Preserving culture through its stories

Culture is the continuity of values, of integrity and understanding the karmic connection we have with the whole universe, according to the executive director of Thangka Conservation Centre, Ashi Kesang Choden T.

During a conversation with Pema Abrahams at the recent Mountain Echoes’ ‘Virtual memory: Digitising the Past’ session on August 27, she said that understanding these values help us move forward into the future.

They talked on the stories architecture carry and digitising the past as a means to reach the larger audience. “The interesting thing about restoration and conservation of traditional items is the stories behind it.”

The executive director said that one of the challenges in the sustainability of culture is shifting the mindset of people. “People know about historical figures such as Zhabdrung and Guru Rinpoche from school but people talk about them like they are a totally different person.”

She said that people should understand Zhabdrung as a person, who was born and experienced sufferings and sadness. “If we could humanise figures, we could understand our historical people as people we can relate to.”

A participant asked whether it was a good idea to humanise spiritual people or gods to make them more approachable or whether it was better to have them on a higher realm.

Writer and researcher, Pema Abrahams, said, that although there are deities who are not intended to be humanised, there are also a number of historical figures, who were humans and should be remembered as humans.

Referring to the Lord Buddha, who was a human being, who suffered and began to explore the truth, Pema Abrahams said that it’s important to remember that attainment of enlightenment is not only for gods but something a normal human being could achieve.  “To have that hope and aspiration and be able to remember that you also have this ability to awaken can be inspirational.”

On whether cultural heritage should be financially incentivised, Ashi Kesang Choden T said that money is not important to continue culture. “If you say that we are going to continue our dances and cultural heritage by paying people, what kind of values are we instilling in our people?”

She said that money should not be the issue but it should be the story telling. “Everyone is busy in the cities that there is hardly anyone to tell the stories. If there is a space and platform where we can share these stories, we can generate interest in the younger generation.”

She said that although the Bhutanese government is trying hard to preserve culture, it is mostly a top down mentality. “The younger generations are told to do things in order to preserve culture such as wearing gho or kira, and reading scriptures. We need more of a community involvement, we need the youth to really understand why we do these things, why it’s valuable, and not just blindly follow it.”

Preserving culture is not only the responsibility of the central monastic body or the Department of Culture, she said.  “If anyone hears an interesting story or knows the importance of a monastery or a historical culture, then it is their responsibility as Bhutanese to try and make sure that it is preserved.”

Karma Cheki

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