October 9 – World Post Day

The history of the philatelic and communications systems in Bhutan received new insights when His Majesty The King granted a rare and valuable collection of philatelic and communications products to the Bhutan Postal Museum in Thimphu.

The collection of stamps, maps, clippings, newsletters, stamped envelopes, documents, and other mixed artrfacts – that enriches the postal, philatelic, and communications narrative of Bhutan – was submitted to His Majesty The King by a long time friend of Bhutan, Mrs. Marion Hass, in her will. Mrs. Hass passed away in May, 2016, in Germany.

Mrs. Hass was an ardent follower of Bhutan’s postal history and had accumulated a rich philatelic collection that included some postal products that are not available any more in Bhutan. Some of her stamps and mixed items help fill in gaps in the story of Bhutan’s postal history dating back to communications even before 1962 when the first Post Office was established.

For example, long before Bhutan started printing stamps, and even long before the kingdom opened its doors to the world, there were three covers issued by the British, described as “Northern Frontier of INDIA 2nd Bhutan Expedition”. Mail addressed to soldiers serving in British expeditions to Bhutan and Sikkim, in 1861, 1864, 1866 place those occasions in a historical perspective. Letters trying to reach British soldiers in the vicinity of Bhutan, can be traced to a small post office in Dalsingpara town in India. In 1865 a “Bhutan Field Force From Meerult” forwarded mail to a British expedition in Cooch Behar and also “From Rookee” to a place called “Duitma”.

In Bhutanese postal terminology, this was known as the “dak period”, using the Hindi word “dak” for mail.  During the later part of this period fiscal stamps were used for postal services. Then came the “Classic Period” – 1962 to 1974 – when Bhutan was opening up and becoming known.

Beyond philatelly, the postal heritage of Bhutan displays the narrative of communications in Bhutan, which tells the story of development, and change in the kingdom.

Bhutanese people in their 30s and younger – born in the post telegraph period – are not familiar with communications systems like telegrams and other forms of wireless messages that were the medium for emergency communications. There are several original telegram messages in the collection granted by His Majesty The King to Bhutan Post:

From a traveler:

“Arriving Dumdum flight 224 twenty third. send transport before before 3pm with left over luggage.”

From an office:

“Collect your Pay from P/lling Laboratory Technician.”

From the Wireless Department asking for spare parts:

“Despatch 12 PCS five inch by 3 inch speaker by Air. Urgen.”

Such messages carried a note of urgency and often required much effort to discern and interpret. Today’s millenials would find it difficult to comprehend the risks of miscommunication on important issues.

Another little known field of study is deltiology, the study and collecting of postcards. Postcards are still popular among travellers – photographs, artwork, and images printed on thick rectangular sheets of paper – an old form of uploading travel pictures. The world’s oldest postcard was sent in 1840 to the writer, Theodore Hook, from Fulham in London, England, and it was eventually sold in 2002 for £31,750.

Bhutan stamps

In the pre-digital age, philatelly was an important medium of communications, documentation, diplomacy, and even a symbol of sovereignty. Bhutan became a pioneer in the printing technique of stamps depicting topical as well as unique content, celebrating special occasions and famous personalities.

With the advice of international experts – notably an innovative American businessman and adventurer called Bert Todd – Bhutan produced and distributed many world firsts in terms of unusual materials used, unconventional shapes, innovative technology, and special effects.

The Marion Hass collection includes fiscal stamps issued in 1954, which are not available any more with Bhutan Post. There are original envelopes affixed with fiscal stamps (green, orange, red, and yellow with different denominations in Dzongkha).

The concept of “liquid crystal” stamps, also known as “heat seeking” stamps, was once approved but the science of liquid crystals that would change color when touched did not work. The issue was cancelled and the stamp not released but, as stamp culture goes, it has become more valuable to collectors. Such unissued stamps are limited and commercially valuable, now worth around USD 200-300 each.

The collection includes a file containing information on Bhutan’s postal history since 1955, a catalogue of stamps issued by Bhutan from 1962 to 1989. It is all documented in German. A photocopy of maps of Bhutan shows the location post offices, telegraph offices, wireless transmission stations, and hydromet facilities. The list of post offices and date stamp cancellation marks are very useful in tracing the history of post offices – the date of their opening, change in names of places, and so on.

Cancellation marks of various post offices and changes in names over the years even indicate changes in the names of places where the post offices are located. There are cancellation marks belonging to the period when runners carried messages from dzong to dzong. One envelope with the date stamp of Lingshi Dzong shows that it was carried by a mail runner from Hotel Jumolhari in Thimphu to Lingshi.

The Bhutanese “scented rose” stamp was made into a German phone card that was widely used in Germany in the pre-mobile days.

Stamp collectors

The Marion Hass collection has special value because information and products gathered over the years are now owned by international collectors and not available in Bhutan. Many heritage items of the postal and communications system are with international collectors around the world.

Stamps had great value, as professional and personal collections, as depictions of art and design, and as national symbols. Information Communication Technology (ICT) had a dramatic impact on philately as the immediacy of Internet based communication – predomionanelty email – brought letter writing to an almost abrupt halt.

But, while the digital generation does not have the interest in stamp collection as a hobby, collectors have taken the auction and trading of stamps to the Internet. For example, Bhutan’s famous Talking Stamps (produced as gramaphone records) are sold for about USD 599/- a set on eBay.

There are an estimated 20 to 30 “core collectors” of Bhutanese stamps in Europe and the United States and an unknown number in China and Japan. This group of people are getting close to the dilemma most collectors eventually face – what happens to their life-long collections when they die? It is an important question because their children are not likely to have the same feelings for these collections that are from an era that they did not belong to.

Some collectors offer their collections to museums in their own countries because museums archive these stories. Some return them to the countries that they came from either as gifts or as business deals. Collectors of Bhutanese stamps and philatelic items in the latter group have a few concerns. Until the Bhutan Post Museum was established, there was no place to archive them. And, even now, Bhutan does not have appropriate facilities to store them and the know-how to preserve them.

But this group is watching and waiting and Bhutan would do well to convince them that the kingdom is ready to make the commitment to preserve this important aspect of its heritage. In a way it would be reversing a trend when Bhutanese citizens, mostly influential members of society, sold artifacts to collectors purely for the money. Even the concept of a postal museum had apparently been discussed in the 1990s but, like other areas of interest, there is no institutional memory in the country.

Philately is not just the story of mail delivery. It is the development narrative in its most interesting details. In some ways, it reflects the shaping of national identity. In one collection we see the re-structuring of dzongkhags, the changes in names and spellings over the years, the issues that were most important through the decades, and the personalities who made a difference.

And, as we look at stamps, post cards, telegrams, mail, equipment, photos, we realise that history can be forgotten and lost just as quickly.


Contributed by 

Dasho Kinley Dorji

Dasho Kinley Dorji is the former secretary of MoIC