Flowers are blooming aplenty. Red, yellow, pink, white…nurtured and nourished by care and quietude. In the early summer sun, the heat is searing.
The door to the room at the far end of the first floor of HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation office in Thimphu is closed, tight shut. After a few hesitant knocks on the door comes a hoary croak from inside, sand-clogged, rust-chomped and sinking: “Push!” The door bears no plaque to say who’s in.
As the door opens, a quaintly colossal, laboriously-blushered and shimmering wooden penis with fiery wings stares square in your eyes, scowling with massive fangs. And gleaming lavishly in the glorious morning light, the priapic figurine on the windowsill has assumed an aura of majesty. The shadow of the giant erythraean symbol of pride and power has invoked deep silence and profound solemnity. The only noise in the room comes from a small table fan whirring vigorously on the floor.
And there, beside the sleek and august wooden hulk is a bespectacled and progressively balding head, peering hard into the computer screen and twirling on a chair erratically. Kungzang Dorji is the office’s programme coordinator, and with him are two fiftyish-looking men and two teenagers – a boy and a girl. They have just come back from a 10-day Cultural Exhibition tour to Switzerland and Sweden.
Representatives from Lotokuchu and Lumbey in Samtse, Kengkhar in Mongar, Nganglatrong in Zhemgang and HELVETAS Thimphu, 10 in all, went to exhibition tour sponsored by HELVETAS and the European Union. The tour was part of a project to document and preserve indigenous culture and traditions, food habits, belief and social systems, material culture and heritage sites in consultation with the local communities.
Sangay Wangchuk, a sixty-year-old lharip (painter), is also a master mask maker. In fact, Sangay knows a good bit of all 13 zorigs (arts and crafts). In 1987, the education ministry asked Sangay to teach the 13 arts and crafts to Class III and IV students of Khengkhar Primary School. For twenty-five years, he taught zorig in the school until he retired in 2010.
“Switzerland is heaven. Wherever you look, it is green and full of beautiful flowers. If there is a paradise on earth, it has to be this place,” says Sangay. “For the entire time there, I did not miss home one bit.”
Sangay learned the art and craft of making masks while with kids many years ago and nurtured his knack. Kengkhar has a rich tradition of producing wooden handicrafts and highly skilled craftsmen produce decorative shing-patra (wood carving), choesham (altar), jandom (cask for storing alcohol) and bap (mask). Besides mandarin and textile, handcraft is a major source of household income for the people of Kengkhar.
Kinzang Gaykar Wangmo, also from Kengkhar, is fourteen years old. She is a student of Gyelpozhing Higher Secondary School studying in Class IX. Rosy-cheeked and petite, she is coy and turns red and reserved easily. She wants to be a dentist.
“I don’t know,” says Kinzang, her little black eyes twirling, redder and more at unease now, “just like that. I want to be a dentist and nothing else.” And sitting next to Kinzang is 17-year-old Rinchen Gyeltshen, stealing a look at the snarling, poppy-red phallus now and then. Kungzang Dorji, the owner of the enormous, double-tiered, angry-looking phallus, doesn’t seem to notice.
Remembering their arrival at Luzern and boat ride to Rigi, a mountain in Switzerland which is also known as Queen of the Mountains, Rinchen says, “The tour was an eye-opening experience for all of us. The sheer beauty of the landscape, the beautiful people and quaint architecture…above all, cleanliness; I will remember these all my life. I dream of Bhutan to become like Switzerland someday.”
Kinzang and Rinchen, along with many students in Gyelpozhing, were taught digital photography last year by Markus Wilde, a Swiss photographer with HELVETAS. Their photos were judged by teachers and classmates and selected for the exhibition. That’s how Kinzang and Rinchen got an opportunity to travel with the team to Switzerland and Sweden for 10 days. Kinzang had a picture of rural Kengkhar where villagers carried water for miles. About 80 percent of Kengkhar, a predominantly Tshangla-speaking gewog, has severe shortage of water. The gewog has 424 households with a total population of 3,662.
“They were surprised, even shocked, to learn that people carried water on their back for miles in some parts of Bhutan,” says Kinzang. As a memorabilia, Kinzang and Rinchen gave their best photos with ‘Thank You’ note to students in Akersberg (Sweden).
Phurba Wangchuk, 47, from Nganglatrong sang Bumo Karma Wangzom, a popular song that describes the process of weaving a cloth from beginning to end, and showed the students how bamboo baskets are made in his village.
Kinzang and Rinchen are eager to go back to their school and share their experience of the tour with their friends. Phurba and Sangay will stay for a culture conference in Thimphu.
As light softens in the evening and gloss on the angry phallus is all but waned, quiet returns.