In the good old days, National Service was mandatory after school. My batch had the privilege of being on National Service twice – first after Class X and then when we returned from our postgraduate studies. I am most grateful for the humbling discoveries and priceless learning that the two unique opportunities made possible.
I was on my maiden pilgrimage to the fabled East following my ICSE examinations, some forty years ago this month.
A day-long walk with our beddings on the back took us from remote Dorokha to Samtse, followed by a bus-ride through the tea-gardens of Jalpaiguri, then on to Phuentsholing. The next day, we were on a giant blue BGTS bus that cruised on the never-ending Indian NH 31 that linked West Bengal to Assam to finally emerge at Samdrupjongkhar at the other end of Bhutan, covering some 380-kilometres from dawn to dusk.
One night on the pavement of the homely Hamro Hotel and the following day, we were on a black, open BGTS truck that groaned and grated up the meandering mountain-road till it descended on Trashigang, 180 kilometres away, by late evening. I was sick all the way.
We reported to Dasho Dzongdag, Kunzang Tangbi, and Dasho Dzongrab, Nagchung Tshering, gracious in their own right, in the breath-taking Trashigang Dzong, had our briefings and were directed to meet Mr CDT Namchu, then head of the regional agricultural office. Elder Namchu, dressed in a formal suit, wore an endearing smile as he sat with his senior colleagues, GD Sharma and DB Rai, and welcomed us. Following a round of preliminaries, we were told that seven of us would be posted to Gyalpoizhing.
We left kind Mr Binod Rana’s cosy quarters and packed ourselves into an old and rickety Mahindra jeep that exhaled unremitting petrol-breath all the way to Mongar. I thought I would have been better off embarking on the 90-kilometer journey on foot!
The following day, we bought some essential food items from the frugally-stocked FCB store in Mongar and took the 29-kilometre dirt-road onboard the same jeep that left us at a wide, dizzying, open field of a no-man’s land one late February afternoon in 1977.
We spent the night under the star-studded dome and built a make-shift shelter with bamboo matting the next day. We were ready to help Abraham, an assistant engineer from South India, to survey the area. The expansive plain, bereft of any human habitation, bar one lone, deserted, house in the middle, was to be irrigated for paddy cultivation by channeling water from a nearby stream.
I made two hurried visits to Gyalpoizhing, one in 2002 during my many travels to schools across the country, and the other in 2009 in the aftermath of the devastating September 21 earthquake that hit our East.
I returned to the King’s Land, Gyalploizhing literally, in the same month, about the same time, four decades after my first adventure as a teenage National Service Student way back in 1977. This time, it was different in every sense of the term. The silent plain of yesteryears has undergone a total transformation and the vibrant town has a life and lore of its own now.
Gyalpoizhing is a powerhouse of myriad strengths. It is home to the robust 60-megawatt Kurichhu Hydropower Project, fully manned and managed by Bhutanese professionals, that lights up the East and spares the rest to earn vital revenue for development. It is the take-off point for the 70-kilometre all-weather road to Nganglam. It will have a college soon, graduated from high school.
Most of the basic infrastructure for public service delivery including a bank and ATM facilities, Grade 1 BHU, school, a BOC-built indoor hall and football field with artificial turf, a lhakhang, fuel station, boating options for the brave, weekend market, shops and hotels—big and small, and a large number of offices to support the big projects and serve the public are already in place.
Lingmethang, 11 kilometres away, is the headquarters of the path-breaking Mountain Hazelnut Venture involving close to 1,000 households and counting. The RNR Centre and the field office of the Roads Department are among other service facilities. Gyalpoizhing is well-supported by the dzongkhag headquarters and its service complements, including the regional referral hospital, located in Mongar.
What is more? Gyalpoizhing is the privileged home to the Office of His Royal Highness the Gyaltshab that overlooks the emerald green, pacific lake tamed by the project dam.
In February 2017, I returned to a Gyalpoizhing that was all decked out for a special event. Excitement and euphoria were the order of the day. The six eastern dzongkhags were to converge on Gyalpoishing to celebrate the first joyous anniversary of the auspicious birthday of our beloved Prince, His Royal Highness The Gyalsey Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck.
The Office of His Royal Highness the Gyeltshab, in concert with the Mongar dzongkhag administration and project office, had prepared an elaborate programme that included the finals of a month-long nation-wide archery tournament which featured a record number of 140 teams from across the twenty dzongkhags, special prayers in the Lhakhang led by His Eminence Lhalung Sungtrul Rimpoche, the 11th incarnation of Terton Pema Lingpa, and tributes at the celebration grounds, followed by a three-day Tshechu that showcased rare and sacred performances and cultural presentations by artists from across the participating dzongkhags.
A special feature of the celebrations was the artistic genius of our local artisans and craftsmen on full display. The numerous stalls housed under neatly arranged, colourful tents showcased some of the finest creations of our local people in converting coarse yarn, sheep wool, yak hair, animal hide, rough wood, hard metal, pliant bamboo, supple cane, naughty nettle, and a variety of their uncouth cousins into beautiful works of art.
And then there were endless samples of food and drink items that came from farm and forest, orchard and kitchen gardens, cooked and roasted, ground and pressed, churned and brewed, straight-from-the- oven and preserved, fresh and dried, crisp and crunchy, soft and tooth-testing—indeed fare for all the senses that any visitor would have come with. There were, too, stalls with items of a more factory-made kind from further afield.
Examples of good practices in horticulture, food processing, farming, among other educational displays, went beyond the moment and led the viewers to see the future. One stall stood out in a singular way. The high school had put together a most beautiful photographic ensemble of our smiling Prince and members of the Royal Family.
A rich variety of sacred and popular presentations on the brand new synthetic turf continued without a halt all through the three days of the Gyalpoizhing Tshechu that ended with the sacred Wang by His Eminence Lhalung Sungtrul Rinpoche, who presided over the whole event.
On Royal Command, a multi-skilled medical team led by Dr Lotay Tshering was a boon to hundreds of local citizens who made excellent use of the occasion as they thronged the BHU.
There was something special in the Gyalpoizhing air this time – tangible as well intangible, seen as well as felt, obvious as well as subtle – deeply fulfilling, truly uplifting. Rising above the sound of cymbals and songs as indeed the live murmur of the milling crowds, there was one underlying thread – unity in spirit.
There we were – one in our thoughts and prayers, in our hopes and dreams – wishing the very best for our beloved Gyalsey and for our dear country. Gyalpoizhing came together in body, speech and mind in an all-embracing cosmic dance.
This was nation-building – in a powerful felt experience – in shared sentiments and collective dreams!
It was Druk Yul at one of her best!
Thakur S Powdyel
Royal Thimphu College.