Jigme Wangchuk

“Must I raise the golden banner of victory?

To the one who is truly 

worthy, I shall—

The great Muni of the Shakya.”

This is from a traditional Bhutanese a cappella—Sergi Laso Gyaltshen, Dawa’s favourite Zhungdra number, which he sang on February 21, 2021, as a tribute to His Majesty The King.

Dawa, from Laya, is 76. He was among the first group of elderlies to arrive at the Goensho Tshamkhang in Wangsisina, Thimphu.

With rapid development that Bhutan has witnessed over the years, which is becoming increasingly visible in the way family values and the society itself has transformed significantly. The changes, often both dramatic and traumatic, in the process have pushed a certain section of Bhutanese population to the fringes.

Goensho Tshamkhang is His Majesty’s project to give home to the old and ageing population of Bhutan who do not have family members to look after them.

Today, there are 41 senior citizens at the tshamkhang. The youngest here, is aged 60. Here, on this serene mountaintop south of Thimphu, the recipients of Gensho Zhabto Kidu recite prayers and tell stories to each other. They keep each other company; it’s a big, happy family of senior citizens who would have otherwise been forced into destitution and life of extreme deprivation. 

Dawa was a baby when his mother passed away. He chose not to marry. Now, in the twilight years of his life, he has no one to depend on. He wakes up at three in the morning and does his Badza Guru prayers. 

“Ageing is difficult, especially when you have nobody to take care of you,” says Dawa. “We have everything here—food on time and our spiritual needs taken care of. We have TV, a fully set kitchen. Sometimes, I think we are being pampered here. But then, where can we find home if not here?”

Tsundru Zam, 60, hasn’t been here long. From Jabana in Paro, she has been a nun for a better part of life. 

“From my stay in Samdrupjongkhar to Gelephu and Trashigang Goenpa in Thimphu, nothing worked out fine. The little hut I built for myself could not keep me safe. I lost everything.” 

Tsundru Zam goes home for lochoe once a year. “I miss my home, of course, which makes me very emotional sometimes. So I make it a point to attend the lochoe. But here we have a family.”

Goensho Tshamkhang has an infirmary too. 

Lungten Dorji, 31, a nurse with Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital, has been at the infirmary just 20 days. 

“I wasn’t sure what to expect when I was told to go to Goensho Tshamkhang for two years. I had just heard about the tshamkhang but knew nothing about it,” says Lungten Dorji. Getting to know what I have to do every day here, I get a very different, soul-satisfying experience from helping the elderlies.”

In the far corner of the infirmary is Sonam, 73. He has been bedridden for sometime now. Once a severe alcoholic, he is weak and had skipped his meals. In fetal position, breathing low but evenly, he is on IV drip—intravenous therapy.

“He is doing fine,” says Lungten Dorji. “These are common problems here. Nothing serious, though.”

And in comes Pema Sangay, shuffling slowly. The eighty-year-old has an infection on the right jaw. This irritation from inflammation—fistula— has been going on for 12 years now. Lungten looks at the wound very carefully.

“Let us go and wash the wound first,” says Lungten Dorji.  Pema Sangay can’t hear properly. He nods. “It is an infection. You need to be clean first because dressing the wound will be a problem otherwise.”

Goensho Tshamkhang is managed by 10 staff.  From estate manager to wet cleaner, everyone here is a caregiver. 

Tashi Tsewang, 28, from Kanglung in Trashigang, is a cook. But he also changes the counterpanes and bathes the occupants of the rooms. “Helping the elderly is about Phamai Zhabto. It’s what I get immense satisfaction from.”

And there is Ugyen Dorji, 26, also from Kanglung. “I am many persons in one, a hair cutter and a bed-maker, for example. The job is hectic but very satisfying. I am happy that I got this opportunity to work for elderly people; I will continue to do so as long as I can.”

Tashi Dendup is Goensho Tshamkhang’s estate manager. One of his jobs is to arrange programmes for the elderlies so that they are not bored.

Where it not for the pandemic, the elderlies of Goensho Tshamkhang would have gone for neykor—pilgrimage—to holy sites.

Youth volunteer come to help and entertain the elderly.

“We don’t encourage this now because of the pandemic. We have also not had choeshey lerim—religious talk—this year. Hopefully things will improve,” says Tashi Dendup.

Spinning a mani lakhor—hand-held prayer wheel—gently, Tsundru Zam gazes down at the valley wistfully. Cold winds have stared blowing. “May His Majesty The King—our son and parent—live a very long life!”

Tsundru has a small kitchen garden outside her bedroom. She has planted chilli and some beans. “It’s time to water my plants.”