temples or mere structures
Will Bhutan remain a last Shangri-La
By Amjad Bhatti
The myth goes: Then there was a rope relating Bhutan with heaven. But at some weaker moment a careless king cut the rope. Since then Bhutan has lost its connecting route to heaven. Perhaps that’s the reason why Bhutan is called a place "so close to heaven."
Restfully nestled in the lap of Great Himalaya, geographically sandwiched between India and China and culturally blessed with the benefits of isolation and inaccessibility, Bhutan presents an ascetic mystery in South Asia. Inspired by the strength of spirituality, Bhutan’s popular narrative expresses the ‘aggressive pride’ of its people and culture, quite ingenuously.
Culture runs in row in Bhutan’s everyday life. Various cultural manifestations are conscientiously practiced at all tiers of state and society -- from His Majesty the King to the ordinary people. Even in relation to Bhutan’s traditional dress code, different colours and robes are designated to different social groups according to their roles and locations in governance and socio-cultural life. No junior officer can meet a senior without wearing particular colour and attire. However, only army and police are such institutions, which enjoy exemption in cultural costumes.
At a social gathering few weeks back in Thimphu -- capital of Bhutan -- I curiously asked the minister of home and culture affairs: Isn’t it ironical to combine cultural issues with home affairs in one ministry, as the latter is responsible for law and order and the former deals with fine arts in a nation’s life? "You cannot maintain law and order by isolating or divorcing culture," he said. "We look at culture as a regulator to maintain law and order in our country. I would also like to suggest to other SAARC nations to merge the ministries of home affairs and culture affairs," the minister said with a sarcastic seriousness.
Music, dance and drama enjoy religious reverence in Bhutanese society. The Buddhist teachings and lessons of medieval history are largely transmitted through theatrical representation of historical characters and events. Scroll paintings illustrating the stories of civilisation in local social context are another form of revered communication. Dancers in Bhutan are blessed with a dedicated Royal patronage.
I was roaming around in Thimphu and found a sports stadium where an archery competition was going on. I slipped into the stadium and saw a circle of men and women wearing traditional colourful attires they were singing and dancing to the beat of drums. In a rather explicit perplexity, I asked a local spectator what they were singing in a playground. "Songs of arrow-shooting," explaining further he told that sports and singing went hand in hand in Bhutan. "Every sport has a song to boost or distract the players in the field, and archery is our national sport in Bhutan," he said.
At Norzim Lam in Thimphu you will find a wooden canopy carved with Buddhist imagery. A young Bhutani constable dressed in a blue uniform wearing an inexorable smile would be standing under this canopy: busy in controlling traffic manually. Using his arms and hands relentlessly he gives direction to the traffic. No signals, no lights. Drivers stop, smile, receive direction from the uniformed man and take their way. It was amazing to see how traffic was being controlled in a town with an intimate eye contact between the driver and constable. I found later that Thimphu is the only capital in the world where traffic-system is signal-free. Traffic is managed manually in Bhutan.
Let’s go out of Thimphu for a while. In the backdrop of the stunning Himalaya ,we were driving down to sub-tropical Punakha valley -- the ancient capital of old Bhutan. Mighty mountains covered with thick forests, emitting a rustic fragrance of medicinal herbs made the drive a rare retreat. We were told that Bhutan has 72 percent forest cover, while constitutionally 60 percent is the threshold to maintain at any cost.
Surprisingly, forest cover is increasing thanks to the concept of social forestry introduced by the venerable King of Bhutan. I am not sure if there is any direct causal link between forest cover and life expectancy, but in Bhutan, life expectancy has increased with the increase of forest cover over last 25 years.
Before reaching Punakha Dzong, a fort built in 1637, you come across two rivers advancing for a reluctant embrace. Yes, they are Mo- Chu (Female River) and Pho-Chu (Male River). One is slow, serene and smooth; other is rough, rowdy and reckless.
Some local narrators believe that at the point of confluence these both rivers are tying a nuptial knot at Punakha. Pho-Chu and Mo-Chu meet, embrace, marry, become one and merge into Sankosh River which descends further down to the Brahamputra River -- making one of the major river systems in southern India.
I was just wondering perhaps ecology also has a social organisation -- it survives and thrives on reciprocity and relations. Glaciers, cliffs, rocks, hills, streams, tributaries, rivers, forests and valleys live in a cohesive neighbourhood. They are connected to each other like humans? May be. I was little sceptic and trying to understand some parallels in a theatrical performance played in the town.
This dance drama was based on the life of Jestsun Milarepa -- 14th century, cotton-clad yogi of the Kagyu school of Buddhism, who is believed to have attained enlightenment in a single lifetime. The drama communicates the intended message through singing by the meditating yogi resting in a cave; and dance becomes a response--- indicating acceptance to the call of self-reforms targeted at the demonised souls. The hunters and hounds seek Milarpa’s protection at the end, and a message of peaceful co-existence amongst all beings remains the recurring theme of the play.
Bhutan unlike its highly corporatised neighbours in the region is trying hard to stick to the meanings of this lesson and keeping the essence of its recluse identity unadulterated. So far culture remains the unifying force and also the custodian of originality in Bhutan for centuries.
However, it now faces the risk of corporate cooption as agencies like World Bank are designing to penetrate the core of society through their infamous ‘country-assistance strategies’ with standard formulas of development. Bhutan has been brought to a point where a negotiation between tradition and modernity will ensue.
Under the assault of modern development -- the land known as ‘paradise of butterflies’ seems to have reached at the brink of critical transition. How this transition will shape the future of Bhutan depends how its people and government are equipped to counter the dominant perspectives of development.
Understandably, the cultural authenticity of Bhutan will be put to a rigorous test by the GDP-driven development models. It will be a political test for the leadership of Bhutan how it continues keeping Gross National Happiness (GNH) paradigm as a guiding principle of their future development policies and models. Will Bhutan remain a last Shangri-La or become a lost Shangri-La is a question of historical nostalgia for many like me.
Does archaeology have a religion?
By Haroon Khalid
A couple of years ago, when I was in college, I asked my Islamic Studies professor a question. But before I go on to tell what the question was, let me tell you a little about the professor himself. He still teaches at the college and is a young charismatic professor.
A Pakistani with an American nationality, he moved here a few years ago. Ever since, he has been teaching at the university. He has managed to transform many a ‘liberal’, ‘secular’ students, like myself, over to the ‘Islamic’, ‘Shariah’ side.
I attended his classes with an open mind, and had mentally prepared myself that if his charm worked on me, I would break on to the other side. After our first class, as was my habit, I walked to his office, telling him about my interest in archaeology. I asked him that at the time of Conquest of Meccaall the old idols present there were destroyed; whereas, on the other hand these ancient structures of art ought to have been preserved -- then, isn’t archaeology ‘un-Islamic’?
After listening to my query, the professor paused for a while and told me about a hypothetical story that he read in Time magazine. He told me that it breaks his heart when he reads that the USA allots $200 million for the preservation of archaeological sites in Afghanistan, and then, on the next page he reads that it has granted $2 million to provide clean drinking water to refugees of the war. He replied the real problem is: priorities.
I was impressed by his answer. But he still didn’t answer my question. There are others, much to my envy, who are not confused. These people believe historical ‘non-Muslim’ sites should be destroyed, to such an extent, they say, the ruins of Mohenjodaro and Harappa should be filled again. We should have nothing to do with the Age of Ignorance, they assert.
These notions of ‘non-Muslim’ and ‘Muslim’ buildings remind another anecdote from the life of Mirza Ghalib. In the movie Mirza Ghalib, it was depicted that once, while he was walking in the streets of Delhi, a Hindu halwai (confectioner) offered him mithai (sweetmeat), on diwali. Ghalib had it. When a Muslim, who saw the action, questioned how he could accept ‘Hindu’ mithai? In response, Ghalib asked him if mithai also had a religion.
To lament about Hindu and other non-Muslim temples being neglected and destroyed all over the country has became futile, because most of the time nothing happens. The blame doesn’t lie completely with the government. The people living around these monuments play a huge role in turning these structures to haunted spaces. Given the non-existence of public bathrooms, most of these spaces serve as toilets. After the destruction of the Babri Mosque most of the temples that were destroyed were with the help of the people living inside them.
In most cases hope is difficult to locate. There are a few cases where the efforts of the local people have resulted in well-maintained (Pakistani standards applied) structures. Take the Jain temple located in Khan ka Dogra, a small town on the Sargodha-Sheikhupura road, district Nankana. This is a huge complex, triple storey building, with numerous rooms, originally for travellers and priests, now occupied by refugees of 1947. On the first floor, where the idol was kept, and from where the cone-shaped structure of the temple sprouts, was the room where prayers were performed. Inside the main room a niche is found in the front wall, where an idol of Mahavira would have been present, once.
Presently the idol has been removed, but garlands, incense and lamps are still present. In the verandah, facing the main room, I found mats in lines. The impression that one gets upon witnessing the site is that the ritual prayer has just been concluded. Arif, who is the occupant of this temple, is a goldsmith. When I asked him how he had kept the temple so well-maintained, he retorted, first of all, this is his home, and, secondly, may be some person in India might also look after a mosque likewise. "This is the least he can do as the preserver of a mosque," he says. Somebody forgot to tell that to the destroyers of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya, and their Muslim brothers in Pakistan!
Standing outside the Taxila Museum if one looks at the city below the mound one will notice two cone-like structures protruding into the skyline. This was part of a Hindu temple once. When I reached the temple I was surprised to see the cleanliness inside the structure. Like the one in Khan ka Dogra, the main room had smell of lit incense.
During my exploration of the complex, I was approached by a young Pashtun boy, Muhammad, around 20 years of age. He told me that the structure now houses many families and that he lives downstairs, whereas the main prayer room was on the first floor. Muhammad told me that till a couple of years ago the main prayer room, which is occupied by nobody, was locked. He recalls that one night he was sleeping in his room, with his feet facing the room, when an old man with a white beard and a bright face appeared in his dream.
He told Muhammad he should change the direction of his feet and in the morning he should open and clean it every day, since God resides everywhere, even in a Hindu temple. Ever since, Muhammad tells me, he has been cleaning the room every day, and even prays here sometimes, sincerely believing that God is listening to his prayer, just like He would, even, if he prayed at a mosque.
My training at an elite college, with its foreign qualified professors, has failed to answer for me, what both Arif and Muhammad know by intuition.
(To be continued)