Friday, July 27, 2012

The Guile of the Snow Leopard

-->Aap Drugey is a yak herder and a pony driver from Soe Yaktsa who I take along with me during my treks into the northern Alpine regions. I do not really need him but trekking at high altitudes during the thick of winter is dangerous and unpredictable. I take him along because in times of emergency, his experience and knowledge of the region can be invaluable.

One bitter cold night in February, 2011, we were camped in Soe Yaktsa, a village on the fringes of the Snow Leopard habitat. Sitting by the campfire, he narrated to me the following ingenious way a Snow Leopard employs, to hunt for and capture Blue Sheep.

The Blue Sheep is the primary food source for the Snow Leopard, a big, beautiful endangered cat living in the Alpine regions of Bhutan. The Blue Sheep move in herds. The cat is fast but not fast enough to outrun the sheep. So the cat employs a brilliantly ingenious strategy to prey on the Blue Sheep.

Snow Leopard (Photo courtesy: Wikipedia)

When the Snow Leopard sees a herd of sheep feeding on a mountain side, it will climb to a higher ground, about 200 – 300 ft. above the herd, concealed by the rocks and boulders that make up the landscape. Then, when it is certain that it is close enough, from behind a boulder, it will roll down a small pebble directly towards the center of the herd. The herd will be alerted but they realize that it is merely a small stone pebble accidentally rolling down .. so they will resume feeding. After a while, the cat will roll down another stone, this time a much bigger one than the earlier stone. Alerted, the sheep will look up at the approaching pebble and ignore it and continue feeding, indifferent and unhindered.

The leopard will continue to roll down stone after stone, each time bigger and bigger ones. After a while the sheep will completely ignore the rolling stones and not even look up what is coming down. Then, when the Snow Leopard is completely certain that the sheep have been lured and numbed into complacency, it will turn itself into a round ball of fur and come rolling down towards the unsuspecting herd. When he is in the middle of the herd, it will suddenly unfurl itself and grab the closest sheep in a strangulating grip on the sheep’s throat!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Rebuilding Wangdue Phodrang Dzong III

-->The need to build a new Dzong for Wangdue Phodrang Dzongkhag comes at a time when the country can ill afford it. It is terrible timing. The RMA Governor was unequivocal in his warning, over national TV less than a week back, that if we do not improve things in the next 7-8 months, our very sovereignty may be at stake. That is the gravity of our situation. He ought to know, after all, the man is the head of our Central Bank and he has information that we do not. Let us heed him before it is too late.

For once, let us stop being the typical Bhutanese - the perennial Azha Passa.

The DPT government is not responsible for our current economic woes. It has been fomenting for the past many decades. So, we cannot fix blame on the DPT government for the Rupee crunch, which is principally caused, not by the sudden depletion of our Rupee reserves, but by the huge and widening trade imbalance between India and ourselves. But the real truth that is now emerging is that we not only have a severe Rupee crunch, but even worst, we also are faced with a severe Ngultrums crunch.

That said, the prudent management of the country’s finances during their tenure is the responsibility of the government. At a time when we need to tighten our belts and rein in wasteful and avoidable spending, it is important for the government to look at hard numbers and have the courage and determination to override misplaced emotions, for the sake of the country and for their own credibility as a responsible government.

There simply is no reason why the Dzong must be rebuilt on the same location where it stood. I have already said in my earlier posts that the Dzong could not be saved for one simple reason: due to inaccessibility of the location.

Because of the difficulty of the location, knowledgeable people opine that the Dzong is going to cost us close to Nu.2.00 billions and not Nu.1.00 billion as was being projected in the papers. I spoke to some architects and engineers and they tell me that if the same Dzong were to be built at a less difficult location, the cost can be cut down by about 40%. That translates to a savings of Nu.800.00 million. In addition, I am told that the Dzong can be built in half the time.

I spoke to one senior official who is from Wangdue and he agrees that the new Dzong should be built on the location extending from the Telecom compound going back all the way to the old town that has been relocated to Bajothang. In his opinion, there is enough space to fit the Dzong comfortably and still have open space to provide for firefighting paraphernalia. He felt that the ruins were looking very impressive.

One conservationist I spoke to was vehement, as I am, that pulling down the ruins of the old Dzong to rebuild a new one in its place would be nothing short of an insult to our cultural sensitivity. In the words of the person, “it is going to cause a complete disconnect between our forefathers and ourselves”. According to this person, leaving the ruins of the Dzong as it is would be to show respect to them. If at all, the person felt that we should rebuild the Dzong using the same foundations and the stonewalls that still stand, which the person felt will still be strong enough to support the structure of the new Dzong.

Another engineer I spoke to says that the removal of the debris will cost us few hundred million and will take upwards of a year to clean the place up.

One senior citizen I spoke to said that the Wangdue Phodrang Dzong’s location was predestined by “Ngam-koe” but he said that the fact that it has been burnt down completely and the fact that nothing could save it meant that the Dzong’s “Ngam-koe” was over. Ngamkoe zosop wongni imdrey. According to him, everything is predestined - humans cannot alter it or interfere with it.

One expatriate I spoke to reiterated that Bhutan must not accept other nations to rebuild the Dzong for us because, in his opinion, a Dzong is an edifice of Bhutanese culture and heritage. He felt that no one but the Bhutanese must build the Dzong, however difficult or however costly. Bhutan must not accept aid money to rebuild the Dzong.

One person I spoke to had this very interesting thing to say about culture. He said that culture is something that must constantly evolve to suite the changing times. So must religion. To support his point, he said; “look inside the Patangs worn by our current breed of Lyonpos, Dashos, MPs, Drangpons etc. You will find that inside that elaborately carved and decorated scabbard, you will find that most, if not all, do not have the shinning steel blade that they are supposed to contain. The reason is that the Patang is now merely a formality and not a necessity that it used to be during the ancient times. It no longer serves the purpose it use to but it still has to be worn because it is part of the dress code of persons holding certain positions. In these modern times when efficiency and freedom of mobility is important, a weighty Patang by your side is more of a hindrance thus, people have shed the steel blade to make it more comfortable to wear the Patang”.

The last point I want to make is that spending so much on a Dzong for Wangdue Phodrang Dzongkhag is being irresponsible to people in other Dzongkhags. The only way the government can spend so much on the reconstruction of the Dzong is by curtailing spending on critical services and developmental activities in other Dzongkhags.

The government cannot short-change people from other Dzongkhags because it lacks the courage to look at things objectively and do what is necessary. Neither can it shrug off responsibility by saying that pressure was brought to bear on them. Particularly during these times of financial crises that the country is going through, the government must exercise their power and responsibility entrusted them by the majority of the people of Bhutan - to do things for the best interest of the country and not be misguided by some misplaced sense of righteousness, or the need to look good in the eyes of the people.

The reconstruction of the Dzong is going to add to our woes. Let us be sensible about this.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Test Shot

-->I am in the process of testing a new lens, which I recently acquired. Here are two photos for your evaluation.

The two photos show the enlarged details of an intricate design found in a Bhutanese lady’s Kira. I am posting this to ascertain how you see it on your computer monitor. Is it sharp enough? How is the color rendition? Need some feedback here. Different lens behave differently at different aperture settings. Both of the images were shot at F16. The upper one is with a Zeiss Macro 50mm and the lower one is by Zeiss 21mm which is a none macro lens.

So which of the two do you like better?

History In The Making?

-->Some of my friends are unfailing in their declaration that we Bhutanese are a unique lot; I have always readily agreed that we indeed are - as unique as everyone else. A recent news item in the Bhutan Times reassures me that I am not wrong.

Seems like one of the new aspiring political parties (Bhutan Times prefers to call it the third political party) is beginning to emerge out of the woodwork, if the paper’s report headlined “31 definite, 16 more to go” of 15th July, 2012 is anything to go by.

Dr. Tandin Dorji of the yet-to-be-registered Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa exudes an air of confidence when he boldly declares:

“The focus being to garner candidates, we have managed to rope in some of the best. Their integrity, sincerity of purpose and intelligence are beyond doubt and, given the chance, we pretty much feel we have the wherewithal to take this country forward”

I wish the aspirants the very best of luck. I hope they manage to get the remaining 16 candidates to enable them to qualify as a political party and contest the coming elections. But for the moment, I am more interested in an inconspicuous sentence buried among the multitude of sentences making up the three-column news article, that reads; “According to Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa, four women MPs in the National Assembly currently will also join the party”.

Stunning exposé, to say the least! The Bhutan Times has uncovered a coup, no less. History will record this as the first reported incidence of political defection in Bhutan’s democratic history. And, while at it, they also have the distinction of being the first in redefining the meaning of the term “integrity”.

The Bhutanese people’s Karma, it would appear, is sodden with madness.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Rebuilding Wangdue Phodrang Dzong II

-->I am aware that it sounds rather inconceivable that I propose that the new Wangdue Phodrang Dzong be built at a location different from the one on which its ruins now stand. In fact, some might even say that I am being impervious to the sensitivities of the people of Wangdue, to propose such a thing. I agree that at first glance, it sounds almost sacrilegious. But I want to assure you that my feelings are not borne out of lack of sensitivity but as a result of having considered everything logically and rationally. Let me explain my thoughts.

There has not been a single day when I have not thought of the enormity of the loss of Wangdue Phodrang Dzong. It is a national loss, and not the loss of the people of Wangdue alone. Bhutan is poorer by one Dzong and, despite all our bravado, that Dzong cannot be replicated, ever.

Two thoughts occupy my mind: one, that of pulling down the ruins to make way for the construction of the new Dzong and two, that of the rationale behind rebuilding a new one on the same location where the old Dzong stood.

I thought long and hard and, whichever way I look at it, at the end, there was only one conclusion I could arrive at. The act of pulling down the ruins and clearing the site of the remains of the old Dzong serves no other purpose except one - that of obliterating, forever, all signs of the Dzong’s close to four hundred years of existence.

As far as I am concerned, the perpetration of such an act can be defined in two simple words: cultural insensitivity. For the only country in the entire world that advocates cultural preservation as one of the main pillars of the philosophy of GNH, the deliberate and willful eradication of this important historical and cultural evidence would be nothing short of devastating to our reputation as a GNH country.

Without doubt, we need to build a Dzong for the Rabdey and the people of Wangdue Phodrang Dzongkhag. However, what is the rationale behind building the Dzong on the same location where the ruins of the old Dzong now stands? How valid are the compulsions of the 17th century Bhutan to that of the 21st century modern Bhutan?

There were warlike conditions prevailing during the time when our Dzongs were built, mostly during the early 17th century. Dzongs served as fortresses from where wars were waged and enemies were repelled. Because of its principal intended use, they had to be built and located at strategic locations with commanding views and impregnable topographical features. Making them as inaccessible as possible was the primary design feature of most Dzongs in the country.

Unfortunately, its impregnability and inaccessibility was the sole cause for Wangdue Phodrang Dzong’s complete destruction. If it were constructed at a location with multiple and easy access, the Dzong could have been saved. All our modern firefighting equipment at our command, all the good intentions of a few thousand people who thronged the periphery of the Dzong was not good enough to save it from being razed to the ground. All because of one single factor: its perilous location.

Mistakes and losses are a part of life. What is important is that we derive lessons from such occurrences. If anything, this phenomenal loss should teach us one simple lesson: never ever to build our Dzongs and other vital structures on locations such as those on which the Wangdue Phodrang Dzong was located.

Natural and manmade disasters are a reality. Part of our preparedness to combat them effectively must include a design parameter that accepts natural calamities as something real and unavoidable.

…….. to be continued

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Rebuilding Wangdue Phodrang Dzong I

-->Even as I was grieving the loss of the magnificent Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, something that kept nagging at me was that the charred and scorched remains of the Dzong is no less important, no less historical, than the Dzong that has been turned to dust. The aftermath of the passage of the event of the night of 24th June, 2012 is and must remain a part of Bhutan’s history. It is an inseparable part of our journey to wherever we are headed and we cannot shake it off our conscience, however painful the memory.

As a photographer and record keeper, it dawned on me that I had a responsibility to posterity, to record what was still left standing after the inferno of the 24th June, 2012. Thus, at 4.30AM on the morning of 29th June, 2012, I drove to Wangdue Phodrang to photograph the ruins. With all that talk about rebuilding the Dzong to its former glory, I needed to keep a record of how the ruins looked, before they are pulled down to make way for the reconstruction work.

Upon returning to Thimphu, I began to examine the images of the ruins on my computer screen. As I continued to sift through few dozen images shot from a variety of angles, a feeling of sadness overwhelmed me. But this time, strangely, my sadness was not for the Dzong that got burnt.

My sadness was for the ruins that will be pulled down soon - to make way for the reconstruction work.

It dawned on me that the historic Wangdue Phodrang Dzong is going to undergo not one, but two calamities. The second calamity - the act of pulling down the final remains of the Dzong that the Zhabdrung built in 1638 - will effectively obliterate, without a trace, a historic edifice that is an inseparable part of our history and nationhood. In its place, we will build, at great cost that the nation can ill afford, a towering monstrosity fashioned out of concrete and steel - a structure that will rob us of a historic monument that can never be replaced.

All over the world, there are ruins of monuments that are considered cultural heritage sites - not because they have been rebuilt to their former glory, but because they have been left standing, as they are, as reminders and proof and as historical evidence of our past glory and pride.

The Pyramid and the Sphinx of Egypt, the Acropolis of Athens, Machu Picchu of Peru, the Roman Colosseum - all these UNESCO heritage sites derive their importance because they stand on their original site and in their original state - without reconstruction or alteration. All these historic ruins remain as they are not because the governments in those countries did not have the money to rebuild them but because they did not want to erase an important evidence of their history and culture.

Can we stop and think for a while and reconsider what may be at stake? Can we consider building the new Wangdue Phodrang Dzong on a different location and not on the same location where the old historic Dzong stood? Can we consider preserving, and not pulling down, the burnt and charred remains of the old Wangdue Phodrang Dzong for the benefit of our future generations?

……… to be continued