Choki Wangmo | Tsirang

As soon as I entered his dimly-lit two-storey stone house in Mendrelgangang, Tsirang, 75-year-old Phurpa reached for a wooden rack above his rickety bed and asked: “Do you want to see something?”

He unwrapped a photo album, tucked tightly inside a faded red cloth piece. Except for this old photo album and a fur jacket hanging from a pillar, the room did not have much.   

Born in Joenkhar, Sakteng, Phurpa joined the police force when he was 17. Divorced with one daughter, he resettled in Tsirang in 2000.

Lean, sharp-tongued, quick-witted, and popularly known in the vicinity and in other gewogs in Tsirang, one remarkable feature everyone remembers is Phurpa’s generosity, even to dogs.

He offers surplus fruits and vegetables from his five-acre land to the monasteries and schools. 

Often seen in his nomadic attire during official functions, he even has a picture with The King, which he proudly flaunts. “The King instructed me to preserve our nomadic tradition among the resettled nomads in Tsirang.”

But not many do so due to the heat.

“This album was a gift from His Majesty The Fourth King. I received it as a recognition when I was 23. There are only four such albums in the country,” said Phurpa, flipping through the old black leather-bound album, held together with a thread. “His Majesty instructed us not to lose these albums.”

Darkened by the soot from his traditional oven (thab) in his room that served as a kitchen and a bedroom, the corners of the photo album were beginning to wear out. “It has been with me for about 50 years now.”

In more than 30 pages of the photo album, the pictures have less to say about Phurpa as an individual person but more about his journey as a young policeman serving in the mountains of Bhutan along with the Indian force.

Although he did not visit his village in the last seven years, part of his heart still belongs to the highlands. An avid mountain climber in the dawn of his professional life, few pages of the album contain cutout photos of Tenzing Norgay also known as Sherpa Tenzing, one of the first two individuals known to reach the summit of Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary in 1953.

Before 25, he made trips to Jomolhari, Jichu Drake, Kula Gangri, and Gangkar Puensum. The vanishing pictures in the photo album show outline of thick icicles in these mountains. “Those were the days of arduous journeys.”

He speaks Dzongkha, Lhotshamkha, Brokpakha, Sharchopkha, Hindi, Monkha, and Tibetan—fluently.

However, his photo album barely had pictures of families and relatives. He had twice brought his daughter and her husband to Tsirang but they returned to Sakteng both times. He has now adopted a girl who studies in Mendrelgang Central School.

Without helping hands in the farm, most of his farmland remain fallow. He cultivates paddy every alternate year. “A year of rice cultivation can last me for two years.”

After separating from his wife, he remarried three times. “I had countless partners.”

Phurpa is a stickler for tradition but he is also eccentric in many ways. For example, the bedi he likes to smoke at 75 years old. 

Edited by Jigme Wangchuk