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:


Saturday, March 16, 2024

10,000 Bird Species Seen …. and Counting!

Retired American diplomate - Mr. Peter G. Kaestner has recently been recognized as the first birder in the world to have seen 10,000 bird species. He achieved that recognition on 9th February, 2024 when he sighted the Orange-tufted Spiderhunter in Eastern Mindanao, the Philippines. This is an unbelievable 90% of all birds recorded in the worldthe latest version (14.1) of the IOC World Bird List lists a total of 11,194 species.

Orange-tufted Spiderhunter - Peter's milestone bird

I sent him the following mail – by way of CONGRATULATIONS:

Hi Peter,
I just read the news that you have become the first person in the world to see 10,000 bird species. I write to offer you my congratulations - This is certainly a rare achievement.

So, your bird count now stands at 10,002 as of today?

Bye and take care .... here is wishing that you will record some more birds .... although I know that your quest will get harder as you climb higher.

Bye and take care


Incredibly, he appears to have further improved his record, since!! In reply to my above congratulatory mail, his reply yesterday (15 March 2024, 11:41) informs me as follows:

Thank you so much for your thoughtful note. My number today is 10,011. And yes, it is getting harder as I see more birds.

What an achievement - this is close to one new bird every two days of his waking life!

I take pride in the fact that Bhutan, and I, have contributed in a small way towards Peter’s phenomenal record. During an official visit to Bhutan in October of 2009 (Peter was than the Deputy Ambassador of the USA in India), the Bhutanese Embassy in New Delhi and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Thimphu, requested me to help him sight two of his life birds – the world’s rarest heron: White-bellied Heron and the illusive Fulvous Parrotbill.

The Man and his two lifebirds recorded in Lekithang, Punakha and Dochu-La, Thimphu

In less than two days of his arrival in Bhutan, I guided him to sight both his lifebirds (some birders take a lifetime to sight their life birds - that is why they are called lifebirds - because sighting them is their life's quest). Please read all about it at:

It may not be fair to say that Peter is a lucky fellow to have been able to achieve this level of success …. Saying so would be to undermine his life-long passion, hard work and determination. Then again, an achievement at this level can only be attributed to luck ….. I mean it is an almost impossible achievement! But the fact remains that he did achieve it!

So then, is he a super being? May be not – but certainly he can qualify as super normal!

Thursday, March 14, 2024

The Dream Million $$ Deal That Never Was: FINAL PART IV

Five months on the ball, and I am yet again back to Phuntsholing - plodding the dusty corridors of the Corporate Headquarters of Tashi Group of Companies - hoping to break the ice. Mr. G C Bhura is proving to be a difficult person to meet - hopefully not on purpose. But I am not the type who will give up that easily - if I am good at anything at all - I am, at being dogged!

On the third day I managed to meet the God Almighty Mr. G C Bhura. He heard me out - my exhaustive research into the latest packaging material and technology, my trip to Singapore for a tie-up with Metal Box Singapore and our management’s decision to pursue the export potential, even if we had to invest in the enterprise.

After close to an hour of intense discussions, it became clear to me that the man was more interested in giving me the cock-and-bull story rather than see my point of view. He argued that he could not risk putting the entire eggs into a single basket. I countered that the Export Division of the Royal Government of Bhutan was willing to underwrite his company’s entire orange and mango juice production. We were willing to absolve him of all risks, with firm written commitments!

It became clear to me that the MD of the Group was leading me up the garden path ---- so I resolved to take the matter final notch up - to the owner himself! Sadly, Dasho Rimp seemed even more elusive. Two days into the endeavor, I still did not have a meeting with him. But I was willing to wait him out forever, if that was what it took!

Then on the morning of the fifth day of my doing the rounds of the Tashi Corporate office, one Indian official of the company struck up a conversation with me.

“Good Morning Sir …. I have noticed that you have been visiting our office for a number of days now. I understand that you are chasing a deal with our MD - for the export of our orange and mango juice to Europe”.

“Yes La, indeed I am trying to get your management to agree to export your produce … but I have a hard time convincing the MD. So I am now hoping to take the matter to the owner. I hope to be able to convince him that there is a good deal to be had”.

“I fear that you will never have a deal”.

“Why not? I am offering the best of terms that will benefit not only the company, but also the country as well”.

“Sir, you have to understand that there are forces at play that are outside your fathoming. The opposition you will face will be near impossible.”

“What kind of forces and what kind of opposition?”

“Sir, can you keep a secret?”

“Yes, I can”

“Diverting our produce to a none-traditional market would be tantamount to depriving the Lord of the Harvests the First Fruits that He had traditionally claimed as his due. Take it from me ---- you will face the stiffest of resistance. I believe that you are wasting your time”.

To The Lord must be offered the first harvests

I was aghast!

“Are you sure that you mean what I understand you mean? And who is the Lord of the Harvests?”

“Yes Sir, I mean exactly what I am implying. As to who the Lord of the Harvest is, I will leave that to your imagination”.

Saying that the man sauntered off - leaving me totally dumb struck! - effectively ending my five months’ chase of the million dollars export dream.

What the man implied, in no uncertain terms, was that someone powerful was skimming it off the top and that he would never allow a deal that I was after, because that would mean that his fruit basket would be left with a gaping hole.

I did not need any further convincing - of the futility of any further endeavors.


END NOTE: This wasn’t the only incidence where I was faced with the cruel facts of life. I was faced with a similar situation - in the case of Food Corporation of Bhutan (FCB). But in this case, I didn’t take it lying down – simply because FCB is a public enterprise and their first obligation is to the nation and the people of Bhutan. I brought powerful muscle to bear on them - eventually they had to surrender every single bag of cardamom I desired. In time, export of Brown Jacket Cardamom went on to rank as the largest exportable surplus - and the highest grosser of foreign exchange for the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Monday, March 11, 2024

The Dream Million $$ Deal That Never Was: PART III

Preparing to head for the scheduled meeting with the Marketing Head of Metal Box Singapore, I am looking out the window of my hotel - the Miramar Hotel. I am amazed - during my last visit in 1979, I was kept awake half the night by the roar of the bike gang that then ruled Singapore’s streets - called the Hellrider Gangs - the piercing din of the unsilenced bikes was unbearable. Now the bikes were nowhere to be seen or heard. I am told the government clamp down on the gangs was so complete and effective that they were now off the streets. That is how effective and iron-fisted uncle Lee Kwan Yew was!

Sitting across the Marketing Manager of Metal Box Singapore, I outlined my need and aspirations to the man who immediately realized that I was a complete novice in the field of packaging. But like the good marking man that he was, he laboriously explained to me the whole process of canning and what is involved - processes, machineries, approximate costs etc.

He explained to me that the cans as we knew then were made of thin steel sheets plated with a thin layer of tin. The cans are supplied in flattened state – to reduce bulk during shipment. At the juice factory the flattened cans are run through a kind of spindle machine that opens the tins up to a round shape….. thereafter rest of the processes are completed, including filling, sealing, printing and labeling of the cans etc.

Sprucing up rusty tin can - Preparing for the European Market

I realized that it was not going to be as simple as I had thought. In particular I realized that a number of automated machines needed to be acquired and installed at the factory - operators trained etc. It was going to be daunting but by NO MEANS IMPOSSIBLE!

Back in the office in Calcutta - I explained the whole rigmarole to my boss. He was aghast! He did not think that we should get into it - he felt that it was outside of our mandate.

I argued that someone had to do it - the factory wasn’t willing to do it. So, since we were charged with the responsibility of exports, it fell upon us to take the initiative. For me, here was an opportunity to boost the country’s exports, that too by being able to export to a developed country - so I told him that I was willing to take on the challenge.

My boss: OK then - you get on it pronto - it is your baby.

And I was ready for it - if I had the guts to conspire to thwart the global trade embargo on the South African Apartheid Regime, this was child’s play 😛

Sunday, March 10, 2024

The Dream Million $$ Deal That Never Was: PART II

Even before the swing-door closed behind the departing CEO of Arvid Nordquist HAB, I was into the office of my boss – to appraise him of the absolutely incredible conversation I had with the owner of the Swedish super-market chain.

For my Division - The Export Division - the possibility of export at such a scale was totally mind boggling!  Thus, quite obviously, the management resolved that I should forthwith start work on it - yesterday! - if it were possible. Unlike today, during the good old days, exports were the thing - we gave our all to export whatever we could - including the lowly milled wooden broomsticks.

Next day I departed for Samchi, where the juice factory was located. The conversation with the management of the factory was a none-starter - I was appalled by the total indifference to the exciting idea of exports of their produces. Instead, I was told that all marketing directives emanated at the factory’s HQ, based in Phuntsholing.

Next stop: Phuntsholing HQ of Bhutan Fruit Products Private Limited, owned by the Tashi Group of Companies. Here, too, the marketing team remained unimpressed. I was told to meet the MD of the Group – the late Mr. G C Bhura. I did.

He heard me out - with visible nonchalance. He agreed that my proposal would be a year-round assurance of market for the company’s orange and mango juices - but he expressed the view that he did not see a need to improve the packaging - he said that the market accepted their produces in its existing form and state.

I said the export market did not! He said - well, they were not so enamored by the export market - that they were doing quite OK as they were.

I argued that it was inevitable - that they were bound to have to do it at one point - that their current process was pre-historic. He agreed, but said that it was something in the future - while I was talking of the now and the present. He suggested that I might speak to the owner of the Group – late Dasho Rimp.

Next stop Dasho Rimp: He read me the book on his management philosophy. He said that the Group’s MD was at the head of decision-making chain - he said I should speak with G C Bhura.

Back to G C Bhura. This time, I threw in a sweetener to the deal - I offered the possibility of financial participation in the modernization of their plant’s packaging unit - if he agreed to abandon their existing system. He said that they could consider it - but that he needed convincing that I had money where my mouth was.

I returned to my base and put the cards on the table before my management: we could most likely have a deal - provided we helped with the modernization of the packaging unit - financially.

My boss said: How is it possible for the government to participate financially, in a private enterprise. I said why not? - doing so could result in millions of dollars in export earnings that would be to the benefit of the government.

But all things considered - I had a bigger problem facing me - I did not know a thing about juice canning plants - how much it costs and who supplied the machinery, including who supplied the empty cans, the technology, the process etc. etc.

My management’s decision: I should study the matter in depth. After a long-drawn market research, I came up with The Metal Box Company Limited, Singapore (since ceased) – the then world leaders in the manufacture and supply of tin cans for the juicing industry.

Destination: The Lion City

Destination Singapore! This will be my second trip to Singapore – my first was in 1979 when the only Super Market I knew that existed in Singapore then was the Plaza Singapura (last I know, it still exists) which I visited - strictly for window shopping – no Tiru to go beyond that 😢.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

The Dream Million $$ Deal That Never Was: PART I

As a surviving member of the dream-weaver troupe from Bhutan’s golden years - the early 80’s - I have memories of both success and toil that give courage and hope during these tumultuous times of uncertainty and doubt. It was a time when we faced challenges head on - rather than abandon ship by bolting to distant shores. It was a time when we exported Raw Timber Logs to Switzerland, Gum Rosin to South Africa, Milled Wooden Rods to Germany, Brown Jacket Cardamom to the Middle East and Pakistan, Woven Textiles to Sweden, and Fresh Fruits to Bangladesh and Thailand.

Simple was not simple and strange was stranger than fiction. The following narrative from that era should be good for some chuckles.

One fine morning during 1981-82, a suited-booted, dignified looking gentleman was ushered into my office located at 51, Tivoli Court, Calcutta, India. He introduced himself as the CEO of a family-owned Swedish company called Arvid Nordquist HAB.

I cannot remember his name - but the man gingerly placed an empty can of Druk brand Mango Juice on my table, while telling me;

“I want to import this brand of juices into Sweden and sell it through my chain of stores spread across the whole of Europe. I understand your office handles Bhutan’s external trade”.

“Indeed Sir ---- we do. Please take a seat.”

“Your Druk brand of Orange and Mango Juices are absolutely super - the taste and flavor are better than anything I have ever tasted before in my life”.

“Thank You Sir ….. I am glad that you like the juices - we produce them from top quality, naturally grown raw materials, without the use of additives. We would be happy to export them to you. What kind of quantities do you have in mind?”

“I will take every single can of the juices you produce in your factory ---- all year round.”

I gawked at the man in disbelief - he was dead serious!

“Sir, I will need few days to discuss the matter with the management at the factory - details like quantity, price, regularity of supply etc. etc. Can I get back to you in about a week to ten days’ time?”

“One other detail though - will you accept palletized break-bulk cargo or does it have to be containerized shipments only?”

“Palletized containerized shipments only, please”.

The man wasn’t done:

“One other thing - the packaging of the juices is unacceptable. Rust is visible around the top and bottom of the can’s rims …. and the labelling is too crude - European consumers will not accept them in their present state of packaging. You need to improve them”.

“What is your suggestion?”

“I suggest that you migrate to canning the juices in pop-top, pre-printed aluminum or tin-coated steel sheet cans.”

“OK Sir ---- we will look into the matter and get back to you in about a week to ten days’ time”.

“OK … please work on it …. I really want to carry your produce in my stores ----- their taste is unmatched. You can understand that I have close to a hundred product managers to handle this kind of stuff …. But your juices are so good - I, the CEO, is personally talking to you”.

“We are greatly honored, Sir”.

Bhutan's entire production of orange and mango juices to be destined for the export market?  Dang hell! What a break!