Sunday, April 23, 2017


There is a secret that takes the Dragon Kingdom of Bhutan close to the heaven. It is neither the world’s tallest Buddha statue at Kuenselphodrang, nor the unique Drametse Ngacham (dance of the drummers from Drametse) of Mongar. It is a mound, mere piles of earth and stones. It is the chortens or the stupas – the white jewels of the Dragon Kingdom – jewels that have miraculous origins and with various types with great significance in the life of the Bhutanese people.

Stupa is a Sanskrit word meaning “to heap” or “to pile” and refers to the mound-like shape of the earliest stupas. The Mahaparinirvana Sutra tells us that it was Buddha himself who outlined the basic design of a stupa. The story begins at Buddha’s deathbed where he gave instructions about the disposition of his body. He said that his body should be cremated and the relics divided up and enclosed in four different monuments. These were to be erected at:

Lumbini, the place of Buddha’s birth Bodhgaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree Sarnath, where he gave his first teachings Kushinagar, where he passed into parinivana. His disciples asked what form this monument should take. The Buddha did not reply but instead gave a practical demonstration. He took his outer yellow robe and folded it in half and in half again until it formed a rough cubic square. Then he took his begging bowl, which was round, turned it upside down, and placed it on top of the robes. “Make a stupa like this,” he said. So these original instructions, directly from the Buddha, have remained the basic form for all stupas throughout the world.

However, it is difficult to trace back the precise origin of the stupas. Some scholars presume that it originated much before the Gautama Buddha or the Buddha Shakyamuni. For instance, stupas like Riwo Langchen and Jewo Dampa chortens at Swayambunath in Nepal are believed to have appeared during the aeon of Ushnisha Buddha.

Others say that one of the early stupas was built on the remains of Buddha’s bones at Namo Buddha (Tagmo Lujin) in Nepal. Tagmo Lujin is the legendary tale of one of the previous lives of the Buddha, when he offered his own body with much satisfaction to a starving tigress as a form of alms giving. Such legends talk volumes to prove that chortens first emerged simply as a burial mound.

Looking to the more recent legend, Prince Siddharta undertook a milestone decision and deed in his life of cutting his hair to abjure his life in the palace. This, according to the twelve noble deeds prayers of the Buddha, happened under the chorten called Namdag. Such knowledge is indeed the testimony to the existence of chortens much before Gautama Buddha.

The next notable chorten is Jarung khashor at Kathmandu in Nepal. Several stupas were also constructed during the aeon of Buddha Shakyamuni. Thus, chortens are the oldest Buddhist religious monuments and originally appeared only as simple mounds of mud or clay to cover relics of the important Buddhist figures.
The origin of chortens in Bhutan is not really clear, but the time might be much later than its first emergence. Buddhism first emerged from India and started to flourish in Tibet and then came to Bhutan. Chortens are mere appendages of Buddhism and we can generalise that there is less possibility of appearance of chortens in Bhutan before the arrival of Guru Rinpoche. Guru Rinpoche came to Bhutan in 746 AD and brought the Vajrayana teachings to Bhutan.

Some texts explain that it was only in the 15th century, during the time of Great Tertoen (treasure discoverer) Pemalingpa, that chortens like Mani Dangrim (mani wall) started to emerge on the Bhutanese soil. Later, the 17th century temporal ruler of Bhutan, Gyelsay Tenzin Rabgay, inspired the Bhutanese to build Mani Dangrim in many parts of the country. Mani Dangrim is considered a typical Bhutanese style chorten.

The traditional eight types of chortens which are generally referred to as the classical chortens are very common in the Himalayas. They spread from India to the Himalayan countries including Bhutan. Each one of these classical chortens signifies the major events of the life of the Buddha.

The first of the eight types is Desheg Chorten. Desheg Chorten signifies the birth of the Buddha. At birth, the Buddha took seven steps in each of the four directions – East, South, West and North. In each direction lotus sprang, symbolising the four immeasurable: love, compassion, joy and calmness. Desheg Chortens are bejewelled with lotus-petal designs along with seven heaped lotus steps.

Jangchub Chorten or the chorten of enlightenment commemorates the Buddha’s enlightenment. Buddha attended enlightenment at the age of 35 at Bodhgaya under the Bodhi tree. It is said that the chorten of enlightenment was built by the beings of all realms to mark the enlightenment of the Buddha.

Lhabab Chorten commemorates the return of Buddha to the earth from the heaven. At the age of 42, the Buddha visited the heaven to teach his mother and returned to earth following respectful request from his disciples. Hence, some refer to this chorten as the chorten of descent from the God Realm. This chorten is said to be modelled after building at Samkasya in India, on the very spot where Buddha descended from heaven. Steps on all four sides up to the dome make it distinctive from other chortens.

Choekhor Korwai Chorten is to honour the first sermon of Buddha. Lord Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining enlightenment at Deer Park in Sarnath in India, which is known as Varanasi these days. He ‘turned the wheel of dharma’ to show all sentient beings the path to enlightenment. This chorten is characterised by various entrances to signify various paths to enlightenment.

Chotrul Chorten was built to observe Buddha’s deed of subjugation of Mutikpa or the heretics. The Buddha subjugated the heretics of Sravasti at Uttar Pradesh in India by showing miracles. Thus, the chorten is also called Miracle Chorten.

Yendum Chorten was built to celebrate the victory of the Buddha over the evil Devadatta. Devadatta was by tradition a Buddhist monk, cousin and brother-in-law to Gautama Buddha. However, he grew jealous of the Buddha and given much threat to the life and teachings of the Buddha.

Namgyal Chorten was built to rejoice the prolonged life of Buddha. It also symbolises the victory over all evils, including the mystery of death itself. Despite the pressure from the king of the evil, the Buddha decided to attain the state of Parinirvana only after prolonging his life by three months.

The last, Netendey Chorten or the chorten of nirvana is to remember the day when the Buddha passed into Parinirvana. It symbolises the Buddha’s complete absorption into the highest state of mind. The characteristic feature of the chorten of nirvana is its bell shape and it is usually not ornamented. This symbolises the expression of mourning over the death of the Enlightened One.

The other chortens are Chorten Kangnyim (stupas two legs), Mani Chukhor (Prayer wheel), Tashi Gomang (Glorious Chorten of Many Doors), and Mani Dangrim. Chorten Kangnyim and Tashi Gomang chortens are rather rare in Bhutan. However, Tashi Gomang exists as a mere miniaturised monument.

There is an aphorism that “if you save a worm from the army of violent ants, the merits are equivalent to that of building a chorten.” Such expression only means that there is nothing greater way of accumulating merits than constructing a chorten.

Chortens for Bhutanese are the source and symbol of peace and harmony. For instance, the legendary Chorten Kora in Trashiyangtse was built in the 18th century by Lama Ngawang Lodroe to subdue a harmful demon. People started to enjoy boundless peace and harmony after the completion of the peerless relic of the kingdom.

The chortens for Bhutanese are also shrines. The presence of chortens in abundance shows the faith people have in Buddhism. Even the mere sight of chorten brings immensurable faith and devotion in the minds of the Bhutanese people. This is the reason why people build chortens in public places.

Druk Wangyel Chorten at Dochula is the masterpiece of the modern Bhutanese art and architecture. But it has more spiritual value beyond the outer aesthetic beauty. It is a heartfelt expression of the royal family and the people of Bhutan to His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the Fourth King, and his reign. It is a symbol of gratitude, victory and peace frozen in the form of sacred stupas.

As chortens are considered the Gyelwai Thug or the mind manifestation of the Buddha, people seek refuge in it. There is not a single mountain pass in Bhutan without a chorten. For some, it may be the ornament to the woods and mountains but it also brings a sense of presence of gods. Travellers pray for their safe journey with deep devotion every time they come across the chortens.It is common to see the Bhutanese people circumambulating a chorten. Circumambulating a chorten enables a positive reincarnation and spends positive energies. Circumambulating the representation of mind of the enlightened one is a judicious means to accumulate merits.

Chortens are the eternal representations of the enlightened ones. If something remains for eternity, it would be chortens. It is a wish-fulfilling jewel of our country. It is the peerless relic, radiance of which will bestow us with peace, harmony and tranquillity.

Special appearance of an owl in my unpublished novella

Photo: Google
Your honour, the guardian of the Law of Kingdom Bhutan    
I never thought that one of the beautiful moments in my life will end up in bitter tragedy. We are simply a lover, and in my knowledge loving someone deep from heart is not a crime. But today, I am aware that love is not always a bed of roses. 
It was Deki who called me first. It was she who arranged all the dates that we had in our entire relationship. It was she who touched me first too. I am simply an ordinary man with ordinary thoughts. Complete innocent. I regret for being so impulsive.
I am sad that Deki’d been deceitful to me throughout our relation. She never told me that she was a student. Worst of all, she even stretched the truth about her age. She said that she’d completed her B.Ed from Paro College of Education. Who on this earth would complete Degree before attending the age of eighteen?  
I am totally innocent about the crime that I have committed. I would like to ask for forgiveness from all – the almighty God above who’d been blessing our relationship throughout, the law of the kingdom, and all the disturbed souls in this universe.

“Forgiveness?” the judge ejaculated. “You’re a teacher, not an innocent child. Now, you cannot push your blame to this little girl. Explanation is totally unnecessary in this case. There is no room for negotiation. I need only one word. ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. In the name of the almighty God, tell me. Have you done it?”
The respond, indeed, was already obvious to everyone in the court room. The judge only wanted Karma to officially confess to the crime. He wanted a single word ‘yes’ to come out from Karma’s own three-inched-mouth. This was indispensable for the jury to prepare a verdict.
A thought of his mother suddenly flashed through his mind – mother shedding oceans of tears upon hearing the verdict. Tears of sorrow. Shame. Embracement. Regret. But Karma was in a complicated situation as if like a peacock of plains of India in a snare.

“Yes,” said Karma. His voice sank to whisper as he officially confess to the crime that he’d committed but unwittingly. It was a word that will change everything in his life. Happiness into sadness. Love into hatred. Laughter into tears. Life in bed of roses into life like an animal in a cage. Sweets washed him from head to toe. He didn’t even remembered how he reached the police station. 
The night was total silent in the police custody. The only sound he could hear was a hoot of an owl from the roof of the next building. It called to his mind one unpleasant stories of an owl from his late grandfather. “Owl is considered as the bird of evils. Its hoot is a presage, warning that something unpleasant will happen. Even worst is to hear the owl muttering like a group of aged people together. It is a real presage, cautioning that someone from that family will be taken away by the lord of death.”
“It was one overcast night.” Grandpa continued. “Your mother was spinning a yarn and I was talking with your father over the warm hearth. You were sleeping on my lap. Suddenly, we heard an owl muttering on our rooftop. We were all frightened by the cry of this evil creature. All of us were silent. As silent as the grave. We understood that something inescapable hard luck will occur in our house, but none of use talked about it. We were all worried. We silently slept.  Exactly after three nights, your father was killed in a terrible car wreck. The misfortune warned by the owl is inescapable. Really inescapable!”...

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Endless Stories – Excerpt

Spotted at Pangkhar in Ura
...The Royal Court of Justices was twenty minutes drive towards the north of the police station. The ornate gate bejeweled with traditional Tibetan painting of dragon and eight lucky sign stood like a fulltime protector of the mighty court building. Inside stood the court in its full glory, offering silent greetings to the people, well apt to the purpose of their visit – gracious enough for those seeking for justice but very frightening sight as though like a spine-chilling ghost for the criminals of all sorts.  
The windows and doors were all highlighted with traditional curving, forming beautiful mosaic of flowers, clouds and some mythical animals. Inside was a big portrait of the King with Jekhenpo – the Chief Abode, both in yellow scarf glimmering like gold in the morning sun rays. To the sides of the portrait was the court bench from where people from all walks of life get justice.
The bench clerk called one by one for hearing. All the people seeking for justics must remain within striking distance from the Court Room. Anytime the clerk might call them.   
Now Karma was sick at heart. He never thought that his romantic relationship with Deki would someday end in such a tragedy. When he contemplates on his own heartbeat, he could hear myriad of messages with each beat.
You are real coward, wimp, faint-hearted. You say you can die for Deki. Now, is this what you’re afraid? Merely to face the judge. True lover sacrifices their life. Not scared of day-to-day activities of humanity like going to the court. Court is not a death house. It is the place where you get justice.      
Deki’s father arrived. He was a tall man, reared above everyone in the court. He wore expensive silk Gho but little mismatched with his Indian coloured face. He held a yellow file, inside which would be all to change the tune of Karma’s stand. He occupied the post of Director, Regional Custom Office, but resigned after his office was listed as most corrupt in the previous year. This is enough prove to describe him as a shrewd man. Indeed this painted a black picture on him in the whole society.
The furrowed brow on his forehead arranged like a terrace of paddy fields fetched Karma flashbacks of some beautiful moments with Deki. It was one autumn morning. They were walking through the wide meadows of Ura. Dew drops on vibrant wild flowers blazed like a fairy lights on Christmas tree.
“Karma, collect me some flowers,” she ask for, gazing admiringly at the blossom around.
“Not at any price!” he said, watching carefully the reaction from her.
She frowned, showing the wrinkles on her forehead like a terrace.
“Deki, sometimes I wonder that these little flowers are just the reflection of your peerless beauty,” Karma said in serious mood, “so that I cannot imagine of defiling the beauty of them with my own hands. No! Not at any price!”
Deki smiled.
Karma hugged her tightly to his chest. They felt each other’s heartbeat. 
The court room door opened. The rasp of the giant door planks gave rise to some uncontrollable worry and fear for everyone waiting to enter the room. The bench clerk signaled Karma’s escort to put him inside. Karma closed his eyes to catch his breath. Deki’s father walked side by side with him. Both entered the room, bowed before the judge and stood, composed.
The room was the archetype of traditional setting in the district. With the complex mandala painting, the room has got the most ornate ceiling in the region. All four wooden pillars were curved and painted with mythical green dragon perfectly embellished with flowers and leaves. On the left wall was the mural of Tshering Nyamdru, the six manifestation of Tshering: human Tshering, mount Tshering, stream Tshering, cave Tshering, bird Tshering and tree Tshering. It was adapted from traditional Tibetan painting. Right wall was covered with the mural of Thuenpa Puen Zhi, the Four Harmonious Friends – an elephant, a monkey, a rabbit and a bird. Lore has it that if you have a painting of Four Harmonious Friends at home the family will live in harmony.
Straight above the judge was musk of Tsholeng which has supremacy to create whole room terrifying. Around it was the mural of unknown Buddhist Gods and Goddesses whose physical appearances were more like ghost, the inner significance of which cannot be understood by the ordinarily humans with ordinary thoughts. The counter-like-table of the judge was curved with the emblem of the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan. The judge looked officious, so powerful on his traditional Bhutanese court bench... 

Monday, August 3, 2015

A scene from one of my short stories

Source: Internet
The whole week of teaching the innocent kids in the school was done. Karma was out on his usual weekend outdoor pursuit, running after the butterflies and snapping their colour and joyous moments. Butterflies seemed like precious stones for a materialistic soul. He liked the chromatic combinations on their glistening wings rather than the living style. He captured several rich pictures that morning.

“They have the most mesmerizing wings,” he said to himself as he gazed and gazed.     

He could now hear a familiar Hindi song by some young girls in the distance. He listened to the lyrical description of the surroundings – the mountains, the streams and the trees. It was the soothing effect of their song that made Karma walk towards them.

When Karma approached, the girls stopped singing. Both lowered their heads and giggled. The girls were making a flower garland with wild marigold. The chilly morning breeze blew their silky hair in all directions. Karma swallowed, “Good morning girls.”

The two kept giggling. “What are these garlands for,” he continued, a little embarrassed though.

“For Dewali,” one of them uttered at last. 

After exchanging a few words, the conversation felt at ease. “What is meant by Dewali,” he posed a question.

“It is the festival of lights.”

“Why are you here early in the morning, Acho,” one of them inquired.

“I am taking picture of the butterflies.”

The girls giggled again. He explained how much he loved the colour and the waves of light. He switched on the old digital camera and played a short clip. A bluish green butterfly flapped its wings amongst the dying yellow flowers, sparkling in the morning sun like a turquoise…

Monday, May 12, 2014

In The Arms of WFP

May 1, 2014: I still feel a bit uneasy to face my best student—Aita Bdr. Subba. For the last three years, I have been teaching the wonders of numbers, shapes and space for my class. Notwithstanding all my beautiful lessons, something went wrong, and it’s been on my conscience ever since. I never realized the background of my students, which indeed is indispensable for effective teaching. 

This year, I aspired to delegate the role of school mess captain to Aita. But the majority of the teachers, by common consent, appointed him for a higher seat—the house captain. The evidence is now clear that Aita made quite an impression on his teachers over the last few years. 

For me, in all honesty, Aita is a boy of deep sincerity and unstinting devotion. I’ve perceived these concrete qualities with my naked eyes, empty hands, or carefree mind. I never realized the untold stories of my students and became the firm believer of what they do right before my bare eyes. 

This year, as a part of my assignment, I worked on learning the stories of WFP beneficiaries in my school. Dozens of bittersweet stories! But one story really touched my heart. I pulled Aita aside and asked him to say his piece without any hesitation. He narrated his story in a voice hardly above a whisper. The story of his family background is nothing better than reading one of Shakespeare’s heartbreaking plays. 

When the whole world is craving for materialist wealth and comfort, Aita and his parents still live in abject poverty. The next hot meal is more precious than a luxurious car or a deluxe home for them. They lead a life with all the cares of the world on their shoulders. Life in a bed of roses has been a real chimera for them. 

Aita's father, Mon Bdr. Subba, is in his fifties, but he looks much older than his age. He's been completely deaf and dumb since birth. Yet, his love and care for his family has been extraordinary. Despite his old and frail body, he toils every day for survival. When healthy, he keeps his little land under plough the whole year. In addition, he also struggles in doing tenant farming to earn enough bread for his feeble family. 

Hard luck for the family escalated when their disabled father had to undergo severe gallstone operation. The performance of the head of the family declined significantly resulting to big run-down of food and clothes. The misfortune was like a fuel to the flames and the family shed many tears. 

Aita's mother, Batay Subba, is a little younger than Mon Bdr. Subba, and much luckier in terms of senses. She can partially hear and speak. Besides household chores, she helps Mon Bdr. in every work. Indeed, she became the sole bread earner of the family after Mon Badur's misfortune.  

Aita has four siblings: three sisters and a brother. He worries every day about his little siblings, who live fully reliant to their poor parents. His only little brother and one of his sisters have been suffering from chronic skin disease since the age of one or two, adding the weight of sorrow for all of them. His other two sisters are studying with Aita: one in class four, and the other in class seven. 

Education remained as a dream for Aita until he turns eleven. The nearest school does not serve its purpose, at least to Aita. It provides education, but for the people like Aita, he needs food too. Thus, when all the children of his age sing a rhymes and rhythms in school, he listens to the donkeys braying on the other side of the hills. 

The idea of boarding school was brought up by his uncle who has a heart of gold. He takes Aita with him at Wangdi—the land known for a stiff breeze. Aita experienced happiness, as well as anxiety. His bond with his family is too firm, but the thoughts of sitting inside the classroom with friends of his age and flipping through vivid children's books supersede all his worries. 

Athang Primary School is one of the fortunate schools to be blessed with all the benefits of WFP. Children from the hand-to-mouth parents come together to learn and eat. Aita was once among them. 

When Aita dines on free delicious foods and succulent fruits at school, he remembers forcing himself a flavorless loaf of bread, mostly without curry, at home. He also remembers his mother crushing dried groundnuts on the flat stone to use as cooking oil. But even the flour and nuts goes in short and their cupboard remains bare most of the time. 

“For me, WFP is a god who intervened in my miserable life and turned me from ignorance to knowledgeable,” Aita says with his eyes filled with sincere tears. “It is only with WFP that I could start my education,” he adds. 

For two years, Aita studies at Athang with the generous help from his uncle. In 2008, when he is heavier and stronger, he comes down to Tsirangtoe Lower Secondary School (Present School), which is also blessed with WFP. Tsirangtoe is near his parents, but not within shouting distance. It is roughly seven to eight kilometers away. 

The health of Aita's mother begins to decline year by year. At the tender age of fourteen, Aita starts to work for money during breaks. He started by carrying tons of oranges in the scorching winter sun of Tsirang to earn money. Though it’s little money, anything is helpful for his family. From 2011, he exploited his little body in the world of hazardous construction sites. He travelled as far as Zhemgang to do hard jobs of sands and stones. Aita's little hard-earned money has been just enough to buy books and uniforms for his two little sisters and himself. 

Last winter, rumors circulated that the WFP will be lifting and parents’ contribution for food will swell up to Ngultrum 6000. The tension heightens in Aita's family. A little boy earns merely Ngultrum 8000 in lucky winter breaks, but there are also household expenditures, and being a sole breadwinner is difficult. Ngultrum 6000 is an astronomical amount for most of the middle-income group in Bhutan, let alone Aita's family. However, the rumors never turned true. The WFP stood shoulder to shoulder with people like Aita, helping their dreams of education come true. 

Despite all the problems Aita does moderately good at studies. “If I am able to complete my schooling, I wish to become a Teacher so that I can succour the deprived people like myself,” Aita says. He is a voracious reader of children's books at school. Besides, he sits in one of the front-runners in every games and sports. His leadership qualities have no parallel in the school, and serve his school-mates and teachers with devotion and commitment. 

Aita might develop as a devoted leader or a committed teacher. He might become as an acclaimed writer or rise to fame as an athletics. If people like Aita complete his studies without any complication, it is beyond the shadow of a doubt that his family and village at large will prosper under the auspices of his noble deeds. However, whether to accomplish all these beautiful dreams or to let it disappear in the air is all under the mercy of WFP.

As Narrated by Keshab Khatiwara  

Sunday, December 22, 2013

It Takes A Village and Not a ‘Syringe’ to Raise a Child

First appeared in The Raven Magazine 
 When I was in primary school at Ura in Bumthang in the early 90’s, hearing the word Lopen simply sent my heart racing. I conjectured images of getting into trouble, or having done something wrong and then, thoughts of the unbearable stick would come to mind.

As a child the word Lopen was  firmly associated with the idea of corporal punishment. I don’t think that this is anything new. For many who belong to my generation it is common knowledge that this was the modus operandi of teaching – to beat and punish children with the notion that they were “educating” and “disciplining”. It was so common and accepted that nobody ever questioned it; nobody knew whether it was effective or not. Nobody ever asked, did the children really learn? Hence nobody saw it as being wrong either. Where I went to school, the beatings and punishments were so frequent that my imagination involuntarily tied a teacher with punishment and hence instilled nothing but fear in me. In retrospect that was truly unfortunate, for I am a teacher now, and I wouldn’t consider it very flattering if my students had that image of me.

I cannot deny that some taught us well, and meant well. But I guess they didn’t know any better. Whatever the case, I remain grateful for the education I received. However, some of the teachers were so mean that they seemed better at  punishing than teaching. I remember one of them had punishment techniques that were better than his ability to teach. He even had different equipments of torture, a whipping cane that folded in two, and a piece of electric wire.

I will never forget the incident when some of my friends and I were forced to strip and dip ourselves in ice-cold water one early frosty winter morning. Bumthang winters are brutal and we were, well, just children. And our crime? Coming late to morning study. We could have died from hypothermia. Luckily we didn’t, but some suffered from cold and serious bouts of coughing, I suffered from serious stomach cramps the remaining of the day. It was a horrible and painful experience that I never wish upon any children. In those days our parents entrusted us to the teachers and the school, and it was up to them to do what they could, with us. Parents didn’t complain.

One teacher had punishment techniques that were better than his ability to teach.

Other’s haven’t been so lucky. There have been incidents when a child  succumbed to corporal punishment. A friend told me that in the late 50’s when her father went to school in Wangdiphodrang, a boy was beaten and kicked so badly in his chest that he died shortly after. The case was never reported to the police, and the teacher never lost his job. That was then, at a time when farmers not only valued free education, but felt so privileged and fortunate that their children could get a seat in one of the few schools that existed in the country. In a culture where teachers are revered as gurus, it is sad that such abuse not only existed, but was tolerated and condoned. Today, after years of research and studies conducted by child psychologists, social behavioural analysts and learning specialists, the world is learning a different way. The discussion of how children should be taught and what kind of environment is best for learning, has taken a different direction. It has taught us that there is a much better and compassionate way of educating children, and even “disciplining” them. Mine was a childhood fraught with learning by the stick. Exams and class-tests were constantly followed by the cane. Some teachers beat us for every single error that we made in our papers. But more often than not, these beatings were because of so called “disciplinary” issues. Teachers beat students simply based on what was desirable or undesirable behaviour in their eyes. Sometimes the scoldings and beatings started right from the morning assembly, upsetting our mood the whole day.

While there were about 400 children in less than a dozen schools spread across the country in the early 60s, there are now more than 200,000 children in 536 schools.

To me, teaching those days seldom went beyond chalk and a blackboard, and the teacher’s movement in the classroom rarely went beyond the front row – except maybe when he wanted to smack someone who sat at the back.

When I was in the fifth standard, I was accused of breaking into a near-by food store. I had a thousand and one reasons to prove otherwise, and I was so eager to proclaim my innocence that I couldn’t stop from talking. But as soon as I started to speak the teacher slapped me hard across my face. That shut me up, but he continued to slap me repeatedly. After a dozen or so slaps, unable to bear the humiliation and his repeated accusations that I had done it, I gave in and said I did it. It was one of the most hurtful and humiliating experiences I have experienced. It impacted my sense of self, my view of education and the world around me. I hated school and I hated teachers.  Not only was it difficult to accept a crime that I hadn’t committed, but it was even more painful to see that I had hurt my parents, who were made to feel embarrassed for what I had not done. A part of me understands that teachers sometimes deployed such punishments with good intent, after all they have to maintain the order of the school. However, I think if they stand in the shoes of the child I am sure they will realize that corporal punishment injures a child for the rest of his life and eclipses his opportunities to blossom positively.

In my view, the Teaching-learning process in those days was irritatingly dull and full of lectures by people who never seemed to follow any of the rules in life. We never got the opportunity to contribute in our own learning process. We were never taught to question; instead we were told to listen only. We were never taught to enquire and be curious, for that was doubting the teacher. We were never taught to speak up, because that was being disrespectful, bold, and disruptive.  Teachers kept on lecturing until the bell rang. We had a small one room library with few books, but we weren’t even encouraged to read or even go there. After all, they didn’t expect us to write anything new in our test answers. If we regurgitated what they taught us, that was enough – complete rote learning. The only upside to rote learning from my childhood was that I managed to by-heart all the Buddhist prayers like the Doelma and Barchoedlamsel.

For society, however, the reputation of the school remained high. Every year, the students who appeared for the board examination would bring 100% pass marks. Besides, the students also exhibited exemplary discipline and behaviour when there were visiting dignitaries. In such fashion, teachers in the olden days were victorious in upholding what they thought was the nobility of the teaching profession, without realizing that not only was it immoral, but that the children had really learned nothing. They didn’t prepare the children for the world, they prepared us to fear everything. Unfortunately, because of a lack of of what a meaningful education was, society during that time considered teaching one of the best professions and teachers were given great respect by all and sundry.

Whenever we were asked what we wanted to be in the future, more than half of us ironically, raised our hands and said our dream was to be a teacher. And this was not because we merely wanted to please our teacher, but because we envied the power they wielded, and the respect they got from society. Even at home, my friends and I would play the teacher-student game. Everyone loved being the teacher and punishing the others, clearly showing that we were learning how to love power and authority and the ability to have others obey us. They say children being told about good and bad behavior rarely has any impact because they learn more by looking and listening, and emulating the behavior of the adults. It was only when I was at Paro College of Education that I realized the journey the teaching profession has made. Today, teachers have learned better and work harder, but the irony is that society no longer seems to see that. Currently the  morale amongst teachers is pretty low. I came across many trainees expressing dissatisfaction with the profession. It also seems to be the last thing that most people want to be now. Once I happened to visit a village in Paro while gathering information for an assignment. In a soiled cow shed I saw a few children playing a teacher-student game. A girl who was enacting a teacher was holding a big stick, and pretended to beat her students when they didn’t listen to her. A friend told me that at a private primary school in Thimphu which her nephews attend, one teacher put the pencil in between the child’s tender fingers and pinched them together causing immense pain. That, for not doing  homework.

In some ways teaching children without beatings and punishment is an alien approach to our society and many who want to be “teachers” are learning/hearing  of it only now. For those who don’t care about children, yet want to be a teacher, I think their want is for the power and authority the profession commands and not because they want to be an “educator.”

During our training, the modules like Child Psychology really helped us understand the effect of corporal punishment on learners, both physically and mentally. We also learnt that Bhutan was one of the first countries to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) without any reservation in 1990. Today, anyone wanting to be a teacher should know that Corporal punishment is also against the teacher’s code of conduct. While at the training college we took a basic counseling program to teach us an alternative way of working with children. The module holds significant value in teaching us the substitution for corporal punishment. But, in my opinion, one module in the six months semester seems to be inadequate. We hardly got the chance to exercise or put to effect how this works.

I am back in a primary school again. I was assigned as a PP (Pre-primary) teacher  to Chhuboelsa Extended Class Room (ECR) under Tsirangtoe Lower Secondary School in Bhuan, after I completed my training course. On my first day, I entered the classroom with great excitement looking at faces that reminded me of myself decades ago and started a conversation with the children seated before me. I asked them many questions and they eagerly answered in a chorus. Once the ice had been broken and they seemed comfortable enough, I told them I wanted to appoint a class captain and asked if anyone was interested. Suddenly, everyone in the class raised their hands and started yelling enthusiastically. I asked if they knew the responsibility of the class captain. I was frightened and shocked when everyone unanimously said, “to beat la”. I had come a long way, but it seemed like the message hadn’t reached some parts of Bhutan. I realized I had a lot of work to do. The children, it seems, were learning well from corporal punishment. You get a little authority, even as a captain, and you have the power to “beat.”

Moved by such experiences, I’ve talked with many of my colleagues, parents and students on how they feel about corporal punishment in our schools. While, most of them are against  it there are still some who genuinely support it, and I think it is because they do not know any better. A senior teacher at Tsirangtoe Lower Secondary School said that he felt handicapped with the ban of corporal punishment. With a mere basic counseling course, he said, teachers are helpless in handling the adverse behavior of some stubborn students. He claimed that he has witnessed the swift change in students’ behavior after the ban, implying that it was getting worse. The teacher-in charge at Chhuboelsa ECR said that he has advised and spoken to many youth but  he was still unable to identify their problem, leave alone finding the solution. He said they always came up with some excuse prompting the “counseling session to become an advising session.” He said his advise was in vain when students took it lightly.  He, therefore, felt that the only way these children would listen was through strict disciplinary action like corporal punishment. Another teacher believed that, the discipline is an act of love where sometimes we are required “to be unkind, to be kind”. He quotes an excerpt from You can win by Shiv Khera: “We are all familiar with that big animal, the giraffe. A mama giraffe gives birth to a baby giraffe standing. All of a sudden the baby falls on a hard surface, and sits on the ground. The first thing the mama does is to get behind the baby and give him a hard kick. The baby gets up, but the legs are weak and wobbly and the baby falls down. Mama goes behind again and gives him one more kick. The baby gets up, but sits down again. Mama keeps kicking till the baby gets on its feet and starts moving. Why? Because mama knows that the only chance of survival for the baby is to get on its feet – otherwise it will be eaten by predators.”

But are we Giraffes?

When I heard these arguments I doubted myself and wondered whether corporal punishment could, in some instances, indeed be helpful? I recall an incident, when after hating school I had begun bunking classes and tried to force my parents to let me leave school. It was only with a painful slap that I received from my class teacher that made me stay back and continue my schooling. Today, I look back and wonder – would I have remained illiterate if he hadn’t hit me? Then I ask myself the question, but why did I want to run away from classes in the first place and what made me want to leave school in the first place? Was it because I felt so misunderstood by my teachers and tired of the beatings and the way I was treated? If they hadn’t made learning such a miserable experience I think I would have enjoyed school and not skipped classes. At one point I even referred to it as the “golden slap” because it had forced me to stay in school and indeed changed the course of my life. But I shouldn’t let that one incident sway the argument that corporal punishment, whether well intended or not, is right.

The golden slap is really a tap on the head with the good intent of making someone snap out of doing something stupid, naughty or silly. Corporal punishment on the other hand humiliates, embarrasses and hurts the child both physically and mentally. It is a punitive form of punishment that has many harmful repercussions to the overall development of the child’s mental and emotional development. Unlike the educated parents in towns, most of the parents at Tsirangtoe that I’ve talked to feel that, a little corporal punishment should be allowed in our schools. They believe that strict discipline in schools will eventually shape a child better. Some even overtly blame the ban for the increasing youth related problems. I think this is because they fail to understand that causes of our youth problems are more complex than that. They are, I think, confusing the symptom with the cause. The reason why we have youth problems and are witnessing a growing lack of respect for authority, is not because of banning corporal punishment, but because maybe such punishment or aggravation exists in their homes. What teachers also don’t realize is that their duty is not to discipline the children. That is the duty of the parents, and it is something that a child should learn at home, taught by the parents. There needs to be a partnership between parents and the school to help the child develop the right manners and discipline. If the child is undisciplined then the teacher should simply push the responsibility onto the parents. A teacher’s duty is to teach and educate and help steer the child in the right direction. But he/she must do the best he can in the most compassionate manner. If this doesn’t work, parents have to be called in to help dissolve the situation of the misbehaving child. And yet still, if bad behavior continues despite warnings it should result in strict disciplinary actions like detentions, suspensions and ultimately expulsion. There is no need for teachers to resort to taking matters into their own hands and mishandling a child by physically abusing them.

But sometimes, I have heard people talking as if all teachers are in favour of corporal punishment as if it is a pastime for us. Recently, a member in WAB (Writers Association of Bhutan) explicitly mentioned in his post that “teachers love to beat their students.”  It is really painful to digest such remarks and generalizations. Indeed, we teachers too hate having to scold our students for nothing. Our only wish is to see  our students enjoying school and learning; to see them happy and for us to enjoy what we do. There is nothing more annoying than to have misbehaving and troublesome children who disrupt the smooth running of a class or school. There is also nothing more saddening for us to see these children’s lives ruined with neglect, punishment and lack of support from the faculty and their parents.

Above all, the ban seems to have affected the morale of teachers who have known no other way to run a classroom or school than with corporal punishment. They feel that this instead empowers some parents who have first of all never taken an active and positive role in their children’s lives, leave alone education and discipline.  Some teachers feel that banning corporal punishment ties the teachers hands who are left to deal with troublesome children while parents blame, sue or even beat teachers for the the bad behavior of these children. It demoralizes hundreds of teachers across the country. What our education system, society and the parents of troubled children fail to realize is that this is a joint effort and without it, there are bound to be lapses in how our children are educated and disciplined. We are not talking about teachers who like beating for the sake of beating – like in my childhood. We are talking about teachers who are trying to do their jobs as best they can with the limited exposure they themselves have and the limited resources available to them. It is not the work of the teachers/educators alone to discipline a child. Our role is to teach mainly but it is the parents/family’s role to provide the values and discipline. For too long the Bhutanese attitude and society has put the onus on the teacher’s alone.  Education, is not limited to the school. The examples of what kind of person you want your child to become, begins in the family. Many of the parents today are educated, how many of them really take an interest in helping with home-work and communicating with the teachers?

If parents cannot handle the few children they have, then they shouldn’t expect a teacher who has 35 to 40 children in a class to perform wonders. People don’t seem to realize that teaching is not a simple 9 to 5 job. A Teacher is involved in the lives of 35/40 children everyday. There are lessons to prep for and assignments to correct, and ensure the safety and wellbeing of these children day in and day out till the end of the school year. Parents who seem to leave all the responsibility to the teachers should work with us and support us. With no parent involvement and support some of them come in with the smallest complaints and harass the teachers.

For instance, this year alone, many parents charged our teachers. A non-national school teacher of Pelkhil High School in Thimphu was beaten-up by a parent of a student in April this year. The reason, we heard was the teacher smacked the child twice on the back during class. The father of the student, it is said, pulled the teacher out of the classroom, and beat him up. Such disrespectful incidents can demotivate the teaching community. What must be remembered is that there are negligent people on both sides – the parents and in the teaching community. In August this year, an expatriate teacher at Sipsoo was arrested for violating the teacher’s code of conduct. Lured by showing some test questions, he harassed two class VIII girls by showing a porn movie and physically and sexually abusing them. Radhi JHSS principal was charged this June for acting unfriendly to the whole community including teachers and students. He manhandled the school caretaker two months after his arrival. He is also alleged to have held another teacher by the collar and accused for verbally assaulting and humiliating school staff in the meetings. Worse,  after a minister’s visit to the school on September 30, 2010, the same man forced his teaching staff  to drink two cases of beer, even though they didn’t want to.  And now we have a case where a teacher allegedly injected students with a used syringe as punishment.

What we as teachers must keep in mind is that such ill-thought, reckless, and ignorant behaviour of a few has serious implications on the entire teaching community. The status and nobility of the teaching profession can be better promoted only by our teachers who love and care for the children, their staff and their profession. The hard work of hundreds of teachers can be completely overshadowed by the blunder of a single teacher. Our profession therefore requires  us to be extra cautious of what we do, both inside and outside the school campus.  We are talking about the education of not one child, but of the entire nation, and for the next generation. Every stakeholder should do their share. Parents should help out in any way they can to support teachers and their children’s school, and the Ministry of Education has to assist teachers and principals with putting in place of corporal punishment, effective disciplinary measures in place that can have far-reaching consequences for those – parents/children/ and teachers – who do not comply. As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and our people and society have to realize that if parents do not step up to take more responsibility for their children, schools alone cannot be blamed for an education system which many see as failing.