Choeten and lhakhang, the sacred sanctums that the Bhutanese venerated deeply are today under threat. We hear about vandalism and theft of relics almost every day. Our religious and heritage sites are increasingly becoming vulnerable to the shocking and deplorable manifestations of human greed.
Recently, Mongar’s dzongkhag court sentenced 12 men for vandalising 101 choeten in Mongar and Lhuentse. Mongar could be the dzongkhag with the highest number of choeten vandalism cases. Between 2013 and 2017, more than 50 choeten in the dzongkhag were vandalised. But then, Mongar is not the only dzongkhag that is facing the rise of crimes related to religious and heritage sites. In over 27 years, about 4,000 choeten and lhakhang were vandalised in the country, which translates to 148 a year.
We haven’t forgotten the theft of the country’s most sacred nangten, Rangjung Kharsapani, from Punakha Dzong. It was the collective good fortune of the people that we recovered the precious relic that Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel brought along with him from Tibet.
The question is: why are our choeten and lhakhang not safe from the vandals? It would be an expensive affair to station a police in every lhakhang in the country. Doing the same with choeten is ridiculous. To stop crimes related to ku-sung-thukten, there was a plan to install about 300 CCTV cameras in the lhakhang across the country. We are yet to see how effective this initiative has been to deter crimes related to the nation’s ku-sung-thukten.
Choeten robbery or desecration of religious monuments is a serious crime. The penalty of committing an act of theft of ku-sung-thukten from a private or government owned lhakhang or choeten is life imprisonment. What is worrying is that even such stringent laws do not seem to stop people from carrying out appalling acts of vandalism. We can also recall that at one point of time, the National Assembly even proposed introducing death penalty for those robbing national treasures.
If the laws are not a deterrent factor, as some reports have found, it may be time we considered effective measures to at least reduce instances of crime on the nation’s ku-sung-thukten.