Chencho Dema | Punakha

Nestled near the majestic Punakha Dzong lies a dilapidated Bhutanese home that stands as a haunting reminder of neglect and the fading grandeur of the past.

This is Changyuel Galem’s house. This once magnificent residence now faces an uncertain future, with budgetary constraints causing a significant delay in much-needed repair efforts.

Left by the current generation of the Galem’s family in 2002-2003 due to its inhabitable state, the house has remained untouched for years, a testament to the financial challenges hindering restoration projects.

Despite being included in the 12 Five-Year Plan for heritage building restoration, the dzongkhag has been unable to make substantial progress due to limited funding. As a result, the Changyuel Galem’s house stands in stark contrast to the neighboring Punakha dzong, which attracts visitors from far and wide.

Relatives of Changyuel Galem (a picture from family collection)

A structural assessment conducted by the Department of Culture revealed significant degradation and damage inflicted upon the house over time. The cost of repair and implementing necessary structural strengthening measures is estimated to be Nu 5.35 Million, a sum that remains elusive due to budgetary constraints.

Dorji Tenzin, culture officer, stated, “We have proposed a budget, but due to financial constraints, we have been unable to carry out the restoration work. The detailed assessment report has been shared with the house’s owner.”

In 2020, the family submitted a proposal to renovate the house for commercial purposes, but the dzongkhag administration declined the request. While the family had aspirations to construct a stone wall, a stone bath, and public toilets, restrictions placed on modifying heritage buildings prevented their plans from materialising. Tenzin added, “Once we secure funding, the dzongkhag administration will collaborate with the family members and proceed with the work under the technical guidance provided by the department in 2020.”

Despite claims of the mansion’s popularity among tourists, both locals and visitors are noticeably absent from the premises. The potential revival of this historic home, however, could greatly enhance the cultural allure of the dzongkhag, according to residents of Changyuel.

The report emphasises the need to conserve and renovate the house, citing its historical significance to the country. As one of the oldest building typologies in Bhutan, the preservation of this architectural treasure is deemed essential. Although an official record of the house’s construction date is unavailable, the structure’s age surpasses 400 years, according to architectural records and chronological examinations.

The original structure, a small two-room flat with a sliding door entrance, was later expanded to its current appearance, featuring bay windows on both sides. The house’s architectural typology remains unique, with only one other Bhutanese home adhering to the same style. Despite subsequent alterations diluting its typological value, the house still holds significant tangible worth.

Adding to its cultural significance, the upper floor of the house houses the neykhang, an altar room dedicated to the deity Goen Drakpa. This deity, believed to reside in Punakha during the winter and Gasa during the summer, holds a crucial place in local traditions. The Pazaps, attendees of the annual Punakha Dromchoe festival, seek blessings from the deity in the neykhang, emphasising the home’s role in sustaining long-standing customs and preserving regional diversity.

However, the ravages of time have taken a toll on the house’s structural integrity. Rammed earth walls, which bear the weight of the two-story construction, exhibit extensive damage and deterioration. Severe termite infestation has afflicted the wooden planks, exacerbating the structural concerns.

Fearful of an impending collapse, the family’s primary desire is not to demolish the house but to restore it to its former glory. Lepchung, a family member, expressed their frustration, stating, “Some specialists came for assessments, but nothing further has transpired since the dzongkhag’s commitment to the property more than seven years ago.”

Beyond the preservation of cultural heritage, the revival of the Changyuel Galem’s house holds the promise of economic revitalisation for the local community. Changyuel has seen significant growth, with over a dozen stores, including grocery shops, restaurants, and bars. Restoring this historic home could potentially attract commerce and breathe new life into the area.

As the fate of the Changyuel Galem’s house hangs in the balance, the need for swift action becomes increasingly evident. Strict monitoring and the engagement of skilled traditional artisans experienced in the renovation of heritage structures are crucial, as highlighted in the report.

As Bhutan grapples with the delicate balance between preserving its rich heritage and accommodating contemporary needs, the fate of the Changyuel Galem’s house stands as a poignant reminder of the challenges faced.

Will this historic gem withstand the test of time, or will it succumb to abandonment and decay? Only concerted efforts and dedicated resources can save this house, preserving its immense historical importance for generations to come.