Thursday, July 29, 2010

Buddha Statue at Kuensel Phodrang
The exterior of the Buddha statue at Kuensel Phodrang is in its final stages of completion. It looks impressive. However, a close scrutiny of the Buddha’s left face (in the first image from the top) shows some flaw in the workmanship. A horizontal dent is visible on the left face as well as on the ear. Is this an imperfection in the welding or casting of the parts or, even more serious, some structural problem? Will it be corrected in due course?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Bhutanese Way

The signboard planted at the place reads “PLEASE DO NOT DUMP GARBAGES”. But you can see that the place is strewn with all sorts of garbage. The signboard also warns “Defaulters will be penalized”. Who is impressed? Obviously, no one has yet been penalized or there wouldn’t be so much garbage thrown around.

That is the classic Bhutanese way. There are rules but no one follows them. Even worst, there is no one to enforce them.

After I took the photograph this morning, I went to the Memorial Chorten. There I see a spanking new model Land Cruiser - a green colored one with a government number plate - fully laden with monks. Obviously, the vehicle is being used to cart monks to and from the Chorten. Time was about 7.30AM.

The last I heard, there was a rule against using government vehicle for none-official purposes? I did not hear of the rule being rescinded.

That again is another classic Bhutanese way - mindful of spending Nu.100.00 of his private money to ferry monks back and forth from the Chorten - but shameless about sullying his reputation in the public place.

Literacy rate in Bhutan has gone up dramatically and yet, we have very few educated people in this country. The mindset of the Bhutanese people is that it is the duty of every one else to do the right thing - but you are exempt from that requirement. The decay in our morality is not superficial - it is structural. We need to seriously ponder where this behavior and attitude is going to lead us to, finally.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Cover For A PowerPoint Presentation

This is the design of a cover of a PowerPoint presentation I prepared for a client who was interested in buying photographs of Bhutanese faces. The face that is featured on the cover is that of Ngangsel Wangda, my niece who was at that time about 20 years old.

If I had a choice, I would not have depicted a young face on that cover because I believe that such faces are not representative of the traditional Bhutan which is what appeals to the outside world. However, I am in no position to impose my will on my clients who, on the contrary, argue that in the new millennium, faces with painted lips and plucked eyes brows and heads full of psychedelic hair has taken over from my doma stained and goiter ridden faces of the old.

The allure of the clients' money was simply irresistible! So, I acted subservient and gave them the show they wanted to see. As for the validity of my truth over theirs, that discussion can happen at a time and place when money does not come into the equation. It is a risky business to discuss intellectual matters when money is at stake!

Monk Preparing For Exam

A monk at the Tango Sherda preparing for his final examinations which was due in hew hours on that day.

Notice the lump on his forehead. I do not know how far this is true, but the monk told me that it was brought on by the extreme concentration that he was going through at that time. Is such a thing possible? I did notice that he did not have the lump later in the day when his exams were over.

Sunrise At The Tango Shedra

On an assignment for the Tourism Council of Bhutan to photograph the monks, I spent few nights at the Tango Shreda, north of Thimphu. The monks get up as early as 4AM in the morning to prepare for their morning prayers.

Here a group of monks are catching a bit of the morning sun before they enter the prayer hall.

The Face Of A Novice Monk

I was thoroughly impressed by the ease with which this little monk posed for me. Most people start to fidget when they see a camera trained on them. There is a certain confidence in the way he looked straight at the camera.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

K B Wakhley The Plodding Minstrel

Here comes again - the unputdownable and mercurial Mr. K B Wakhley - the habitual plodder - a bubbly minstrel with nothing to do and nowhere in particular to go to, but with plenty of time and loads and loads of views to express. But before I get to his views, there is something sinister - almost uncanny about him bumping into me every time I happen to be by Karma’s Coffee.

Since 15th of June, day before yesterday was the second time I passed by Karma’s Coffee - and there again was good old K B Wakhley - slapping me on the back from behind and declaring that having looked at my backside, he was in no doubt that I was me! My signature backside besides, it is almost eerie that the man unfailingly happens to be at Karma’s Coffee precisely on the same day and at the same time that I am there!

Is the man tracking me? I don’t think so but certainly, he tells me that he has been tracking this blog of mine. He goes on to tell me that it so inspired him that he has started a blog of his own. He invited me to visit it:

I haven’t had the time to go through his entire blog which currently consists of 7 posts on various subjects. But I have read his last post titled “Possible Impact of Higher Electricity Tariff”. It makes for compelling reading. And, I dare say that he makes bloody good sense!

He discusses the issue of affordability. He hints that the regulation (he is not very clear which regulation) stipulates that the tariff increase is permissible only if it is affordable. He argues that even without the proposed increase in the tariff, Bhutanese consumers find it NOT affordable. In support, he offers the argument that; “If it was affordable, why are we using kerosene, firewood or LPG as other forms of energy? All of us should be using electricity to cook if it was affordable”. No dispute there!

The other point he makes is; “We talk of rupee crunch and we spend so much to buy kerosene and LPG. With the increase in tariff, there is every chance that more than 70 percent of our population will resort to wood, kerosene and LPG for cooking and heating. Even with the recent cost hike of the petroleum products, it would still be more economical to use kerosene and LPG, instead of electricity”.

Can any one argue the validity of what the man is saying? I think the government needs to rethink their proposal to increase electricity tariff. May be the government should even consider a downward revision of the existing tariff so that it becomes affordable for the household consumers on the one hand and, on the other hand, reduce Rupee deficit by reducing import of kerosene and LPG.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Plastic Wrappings And Burried Beer Bottles

In Thimphu, Saturday is what we call the “saabji market” day. That is when a large portion of Thimphu’s population go to the Sunday market to buy their weekly grocery essentials. Now I think this is getting a little confusing. I mean buying saabji on a Saturday at a place called Sunday Market is not really straight forward. When did it all get so complicated? Saabji, by the way, means vegetable in Hindi.

Less than two decades ago, every one shopped for grocery on a Sunday and the place where all the vendors gathered to sell their vegetables came to be known as the Sunday Market. Thus, even though people now start to shop for their grocery as early as late Thursday afternoon (there I go again - what is so early about late Thursday afternoon?) and the Sunday Market is no longer the open air space that it used to be, the market place is still popularly known as the Sunday Market. Ironically, for the present day nose-in-the-air Thimphups, it is infra dignitatem to be caught shopping for grocery on a Sunday - the reason being that only the lowly bargain hunters shop for grocery on that day.

When a friend told me that she was at the Sunday market doing her weekly grocery shopping, I requested her to call me if those delicious cherry tomatoes were on sale. I like to slice them into half and dry them belly up in my dehydrator. A dash of these bone dry cherry tomatoes does wonder to enhance the taste of emma datsi during my treks.

After 20 minutes of waiting for her to call me back, I gave up and decided that if she ever did call back to give me the information, I would file it for use next year but for this year, I needed to go to the saabji market and find out for myself.

There were no cherry tomatoes on sale. May be it is too early in the season or may be the late Thursday afternoon shoppers bought them all. Well, no worry - I have no crying need for them just as yet. I know that they will become available in the next few weeks.

While strolling through the stands, I noticed that some one was selling bio-degradable shopping bags made of hessian cloth. They were well made and reasonably priced at Nu.35.00 a piece. But no one was buying them. That is a shame! Such an environmentally friendly, useful and chic product and no one was interested.

I checked my purse - I had exactly Nu.1,500.00 to my name - give or take few extra Ngultrums in small change. I handed the money to the vendor and told him that I am sponsoring Nu.1,500.00 worth of his bags and that he should distribute them free to everyone that passed his stall carrying plastic bags with the message that next time they come to the saabji market, they should use these bags and not the plastic bags.

While standing close by and overseeing the free distribution of the bags, one prospective recipient struck up a conversation with me:

The man; “Why are you giving these free?”

Me; “Because they are good for the environment and I want to try and help safeguard it"

The man; “How so”?

Me; “Because they don’t clog up the earth like the plastic bags do. If you continue to use the plastic bags, there will come a time when the earth can no longer support the growth of vegetables because she is infested with plastic shopping bags”.

The man; “But why are you spending your money to buy them and give them free?”

Me; “Because you are not spending yours”

In these times, giving free has become suspect. I think that is what they mean by “looking the gift horse in the mouth”.

Talking of the environment and preventing damage to it, I think we are not doing a great job in that area. Recently I was in the mountains of Dhur in Bumthang photographing people collecting Cordyceps. Huge environmental damage is being caused there. Mountain tops at altitude ranging from 15,000 – 17,000 ft. are now getting littered with Koka wrappings. Dwarf rhododendrons and a shrub bush known as “Paam” are being systematically cut down by the hundreds of Cordyceps collectors who use them for fuel wood. The scares grasses that are meant for the yaks are now being nibbled at by dozens of pack ponies thereby causing conflict between the pony drivers and the yak herders to whom the pastures belong.

During my trek in the upper Kheng areas early this year, something even more disturbing came to light. On my first day’s trek from Kheng Buli to Nimshong I came upon a small clearing in the middle of nowhere called Churmaloong where two brand new bamboo huts were being built. I was intrigued – why would any one want to build bagos in the middle of wilderness? There was already a ramshackle of a hut nearby - stocked with cases and cases of Druk 11,000 and Hit beer along with an assortment of goods for sale. In front of the hut was a plastic table that was getting misshapen from extended exposure to the elements and 4 plastic chairs neatly arranged - two on each side. Since it was already evening, I decided to set up camp for the night.

I asked the man who was building one of the bagos why he was building a house in the middle of wilderness. He told me that upon completion, the shop that was currently housed in the ramshackle would be run out of this bago. Alright, but what entrepreneurial genius causes a man to set up shop in the middle of a jungle instead of at Nimshong village which was just about 45 minutes away from where he is setting up shop? It was explained to me that this small clearing stood at the junction of two roads one of which lead to a number of villages on the other side of Mangdechu. So, what he meant was that he had a steady trickle of customers wanting to buy and drink his beer.

In the evening, I ordered some beer from the ramshackle shop - for my camera assistants and the pony men to drink. It won’t do to walk away without contributing to local commerce.

Behind the ramshackle, I saw a huge mound of empty beer bottles neatly piled up together. Curious, I asked the man; “How much do you get for those empty bottles when you deliver them to the scrap dealer in Buli?”. He said he got nothing for them. Surprised, I asked; “Why not? Everywhere else the empty bottles fetch a small token amount”. He said he does not sell the bottles. I asked why he didn’t sell them since his ponies would be without load on his way to Buli to replenish his stock.

Clearly the man was looking a little agitated at my pointed questions. I insisted on knowing the reason why he didn’t take the empty bottles to Buli to earn some extra money. After a while he accepted that he didn’t dare take the empty bottles to Buli because of fear of being fined and penalized for selling beer without a bar license. Selling beer or any alcohol in this country without a bar license is illegal.

I asked him; “Then what do you do with all the glass bottles that get piled up over a period of time?”

He replied; “I dig a trench in the ground and bury them in the forest”.

I was dumb founded! If this is true of a desolate place called Churmaloong, it must be true of lot of other places in rural Bhutan. Is it possible that this terrible practice is being replicated elsewhere in the country? Is it possible that hundreds of thousands of beer bottles are being quietly buried in our supposedly pristine forests all around the country? Can you imagine the extent of catastrophe that will be caused years from now? I shudder to think.

Littering the alpine regions with plastic wrappings and burying of beer bottles in trenches in the forests is simply appalling. The actors in this chain need to be made responsible. The manufacturers and distributors and resellers of beer and other alcoholic drinks need to be made accountable for every bottle they distribute in the market place. It can be done.
The Park Officials need to devise ways and means whereby the Cordyceps collectors are compelled to bring back all the plastic wrappings they generate during their hunt for the Cordyceps in the high altitude mountains. Should there be incidences of littering, they should be made accountable to clean up the area. This requires a little bit of extra effort from the Park officials - but it is enforceable and it can be controlled.

Chic Bio-degradable Shopping Bags

Some one is trying to market these tastefully designed and durable bio-degradable shopping bags to replace the plastic ones. But no one seems to be interested. May be, small sponsorships by responsible individuals to enable free distribution of these bags is the answer.

Burying Bottles Into The Ground To Escape Fines

Churmaloong - a small clearing in the wilderness of Upper Kheng. Empty beer bottles are buried in trenches dug into the ground in the forests. If this practice is replicated elsewhere in the country, there may be hundreds of thousand of beer bottles buried in the ground - causing irreparable damage to the environment.