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Book tells the missing Bhutanese stories
Needrup Zangpo, History of Bhutan   I    May 31, 2013
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Tshering Tashi’s new book, Myth and Memory, is a collection of 67 absorbing articles on unwritten historical and cultural aspects of Bhutan. The 288-page paperback, which will be launched in two weeks, adds riveting details to Bhutan’s history, culture, and personalities. The pages of the book stand out like colourful patchwork on the broad – and often unexciting – canvas of historical events and anecdotes.

The articles, which are of an average newspaper story’s length, dwell on colourful myths and memories that define Bhutan and are a constant source of fascination for the Bhutanese and foreigners alike. One’s rational mind cannot escape being challenged by the myths of the sword that rides on the wind, the speaking statue, and realised Buddhist masters who can travel long distances by riding on the wind. Bhutan is believed to have only a few swords that rides on the wind or Lungdri Chem (RlungGriChanm) just as the monks who can ride on the wind or Lung Gompa (RlungSgomPa).

The book is divided into two sections – myth and memories, and each contains a number of chapters. Each chapter is a story in itself. Reading each chapter is like picking up a piece of Bhutan history that has fallen off popular history books. The gripping story of the fall of Thimphu’s strongman and governor, Kawang Mangkhel, for example, is told in compellingly vivid details. One could almost see Kawang Mangkhel’s assassins throwing him out of Rinpung Dzong’s window and the dying strongman, believed to be the son of Dechenphu’s protector deity, Ganyen Jagpa Milen, warning his killers, “My sog (life force) will not rest in peace until I cut your sog.”

The articles are written in the simple, storytelling style featuring a number of people who have good knowledge or perspectives on history and myth. And TsheringTashi, the author of Mysteries of the Raven Crowns and co-author of Bold Bhutan Beckons, has not cluttered the articles with too many scholarly references. He neatly keeps himself out of most pieces although it is evident that a lot of legwork and many face-to-face interviews were involved in putting them together. The author has managed to skillfully combine the journalist’s eye for the unusual with the historian’s eye for context.

Every piece is brought to life by revealing pictures, including rare ones from India Office Library, British Library in London, which the author had access to. Among the images from the British Library are those of two handwritten letters of the second King, His Majesty Jigme Wangchuck – one in Hindi and the other in English. The letter in English, addressed to Col. Baily and written in beautiful cursive handwriting from Bumthang on September 8, 1933, is a joy to read.

His Majesty had signed the letter as ‘J. Wangchhuk’, the royal family name with double ‘h’ and without the ‘c’. There are many such observations to make from the letter.

The book gives considerable space to articles about or related to Desi Jigme Namgyel and the Kings of Bhutan. Among those that may be of particular interest to Bhutanese readers are on Desi Jigme Namgyel’s matchmaker, Jha Patsa Raja, astrologers put to test of reason by the third Druk Gyalpo, and the second Druk Gyalpo’s tendency to speak in Hindi and English to his retainers, who spoke or understood neither. These articles give stimulating insights into the lives of the Bhutanese monarchs and their great ancestors.

An interesting chapter is on the first of many things in Bhutan, including the first of flags, radio waves, stamps, schools, drivers, and medals, among others. Of course, the book contains the staples of Bhutanese myth like the yeti, courting a divine bride, Shambhala, and stories of spirits.

Most of the articles have been published in the Bhutanese newspapers and received well. While general readers will enjoy the articles, those with a solid grounding and interest in the Bhutanese history and culture will find them particularly engaging.

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