Spirituality comes alive and dreams come true

When His Majesty The King visited the lower region of Haa dzongkhag after the National Day celebrations, we saw fresh glimpses of the old Bhutan that we know and felt a powerful sense of the new Bhutan that is emerging. As the Royal entourage crossed Tergo La pass on December 20, there was literally a sense of entering a valley of hidden spiritual treasures and the growing potential of socio-economic initiatives.

The two remote southern gewogs of Sangbaykha and Gakiling are practically unknown to the rest of Bhutan. Even less known are the sacred nyes that lie hidden in the forests, lakes, cliffs, caves and crevices among the raw ridges and valleys. Tergo means “door to treasures”, and the new road that crosses the 3,720-metre pass to connect Haa to Samtse literally provides access to sacred sites, many of them yet to be discovered and known. Local elders believe that there are more of the treasures concealed by none other than Guru Rinpoche, to be discovered when the time comes. In fact Sangbaykha, where His Majesty The King hosted Tokha on December 21, means “concealed site” with the connotation that it is to be discovered.

On December 20, His Majesty The King visited the Terbey Lhakhang which sits high above the Sangbaykha settlement with a panoramic view that stretches towards China in the north and India in the south. His Majesty offered an image of Jambayang to the lhakhang along with a silver butter lamp bowl. The next day, His Majesty met the local community around Mochhu Lhakhang and offered an image of Chenrizig.

Just as we think we’ve seen it all, something awesome happens. On Saturday, December 23, His Majesty The King formally inaugurated the Rangtse Nye, an extraordinarily beautiful large limestone cave that is a marvel of nature with an unusually powerful spiritual ambiance.

The cavern is located high on a sheer ridge near Rangtse village in lower Haa, a dramatically steep climb from the valley floor. The main cave winds about 300 metres deep with intricate layers and patterns of rock and limestone formation intertwined between stalagmites and stalactites that have been formed over millions of years. The depths of other caves are yet to be explored.

Geologists have their scientific explanation for such a phenomenon but this does not conflict with the impact of the atmosphere on the people. For the Bhutanese, the wonders of nature are fascinating but the spiritual power of the atmosphere in the nye comes from the blessings of enlightened practitioners who have sat and meditated in this site. This is something way beyond the limitations of reason and rationale.

On Saturday, hundreds of men, women, and children from Rangtse village and the surrounding area gathered at a small clearing in the woods, in the shade of a variety of sub tropical trees and vegetation, enjoying a cultural event that, according to a village elder, “the region had never experienced in the past”. Mask and folk dances interspersed with commentary by Bhutanese comedians kept the crowd enthralled. There was a strong consensus that this merging of human culture and pristine nature must be a regular festival in this “remote corner” of the dzongkhag.

With His Majesty The King’s visit, Rangtse nye will become a significant destination for pilgrims. One can’t help feeling that that is perhaps how nyes like Paro Takshang were discovered.

As hundreds of people traveled long distances to greet His Majesty The King and offered Tshogchhang along the roads, the strong sense of optimism was palpable.

For example, six years ago, 42-year old Kancha Bahadur Rai and his 36-year old wife, Buda Rani Limbu, were living hand to mouth in Saizong village in Gakiling gewog. They had no land and were surviving as sharecroppers, barely making ends meet and struggling to feed four children. They were among 68 families to be resettled in Bebji in Sangbaykha gewog as a part of His Majesty The King’s vision to alleviate poverty and improve the lives of the landless and socio-economically disadvantaged people in the remote parts of the country.

The result? Last month, Kancha Bahadur Rai drove his newly purchased Bolero to Haa to pick up his four children from boarding school in Haa. On December 22, His Majesty The King visited their clean cosy cottage and commended the nervous but beaming Rai family during the Royal visit to the rehabilitation site, now covering six villages that appear to be thriving.

The National Rehabilitation Programme was initiated by Command of His Majesty The King to rehabilitate and support people in need – landless people purely dependent on agriculture and families lacking access to basic drinking water, electricity, and motorable roads. Implemented by the Office of the Gyalpoi Zimpon, National Land Commission, and the Gross National Happiness Commission, in collaboration with other sectors, a multi-sector task force coordinated and implemented the programme.

Five selected places in four dzongkhags brought into the programme are being increasingly recognised as a major success story with 245 families settled on 656 acres at a cost of a little over Nu 200 million. They were given house construction material, land for house construction and farming, based on the size of the families, and essential needs for the first six months. As one organiser described it, the project spent on each family less than what a civil servant spends on a study tour.

Although the Bebji rehabilitation project had the disadvantage of being in inhospitable terrain with no road, the families are already expanding their aspirations. This week His Majesty The King advised the people to add vegetables and livestock to the cash crop, cardamom, which is their current mainstay. Stories from the other sites are even more impressive.

Civil servants who have visited the new villages are amazed at the rapid development. Families who were recently living in dire straits are now harbouring visions of improved lives with some even considering taking part in local government.

Yes, there are families that are lagging behind, for a number of reasons including alcohol abuse, the lack of drive, and inability to work. But the villages boosted by the Royal project are communities emerging from a miserable past and facing a promising future. Trade, travel, and tourism are already new words in the local vocabulary.

The pragmatic package of subsidy put together by the Royal initiative has been effective and task force members explain that there are plans to improve the strategy. For example, the freehold system of land use will be changed into an experiment to introduce users rights so people who do not farm the land will not have the right to give them away or to sell them.

In this remote corner of Haa dzongkhag, the optimism has been injected by the new road linking Haa to Samtse, with Phuenstsholing to be soon connected by the Amochhu bridge. The road not only promises to be a life-line for the North-South stretch of western Bhutan, it is likely to open up a new “frontier” of spiritual sites and unprecedented economic growth.

The hundreds of people who received His Majesty The King, the Prime Minister, and the Royal entourage conveyed a sense of reverence that is not so intense in the urban areas of the country. The unpaved road already vindicates that Bhutan’s long journeys can indeed become short distances.

The people are already excited about the new lifeline. This area, considered barely accessible in the past, is now only hours from Haa Dzong and Samtse. The journey will be greatly shortened once the road is paved and the economic opportunities proportionately enhanced. This is a part of the country that is looking at a new era of growth.

As one resident of Bebji submitted to His Majesty The King: “I still cannot believe that we can actually go to Samtse and return on the same day.”

In the afternoon of December 24, after a Tokha at Rangtse His Majesty The King arrived in Dorokha dungkhag in Samtse on a historic first Royal visit. His Majesty was welcomed at the Shiva Temple in Dorokha with a damai baja (chipdrel ceremony). Against the background of chants by the Hindu pandits of Samtse, His Majesty offered prayers at the temple and spoke informally to the gathering of the Dorokha community on the temple grounds.

A tokha in Dorokha on December 24 was attended by more than 8,000 or so residents of Dorokha who presented a mixed entertainment programme of ethnic music and dance from their three distinct communities – the Dogaps, Doyas, and Lhotshampas. It was a day that the people of Dorokha, and others from different parts of Samtse, now the most populated dzongkhag in Bhutan with 65,000 people, will not forget.

“I did not expect to see such a day,” said 63-year old Dai Tsering Lhob who lives below the temple. “After meeting His Majesty the reincarnation of Lord Vishnu, my life is fulfilled.” The royal entourage arrives Thimphu today.

Contributed by 

Dasho Kinley Dorji,

former MoIC Secretary. Dasho was a part of the Royal entourage.