Choki Wangmo

Changangkha, Thimphu — Early morning, the city is still in deep slumbers. At the lhakhang that is now a popular tourist destination, though, the day has already begun with the usual prayers and rituals.

Slowly, as dawn approaches, the faithful come in ones and twos, prayer beads in hand, to circumambulate the lhakhang—distant echo of street dogs barking.

The lhakhang’s main door opens and Sonam, a 25-year-old monk, is out with a bunch of incense sticks. He places them, almost with practiced care, inside the sangbum, a small stupa in the shape of a vase used for smoke offering. He places fresh cypress and pine trees on top of the incense. From neck of the little sangbum, thick billow of curling smoke rises up the heavens.

Informed by religion, smoke offering is an indelible culture and Bhutanese way of life. And the implication of deep-seated belief of offering smoke to the deities is showing in the most visible forms—thinning of trees, especially cypress and pine. If these species of trees are becoming increasingly ungainly part of the capital’s landscape, worse is yet to come.

Sonam is soon joined by his friends. They agree that it has become difficult over the years to find trees nearby to be used for smoke offering. Huge cypress trees with their branches lopped stand testimony to this daily practice at the lhakhang.

Before performing any kind of Buddhist rituals, smoke offering is a requirement for cleansing and purification in the monasteries. 

But then, such offerings also happen at homes, adding pressure on the nearby forests.

The head lam of Memorial Chorten, Leki Tshering, said that during important rituals the monks go to collect sang as far as Dochula. “Trees and shrubs such as pangpoe, bahlu, sulu, arura, tsendhen, tongphu, and poikar can be used as an offering but they are a thing of the past now. We don’t even get pine trees. Sometimes, we ask commuters to bring junipers from Dochula.”

Although controlled lopping could contribute towards tree growth and timber quality, excessive and unhealthy lopping can cause stress and expose trees to external ailments, pest, and diseases, affecting the tree growth.

“Leafy biomass would decrease and increased canopy opening due to lopping can lead to increase in growth of understory species,” said forestry officer with the Thimphu division, Tshering Dorji.

Rule 395 (6) of Forest and Nature Conservation Rules and Regulations (FNCRR) 2017 prohibits lopping activities and requires a special permit. Defaulters are liable for a fine of Nu 500 per tree.

The practice is widespread and people rarely come to obtain permits, Tshering Dorji said. “Often, Bhutanese adopt unsustainable practices such as felling of entire trees and excessive lopping, causing harm to trees.”

Besides environmental impacts, large-scale burning of trees and branches cause emission of greenhouse and other harmful gases such as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and particle matters that can cause serious health problems.

From October last year until June this year, forest resource management division under Department of Forest and Park Services approved 15 applicants to collect herbs and aromatic substances for manufacturing incense and related substances.

Although the division allowed collection for the dead and dying trees for sustainable reasons, it has been observed that number of juniper trees is dwindling in Chelela, Thimphu, and Paro, said forestry officer with the Paro division, Sherab Jamtsho.“Looking at the degree of junipers being cut illegally, we can clearly see the juniper vegetation is decreasing. Detailed field observation and long-term research is necessary.”

According to National Forest Inventory report, there are close to 14 million juniper trees corresponding to more than 8 million cubic metre volume in the country. The species is mostly found in higher altitude but if further encroachment continues, the species is at risk considering its slow growth.

“If normal trees take years to grow 10cm, juniper will take double or even triple the years of that normal tree to grow 10 cm. Everyone wants juniper for so many spiritual and material purposes as it is a high quality wood. But if we set precedence, everyone will follow,” said an official from forest protection and enforcement division.

Juniper is also required during cremation. FNCRR 2017 allows a total of four cubic metre of juniper wood for cremation. The fact that Bhutan’s death rate is estimated at about 6.5 per 1,000 person, which translates to 5,000 deaths annually, 5,000 cubic metre of juniper is felled for cremation.

This is discounting unaccounted felling of trees.

Aum Tshewang, 68, from Changbandhu in Thimphu pays Nu 100 per week to her neighbor who brings her a sack full of pine branches from the mountains. Early every morning, Aum Tshewang makes smoke offerings. She now finds it increasingly difficult to find trees for the ritual.

“Sometimes, as soon as I hear about pine or cypress trees being felled, I send my children to collect the  branches,” said Aum Tshewang.

Similarly, Aum Kinley Pem, who makes daily smoke offering in front of her house, brings the pine and cypress leaves from Kuenselphodrang.

“Getting pines and cypress branches has become more challenging,” Kinley Pem said.