Vanishing structures of Thimphu

Chhimi Dema

Buildings are more than a design, brick and mortar. They are the testimony to the changing times.

The few remaining traditional buildings tell the story of how Thimphu has grown as a capital city. Soon these little landmarks in the capital city could disappear. Already, the narrative of Thimphu Thromde development is lost on the younger generation of Bhutanese.

That way, are we losing vital part of Bhutan’s development story? But then, changes will have to come, anyway. What little vignettes of the capital city’s development that we have are becoming rarer by the day.

The country was in the fourth year of the fourth Five-Year-Plan, the focus of which was improving the economic conditions and living standards of the people. The year was 1980. Roads had come. There were only a few shacks along what is Norzin Lam today.

Then came the better traditionally-build structures—sign of prosperity. Many made way for the “modern” edifices.

On the second storey of a traditional house on Norzin Lam, in front of the main traffic, had a sign “The Attic”. The Attic was a small room. It was a popular hub for young Bhutanese men and women to hang out, drink beer and play backgammon while listening to Joan Baez and The Police being played from a tape recorder. That was a moment captured of Thimphu by the New York Times in April 1980.

What was once a popular hub for the young and modern Bhutanese is now a dwarfed and is rendered insignificant.

The house has leaky ceiling and creaky. The ramparts are coming off. Rats have made it their home.

The house was built in 1972 by Rinchen Dorji, popularly known as Thimphu Zimpoen Jochu.

Sona Lal Ram, 51, a cobbler from India, sits in his one-room shop busy mending shoes. His shop is located inside the traditional building in front of the PNB.

Sitting on the bench inside his small shop, one would notice, pasted on the cardboard wall, movie posters of classic Bollywood films like Sholay, Aashique, Mohabat Ka Paigham and Sanam Tere Hain Hum.

Sona Lal said that he came to Bhutan when he was a 12-year-old with his father. He has been mending shoes in the same traditional building for more than 40 years. “Back in the early years of my life, the buildings were all traditional and one or two-storeys. There was a forest in front of this building,” he said. “This building, this shop, has been my home.”

There were restaurants and grocery stores run by Tibetans, he recalled. There were only a few jeeps. Tungba—fermented millet drink, was popular, he said.

Sona Lal saw Thimphu grow to become the largest city in the country. He will witness the fall of the last two traditional houses.

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