as follows:

The word should have been engraved as follows:

However, for me what was baffling was this:

Why were the two Zangtrum coins flawless, while the silver Thala was flawed? How does this happen? Particularly when it was the same engraver (A P Spencer) who engraved the coins' dies, minted in the same mint (India government mint, Calcutta), and struck at the same time and year of mintage (1928)?

For years I was dumb founded - something was amiss. It is simply impossible that the same engraver could have produced two differently rendered dies of the exact same obverse, in the same year. There has to be an explanation to this oddity.

And there indeed was an explanation – provided by Charles K. Panish, an American coin expert on South Asian coins. In his article titled ‘Early Coinage of Bhutan’ which I recently came across, he writes as follows:

In 1928 Bhutan initiated plans for a reformed national currency, which was tied to the Indian rupee. The first issue of this coinage was in 1929 when 20,000 gyatam or silver half-rupees were minted at Calcutta for Bhutan. These weighed 5.83 grams and were .917 fine, matching exactly the Indian half-rupee. These coins were dated in the Tibetan calendar "earth-dragon year" corresponding to A.D. 1928. The next year 30,000 more of these coins were issued without a change in date. In 1931 a second denomination appeared. This was the zangtong or copper pice, of which 10,000 were minted at Calcutta. These pice also were dated in the "earth-dragon year."

NOTE: In the above, ‘gyatam’ would be Jatrum and ‘zangtong’ would be Zangtrum.

Finally the mystery was cleared for me. It turns out that the Zantrums were NOT minted in 1928 as recorded elsewhere, but in the year 1931. Thus it is now acceptable to me that the obverse of the silver Thala of 1928 and Bronze Zangtrums of 1931 are NOT, and, NEED NOT be the same!

Obviously the mint in Calcutta used the obverse die of 1929 to strike the Zangtrums of 1931. The date of mintage – Sa Druk Lo is ofcourse wrong – but these wrongs have continued to be committed in all of the coins from 1929, 1931, 1950, 1951, 1954 and all the way to the most recent Thalas. You may notice that all the cupronickel Thalas have the year marked as Chaag Taag Lo on the reverse of the coins. It was in the year of the Iron-Tiger (1950) that the first cupronickel Thalas were struck. For some strange reason, they never changed the reverse die or the obverse die, to depict the correct year of mintage and correctly render wordings on the obverse – Bhutanese authorities also did not seem to notice or object to the faulty years of the later coinages, including the disjointed "ba-ra-tah-dra".

Some among the readers may be interested to know that there was some quantity of cupronickel Thala stamped with the date “Sa Druk Lo”, in 1950. It was a mistake that the mint noticed --- and hastily corrected - but not before some of them were released to the public. These coins are now very, very, very rare. If you have one, hold on it for dear life!

Friday, May 21, 2021

Unsafe Northern Regions

Well, this doesn’t really come as a surprise – in my thinking, the regions in the extreme north and east of our country were always at risk. The recent report of active COVID-19 cases in Merak proves it.

Merak village

I had already warned last year that there is a need to watch the northern and eastern borders bordering Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh. I gave my reasons in the following:

Detection of COVID-19 cases in the community in Merak should not be considered paranormal but the government should be concerned, particularly for the fact that the village is a closely knit cluster and transmission can be rapid and total. The emergence of cases in Merak should cause us to be wary and give us a reason for surveillance in the following northbound communities that have traditional links with Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh:

Merak and Sakten in Trashigang

Dhur in Bumthang

Roelmateng/Khoma in Lhuntse

Laya and villages in Lunana in Gasa

Tobrang in Trashi Yangtse

Lingzhi, Mitsayue, Chebitsa and Gongyuel in Thimphu

Sephu in Wangdue

Perhaps even in the villages in the north of Haa and Paro.

The alluring khandrums in Phari is, if anything, incidental - trade in Yartsa Guenboop across the north is perhaps the most compelling reason for prohibited journeys into Tibet China. Followed by smuggling of gold, sandalwood, US$ cash and counterfeit currencies are likely other reasons. During my trip to the Chundugung/Gonzola areas, some Haaps tried to sell me the nonsense that they were headed into Tibet to carry back jandoms and carpets and cakes of jari. I have to be a prize dullard to believe that they would scale frigid high mountain passes to carry back such high volume, low value merchandize.

Strangely, in Koortoe areas, I was told by a pony driver whom I had hired during my trip to Singye Dzong – that they go into Tibet over the ridge north of Tshokar lake in Singye Dzong – for smuggling color TV’s and cheap footwear and solar powered items of daily use.

We cannot let our guards down in the knowledge that our northern borders are patrolled to prevent incursions by the Tibetans and the Moenpas of Tawang. I am more worried about the incorrigible Bhutanese slithering into Tibet and Tawang/Arunachal Pradesh to sell/buy/trade – in the process pickup a free merchandize we do not need – COVID-19 virus.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

What Happened to the Cupronickel Thalas of 1950 & 1954?

As a young trainee in Tencholing, Wangduephodrang in 1961, Pem Tshering, a long time civil servant – now superannuated, remembers receiving 12 pieces of one Rupee British Raj silver coins a month: 10 pieces as monthly stipend and 2 pieces as Sha-thue - meat compensation.

One Rupee silver coin of the British Raj. It is important to differentiate this coin as that belonging to the British Raj since earlier to the British Raj, it was the East India Company (EIC) who issued colonial India's silver Rupee coins

This has got to be among the earliest records of use of money in Bhutan – for payment as remuneration. He recounts that these one Rupee silver coins were so high in value that he needed to have them converted to Maartums – in order to be able to make his purchases. He would get 16 Maartums for 1 of these silver coins.

What baffles me is that Pem Tshering is adamant that the Maartums he got in exchange for the silver Rupee coins were of the following variety:

The Maartum minted in Calcutta India government mint in 1955. Another lot was earlier minted in 1951 but the detailing is not as good as the one depicted here.

Why were they paid in these Maartums that were issued in 1951 and 1955? Why not in Tikchungs or cupronickel Thalas that were issued during the same years – and in much larger quantities? What happened to them? It cannot be that they were melted down for conversion into jewelry since extremely high temperatures are needed to be able to melt them. On the other hand, I know that Tikchungs were paid out by the donkey loads – even in the extreme northern regions of the country – to pay the salaries of the RBA personnel manning the northern borders.

The cupronickel Thala minted at the government of India mint in Calcutta, in 1950, using the flawed obverse die of the original silver coin of 1928.

The earliest of the milled coins were in silver and bronze (1928/1929) which are now extremely, extremely difficult to obtain.

First milled coin of Bhutan: Silver Thala of 1928 with the flawed obverse

Bhutan's second milled coin: Silver Thala of 1929 with the corrected obverse but flawed reverse

The Zangtrum of 1928: A perfectly engraved and minted coin. If this coin is perfectly rendered, how did it happen that the silver Thala of 1928 milled the same time, came out faulty?

All of the above coins also disappeared from the face of the earth – but I have a theory on what happened to them, which I will recount in my upcoming book on the coinages of Bhutan. Sadly, the book is currently in suspended animation – due to lousy historical records that are forever in conflict with other available records.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Bhutan’s Early History: Separating Fact From Myth – IV

Coining Journey of Bhutan: Setting The Record Right

The late Mr. Nicholas Rhodes is accepted as the world’s most respected authority on coinage in Bhutan. Most writers and historians draw references from his work on the subject. However, he did not get it right when he said that there was no minting beyond Trongsa. The following proves that there was.

One other record that is being set straight by the letter of Jakar Poenlop Tsuendru Gyeltshen is that Trongsa Poenlop Jigme Namgyel did not have a mint of his own in 1863. In all likelihood, Jigme Namgyel’s coins date back to late 1860’s or early 1870’s. This is because there is a record that says that Jigme Namgyel carried away moneyers and coin dies from Cooch Behar in the 1860’s. If that were to be true, it would have had to have happened after 1865 – following the Great Duars war in which he was the principal player.

Retyped original letter authored by Trongsa Poenlop Tsuendru Gyelshen addressed to Trongsa Chila Jigme Namgyel

English translation of the letter


3.25 Saangs                 = 1 KG

91/2 sachets of copper = 47.5 Saangs or 14.62 KGs


Tsuendru Gyeltshen was the son of Trongsa Poenlop Tshoki Dorji and a descendent of Dorji Lingpa. He would have been the title holder of the lineage – but he died in the Duars war of 1865 when he accompanied Trongsa Poenlop Jigme Namgyel. He had no heir - thus, perhaps for the first time in history, the title of the lineage passed on to a lady – Yeshi, Tsuendru Gyeltshen’s sister.

When Trongsa Poenlop Tshoki Dorji passed on the seat of Trongsa Poenlop to Jigme Namgyel for three years, in keeping with a promise made to him for saving his life in Punakha, Tsunedru Gyeltshen was installed as Jakar Dzongpoen in the interim. At the end of the three years beginning 1853, Jigme Namgyel was supposed to surrender the seat of Trongsa Poenlop to Tsuendru Gyeltshen. Unfortunately Jigme Namgyel reneged on his words and refused to relinquish the post. A long drawn war broke out between them. Finally the central government in Punakha intervened and a compromise was reached in which Tsuendru Gyeltshen was promoted to the rank of Jakar Poenlop and the entire Central and Eastern regions of the country collectively known as Sharchok Khorlo Tsipgye was divided into two and came to be ruled equally by the two Poenlops of Trongsa and Jakar.

In later years, Poenlop Tsuendru Gyeltshen and Poenlop Jigme Namgyel buried their differences and became very good friends – to the point that when war was declared by the British on Bhutan that came to be known as the Great Duars War, Tshendru Gyeltshen accompanied Jigme Namgyel to fight the British. He never returned – he was killed in the course of the war.

With the death of Jakar Poenlop Tsuendru Gyeltshen, all the Sharchog Kholo Tsipgye once again reverted back to the rule of Trongsa Poenlop.

NOTE III: The accepted norm is that the term ‘Chila’ would be reserved for a ruler who is a learned Lam. According to convention, Jigme Namgyel should have been addressed as ‘Chotse Poenlop’.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Bhutan’s Early History: Separating Fact From Myth - III

Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel: Did He Unify Bhutan?

This third post on the series is yet again on – Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. I have no choice – because in all fairness everything begins with him – that is why we all submit at his feet. Hopefully this will be the last post on him.

Most written records, if not all, credit Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel as the unifier of Bhutan. But a careful examination of the records show that this is not entirely true. One can certainly agree that he initiated the process of consolidation of the nation-state of Bhutan. But it is clear that he did not unify the country as a whole – he only succeeded to unify the western parts of the country during his lifetime. When he died on 30th April, 1651, Bhutan was still a divided/fragmented country.

In an effort to consolidate the whole of the central and eastern regions of the country under the Drukpa rule, the Zhabdrung appointed Chhogyel Minjur Tenpa as the Choetse Chila in 1647. By 1651 when the Zhabdrung died, the Choetse Chila Chhogyel Minjur Tenpa had managed to bring four of the eight regions of the Sharchog Khorlo Tsibgye under the Drukpa rule, namely: Bumthang, Lhuntse, Mangde and Zhemgang.

For the benefit of the readers, the following regions were grouped under what came to be known as Sharchog Khorlo Tsibgye:

Bumthang Dungsam

Lhuntse         Trashigang

Mangde         Trashiyangtse

Zhemgang Zhongar

At the time of the demise of the Zhabdrung, the regions such as Dungsam, Trashigang, Trashiyangtse and Zhongar existed as independent regions comprised of mini kingdoms ruled by independent rulers numbering over two dozens. Some of these rulers were:

Bageng Gyalpo          Chenkhar Gyalpo

Chitshang Gyalpo          Drakar Gyalpo

Gamri Gyalpo                  Gungdung Gyalpo

Kanglung Gyalpo          Kelingkhar Gyalpo

Kengkhar Gyalpo          Khaling Gyalpo

Khar Gyalpo                  Merak/Sakten Lam

Ngatshang Gyalpo          Ragma Gengra Gyalpo

Shengkong Gyalpo          Thridangbe Gyalpo

Tongphu Gyalpo          Trashigang Gyalpo

Tshangkhar Gyalpo          Tshengmi Gyalpo

Wangseng Gyalpo          Wengkhar Gyalpo

Yikhar Gyalpo          Zhongar Gyalpo

Over time, the Choetse Chila succeeded to bring all of the above under the rule of the central government in Punakha. He dispatched Lam Namsey Dorji and Umze Damcho with a large Drukpa force from Trongsa to subjugate all the above rulers – first by cajoling if amenable – if not through act of war if unwilling to submit.

Thus, it could be said that it was Choetse Chila Chhogyel Minjur Tenpa who completed the unification of Bhutan, by 1659 - eight years after the death of the Zhabdrung. But his consolidation of the region did not survive long. Upon his appointment as the 3rd Druk Desi in 1667 and having been relocated to Punakha, it appears that the region disintegrated once again and went back to the old ways. The central government in Punakha was too busy with internal strife that plagued the western regions of the country – it had no time to administer the regions pharchey of Pele-La.

Finally, it was under the military leadership of Jigme Namgyel in 1850 as the Trongsa Droenyer during the tenure of Trongsa Poenlop Tsoki Dorji, and as the Trongsa Poenlop in 1854 that the Sharchok Khorlo Tsipgye was finally subjugated and permanently integrated into the nation-state of Bhutan.

The original Raven Crown fashioned for Trongsa Poenlop Jigme Namgyel by his spiritual guide Lam Jangchub Tsundu  

It was the father-son duo that held the country together – from the time Jigme Namgyel took over first as the Trongsa Droenyer in 1850, as the Choetse Poenlop in 1853, Druk Desi in 1870, 1877 and 1880, followed by his son Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck who ruled the country in a variety of posts – first as Paro Poenlop in 1878, then as Trongsa Poenlop in 1884, and finally as the first hereditary monarch of the Kingdom of Bhutan, as of 1907.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Bhutan’s Early History: Separating Fact From Myth - II

Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel: Demystifying His Death

In almost all the records that I have read so far about Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, there seems to be two opposing views:

1. That he entered strict meditation in 1651 and died many years

        later while in meditation, never to re-emerge;

2. That he died in 1651, while in retreat, but that his death was kept

        a secret to discourage the Tibetans from any warlike intensions

        towards Bhutan, including avoiding succession complications.

Another little known record says that he died of food poisoning as a result of a trip to Chubu Tshachu in Punakha.

On the contrary, I was seriously inclined to believe that he might have been done in by one of the seat holders of the time, while in meditation at the Machen Lhakhang.

If we are to believe that he died while in meditation, we cannot be certain as to the day of his demise. Since he was in strict Tsham (chetjar/ngentsham dampo), no one would have been allowed to interact with him in person – not even his attendant serving his meals. Thus his death would have remained a secret for days, if not weeks. On the other hand, we cannot believe that he died in the year 1651 upon entering meditation, since he entered meditation a perfectly healthy person – although supposedly a little obese.

So, if he did not die a natural death, the next possibility is that he may have been done in – a real possibility since murder and internecine incidences was rife during those tumultuous times. If we are to pursue this line of thinking, who would have been the person/persons who may have committed the crime?

According to records, the possible candidates would be:

          1.  Druk Desi Umdze Tendzin Drukgye

          2.  Je Khenpo Pekar Jungey

These two could have committed the heinous crime – in order that they could continue to rule. But it is most unlikely that they were responsible for such an act since they were two of the only five rulers directly appointed by the Zhabdrung. Their allegiance to the Zhabdrung would have been unshakeable.

4th Je Damchoe Pekar: 1697 - 1707

4th Druk Desi Tendzin Rabgye: 1681 - 1694

Further, in 1654, Tendzin Rabgye the 4th Druk Desi had a dream in which Zhabdrung appeared before him but did not utter a word – which caused Tendzin Rabgye to come to the firm conclusion that the Zhabdrung was already dead. He had, for sometime, strong premonitions that the Zhabdrung was no more.

Even if we are to disbelieve any such old dreams, it could be said with certainty that the Zhabdrung was no more, by 1667. The reason is that Chogyel Minjur Tenpa is said to have been absolutely furious to learn that he was not taken into confidence about the demise of the Zhabdrung and that he was fraudulently appointed as the 3rd Druk Desi in 1667 – under a fake Kasho stamped with the seal of Zhabdrung, who was no more.

Another hint at mischief can be deduced from the fact that three months after the Zhabdrung’s supposed retreat in 1651, Desi Umze Tendzin Drukgye held a large gathering of important dignitaries to inform them that the Zhabdrung should not be disturbed for any reason since he is in strict retreat (Tsham). This was uncalled for since everyone would have known that a person in strict retreat couldn’t be disturbed or interacted with.

Another hint that should tell us that the Zhabdrung was already dead – before entering Tsham - is that some records mention that the Zhabdrung had entered “PERMANENTTsham. The term permanent Tsham can only be employed when one is certain that the person in question is not going to be re-emerging from the retreat!

While I was confounded by all these inconsistencies, something revealing occurs – the recent observance of “Zhabdrung Kuchoe” on 22nd April, 2021. When I realized that the day – 10th Day of the 3rd Bhutanese month (22.04.2021) is observed as the day of the demise of the Zhabdrung, I was puzzled. This means that people would have had to have known exactly when he died! In other words, the Zhabdrung was conclusively dead OUTSIDE the Tsham and not INSIDE the Tsham.

In other words, the reverse would have to be the truth – that unlike what the historical records say, HE HAD ALREADY DIED and then was CONSIGNED to Tsham, so that difficulties could be averted. The death may have occurred from natural causes or may have been the result of the food poisoning at Chubu Tsachu.

One historical record confirms that: "On the 10th Day of the Third Month of Iron Rabit Year, the Zhabdrung, at age 54, entered the Machen Lhakhang in Punakha Dzong into strict seclusion (chetjar dampo)."

I cross checked the Gregorian calendar and find that the Bhutanese calendar date of 10th day of the third month of Iron Rabbit Year (more accurately Iron-Female-Rabbit Year) translates to:

30th April, 1651

This means the Zhabdrung's death occurred exactly on the day of the “Zhabdrung Kuchoe” - a day which we now correctly observe as the day of his demise. There appears to be no mistake there!

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Bhutan’s Early History: Separating Fact From Myth - I

Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel: At Whose Feet One Submits

One of the most confusing historical records of Bhutan has got to be that of the highly celebrated and revered Tibetan lama Ngawang Namgyel, who arrived in Bhutan from Tibet in 1616. He is credited as the unifier of the nation-state of Bhutan – a claim that begs re-examination. I will deal with that in my subsequent posts on the subject. For now, I would like to deal with the title “Zhabdrung” by which he came to be known – both in Tibet and in Bhutan.

Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel

There are some who are adamant that he was given the title in Tibet before his arrival in Bhutan – as a birthright, being the 12th reincarnation of Kuenkhen Pema Karpo.

Others claim that he acquired the title “Zhabdrung” upon subjugation of the Shar region of Western Bhutan – completing the consolidation of the western regions of the country that would later come to be collectively known as Druk Yuel, or Bhutan. Upon unifying western Bhutan under the Drukpa rule, he is said to have issued the declaration of “Nga Chudrukma” – or the Sixteen "I's" – and thereupon assumed the title “Zhabdrung.” Translated, it means “At Whose Feet One Submits”.

Nga Chudrukma

While the term “Zhabdrung” may have originated in Tibet, the word is said to have a wholly different connotation there – quite distinct from the meaning in Bhutan. As Dr. Yoshiro Imaeda has written in his book The Successors of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel Hereditary Heirs and Reincarnations:

[I]n the broader context of Tibetan religious history, of which the Drukpa school is an integral part, the same title is quite frequently employed in other schools and to other monks. For example, as we will see later, the daughter of Ngor Zhabdrung Ludingpa is given officially as consort to Jampel Dorje but in reality served as consort to Tendzin Rabgye. In this context, the translation noted above does not make sense. D.P. Jackson translates the title as ‘the noble monk’. In a personal communication dated 8 December 1986, he explained the title as follows: ‘Regarding zhabs drung, generally speaking it refers to a monk from a noble family who is the successor to some high religious position, but who is waiting until the current occupant vacates the position. I think it is also used as a general term for a noble monk of high position, something like drung pa and spyan snga….. “Drung” refers to the candidate’s position “before” the incumbent, I suppose’.

Therefore, I tend to go with the view that the term “Zhabdrung” specifically means “At Whose Feet One Submits,” and should be considered Bhutanese – because it appears that only in Bhutan everybody submitted at Ngawang Namgyel’s feet. In Tibet, whether for political or religious reasons - whether for the wrong reasons or for the right reasons - his very position as the 12th incarnation of Kuenkhen Pema Karpo, which would legitimize his claim to the title, was hotly contested by a rival claimant - in the person of Gyalwang Pagsam Wangpo, and supported by Lhatsewa Ngawang Zangpo, an influential follower of Drukpa Pema Karpo - including the powerful Tsang Desi. In the end, whether in surrender or to escape prosecution, Ngawang Namgyel fled to Bhutan – where he was already held in high esteem and respected as a religious leader of great merit.