“My dear Apa, Jigme has just mentioned to me the case of Pichhi Wangyal, a Bhutanese Veterinary Surgeon, who lost his life during the Gyantse flood last year.” Writes N. K Rustomji in a letter to Shri Apa B. Pant. “His wife has not even received any Provident Fund, Gratuity or Pension.”

In Bhutan, Rustomji was lovingly referred to as Uncle. Uncle wrote the letter from Paro on 30th June 1955. He was on his way to Bumthang to attend a royal wedding. Apa Pant was his boss and the Political Officer in Gangtok.

En-route, on the morning of 9 July, Uncle had met the wife of the Bhutanese Veterinary Surgeon. He said that she not only raised the matter about her husband but also pressed him to expedite the matter, stating her difficulties.

In Uncle’s letter to his boss, he wrote: “At Ha, I met amongst others, the wife of a Bhutanese Veterinary Surgeon who had lost his life during the floods in Indian trading post at Gyantse in Tibet during the previous year and whose family had not yet received any pension or gratuity. I took up the matter at once with the Government of India for the grant of immediate relief.”

Uncle’s letter contains more details on the deceased and his family. Pichhi’s [Bjitsi] had served the Government of India for over 20 years and was posted in Gyantse. The letter talks about a son of the deceased who was studying at Kalimpong and Bjitsi’s three other children in Haa.

It seems that the veterinary surgeon’s wife’s request worked. Uncle was sympathetic in his letter and wrote, “You can imagine her difficulties, and also the bad impression created through so much delay in settling this case.”

Uncle said that he would be grateful if Apa Pant could take up the matter urgently. He suggested that if the Provident Fund, gratuity or pension is likely to be further delayed to arrange some further temporary relief.

After the disaster, the wife was given Rs. 400 as emergency relief but nothing more since then.

Apa Pant who was based in Gangtok received Uncle’s letter on 28th June. In his reply dated July 9, he wrote, “about the provident fund of Pichhi [Bjitsi]  Wangyal, we are already pressing the Government of India for necessary decision.”

Who was Pichhi Wangyal?

In Haa, the Bhutanese Veterinary Surgeon, Pichhi Wangyal was known as Babu Bjitsi (1907-1954). He married Aum Kachi (1912-1972) also from the Haa valley.

Together, they had five children; two sons and three daughters.  Major Kesang Norbu (1937-2009) was the oldest child. He was studying at the SUMI school (Scottish Universities Mission Institution) in Kalimpong at the time his father was washed away in the Gyantse flood.

The Major joined the Royal Bhutan Army and retired to serve as the Managing Director of the Army Welfare Project.

Babu’s three daughters from his wife Aum Lham were Sonam Zam, Lham Tshering and Tshering. His youngest child and second son was Tashi Tobgay.

From Uncle’s letters, we know that Babu Bjitsi worked in Gyantse for 20 years. This means that he would have gone to Gyantse in 1934.

While there are no reports on how the Babu landed up in Gyantse, his grandson Ugen Penjor Norbu believes that the Bhutan government had sent his grandfather to Tibet on deputation.

Ugen, who is the son of Major Kesang Norbu, heard stories of how his grandfather was nearing the end of his tenure and preparing to return home. According to oral stories, he heard his grandfather was returning from a farewell party when the flood unleashed its fury.

The Gyantse Flood

The 1954 Great Gyantse flood wreaked havoc. The Nyang River breached its banks and claimed many lives and destroyed property in the town.

By discharge, the Nyang River is the second largest tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo River. In India, the river is known as the Brahmaputra.

In the book, “The Medical History of Bhutan,” it is mentioned that the flood destroyed 170 villages, injured 16,000 people and drowned 690 people.

Back then, Gyantse was the third-largest town. The British had a trade agent stationed there. Historically, it is one of the most prominent Tibetan frontier towns.

Founded around the 14th century, the town was earlier known as Shel Kar Gyantse or the Victorious Hill of the White Crystal Pillar.

According to British Trade Agent of Gyantse and Yatung, David Macdonald, the pillar was first erected within the fort itself, but after several years of flood due to the Nyang River, near which the town stands, overflowing its banks the lamas decided to move the pillar to the opposite side of the stream, where it was thought that its magic influence might keep the water to its proper channel.

Like Aum Kachi’s husband, the parents of Dr Tshewang Pemba (1932- 2011) were among the 690 people that lost their lives in the Gyantse flood.

The doctor was one of the earliest biomedical doctors in the Himalayas. He was sent to England in 1949 to study medicine at University College, London and graduated in 1955, becoming the first Tibetan doctor in western medicine.

Still in England when his parents lost their lives in the 1954 disaster, he decided not to return to Tibet after graduation, choosing instead to work in Kalimpong where he met Bhutan’s then Prime Minister who persuaded him to work in Bhutan.

Background Story 

In September 1918, Gongzim Sonam Tobgay Dorji had requested the Superintendent of the Civil Veterinary Department in Bengal to supply Bhutan with serum and three sets of instruments for inoculating 500 cattle.

In the Superintendent’s reply, he said that serum could not be supplied except for use by qualified veterinary graduates. He explained that should any mistake be made in diagnosis or any ill effects follow from the improperly performed inoculation, owners would lose confidence and much harm might ensue.

Two years later, in 1920, there was a serious outbreak of cattle disease, entailing great loss to the people of Bhutan. This is when our First Druk Gyalpo raised the question of supplying serum for inoculating cattle in Bhutan and the thought of training a couple of Bhutanese boys as inoculators germinated.

In 1921, Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck wrote to the Viceroy through the British Political Officer asking for financial and other assistance in training Bhutanese boys in various professions with a view to developing his country. The British government took their time in making a reply.

Meanwhile, the Bhutanese students were advancing in their studies. In 1915, forty-five Bhutanese boys were already studying in the Haa school. Babu Bjitisi was eight years old and was one of these students.

In the summers, teachers from the Church of Scotland Mission in Kalimpong would teach the boys in their school in Haa.  In the winter, all the students would migrate to Kalimpong, staying there with Gongzim Ugyen Dorji to continue their studies.

There is a photo of Babu Bjitsi in the SUMI school photo for 1924. By then, he was 14 years old and had been registered as Pitchi Bhutia.

According to the British Political Officer’s Annual Report 1925-26, eleven of the 45 students passed the Matriculation examination.  Out of the four that were sent for technical training, two were sent to study in the Bengal Veterinary College in Calcutta.

The course was three years. One student graduated in March 1929 and returned to Bhutan. The other, who failed, stayed on at the college, passing the diploma examination of the Bengal Veterinary College, Calcutta, in March 1930 and then returning to Bhutan. We are not sure of the year in which Babu Bjitsi graduated.

In 1955, N.K Rustomji met Aum Kachi in Bhutan. He sympathised with her at the loss of her husband Babu Bijitsi in the Gyantse flood and tried to help. We are not sure if the Aum ever received the Provident Fund, Gratuity or Pension, from the Government of India.  But the Babu was one of the 45 Bhutanese who were sent to Kalimpong to study, subsequently becoming one of our first two veterinary surgeons. At the age of 47, he lost his life in the line of duty in the Great Gyantse flood.

Contributed by 

Tshering Tashi