Cultural properties give a distinctive identity of people of a given geographic region. These properties are things that people are born and grow up with, and are specific to the everyday lives of people thus blending naturally into tradition. Necessarily, properties become religion like and include everything from items of daily use to religious artifacts and instruments unique to a particular society of a particular region.
For Bhutan, cultural property essentially means religious artifacts. To this end, strict rules and regulations have been put in place from as early as the mid 1960s when development activities were initiated. But with porous borders with the neighbors, a small and nascent law enforcement agency with minimum facilities to deal with a huge number of imported labor force, the country lost many valuable antiquities to thefts, vandalisms and other forms of organised crime. Tourism, though state operated earlier on, also exposed the country to the outside world tempting the western travelers to scout for items that could be bought from unscrupulous local residents eager to get rich quick. This happened in Ladak and Leh in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Bhutan being predominantly a Buddhist country, has innumerable monasteries and places of worship all across the country, including the various types of choetens or stupas. These places were both revered and feared. Revered because they are holy places where people pray and conduct religious services for the well-being of all sentient beings, and in some cases, to appease the local deities so that people may live in harmony. Feared because if people defiled the sanctity of such places, they fear the wrath of angry deities that could result in endless sufferings. The beliefs were so strong that it was unthinkable for any Bhutanese to steal or vandalise any place of worship or religious institution. Any such act would constitute a sin of the worse kind according to Buddhism and the Bhutanese believed in them unquestioningly untill the country opened up.
Development and progress made life easier and more comfortable but also brought in ills that caught the Bhutanese unawares. building infrastructures required materials the Bhutanese thought we had in abundance. Environmental damages in terms of indiscriminate felling of trees among others, included hunt for wildlife, especially the musk deer and bears for their bile pouches and gradually led to assaults and attacks on monasteries for religious artifacts. These were omens that alarmed the god-fearing Buddhist society. The government then instituted the department for preservation of antiques. Though well intended, this department somehow did not get much beyond registration and cataloguing of religious items of few important monasteries. This new beginning, however, was aimed more at preservation and less on protection against thefts and smuggling out of the country both for the longer and shorter terms.
Fortunately, Universal Ban on Movements of Antiquities was declared and facilitated framing of stricter rules across the globe.
Next come the other properties that are the necessary components of culture, but not necessarily and strictly have much to do with religion, that get scant regard in today’s world. Cultural properties or traditional properties of daily use also need attention and protection to value and appreciate culture. New technologies bring in new things and displace or replace cultural and traditional items of domestic utility. Can culture be maintained without the necessary tools and instruments that identify and validate it? Therefore, protection of cultural properties must be looked at and studied expansively in two distinct parts; religious and cultural dimensions.
Why protection is essential for cultural properties
In today’s speedy globalizing process, religious and cultural values are getting diluted and eroded just as we get engulfed by the invasive changes both in economics and political terms. Cultural and religious sites are being reduced to exhibition items for the tourists and the artifacts adorn high end hotels and government guesthouses The rich and the famous of the West use money to influence people to steal and smuggle religious and cultural properties from around the world. Acquisition or amassing such items was not meant for prayers and reverence but to flaunt what they could do with their wealth. Museum owners and artifacts collectors around the world are always on a lookout for rare relics whether or not they are religious or cultural in nature. There is a fierce competition among the rich and the famous artifact collectors who are ready to any price to boost their ego and imagined prestige. Criminality in acquiring such objects from third world countries is never an issue with such people. Human decency and morality are thus degraded. Such acts must be intervened and intervention must come from the governments of the day.
It is also fair to say that the local governments and communities must also be held accountable for lapses in safe guarding their religious and cultural institutions within their domain.
Mere passing of legislation and framing of rules to protect cultural properties is by no means adequate to provide enough protection to the properties. Rules and regulations are framed on the basis of laws passed by the parliament with or without the necessary research on the specific subject, cultural properties in this case. Let us look at what needs to be done in Bhutan to enact cultural protection law.
A. Taking stock
1. Identify and list the categories of monasteries in the country into (a) government owned and managed institutions (b) family/private monasteries managed privately with full and legitimate ownerships (c) community monasteries owned and managed by the local communities.
2. Each dzongkhag must carry out the same exercise as in item no. 1 above.
3. Build a database with detailed information of the place and items, maintain an inventory and assign identity barcode for each item.
4. Transmit all such information to the headquarters or the designated department that will maintain a national databank.
5. A separate inventory data must be prepared for the new religious structures and contents and follow the format as in item 3.
The above is just a preparatory base for the actual protection work to be planned and executed in whatever manner the government may deem necessary and decide on the urgency and importance.
The monasteries and other places of worship in the country have not received uniform attention of the government due to various compulsions and constraints. Two of the major constraints were accessibility and finance. A no less important factor is the uncertainty of ownership of religious structures in far-flung and remote regions of the country. The government and the local community each thought the other would do something. Sadly, neither did anything. Quite a few old sites have now gone beyond local repairs and still few others are in dire need of attention.
As recent as December last year, several monasteries in three western dzognkhags were vandalised and valuable items been taken away. In the light of these and past experiences of similar kind, more needs to be done than just framing legislations.
Bhutan has an excellent set-up of civil administrative echelon from the grassroots level to the various ministries as required by the constitution. Bottom up, there is chiwog at village level, which is the lowest administrative unit; gewog, formed by a cluster of villages; Dungkhag or subdivision that commands a number of gewogs; and then the dzongkhag or district headquarters.
These areas and units also have elected local government that works in tandem with the district civil administration. With hectic pace of development in the country, the important religious sites and institutions remained unattended. Protection of religious sites and cultural properties in every part of the country can be carried out by every level but will require a structured methodology to be followed uniformly. The parliament can legislate after studying the recommendations and suggestions listed in Taking stock.