Sunday, May 19, 2024

BHUTAN: The Emerging High Volume – Low Value Tourism Destination

Day before yesterday I was passing by Norzin Lam when I chanced upon a heart-breaking scene that ought not to be.

Four tourists were cramped inside a small Maruti Taxi – one of them was alighting – visibly irritated and profusely grumbling that she did not need to suffer this level of discomfort.

I wanted to photograph the scene – but decided against it because I believed that this would be tantamount to infringement of privacy – in addition to rubbing salt into the wound.


The legendary Lars-Eric Lindblad. He was a Swedish-American entrepreneur and explorer. He and his USA-based travel company - Lindblad Travel -  led the first-ever tour group to Bhutan in 1974. Supposedly the Darjeeling-based Jesuit Father
 Richard McDonald and his tour company Summit Tours introduced Lindblad to Bhutan.

Lindblad died of a sudden heart attack on 8th of July 1994. At the end, the man with an unputdownable pioneering spirit died a broken and bankrupt man - most likely caused by the penalty of US$ 75,000.00 (in addition to huge legal costs) imposed on his company by the government of USA - for conducting tours to Vietnam and Cambodia - two countries against which there was then a trade embargo imposed by the US government.

It is my belief that tour guides of yore -  the likes of Galing Ngawang Dorji and Sharchop Karchung of present day Lhomen Tours, including the then DoT official Sangey of Ha Wangcha would have had the good fortune to meet the legend.

I spoke about the plight of the tourists to a hapless tourism guide …. and he tells me that now the trained TCB guides are losing their jobs to taxi drivers – because apparently, they are now claiming to be able to provide the service which was earlier, by law, in the domain of the TCB trained and certified guides.

A week back, I was caught with my pants down - literally - inside the toilet of Thimphu’s Kaja Throm – because a friend in the tourism trade decided to call me at that precise moment – and kept me engaged for 10 minutes – grumbling endlessly about the lack of a photocopy machine at the tourist point of entry - to make a copy of his tourists’ papers that the officers needed to process their Entry Permits. The fuming friend wanted to know what the government was doing with the collection of the daily Sustainable Development Fee of US$100.00 per tourist per day – that they are unable to outfit their offices with the most basic, but important and essential office equipment – such as a photocopy machine? Seriously, there are barely four tourist entry points in the country – I mean how is it possible that the TCB or whoever is responsible – is not able to install 4 copiers in the whole of the country - to improve service and experience for the visiting tourists? For God’s sake – they can charge for the service and people will be happy to pay!

And we like to pride ourselves as a High Value, High End Tourism destination! Or, is it High Value – Low Volume Tourism? ---- So utterly confusing! Regardless of what the catch phrase is – we have now arrived at a point that is proving to be: High Volume – Low Value Tourism that is not accruing any benefit – not to the DRC, not to the RMA – and most definitely NOT TO THE INDUSTRY.


Thursday, May 16, 2024

A Well-Deserved Honor And Recognition

When I got to learn of the award of the title of Doctor of Philosophy to Lam Kezang Chhoephel by the Thames International University of France, I felt a sense of pride and triumph! To be chosen to rise head and shoulder above the teaming billions, particularly from a minuscule country that more than 99% of the human population would not have heard about - it is a praiseworthy achievement.

Dr. Lam Kezang Chhoephel

By no means I am competent, or even qualified, to pass judgment on his academic or scholastic abilities - I will leave that to people and organizations such as the Thames International University to decide. But I dare say that I have had a number of occasions when I was awestruck by his uncanny ability to provide answers to my questions that I most likely would not have gotten from anyone else in Bhutan, or elsewhere. He has unfailingly proven to be a source, and a depository, for a vast and uncommon knowledge and information on Bhutan and most things Bhutanese.

Over the years since I began my research journey in matters related to our ancient coinage, I have gotten used to making him my first stop - in the pursuit of answers and explanations. For sure he has enriched my documentation of Bhutan's coinage with rare terms such as: “Tsa-Thue”, “Karshapani”, “Ngingtang Ghatikap”, “Grab Tsring .... Grab Tsring”, “Luna Yar Mathop – Ghatika Mar Shorsong” etc. etc.

Thus, day before yesterday, I went to see Lam Kezang Chhoephel - to offer him my congratulatory Dhar. Along with it, I also offered him the following statue of the Golden Buddha gifted to me by the Most Venerable Lam Phra Kruba Bunchum Yannasangvaro Aranyavasi Bhikku of Thailand, in 2016. Certainly Lam Kezang is a more worthy person to own a sculpture of such exquisite craftsmanship:

The exquisite statue of the Golden Buddha

Upon being conferred the following Recognition, as of 14th April, 2024, Lam Kezang Chhoephel earns the right to be addressed as:

Dr. Lam Kezang Chhoephel

The Certificate of Award issued by the Thames International University, France

Dr. Lam Kezang Chhoephel makes us all proud!

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Bhutan's Tourism Industry: Disaster Foretold

During early 2022, a select group of BSTS Members met the Chair of the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) in his Chamber at the Gyelyong Tshokhang - in an effort to forestall the dismantling of Bhutan's globally celebrated tourism business model that worked successfully for close to half a century since its institution. This was one of the many desperate attempts made by a passionate group desperate to save the tourism industry from utter ruin - the last and final attempt was made on 22nd June, 2022 when we met the National Assembly's Economic and Finance Committee - in yet another attempted to save the industry from being driven into the ground.

During the Meeting with the Chair of the TCB, following points were submitted in writing:

------------------------

PITFALLS OF DISMANTLING THE MINIMUM DAILY PACKAGE RATE (MDPR)

Submitted to:
His Excellency (Dr) Lyonpo Tandi Dorji
Chair, Tourism Council of Bhutan

Copy to:
Director General
TCBs

Submitted by:
The Working Group Members
Bhutan Sustainable Tourism Society (BSTS)

Points in bullet form:  The Consequences

1. Influx of undesirable tourists
2. Massive decline in foreign exchange inflow
3. Rampant tax evasion – reduction in revenue to the exchequer
4. Hoteliers will suffer the most
5. Fronting – risk of external players taking over the country’s tourism business
6. Cultural dilution and environmental degradation
7. Decline in quality services/products and visitor experience
8. The preferred OPTION: increase in the MDPR

EXPANDED NARRATIVE
The pricing policy of Bhutan based on a Minimum Daily Package Rate (MDPR) is one of the unique features of Bhutan’s tourism development initiative that is held in great admiration by many countries.

In the pursuit of our tourism vision of ‘High Value Low Impact’, the MDPR remains the principal catalyst that has helped the tourism industry grow at an even pace and in the desired direction. Removing this tool would have long-term consequences on the government and the people of Bhutan.

In brief following are some of the obvious consequences:

1. Influx of undesirable tourists: Brand Bhutan has successfully positioned Bhutan as one of the top travel destinations. There is a huge desire in the market to visit Bhutan. So, when we have the opportunity to capitalize in choosing the top end market, removing the MDPR will only weaken this opportunity by making it easier for influx of undesirable tourists.

2. Massive decline in foreign exchange inflow: Presently tourism is the top foreign exchange earner. This is largely attributed to the implementation of the MDPR.

3. Rampant tax evasion: The application of the MDPR ensures that the business of tourism is well regulated and transparent. Removing it will open up opportunities for tax evasion.

4. Hoteliers will suffer the most: While every segment in the business chain will suffer, the hoteliers will stand to bear the major brunt, if the MDPR is removed. The current thinking that they would benefit will not be true. MDPR sets aside a reasonably good amount to meet the room cost. Removing the MDPR would mean the need to succumb to lower room rents considering the stiff competition between the hotels and other accommodation facilities.

5. Fronting: Fronting may already exist, albeit at a small scale. Dismantling the MDPR would encourage the emergence of external players who would begin to decide the direction of our tourism business. They become the masters.

6. Cultural dilution and environmental degradation: Unregulated tourism activities will pave the way for mass tourism and culturally/environmentally insensitive people to overwhelm the country. Our two main pillars of tourism – Nature and Culture will come under direct threat.

7. Decline in quality services/products and visitor experience: Removing the minimum pricing policy would lead to the emergence of negotiated payments with service providers and product developers. This would mean less earnings, resulting in poor service and visitor experience – a direct conflict to our professed tourism philosophy of ensuring high value and satisfying experience to the visitors.

Conclusion 
No system is perfect and we are aware that several problems do exist in the tourism sector. The problems can be addressed if we take an objective and focused approach on those issues but not at the cost of dismantling the MDPR. The MDPR needs to be understood as a tool to improve our services, protect our Brand Bhutan, and add value to the overall growth of sustainable/high value tourism. The success of the MDPR can be seen by the rapid increase in socio-economic development of our people. Believing that the MDPR is an impediment to the growth of tourism is a falsehood – at best it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the principals on which the concept was founded. On the other hand, what is true is that it has empowered the Bhutanese people to have control over tourism growth. Therefore, removing it would have dire consequences on the country and the people of Bhutan.

If ever a change is deemed necessary, the beneficial change would be to increase the MDPR even higher, from the existing level, which has remained unchanged for years.

A case in point – to demonstrate that the MDPR of US$250.00 is not a deterrent is the approach of the high-end hotel chains like the Aman Kora and the Six Senses. Their daily package rates range anywhere between US$1,500.00 – US$4,500.00. Thus, when our country has the potential and opportunity to tap into the high-end market why be foolish to pave way for adversity.
------------------------

Sadly, our above submission was entirely sidelined – the MDPR was consequently demolished – upon passing of the Tourism Levy Act of Bhutan 2022, by the National Assembly of Bhutan during its 29th Session (2nd June to 4th July, 2022.

It did not take too long for our near prophetic predictions to be proven right - the Kuensel, on 11th May, 2024, carried the following news report:

The truth of the failure - as reported by the Kuensel in their news report of 11.05.2024

You can see that we predicted – almost incident-by-incident – what would happen. Sadly, for us, it is not a matter for cheer. In fact, we mourn that we were so totally accurate in our predictions.

Now that the government has had a taste of their pudding, it is our hope that they would have the humility to accept that they have erred ….. that it is time to make amends so that the country’s most vital industry can begin to crawl back to life and its former glory.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

BHUTANESE TOURISM INDUSTRY's ANGST: We Told You So!

It is a pity - I ought to listen to my friends and their sound counsel more often than I am wont to do. One hundred and six (106) articles of relentless pursuit of the cause of Bhutan’s tourism …. and I have nothing to show for it. Friends tell me that there cannot be a greater fool than me - that even when it is clear as night and day that no one else gives a rat’s ass - I am still chasing the cause, and extolling the merits of, tourism. And yet, I like to think that if I knock long and hard enough …. the dead will likely eventually rise!

The country was forewarned - time and time again - of the eventuality of the following - under a dismantled MDPR scenario:

This was bound to happen! Even more sinister problems are fomenting with tacit approval of the government.

Under the MDPR regime, the above would have NEVER arisen. The MDPR protected both the tourists and the operators, including the entire gamut of players in the tourism business chain - from incidences of none payment or from none-delivery of promised services. The taxman remained assured that there would be no cases of evasion - the industry was fully under the control and grip of the national operators - rather than in the hands of the carpetbaggers from outside which is rumored to be NOW the trend in Bhutan’s tourism industry.

Today there are rumblings of cash dealings - resulting in unrecorded, clandestine transections that cannot be detected - unlike in the past under the MDPR regime. I am told that some government agencies are perplexed by the severe dip in inflow of foreign exchange and tax collection - despite the government’s claim of a quantum jump in tourist arrivals.

The government and the TCB cannot feign ignorance because they were forewarned - on countless occasions, including with a Note that was submitted to them many months before the passage of the ruinous Tourism Levy Act of Bhutan 2022 which, in part, read as follows:

Conclusion 
No system is perfect and we are aware that several problems do exist in the tourism sector. The problems can be addressed if we take an objective and focused approach on those issues but not at the cost of dismantling the MDPR. The MDPR needs to be understood as a tool to improve our services, protect our Brand Bhutan, and add value to the overall growth of sustainable/high value tourism. The success of the MDPR can be seen by the rapid increase in socio-economic development of our people. Believing that the MDPR is an impediment to the growth of tourism is a falsehood - at best it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the principals on which the concept was founded. On the other hand, what is true is that it has empowered the Bhutanese people to have control over tourism growth. Therefore, removing it would have dire consequences on the country and the people of Bhutan. 

If ever a change is deemed necessary, the beneficial change would be to increase the MDPR even higher, from the existing level, which has remained unchanged for years.”

Will the government finally listen to the voices of the sane and the knowledgeable? A sitting government’s responsibility includes dismantling past evils - trying to get away by saying that they did not do it is - LAME!

Monday, May 6, 2024

Journey of Mercy & Optimism

This was a journey of hope and mercy that I ought to have made by mid-February this year. But life teaches us to accept that compromise is the rule - that there will always be occasions when IMMEDIATE is more pressing than URGENT. Anyway, I was finally able to make my long overdue journey to the fabled Trashiyangtse - on the 1st of May, 2024.

On this trip I did not carry my bird photography gear because as a bird photographer, it dawned on me early in life that fundamental to my journeys will always be the fulfillment of my life’s passion - bird photography. Photography will always be my final destination! On this trip I needed to remain focused on making it to my geographical destination in time ---- and make the return journey without any distractions.

I had the opportunity to finally test out the recent phenomenal gift of the mirrorless Canon R5 camera body. Coupled with a 200mm zoom lens, I shot the distant image of Gangkhar Puensoom from atop Shingner, above Ura in Bumthang. The following massively cropped image will testify to the competence of the famed camera body that boasts one of the highest megapixels of any Canon camera body.

The above image of Gangkhar Puensoom was shot with a 200mm Canon Zoom Lens from atop Shingner in Ura, Bumthang. In order to test its sharpness and resolution, the original image was cropped by about 60%. As can be seen, even at this level of cropping, the image comes through extremely sharp and smooth!

At Trashiyangtse, I photographed the famous Chorten Kora. I wasn’t so terribly enamored by the Chorten because I had visited the place many times in the part – the first time was when I was just 11 years old!

The famed Chorten Kora located in Trashiyangtse. It has a unique annual cultural festival during which time even Dakpas from Tawang in Arunachal Pradhesh of India come visiting.

On my return journey yesterday, I stopped by the wayside - past Rukubji - to record the following photograph of a signboard of a Solar Farm under construction.


The changing face of Bhutan's energy production landscape. Looks like solar energy is going to be an important part of our focus - compact, manageable in terms of size, financing and technology, faster return on investment, less perilous in terms of financial and political bondage etc. Although claimed to be less harmful to the environment, it is a claim that I am not yet prepared to accept whole-heartedly. I think there are aspects that we are ignoring. Still, I believe that harnessing the power of the sun is the lesser evil way of doing things.

The above project - coupled with a few other ongoing installations that I have noticed around the country, encourages me to believe that Bhutan is now onto a new phase in our aspirations in the area of energy production. The phenomenal surge in domestic consumption of electricity and the shift away from the traditional method of energy production and financing, tells me that we have encouraging future ahead of us. I hope we stay the course.

On a different note, I am happy that I have finally been able to deliver the promised gift of a complete set of bird photography camera gear for use by the students of Trashiyangtse Primary School – to vitalize their Birdwatching Club started by their teacher Lopon Tandin Wangdi.

The gift was made even more meaningful - by the fact that it was gifted on 2nd of May - a day celebrated in Bhutan as Teachers’ Day.

But I came back a worried man. The primary purpose of my trip was to deliver assistance to three little school girls in Trashiyangtse. It is not that they were found wanting in any way - they are all growing up to be healthy, responsible girls. But I can see that a situation is developing - quite naturally and normally - that has me worried for the future. It is a situational development that I cannot interfere with - it has to - and it will come to pass - as a natural progression of life. But in its passing, the disruption of life and living that it will cause - that is what is worrying me. Sadly, as of now, I am not prepared - rather, I am not sure how I should go about tackling the problem that is imminent.

Monday, April 29, 2024

Taking A Break

Here are some bird images all of which were acquired from the forests in and around Dechencholing, Thimphu during the COVID-19 pandemic period.


Brown Parrotbill

Crested Bunting

Himalayan Bluetail

Plumbeous Water Redstart (Juvenile)

Red-vented Bulbul

Rufous-vented Tit


Ultramarine Flycatcher

Yellow-breasted Greenfinch

Acquiring bird images with the least bit of cluster around it requires patience and skill. But frankly, if you have already acquired the skills, obviously you have gone through lots of patience. 😀

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

A Burden We Need

Even as the Tiger Conservation Conference is taking place in Paro, let us look at some passion that has been expanded ---- in an effort to do our share in the conservation and promotion of tigers’ right to free life and passage in a minuscule pocket of the earth, called Bhutan.


My fight to halt the Shingkhar-Gorgan Road construction that would have imperiled the global initiative to conserve the tiger population started in 2011, running into 16 blogs so far. You can read all the articles at the following:


I am happy that a renewed tiger conservation effort is being initiated in Bhutan. Lest we forget, as the host country, it gives us added responsibility - a burden that we need: to keep us on the lean and the straight.

Image of a Tiger Lamp put together for the Conference - sourced from PemC of Yeewong Magazine, Bhutan

Buddhist scriptures tell us that the tigers lived in Bhutan as far back as the 10th Century, if not earlier. We have to ensure that they continue to do so until the end of time.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

TOURISM: Confusion & Misunderstanding Galore!

It is truly heartbreaking - the level of confusion and misunderstanding in the government, surrounding tourism. Take, for instance, the following report in TheBhutanese:


The government asserts that “they are ready to provide subsidy for tourism marketing”. To my knowledge, no such plea was ever made to the government by the tourism industry. Such a request would be baseless because the industry is in no confusion whatsoever - between the usefulness of “Marketing” as opposed to the long-standing need for “Promotion”.

And, to set the record straight, the tourism industry was never in opposition of the imposition of higher SDF – in fact the popular view among the stakeholders has always been that it was about time that the SDF was enhanced to a more appropriate level. Thus, there is no need for the government to caution the industry that they are “not willing to change SDF related policies”.

Who is asking for it?

Also, just to be sure that everybody is on the same page, no government help was ever sought to change anything that did not need changing. The industry’s submission has been that they change “only those policies that absolutely needed changing”.

Brand Bhutan needs no marketing. In the most far flung regions of the world, Bhutan is celebrated for our pristine environment, stunning snow-laden mountain peaks, uninterrupted biological corridors for the severely threatened wild tigers to roam freely, smiling people, exceptional variety of rare avifauna; as a country reputed to be among the only carbon negative nations of the world and, for our enduring image as a country where GNH flourishes unabated.

Brand BHUTAN is shining like the Sirius in the night sky - what has sorely been lacking is targeted P~R~O~M~O~T~I~O~N!! But that has so far been a dream consigned to another lifetime.

On June 22, 2022 even as the catastrophic Tourism Levy Bill of Bhutan 2022 was at the verge of being passed into law - Bhutan’s only sustainable tourism specialist went on record, through the KUENSEL, to ask boldly:

“Are we in a tourism crisis or are we creating one?”

Alas! the timely note of warning was ignored; the ruinous Tourism Levy Act of Bhutan 2022 was passed into law, and the all-important tourism industry was driven into the ground - in its wake dashing dreams and robbing livelihoods and triggering exodus of human migrations that we can never ever hope to reverse!

Tourism is an economic activity that keeps every hearth burning, every door open, every dream within reach, every hope alive and every wail of anguish and pain subdued.

Irresponsibility in this sector is criminal.

Friday, April 19, 2024

The Era Of RUBBING!

This morning I was treated to a mail dating back to mid-1973. Attached to that mail, typed on a plain white paper with manual mechanical typewriter, was an image of a Bhutanese copper Maartang dating back to late 1800 - early 1900. I think the Indian collector - since dead - then based in Kalimpong, India was hoping to sell the coin to some Western collectors of Bhutanese coins.

I was truly tickled, in the manner the image of the coin was reproduced - it was replicated on plain white paper by the process of RUBBING. Imagine!! There were no photocopies, scanners or even mobile phones or affordable camera to capture the image ---- people had to resort to vigorous rubbing of the coins to reproduce an acceptable image of the coins they wanted to show to interested collectors located across the seven seas. These days we have all sorts of devices to capture an image - in a flash of a second.

The following is the rubbing of the Bhutanese Copper Maartang that was sent to a collector based in Europe, by AIR MAIL, on 16th May, 1973 - more than half a century back:

Image of the coin produced by rubbing of the coins obverse and reverse - image made in May of 1973

The following is the image of the same exact copper Maartang that is in my collection - captured with Canon’s professional class digital camera model EOS-1Ds Mark III, that can churn out images at a whooping 21.1 megapixel!

Image of the same Copper Maartang, digitally captured, in August 21, 2017

The above coin will be included in my upcoming coin book - it will be one among a group of 15 copper coins labeled Ser Nya Maartang - after the pair of Gold Fish depicted on the coin’s obverse side.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Whimper Of The MICE

It is sad - all that the collective brilliance of the RGoB, the DoI and the DoT - managed to do with their MICE Policy, is to put the proverbial Cart before the Horse - a dead one at that!


All dressed up in my Sunday best .... but nowhere to go

It is not my intention to rub salt into the wound but it is apparent that there is total misunderstanding of the purpose behind the government’s promulgation of the MICE policy.

MICE Tourism has to be seen as an important, and as an essential diversification, to our limited tourism product offering. If that is how it is to be viewed, why is it looked upon as something of a Soelra (gift)?

The MICE policy is, no doubt, a veiled attempt at stimulating visitor numbers. Then why are spouses of the participants not included in the rules? My own sense is that MICE tourism will work - we have the necessary conditions: peaceful, unhurried, clear blue skies, azure rivers meandering through lush green valleys, clean fresh air and, above all, NO HONKING!

MICE events are tax deductible and corporate sponsored events. Thus, participants to the event do not bear the cost - their employers do. Therefore, it is expected that there will be vigorous participation to the events.

A participant not accompanied by his spouse will share a room with another participant. On the other hand, MICE participants accompanied by spouses will need to be accommodated in double occupancy rooms - thereby contributing to doubling the numbers and higher spending. No way you can allow the women lot to be left behind - who will do the shopping at the Craft Bazaar?

Think like a Finance Manager - not an Accountant.

Sadly, it would appear that the RGoB’s cluelessness seems to be rubbing off to some of the industry players as well - look at the following confusion of the HRAB, reported in TheBhutanese:


The HRAB attributes it to the superior competence of the actors across the border - for the dramatic fall in hotel room occupancy. Nothing can be further from the truth!!!!

From my point of view, the falling numbers should be attributed to the twin disasters caused by:

a.  DrukAir’s atrociously high airfare - causing wholesale diversion of tourist traffic to points of entry
     - away from the traditional point of landing - Paro.

b.  Introduction of the Tourism Levy Act of Bhutan 2022 that went on to demolish a brilliant
     business philosophy called: MDPR. For over half a century, the MDPR ensured that the
     government, including every tourist, every tour operator and every player in the tourism business
     chain stood to benefit from a policy that was the envy of the whole world - in its ingenuity and fair play.

Alas! now the fix-all formula is touted as the magic number of 300,000 tourist arrivals by the year end!

To be fair, it is not impossible to achieve the number - but the question that has so far REMAINED MUTE, is:

TO WHOSE BENEFIT?

Will the targeted number improve the DRC’s tax collection? Will foreign exchange inflow improve? Will the promised increase in tourist arrivals prevent exodus of tour operators and guides to Australia and, grudgingly, to Canada and the Middle East? Will the numbers contribute to a jump in the Bhutanese tour operators’ income? Will the hotel owners see a quantum jump in their profits because of increased room occupancy? Or will their income dip even further, as a result of heightened competition in a situation where cash dealing is rampant and kick-back in one form or the other is now becoming an industry norm?

You can bet your last broken Chhetrum that no such thing will happen! The DrukAir will ensure that tourist traffic is continually diverted to competing operators and markets, while the current tourism policy will continue to encourage tax evasion and business outflow.

And sadly, unaware and unknown to the uncaring world, the phallus carver from remote Lhingzhi who used to sit by the road side in Chubachu carving wooden phalluses, has quietly passed away into the nether world - because his supply of alcohol ran out - because there were no tourists to buy his wooden phalluses that was his lifeline.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

The Mutating Ngueltang

I was quite content to accept that Bhutan’s earliest coin was called Ngingtum Ghatikab – old coin from Ghatika. Its credentials were impeccable – its place of birth – Ghatika, a small hamlet in the erstwhile Koch Kingdom - is still in existence in India’s West Bengal District. In 1906, on his return journey from Calcutta, India, Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck - then Trongsa Poenlop - is supposed to have visited a mint in Ghatika - ostensibly to explore possibilities of improving the quality of his variety of coins.

Bhutanese coins find their origins in the Koch Kingdom’s Silver Narayani and, above all, the Ngingtum Ghatikab has all the qualifying birthmarks – such as the Bhutanese alphabets andselectively inscribed on its obverse and reverse. Even the metal used in the production of the coin is spot on – silver.

That all changed when someone knowledgeable suggested to me that the term “Ngingtum” could also mean “Precious Coin” – depending on how the word is spelt. It turns out that the Bhutanese spell the word in two different ways:

Old Coin

The other acceptable way to spell the word – depending on what is implied - is:

Precious Coin

Certainly, I see merit in both the points of view. However, when I began to tumble and flip the ideas in my mind – I came up with a third, even more credible, possibility - “Ngueltum”:


Silver Coin

I reasoned that the coin was fashioned out of silver. To the people who conceived the idea of the coin, if a name were needed for the coin, the most obvious would have been “Silver Coin” – because it is a coin made of silver. They could not have thought up “Old Coin” – because it was not old – it was brand new. “Precious Coin” would be overstating the obvious – I mean money is precious, that is something everyone knows.

So, until something more convincing starts to confuse me yet again, I am going to call our oldest coin – Ngueltang Ghatikab: Silver Coin from Ghatika. That would be in keeping with what is currently in vogue – we call our money “Ngultrum” – although a shamefully misconceived nomenclature, in addition to being wrongly spelt!

Our Nu.5 bank note, along with all the rest of the other notes, should have been correctly spelt as:


The following is how we spell the word now:


May be the people are right – it is a definite sign that the quality of our education has dropped! I had always held the view that it is not the quality of education that has dropped .... but that the quality of our children has dropped. Looks like I have to accept that the people may be right, after all!

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Record of Earliest Metal Currency in Bhutan

For me the burning question that takes precedence over when coins were first struck in Bhutan is the question: when did coins first appear in Bhutan? The answer, according to what is generally accepted is: 1619. It is written that during that year, Zhabdroong Ngawang Namgyel visited Chapcha in Chhukha Dzongkhag at which time there is an elaborate written account of the Koch Kingdom’s “Gyalpo Pema Narayan” having offered him the following Buelwa (offering):


List of Buelwa made to Zhabdroong Ngawang Namgyal by Gyalpo Pema Narayan of Cooch Behar

The Gyalpo under reference would have to be Maharaja Prana Narayan – and not Pema Narayan as quoted.

However, there are serious problems with the above record, as follows:

Firstly, it is not possible that the Zhabdroong would have had the luxury of time to go preaching in Chapcha, having arrived Bhutan less than three years earlier – in 1616. It is generally accepted that he was busy subjugating the recalcitrant Lam Kha Nga, including warding off the repeated invasions from the North by the Tibetans, in an effort to regain possession of the holy Rangjoong Kharsapani which Zhabdroong had carried off, upon his fleeing Tibet.

Secondly, according to dependable written records, Prana Narayan ruled the Koch Kingdom between 1626 and 1665. This means it is not possible that Prana Narayan would have made the above Buelwa offering in 1619!

If it was indeed Prana Narayan - and it appears that it was him who made the Buelwa - our historical records yet again goes for a toss! It means that Zhabdroong Ngawang Namgyal’s visit to Chapcha would have to have been made in, or after, 1626. If this is true, then we will need to rewrite our history yet again – we will have to record that the earliest coins entered Bhutan in the year 1626 or thereafter.

It is quite possible that a Tibetan contemporary may have made a noting of the Zhabdroong's visit to Chapcha - I am currently pursuing that angle. If anyone can speak with authority on the subject - it would be that person - namely: Tsang Khenchen Pelden Gyatsho.

Whichever year is the correct year, one thing is beyond doubt - one of the coins that would have been offered to Zhabdroong, as part of the Buelwa, would have to have been the following Silver Tangka issued by the Koch Kingdom's Gyalpo Naranarayan, in the year 1555, upon his coronation as the second Koch King.


The above Silver Tangka of Naranarayan of Koch Kingdom (a copy of which is in my collection and will be featured in my book under the category "Foreign Coins Used in Bhutan) was acquired from a family in one of the villages under Chhukha Dzongkhag adjacent to the erstwhile Buxa Duar. According to the past President of the Indian Numismatic Society, the coin is the absolute first copy of the silver Tangka issued by Maharaja Naranarayan.

Friday, March 29, 2024

My Labor of Love

My fanatical efforts towards the production of a coin book on Bhutan’s coining journey - from the earliest time to 1954 - has consumed me for the past more than fifteen years. Alas! Had I known that it would turn out to be such a stupendous challenge, I wouldn’t have touched it with a mile-long pole.

History spanning over 3 centuries neatly wrapped up in cute little cloth pouches.

Like a vigilant sentry standing guard, at the right bottom edge is the copper version of the weighty Norzang Phubchen - the first Bhutanese coin to bear 100% Bhutanese motif - reputedly introduced by Choetse Poenlop Jigme Namgyel towards late 1800.

My interest in the subject began when I realized how beguiling the journey of our coinage was – I was enthralled and captivated by the mystery and the intrigue surrounding our primordial hammered coins. Notwithstanding the bizarre theories and conjectures surrounding the issue, nothing was certain about them - no single person could say with certainty when the journey began, where it began, and how it began, including why it began.

The British East India Company officials accused our coins of being spurious, and grossly debased. The best of the acknowledged authorities on the subject confused the coins’ obverse for reverse, and vice versa. Some called them Pice, while others baptized them Rupee. Even our own Bhutanese people continue to confuse the term Trum for “Tang”. In fact, most of them are clueless about the origin of the term.

Until the early 1900s, the coins were not denominated. To this day, no one can say with certainty which of the then ruling authorities issued which of our over hundred coin varieties. Ofcourse, theories abound - but they remain merely theories, without any credible substance. Almost 95% of our hammered coins carry foreign motifs, including names of foreign rulers.

For a country that has no record of monetary transections – neither for trade nor for payment of debts, Bhutan boasts of over a hundred variety of metal currencies of different shapes and sizes. If that were not enough, currencies of close to ten foreign countries entered our country – since as far back as the early 1600s.
Koch Kingdom's first of the earliest Silver Tangka issued by Koch King Naranarayana in the year 1555AD, upon his enthronement as the King of Cooch Bihar.

I have this coin in my collection - acquired from a family in Chhukha Dzongkhag adjoining Cooch Bihar.

I have pored through tens of thousands of coins smeared with many centuries of grime and soot; I have read through thousands of pages of historical records relating to coins and coining, spanning close to a dozen countries that bear relevance to our coinage. I have subjected all of the coins in my collection to the goldsmith’s searing fire and flame; washed them and brushed them and rubbed them to a sparkling shine. I perfected the art of photographing coins - over three years - I went so far as to rig up a willowy brass pedestal for photographing them in all their splendor.

I am now almost - I repeat, almost ready to hang up my boots and get on with the job of publishing. But why do I get this sneaky feeling that I may yet again be drawn back to that world of misgiving and doubt?

Lets see!

Friday, March 22, 2024

Mr. Narendra Modi’s Visit to Bhutan

I cannot remember when Bhutan was so gripped by a sense of dread – as it is this very minute – at the possibility that the visit of the Indian Prime Minister His Excellency Shri Naredra Modi might yet again be postponed. To the disappointment of hundreds of thousands of Bhutanese who were eagerly awaiting his arrival, it has already happened once before. A second time would be twice too many!

That Mr. Modi is loved and valued in Bhutan is amply evident in the elaborate reception that has been planned for his much-awaited arrival. On a visit to Paro two days back – I was WOWED by the endless string of welcome flags that have been strung up – all the way to Paro – a staggering 57 KMs distance! I tried to keep count of the Welcome Gates that dot the landscape – between Thimphu to Paro – after 6, I lost count!

One of the first activities I performed upon putting on my mobile phone early this morning was to scan the Weather Forecast – I was pleased that the weather was going to be fine – from now to all the way to 12 noon. That is all I cared – after Mr. Modi lands, the Choichongs (as Mr. Sangay of Haa Wangcha would put it) can do what they damn well please.

The heavens are smiling!

Looks like I am not the only one anxious about the morning’s weather – Dasho Kuenzang Wangdi also sent out a groggy looking photograph in our group chat - of the sky south to his domicile – a patch of blue peeping out the otherwise cloud-spangled sky. He remarked:

Sunshine