Saturday, November 29, 2014


So you think you know Bhutan?? Lets see how many of you readers can correctly identify this place in the photograph.

Five readers attempted to ID this image - three got it right - it is indeed Trashigang Dzong.

One said it was Lhuentse and another likened it to Trashiyangtse. Both were wrong.

I thought that someone would say it was Dagana Dzong - the roof pattern of these two Dzongs are almost similar.

Friday, November 28, 2014

BHUTAN: Land of Butterflies, Spiders, Crickets & Birds

One of my readers in India sent me a mail thanking me for posting new articles on the Blog. He said he is very "pissed" whenever he did not see a new post on this site. Another reader from Bangkok sent me a mail expressing happiness that I have resumed posting on the Blog - after an extended sabbatical! So, even at the risk of being an overkill, here goes some more - for their's and others' viewing pleasure :)-

I hope you are reading this, David?


Rufous-vented Tit (Parus rubudiventris)

 Wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

BHUTAN: Land of Birds & Butterflies

Here are some more butterflies. I am throwing in some birds too - for those of you who prefer them to the Lepidopterans!

White-browed Shrike Babbler (Pteruthius flaviscapis)

Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus)

Yellow-bellied Fantail (Rhipidura hypoxantha)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

BHUTAN: Land of Butterflies

It has been a while since I posted any photos on this site. So here are some of butterflies that I photographed during my recent trip to the East.

Some of you may not be aware that Bhutan has over 800 species of butterflies. For a small country the size of Bhutan, that is a huge, huge number. Compare that to 679 for North America and 440 for Europe.

Nature's splendor is reflected in their delicate colors and complex patterns. I wish I had some funding available to me - I would like to spend the next 5 years photographing them. Someone needs to do it before climate change renders some of them extinct even before we know and see of their existence.

Are there some rich uncles and aunties out there who want to help me realize my dream? :)-


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Wandering Tsampa

While driving back to Thimphu from my recent trip to the East of the country, I had barely begun my descend into Trongsa over the Yotong-La pass when I passed someone walking up towards the Pass. I shook my head: there goes one of those glib Sadhus from the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh who make fortunes in Bhutan - reading palms and foreheads of the gullible Bhutanese.

I continued to drive on until it suddenly hit me that the man was clothed in all white. I remember that Andhra Sadhus wear saffron. Also the man was carrying a traditional Bhutanese cane-frame backpack. Sadhus don’t carry those. Even more surprising, the man seemed very comfortable in the near sub-zero temperature of the Yotong-La Pass at 6.30AM in the morning - a scantily dressed Andhra Sadhu would be dead meat at this temperature levels. In any event Andhra Sadhus’ preferred mode of transportation is Druk Air - walking on foot would be so terribly infra-dig!

Something was not right - so I turned my car and headed back towards the Pass. I was right - the man was not a Sadhu from Andhra. He was a wandering Tsampa! I stopped my car and struck up a conversation with the man. He tells me that he is a Tsampa from Mongaar.

 Tea break for the wandering Tsampa from Mongaar.
Please note the traditional cane-frame backpack and the one-legged resting stick

He was a young and good-looking guy on a personal quest to offer prayers for the benefit of all sentient beings. He has already walked to most of the holy places in Bhutan and he was now heading towards Bumthang where he hopes to pray and meditate for the next few months, until he embarks on another walk towards another holy destination.

He had actually intended to prostrate all the way to Bumthang but a medical examination at Thimphu revealed that he had ulcer in his stomach and his lungs were near collapse. His condition caused him great pain due to which he could not perform prostrations. That did not deter him - he was determined that he would continue to recite his prayers - by walking to every one of his destinations. Neither will he accept any ride - from any one - on any form of transportation.

Amazingly, he was not wearing any warm clothing and yet, the bitter cold did not seem to bother him. There was a wonderful look of peace and clam on his face - something that I thought was unusual given that it was bitterly cold and he was suffering from ulcer.

I served him hot tea from my flask, which he gladly accepted. I was of a mind to remove my Patagonia R2 jacket that I was wearing and give it to him but he wouldn’t know how to care for it and damage it in no time. Thus, I decided against it. Instead, I gave him Nu.1,000.00 and asked him to buy himself a woolen sweater when in Bumthang.

As I continued my journey towards Trongsa, I wondered what it was about religion that drove people to such meaningless acts of lunacy. Here was a man with his innards infested with ulcer and holes in his lungs. And yet, he wants to walk the length and breadth of the country - and pray in bitter cold - in the hope and belief that it will benefit all the sentient beings of the world. What benefit, exactly? And who elected him to take on the responsibility of saving the sentient beings? Poor blighter! If I were to ask him, he would provably tell me that he wouldn’t give two hoots if, one of these days, he is mauled to death by a bear while walking through the alpine wilderness. Or, bleed to death from the ulcer that is wrecking havoc on his innards.

Religion seems to teach some strange ways in which to earn merit for the afterlife or how to save sentient beings from burning in hell. It seems to promote the idea that the afterlife is more important than the now and the here. It is as if preserving the unknown afterlife is more important than the visibly miserable present.

During my trip to Tongmejangtsa, Trashiyangtse, I was told that the village would not rear pigs because they have been told that it was against the religion. They wouldn’t rear chickens either, for the same reason. They have no problem rearing cows though. The reason? Very funny one! - but that is a story to be told another day.

Practice of religion, particularly by those who are incapable of analytical thinking, can lead to some seriously dangerous misconceptions. That is the reason why I completely support our law that prohibits religious personalities from participating in politics.

Oh Compassionate Buddha - please hasten the process of human evolution before your teachings are contorted any further and humanity is put to peril!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Have Common Exams, Will Pray!

During my recent trip to Tashiyangtse, I ran into a group of students from the Tongmejangsa Middle Secondary School - in Tongzhang village.

They were all in their regular clothing. This was rather strange since at this time of the day they should be in their school uniform. I stopped my car to ask them why they were not in their classes. They chorused;

Dhari Lhabab Duechen iin la” (To-day is Day of the Descending of Lord Buddha).

“OK .. so it is a holiday and you have no classes”.

“Yes, Sir … I mean No, Sir”.

“So where are you guys headed?”

“We are going to the Lhakhang (temple) to pray and offer butter lamps”.

“Ahhh Haa goi (Ahhh I know) - your Common Exams are due soon so you are going to pray to God and ask him to help you pass your exams, iinosh (correct)?

Iin la (Yes, Sir)”.

“You think you all will pass?”

They are all full of smiles but none offer me an answer.

“So you think you all will pass?”

Mashey la (We don’t know, Sir)”.

“OK … but you have studied and are prepared for the exams, right?”

“Yes, Sir”.

“Good, then I can assure you that you will pass even without prayers and butter lamps. You know why? Because in the world of the old and the wise, there is a saying;

“Siba Lhaghi Sibi ---- Mapa Rung Ghi Ra Siggo”.

“Do you know what it means?”

“No, Sir”.

It means; “It is God who initiates the shiver but it is mostly oneself who must shiver with vigour”.

“Let me explain further. You must have seen your village Pawo or Pammo, Ngeljorpas (Mediums, Oracles etc.) perform their acts. They start with a slow shiver of their body but as the ritual progresses, the shiver gets increasingly vigorous - until they collapse with exhaustion. That signals the end of the ritual”.

“Do you understand now?”

“Yes, Sir”.

“Actually there is a Chilip (English/White-man) equivalent to this Bhutanese saying”.

Gachii iina la? (How does it go)?"

“It goes like this: “God helps those who help themselves”.

“Do you know what this means? This means that you should study hard if you want your prayers and butter lamps to help you pass your exams. If you don’t study, all the prayers and butter lamps in the world isn’t going to help you pass your Common Exam”.

Ha goyi ga (Did you understand)?”

Goyi la (Yes Sir, understood, Sir).

“OK .. you can go”.

As they plodded away, I noticed that they all wore similar kind of rubber flip-flops. I called them back and asked; “Why are you all wearing the same kind of flip-flops?”

“Uniform iin la”.

Wai, iina? I have never heard of this as a part of school uniform anywhere else in the country. We used to have black leather shoes called “Naughty Boy shoes”. You don’t have them any more?”

“Yes, we have, Sir. But we only wear them when it is cold. Rest of the time we wear these”.

Strange! This is a first for me.

Even more strange, how did these young minds come to believe that offering prayers and lighting butter lamps at the local Lhakhang would help them get through their Common Exams? This is bad influence. Simple and gullible minds will believe any old thing but the problem in the East particularly is exasperating, according to one Livestock Officer who tells me of his losing battle with religious misconceptions and how it is interfering with his work.

But this is a story to be told another day.

As the kids walk away towards the Lhakhang in the distance, I hear one of them muttering “God helps he who helps himself ….. God helps he who helps himself ….. God helps he who helps himself”.

I shake my head in sadness - there go a bunch of potential social misfits of the future! As one village elder in Chaaskar told me, education is now a paradox - anyone without it is supposedly a nobody - but most of those who are with it are either crushing stones by the roadside, working as a Khalasi, gyrating wildly in some Drayangs in the urban cities or engaged in abuse of substance and gang fights!

So much for "Basic Education For All"! But this too is a story to be told another day.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Where In The Name of DANTAK Is This Road? - II

I am told that on November 13, 2014, the representatives of DANTAK and CDCL (Construction Development Corporation Limited) conducted a joint inspection trip of the Shingkhar-Gorgan Highway - from Gorgan side. Thus there is no longer any mystery as to which road KUENSEL was referring to, when it reported that “DANTAK will also construct a new 56KMs segment of the highway between Bumthang and Lhuentse”. Good old Shingkhar-Gorgan Highway is once again in the limelight.

For the record, CDCL was/is the contractor who worked on the construction of the infamous Shingkhar-Gorgan Highway/farm road, for the past few years.

In less than three days of the announcement, DANTAK the new contractors that unceremoniously replaced the hapless home-grown CDCL, has already moved in to take charge of matters. And word is spreading fast. One Gorgan resident tells me that DANTAK plans to complete the construction of the 56KMs segment of the highway between Gorgan and Singmala in just one year! Obviously, the poor blighter is blissfully unaware that it is the DANTAK’s unstated institutional policy to stretch all projects into oblivion. But the humble roadside restaurateur can be forgiven because his aspirations are greed-driven: he thinks he will see untold riches when the road construction is completed. So much for national interest - precisely why I subscribe to the view that all roads to GNH must necessarily be paved with GPH.

So then, what of the custodians of our environment - the National Environment Commission (NEC) and the Wildlife Conservation Division (WCD)? They have been successful in stalling the project in the past - on grounds that the construction of the road through protected areas and the tiger corridor is illegal and NOT PERMITTED as per rules already in place. Are they likely to be as effective this time round too? Will they put up a worthy fight for which the law gives them the right and the duty to protect and to speak for, the environment? Will the powers that be ignore them, and the law, and bulldoze the project through? We will have to wait and see.

In the meantime, it is worth examining all that is wrong with this shadowy project called “Shingkhar-Gorgan Highway”.

First, the misbegotten highway was wrongly christened! This is a road that starts from Gorgan towards Shingkhar. Thus, it should have been named “Gorgan-Shingkhar Highway” instead of Shingkhar-Gorgan Highway.

Second, Shingkhar-Gorgan road stands out as a unique case of happy amicability between the victor and the vanquished - a rarity, however fishy! This is the only initiative of the DPT that the present government seems to want to carry through, from where the DPT left off. Other than this, the victorious PDP government chose to dismantle most of every undertaking the DPT government initiated during its tenure - Pedestrian Day, Tobacco Ban, Education City Project, Car Quota for Civil Servants etc. etc. and etc.

Third, the segment of the road from Gorgan to Pelphu Goenpa has since been constructed. If that were not enough, for good measure, DANTAK is now being engaged to RECONSTRUCT it! Curiously, environmental clearance for the construction of the road from Shingkhar to Singmala that would meander through 11-12 KMs of one of the world’s oldest and most pristine Fir forests - was sought and obtained. For the life of me I cannot understand why clearance for the road upto Singmala was sought because, by itself, this stretch of road serves no purpose whatsoever. Thus its construction is meaningless and a waste of resources.

Fourth, the WCD has categorically stated that environmental clearance for the construction of the remaining portion of the road between Singmala and Pelphu Goenpa will not be forthcoming - on grounds that the road cuts through protected area and the laws, as they stand, do not permit it. I am not aware that the Parliament that is currently in session has an agenda that deals with the revoking of the rule that will open up the possibility of an award of the environmental clearance. In the absence of the all-important environmental clearance that, as of now, seems unlikely, how do they hope to get the highway done?

Fifth, even while the WCD has made it public that they will not issue the environmental clearance for the segment of the road between Singmala and Pelphu Goenpa, the DANTAK and the Government of India is going full throttle with the plans to see through this illegal and environmentally disastrous project. One has to wonder: what gives them this level of confidence? How do they hope to circumvent the rules?

This is not a simple case of building a road - a whole lot of issues are at stake. Central to the issue is that rules will be broken, fragile ecosystem will be imperiled and those who profess to be the custodians of the law and justice, will be seen to be the transgressors of the very law they have been entrusted to protect. Tragically, no tangible benefit will accrue to any Bhutanese - whether Lhuentsip, Mongarpa, Trashigangpa or Shingkharpa!

A whole lot of people and institutions will be put to test. The manner in which the concerned officials will deal with the issue will prove if they deserve to be where they are; whether they have the courage to do what is required of them - whether they truly understand what it is to be of service to the Tsa Wa Sum.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Where In The Name Of DANTAK Is This Road?

The front-page issue of the Kuensel dated November 10, 2014 carries a news item that in part reports; “DANTAK will also construct a new 56km segment of the highway between Bumthang and Lhuentse”.

Hello, excuse me! what segment and what highway? There is no highway between Bumthang and Lhuentse. Except for the ancient, rarely used annual migration trail, there is not even a farm road between these two Dzongkhags.

Ofcourse, the erstwhile DPT government attempted to build, what came to be infamously dubbed, “Shingkhar-Gorgan Highway” that was intended to connect Lhuentse with Bumthang. It was initially promoted as a highway. However, because the road was cutting across a protected area and splitting a tiger corridor into two and breaking all the rules in the book, the environmentalists made a hue and cry which forced the erstwhile government to downgrade the proposed highway to that of a farm road. That still did not appease the conservationists - eventually forcing the DPT government to scrap the whole idea, in deference to popular sentiments.

Now, I wonder if the “56km segment of the highway between Bumthang and Lhuentse” is the resurrection of the infamous Shingkhar-Gorgan Highway? Even if it were, why is DANTAK involved? More importantly, why is government of India involved in this environmentally disastrous project that is illegal and of no benefit to any one, atleast no one in Bhutan? India should already be feeling ashamed and guilty for all the environmental damage their hydro-power projects have caused in Bhutan.

I am intrigued and I have been intrigued for a long time - with respect to this foolhardy idea of a road. I simply could not understand why anyone in his right mind would want to do this road.

Never in my wildest dreams did I suspect that India was the grand puppeteer pulling all the strings from behind. However, if it is true that the road is being done at the behest of India, then I would say that the veil of mystery has finally been lifted and all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle have fallen into place!

Now that the bully is openly in the fray, I wonder if the organizations such as National Environment Commission and Wildlife Conservation Division will still be allowed to do their job or be told to take the highway?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hail To The Modern World’s Most Tested Monarch

Today is November 11, 2014. More significantly, it is the 59th Birth Anniversary of His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, IVth Druk Gyalpo of Bhutan. Numerous celebrations are being planned around the country to honor the nation’s and the modern world’s most tested Monarch. Sadly, I will not be fortunate enough to participate in the celebrations because, even as I write this, I am camped by a dusty farm road somewhere in the wilderness between Yadi and Chaskhar in Mongar, Eastern Bhutan.

On this happy occasion, I am trying to attempt to compose an article to pay tribute to my King but the conditions are not the most idyllic! I am distracted by a cacophony of bird calls - three of which I can recognize - those of the Collared Owlet, Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler and White-crested Laughing Thrush. Even worse, the monstrosity called Bolero - an Indian SUV - keeps screeching past my campsite - spewing dust and smell of burnt rubber. To top it off, my PowerBook battery is about to run out and Yadi town is experiencing a power outage. And I remember that my headlamp had already been flashing out three short red blinks in quick succession - indicating that it is running out of juice too! Way to go!

This is a most tumultuous setting in which to compose a tribute to a beloved King and yet, perhaps, this is most fitting. For, this is a King who has lived, and survived, all the tumultuous phases since his coronation. And there have been many such times. Suffice it to say that His Majesty has fulfilled His duties to the hilt - and some more. He has overcome every single challenge thrown His way - to preserve the nationhood of this country - His most important and challenging duty. Therefore, it is perhaps proper, and appropriate, that we honor Him for not having failed in His duty - rather than for performing it. After all, accolades are offered to those who perform beyond their duties, not merely for performing it.

Few perhaps understand what it would have taken to “preserve the nationhood of this country”.

Bhutan is a small landlocked country with neither economic power nor military muscle and with a population size comparable to that of a small Indian gully. Even worse, it is wedged between two of Asia’s most fractious nations of proven atomic capability and with competing ambitions for regional dominance. Bhutan’s geographical positioning as a buffer state (supposedly) between these two giants makes our position even more perilous.

Bhutan’s positioning as a buffer state between China and India is most often spoken as something of an advantage - in Bhutan’s favour. Sadly, not many understand that therein lay our vulnerability! This is where I am stuck by a sense of wonder - at the skillfulness and the political and diplomatic finesse with which our monarchs dealt with the giant to the North as well as to the South. While Tibet and Sikkim got selectively gobbled up by China and India, Bhutan to this day remains an independent state - all thanks to the superior minds and statesmanship of the Wangchucks. During this occasion of celebration and merry making, let us give ourselves a moment of quiet and stillness, close our eyes and contemplate: can we fathom even a fraction of what it would have taken our Kings to “preserve the nationhood of this country?” I doubt it.

Big and powerful nations such as the US employ economic might and military muscle to dictate their terms on other less powerful nations. If economic sanctions do not work, they carpet-bomb the erring states into submission. The powerful nations of this world are back to the primeval ways - smash and grab. Rich and powerful nations have it easy.

By contrast, for small poor nation states such as Bhutan, without the benefit of military muscle or economic might, the task is more difficult. We have to depend on more subtle and civilized ways to fend off the ever-present threat to our nationhood from colonialist designs of more powerful nations. We have to depend on our guile, craftiness, shrewdness, intelligence, sense of anticipation and diplomatic skills, to navigate our way out of the many entrapments laid out on our path.

If Bhutan today survives as a proud, independent state and Bhutanese as a race, we owe it to our successive Monarchs who have been selfless and vigilant in the discharge of their duties. Those of us with a sense of history know that our IVth Druk Gyalpo remains the most tested, but no less credit is due to our past Monarchs. Therefore, on this auspicious day, let us pay homage to the Wangchuck Dynasty as a whole and His Majesty the IVth Druk Gyalpo in particular, for the many silent battles he fought, and won - unknown to his subjects.

May our Kings live long and continue to direct our future.