Monday, March 30, 2020

Extending The Quarantine Period: A Good Decision

I am relieved to hear that the government has decided to extend the quarantine period to 21 days. Here it is VERY IMPORTANT for every one to understand that it is far, far less expensive to quarantine the arrivals into the country - than to get into a situation where he have to begin to quarantine and isolate the home-grown cases. If we enter this phase, then we are in serious trouble and the situation will spiral out of our control.

Thus I urge the government to keep up the level of severity of vigilance as it is done now. There should be no occasion for the government to be blamed for what was not done, that which could have been.

I would like to once again bring to attention the issue of the following ten upcoming Tsechus – this issue I had already raised on the 8th of March, 2020:

Zhemgang Tshechu            April 01 – 03, 2020
Talo Tshechu                      April 01 – 03, 2020
Gasa Tshechu                     April 01 – 03, 2020
Gomphu Kora Tshechu      April 01 – 03, 2020
Paro Tshechu                      April 04 – 08, 2020
Rhododendron Festival      April 17 – 19, 2020
Domkhar Tshechu              May 02 – 04, 2020
Ura Yakchoe                       May 04 – 08, 2020

There is a need for the government, the Zhung Dratshang and the Dratshang Lhentshog - to consider the matter seriously and issue appropriate directives, not withstanding the fact that there is already a ban in place for large gatherings of any type, for any reason.

A single carrier of the virus during any one of the above Tsechus could effectively torpedo all the good work done so far. It does not help that the large number of people who traditionally attend these Tsechus are from among the high risk age group.

I keep reminding friends and family that treating the COVID-19 infection is cheap - because there is simply no treatment! For now, it is well within Bhutan’s means to quarantine few thousand Bhutanese people who cannot be denied entry. Serious trouble for us will begin when we let our guard down and take a lax attitude towards need for heightened vigilance, which is the need of the hour.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Do We Have The Bull By The Tail?

Here is a Thumbs Up to the Prime Minister, the Health Minister and the rest of the Cabinet Members of the government for their relentless vigilance against the pandemic COVID-19. Commandeered by His Majesty the King, the government’s preventive and control measures to contain the virus has been nothing short of GOLD STANDARD. Few in the world, if at all, can achieve what we have.

The four confirmed cases so far have all been cases that have entered the country from outside. We have yet to uncover a single case that is native. Let us pray that by the grace of God, there will be none.

But something that worries me even more than the possibility of death by infection – is the medical sciences’ inability to detect the infection quickly and promptly. It is my belief that the virus has assumed pandemic proportions because of our failure to detect it early and in time - before it had a chance to spread.

Thus, it seems like we have our work cut out for us – I think the world community must first focus on finding ways and means for the virus’ early and timely detection. If we can do that, we have a better chance to contain its spread. In any event, I am told that even if we can figure out a cure for the virus, it will be 12 to 18 months before the cure can be administered safely on humans.

So then it does not seem like a chicken or egg paradox. We clearly know what must come first.

In the absence of a full proof detection method/apparatus, we are left with no choice but to quarantine whole hoard of arrivals. This is too expensive and unsustainable. Even more worrisome, this  COVID-19 thing is distracting our attention from some other things that could prove to be costly, if ignored.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Coinage of Bhutan: Confusing History

During the time of the unifier Zhabdrung, Bhutan comprised of two principal regions – the West and the East – colloquially known as Pele-La Pharchey (East) and Pele-La Tsurchey (West). The Western region provinces were Thimphu, Paro, Wangdue, Punakha and Dagana. The Eastern provinces collectively known as Sharchog Khorlo Tsibgye comprised of Trongsa, Bumthang, Mongar, Trashigang, Lhuenste, Trashiyangtse, Pemagathsel and Zhemgang. Both in terms of geographical as well as demographic size, the Eastern region was the larger of the two. And yet, there are no coins credited to this region although there were two Dzongpons that administered parts of the region: Tashigangpa (Tashigang Dzongpon) and Zhongarpa (Mongar Dzongpon). The reason could be that they were under the administrative control of the Choetse Penlop – right from the start of the first Choetse Chila Chogyal Minjur Tenpa to the start of the Wangchuck dynasty beginning with Trongsab Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck.

The post of Choetse Chila which later came to be known as Choetse Penlop or Trongsa Penlop, was instituted by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, primarily to unify the Eastern regions under the central rule. Chogyal Minjur Tenpa was the first Choetse Chila appointed in 1647.

However, according to oral sources another Dzong known as Zhongar Dzong located near Lemithang in Mongar existed before the institution of Choetse Penlop. An account related to this Dzong reads as follows:

“The kanjur was copied in Fire-Male-Dog-Year of 11th rabjung (sexagenary cycle) in 1646 when Ngawang Penjor was the Dzongpon.”

If this account is true, then Zhongar Dzong should have been in existence way before the institution of Choetse Penlop was established in the 1640’s. Based on another account of the Dzong, this is simply impossible.

It is recorded that the Zhongar Dzong was built by Gyalpo Karpo Dhung who employed Bala - a master carpenter from Paro - to design and build the Dzong. In due course of time a rivalry developed betwen Gyalpo Karpo Dhung and Gyalpo Tongden of Tongfu. Gyalpo Karpo Dhung sought the help of Trongsa Penlop to fight his rival. Gyalpo Tongden was defeated but in the process the Trongsa Penlop took control of the Dzong itself, including other small fiefdoms in and around Zhongar.

Ruins of Zhongar Dzong as seen today

Regardless of what is true or false, one thing is for sure – there are no coins credited to Zhongar Dzong. On the other hand, there are records of each of the Dzongpons and Penlops of Trongsa, Thimphu, Paro, Wangdue, Punakha and Dagana striking their own coins, until the Wangchuck dynasty was established.

Friday, March 20, 2020

COVID-19: No One Is Taking A Chance - No One Should

March 18, 2020

Dear Members,
In my capacity as the head of the Club administration and in consultation with some senior Members of the Club, including the Club President, I had suspended our Weekly Club Meeting for a period of 3 weeks, which runs out this Friday.

Given the serious nature of the virus that has now assumed pandemic proportions, I felt that there is a need to reassess the situation and determine if there is any merit in resuming our Weekly Meetings.

In addition to personal hygiene and regular hand washing and sanitization, social distancing is advised as the most effective means of averting exposure to the virus. Additionally, we are still not past the maximum incubation period of 14 days, since detection of first COVID-19 case in the country.

Thus in consultation with the Club President and some senior Members of the Club, I would like to inform all Members that we will further suspend our Weekly Meetings for an indefinite period or, until the government advises that we are now past the risk phase of the pandemic.

Please note, however, that the term employed here is “social distancing” NOT “social disconnect”.

Bye and keep safe.

His Majesty the King and the Royal Government of Bhutan are, as they say, on the ball ensuring that citizens are safeguarded and shielded from the threat of contacting the deadly novel coronavirus. To complement the King’s and the government’s endeavors, we citizens must do our part.

The Rotary Club of Thimphu has suspended our Weekly Meeting as of March 6, 2020 for a period of 3 weeks, ending today Friday 20th March, 2020. Since it was determined that we are not as yet safe from the threat, I issued another suspension notice of our Club’s Weekly Meeting - this time for an indefinite period. We will only resume our Weekly Meetings once the government tells us that the threat is behind us.

It is not only the Weekly Meeting – but we have also postponed the handing over of our Nu. 3.5 million agriculture project in Bongo, Chhukha, since social distancing has been advised.

We have also postponed our visit to Gomtu, Samchi to hand over our toilets project there and to start a new one – for the same reason – to avoid large gatherings.

Our plans for a new Nu. 4.00 million project in the agriculture sector in Athang Gewog, Wangdue is also in a state of suspended animation – consultative meetings are not happening.

It is not only our Club but the Rotary International has also cancelled its 2020 Rotary International Convention scheduled to be held in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA, from 6 - 10 June 2020. Imagine the Rotary International Convention is the world’s largest gathering – there are only a handful of countries that has the wherewithal to host this Conference. In 2016 Korea hosted perhaps the Rotary’s largest gathering to date – attended by 50,000 Rotarian participants. 

No one is taking a chance with this virus. NO ONE SHOULD!

Sunday, March 15, 2020


Recorded history lists around 232 erstwhile Bhutanese administrators (Druk Desis, Penlops, Dzongpens and Je Khenpos), most of whom would have struck coins starting from 1790 to 1907. Two among them – Paro Penlop Tshering Penjor and Gongzim Sonam Tobgay Dorji may have continued to issue coins beyond 1907 because they were the only two persons authorized to issue their own coins, post 1907. All others would have halted coin production, upon establishment of the hereditary Wangchuck Dynasty.

A careful study of the designs of Bhutan’s early coins suggests that none of the above issuing authorities paid heed to what they were doing. What they were doing was striking their coins with Bengali scripts/alphabets on them. The following were the Bengali alphabets that continued to feature on our coins:

These are the most numerous Bengali alphabets found on Bhutan's early coins

This coin is actually the reverse of Wangdue Dzongpen's (also called Wangzob) coin struck between 1835 - 1910

One reason could be that they were unaware that they were Bengali alphabets/scripts. I believe that they assumed them to be some cute designs or motifs. So they continued to strike their coins, without realizing that they were actually striking coins with half the names of some the Maharajas of Cooch Behar. This would have happened because one of the designs they borrowed from belonged to the following coin of Maharaja Devendranarayan (1764-1766)  of Cooch Behar.

Maharaja Devendranarayan's coin which inspired most of Bhutan's early coins' designs

Thus some of our coins ended up with the following design – among the most numerous:

The obverse of one of Bhutan's Maartams

They merely inserted a Bhutanese “Sa” in the design, in front of the Bengali word “ndra”. What they did not know is that “ndra” is later half of the names of some of the Cooch Behar Maharajas of the time:

Mahi ndra Narayan
Upe  ndra Narayan
Deve  ndra Narayan
Dhairje  ndra Narayan

The following is a comparison of one of our Maartrums with that of the original Narayani coin from which was derived our coins’ designs:

The obverse of Bhutanese Maartrum on the left, as opposed to that of Maharajan Devendranarayan's 1/2 Rupee coin.

Except for the Bengali “Sa” at the bottom center on the Narayani coin, everything is a perfect match!

NOTE: During the late 1760's Bhutan had so much influence over Cooch Behar that Maharaja Dharendranarayan was actually installed on the Cooch throne by Bhutan.

PS: Addendum at 12:07PM : 15:03:2020
I realize that I failed to explain our connection with Cooch Behar. Bhutan’s most active trading partner those days was Tibet and Cooch Behar. Thus although we used coins from Tibet, British Indian, Chinese, French Indian coins from Arcot and Assamese coins, the most abundant was the Narayani coins from Cooch Behar. We not only extensively used their coins, but during later years we even stole their dies and carried away metal workers from Cooch Behar and took them to places like Thimphu, Wangdue, Dagana and Trongsa – where they were put to work to hammer coins.

Two villages – one each in Wangdue and Enduchoeling in Trongsa, have descendants from these captives, now integrated into mainstream Bhutanese society.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Wrong About COVID-19 Vaccine Availability in 3-4 Months

A reader from USA sent me the following mail this morning, arising out of my mistaken assumption that a vaccine for COVID-19 could become available in 3-4 months time:

I like your post very much. But you got one important fact wrong: A vaccine will definitely not be available in 3-4 months. It’s possible that several new vaccine candidates could go into clinical trials within that time, but a proven and safe vaccine will not be available to the public for another 12-18 months. It takes a long time to establish both efficacy and safety. This is the word from the top infectious disease expert in the US, and from countless other scientists here.

In 1976, after a vaccine was rushed into production when a human version of the swine flu swept around the world, many people who were vaccinated developed a rare neuromuscular disease called Guillain-Barre syndrome, and some died. This has been a warning for emergency vaccine development ever since. 

I would humbly suggest that you post a correction for your devoted readers on the anticipated vaccine schedule. People need to know that, in the short term, a vaccine will not protect them. Only commonsensical public health measures — like social distancing and hand hygiene — will do that.

But your point about protecting health workers is excellent. I hope that Bhutan can keep this pandemic at bay. You are lucky to have a smart and compassionate physician leading the government. 

I stand corrected 🙏

Friday, March 13, 2020

Over The Moon, Once Again

Former Ambassador Tobgye S. Dorji and Aum Genzing generously gifted me 2 copies of the 1928 Bronze Zangtrum. It is incredibly generous of them – as a collector and researcher only I can understand how uncommon a gesture this is. But in Dasho Tobgye's words:

“The coins serve better purpose with some one like you than with  someone like me – I know that the nation will benefit if you own them. With me they would just lie around tied up inside a leather pouch”.

1928 Bronze Zangtrum: Incredibly rare gesture - gifting these rare coins

Now I am short of only one coin – one milled variety struck in 1928. There is another hammered variety that would have been struck between 1873 and 1879 – if I am able to acquire it, it would be a bonus. But even without it, my collection would be complete but for the 1928 milled coin. I need this hammered variety for validation purpose only. Once I have these two in my collection, I will have completed my collection of both hammered and milled coins of Bhutan, beginning 1790 all the way to 1954. I do not mean that I have every coin that was ever hammered – it means that I have a number of representative coins from all the four periods during which our coins were hammered, until milled coins arrived in 1928.

The 1954 milled coin should have been dated “Shing Taa (Wood Horse) Lo Jatrum Ched”. But it is erroneously marked “Chaag Taag (Iron Tiger) Lo Jatrum Ched”. And there is a mistake on the obverse of the coin – they used the old die with the disconnected Ba-Ra-Ta-Da. Meaning that this coin is in error – both on the obverse as well as on the reverse. But while errors on the obverse are uncommon, errors in dates are not unique to Bhutan – it happens in other countries as well. In numismatic circles such occurrences are known as “frozen date”. The reason is solely because of the carelessness of the issuing authorities.

Coins struck after 1954 gets disgusting – until 1974 and 1975 when they regained respectability. Sadly thereafter, once again, as of 1979 they are full of errors that never got corrected to this day. Some mistakes are simply inexplicable.

It has been a long journey for me – my quest to dig up historical backgrounds and events that shaped the history of money in the country. The search took me to Canada, Belgium, Germany, the UK and India. Besides being tiresome, it has been rather expensive. But now my search is nearing the end. In fact it has ended, except for that 1928 milled coin that is missing. Once I have it, I am ready to put together a perplexing history of Bhutan’s numismatic march of errors.

The experience has been truly enriching. Some of the amazing things I have stumbled on, in the process of digging deep into the matter – I am now able to understand why some things have been the way they have been.

The coins may be inanimate objects fashioned out of lifeless metals - but the story they tell is profound - one of patience, tenacity and supreme tolerance, qualities that helped our Monarchs surmount and survive numerous tangles of web, treachery and conniving, to ably deliver our beloved Kingdom into the 21st century, intact.

PS: In my relentless search for coins, I was aghast to learn that majority of the packaged old Bhutanese coins, including modern ones currently sold in Bhutan are marketed here by dealers from Nepal. Strangely, the same situation prevails in our antique textile trade - they all find their way back into the country - through Nepal.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

A New Kind Of Danger

Hi Johan,
It has been long since I heard from you but when I did, what a mail 😛.

Thank you for your mail. I am sure it would have taken you whole day to do such a long and detailed mail.

In Bhutan, as of now we have one confirmed COVID-19 case. And the entire Bhutanese population is frantic – as we should be. But sometimes we do tend to over-react without a proper understanding of the issues involved. I have been advising everyone that what is needed is cautious behavior and a sense of responsibility to self and to your friends and family. Irresponsible behavior and bravado are bound to cause bigger problems.

Happily our government is on the ball, as they say. Unfortunately what is emerging is a danger that few seem to have foreseen: the diminishing number of actively serving health workers at the JDWNRH, and perhaps elsewhere as well, brought about by the mandatory need for their isolation.

What I mean is that the health workers who are working/worked with the confirmed case and his primary contacts, are required to go into isolation for 14 days. This means if we have even 5 confirmed cases, the JDWNRH would be empty of doctors and nurses – because they would all be in isolation. Or, they would be working with the infected during which they would be barred from outside contact.

That to me is more worrisome than the possibility of infection by the virus – because we are likely to face a situation when we would be unable to treat even normal illnesses because all the doctors and nurses would all be locked up in isolation camps!

But as far as the COVID-19 is concerned, I think a vaccine should become available in the next 3-4 months: so this scare will pass too. I am sorry that you may not be able to come to Bhutan in July – but as I said your responsible behavior is the best defense against the virus and its proliferation.

I am not a praying kind of person – if I were, this would be the moment to pray for our health workers' safety, because as the persons at the forefront in our battle against this deadly virus, they are at the greatest risk.

But I can offer them my salutations for their service to safeguard the health and life of the Bhutanese people.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Tale of Two Coins

Investigation into the history of coinage in Bhutan took me on some strange journeys. And at times I have uncovered some utterly silly mistakes. Mistakes?? How can anyone possibly make such utterly silly mistakes?

Look at the following bronze coin: it was struck in 1979 and denominated at Five Chetrums:

The design was borrowed from a variation of the following coin hammered between 1790–1840, among Bhutan’s earliest coins:

Look again and you will notice that the engraver had totally altered the positioning of the “Sa” on the obverse, and the “Cha” on the reverse of the coin. If the engraver had copied the work from a master copy, how is it possible to make such a silly mistake?

The 1979 Five Chetrums coin should have been engraved as follows:

Between 1928 to 1954, and again from 1974 to 1975, the spelling of "Chetrums" was spelt correctly. Then beginning 1979, the spelling took a toss, to this day. The following 1974 coin shows the word correctly spelt:

Slowly I began to see a side of Bhutan’s history that is neither written nor transmitted orally. And then I begin to understand some inexplicable events that was never explained before.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Is Using Face Masks Useful?

Whole lot of Bhutanese are using face masks as a measure, in their opinion, to prevent being infected by the COVID-19 virus. Available resource material on the www tells us that inappropriate use of the mask can be more of a risk, than prevention. I believe that the Ministry of Health should set up a knowledge transmission program through the BBS to tell the people the truth about the face masks. The following are some knowledgeable views on the mask:

How to put it on, and remove it, the correct way.
Incorrect use of the mask is in fact more dangerous, than not using it.

Dr. Rajapakse of Mayo Clinic, USA says:

"Most people who do not work in a health care setting have not received training on how to put on and take off the masks properly. Doing this incorrectly can actually increase your risk of infection. Also, people who are wearing masks tend to touch their face more than those who are not, which can paradoxically result in an increased risk of infection as well."

If you are an infected person, or if you suspect that you have been infected, you should use the mask – to prevent spreading the virus to others. If you are healthy, there is little or no benefit to wearing the masks. The masks are not airtight, thus they cannot prevent the viral particles being breathed in.

Something that I learnt from the www is that you should know if the mask you are wearing is designed to prevent airborne particles. 

Apparently there are two types of masks: single and multiple use masks. How many Bhutanese care to learn what type of masks they are using?

Sunday, March 8, 2020

COVID-19 And All The Confusions

In my thinking, the DNT government showed great courage by not placing restrictions on tourist arrivals into the country, despite the continuing rise of incidences of COVID-19 around the world. Restrictions don’t help - it is counter productive.

What is important to assess is the government’s response capability: how prepared are we in terms of detection and containment? If we are not, then it is time to upscale our preparedness – on a war footing.

One thing we have to understand: There is no way we can keep away the virus from the country. Our best defense is not keeping away tourists, but being able to detect and contain all emerging cases, until the virus runs its course, which it will in due course of time.

But the first order of the day seems to be to better inform the Bhutanese people. As of now, they seem to believe that stocking up on food supplies and fuel reserves is their best defense against the virus. And what of the mask-wearing lot? Who floated this misconception that wearing face masks is effective against any viruses, let alone COVID-19?

The ongoing confusion aside, there is one thing we need to consider and work on a plan immediately:

What do we do about the upcoming Tshechus (festivals) around the country? The BICMA has already disallowed reality shows. The government has discouraged large gatherings.

What are our plans for the following Tsechus?:

Zhemgang Tshechu           April 01 – 03, 2020
Talo Tshechu                     April 01 – 03, 2020
Gasa Tshechu                    April 01 – 03, 2020
Gomphu Kora Tshechu     April 01 – 03, 2020
Paro Tshechu                     April 04 – 08, 2020
Rhododendron Festival     April 17 – 19, 2020
Domkhar Tshechu             May 02 – 04, 2020
Ura Yakchoe                      May 04 – 08, 2020

While the government is working on a plan, let us be responsible and contribute to the government’s efforts. Let us avoid large gatherings, or planning one.

As far as I am concerned, I have stopped going to gatherings,  crowded places, vegetable market, restaurants and hotels. I have stopped eating or drinking outside. I will resume normalcy only once the government tells me that we are safe from the threat of COVID-19.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Yellow-rumped Honeyguide

One of Bhutan’s most sought after birds among the world birding community is the Yellow-rumped Honeyguide (Indicator xanthonotus). It is a small and pretty bird that is most often seen around colonies of beehives. It is called Yellow-rumped because it has a patch of yellow on its rump.

Yellow-rumped Honeyguide

Most believe that this bird feeds on honey. That is not true. It feeds on wax of the honeycombs. How it got its name is because some species of the Honeyguides (not those in Asia) has this uncanny ability to draw humans and bears to live beehives. Once the beehive is raided and honey taken out, the birds then feed on the wax.

These birds most often perch on plundered beehives, as you can see from the above image. These birds are brood parasites – given to laying their eggs in other birds’ nests mostly tree-hole breeders such as Barbets.

The above image was taken in Chaplechhu in Zhemgang. But I have a whole bunch of images acquired from Khaling, Trashigang.