We are culturally brought up with the belief that whatever the elders say is true and that we should respect it. As a result, many beliefs we have inherited from our ancestors still remain mysterious. When I was a child, I still remember my parents often scaring the shit out of me by telling unbelievable stories whenever I disobeyed them. When I refused to take bath regularly and got infested with lice, they would warn me that crows would attack me on the head and that I would be flown away. Then when I whistled at night, they would warn me that whistling at night would invite ghosts to the house. Likewise, there were several superstitious beliefs that my parents and the elderly people shared with me and other children in the village. We would be scared like hell. But when I look back now and reflect on those lines, I am beginning to understand that those strange beliefs could have been the tactics used by our ancestors to actually discipline us. A careful analysis shows that there is a possible logic behind each superstitious belief our ancestors have left us with.
The tradition of consulting astrologers has always been an integral part of our social and cultural life for centuries. Even today, many people still continue to believe in the astrological findings and consult astrologers whenever they feel inadequate in their efforts to pursue their dreams. Besides, we also consult astrologers when a child is born or when a person has died to see what the future holds for him/her. This practice and the belief it generates gives us a psychological comfort and satisfaction. The astrologers believe that the movements and positions of the stars and planets significantly influence the way we think and act. The predictions are therefore derived from the careful observation of the movement and position of those celestial bodies in our solar system. In the modern era of advanced science and technology that promote logical thinking and reasoning, it sounds like a fairy-tale to believe that our life can be predicted when we do not even know what will happen to us the next moment.
One cool evening in Khaling in 1990, I woke up to the long shrill of a whistle. When I came to my sense, I found myself in the middle of nowhere. I could hear people talking and rushing somewhere. I was seated on what was supposed to be a doorstep but couldn’t figure out exactly where I was. The repeated whistling sound indicated that it was time for something but I had no idea what. I stood up from where I was sitting and tried to explore around. I had no idea where I came from and where I was. I was totally disoriented. I noticed that one of my slippers was missing and no matter how much I groped around, I couldn’t find the missing slipper. Finally the school captain called my name and asked me if I was not going for dinner. Only then I realized I was just in front of the school kitchen and that the whistling was a summon call for dinner. The captain was a low-vision student and I let him look for my missing slipper, but he too couldn’t find it. So I had my dinner without my slippers on and as I was having my meal, I didn’t stop thinking about what could have happened to me that evening. After dinner, I went to the hostel and tried to piece together all the events of the day I could remember in order to solve the mystery of how I got in front of the kitchen from nowhere. Suddenly I realized that I could remember everything that had happened until the evening study hour that day. I vaguely remembered resting my head on the study table feeling tired and bored. Then my memory had stopped thereafter. I got a feeling that I could have dozed off during the evening study hour and that I might have sleepwalked out of the academic building when the bell rang. I immediately rushed to the classroom and found my missing slipper stuck under my table. It soon became apparent that I had walked out of the classroom into the kitchen premises in my sleep. When I look back to that incident today, I still wonder how I could have walked so safely in such a trance. There were a number of obstacles such as rudimentary bridges, pits and bushes of nettle plants on the way which I could have easily bumped into, but the fact that I could stick to my path despite being blind and that too in a state of subconscious mind is really a kind of miracle. That was my first ever sleepwalking experience and I wish it to be the last as well.
We the Bhutanese people generally believe in our Karmic actions. We have been taught right from early childhood that what goes around usually comes around. That’s why we have been taught never to harm or hurt anybody, because the consequence of our action is believed to fall back on ourselves someday. I think this could be the main reason why the criminals are usually caught easily. We have a popular saying “Le gi ra mi tub” meaning “nobody can escape his/her fate”. Probably because of this principle, Bhutan has seen some of the dumbest criminals over the years as demonstrated in the stories below.
Right from my childhood, I have learned from elderly people in the village that some people have the special power to treat snake-bites without requiring the victims to go to hospital. Even my late father used to tell me how he was once bitten by a snake on his finger while fishing in the village river and that he was treated by a fellow-villager simply by chanting some kind of Mantra. It seems he didn’t even have to go to hospital. Nevertheless, I am not able to understand how this process works and even to this day, it is a mystery for me although I have my own sister-in-law in my family who has been treated by such a healer.
During one of my winter vacations in my uncle’s house in Samtse, everybody was taken aback when a hen hatched a 3-legged chick. With its three legs, it looked completely different from its siblings but its mother did not neglect it as we had expected. It enjoyed equal care and love from its mother as it grew up with other normal chicks. When I examined the chick, I found that it was able to use only its two legs to walk but the third leg was just an obstacle attached from just below its tail. It did not have any purpose there. It was just hanging down like a shovel and was in fact affecting its normal movement because whenever it tried to walk, it would get stuck on the way and hindered its free movement. I felt so sorry for the poor chick.
Shamanism is part of an old cultural practice of treating sick people which was influenced by Bonism, a religion that originated in Tibet and spread to Bhutan before the 8th century. During the olden days when there were no medical facilities, Shamans were the only source of hope for the sick people. Today, although we live in a scientifically sophisticated world with advanced medical facilities, Shamanism is still a common practice in many communities in Bhutan. People first consult the shamans and only if they don’t get better, they go to the hospital. Shamans basically perform rituals to invoke the local deities and appease them to help the sick get better. I don’t find the logic to believe in such practices but a few circumstances have made me wonder if they really have some supernatural powers to fend off evil spirits. Believe it or not, I must confess that both I and my eldest son were once saved by a shaman although it could have been a mere coincidence or a placebo effect.
On 18th July 1999, Tshering Dorji and his elder brother Pema Thinley both of whom were studying at the Muenselling Institute of Khaling were on their way back to the Institute from their summer vacation. Tshering Dorji was studying in class IV, whereas his elder brother Pema Thinley was studying in class II. Both of them were enrolled in Muenselling Institute as low vision students. On that morning, they had walked down from their village in Gomdar and waited at Narfung the whole day trying to flag down any Khaling-bound vehicle to hitch a ride to school. But they could not get catch hold of any car that day as the number of vehicles plying that highway during those days used to be very less. The sky started closing in as the evening twilight began to creep in. They had almost given up their hope to reach the Institute that day when a teacher of Khaling Lower Secondary School, Lopen Pem Tashi came on his scooter. He had come from Samdrup Jongkhar and he informed them that their Institute’s car was coming. After hearing this news, they stopped looking for other vehicles and decided to wait for the Institute’s car. To their delight, the car arrived at around 5 pm and they were happy to know that there were two empty seats as though they had booked them in advance. But as they got in, they didn’t realize that they were heading to one of the greatest ordeal of their life. About 12 kilometers into the journey, the car veered off the road near Melong Brag below Tshelengkhor and crashed into a steep cliff killing three out of five people including the driver. This is an inside story of two survivors of the crash, Tshering Dorji and Sir Shriman Gurung.
The modern science has tried to kill many wonders of nature by explaining them. For instance, we have now learned that the phantom lights we often see in the swamps are the swamp gas and the spook lights seen in graveyards are the lights emitted when phosphorus present in human bones comes in contact with oxygen. But those lights do not always appear in the swamps or graveyards. It seems we still have some phenomena which challenge logical thinking and reasoning. There seem to be still many wonders in the universe which science has not yet been able to fully explain. The stories of ghosts and ghostly activities are common in our society. We often hear people talk about their experiences of seeing such unusual spirits. Yet we compel ourselves to believe that ghosts do not exist. Although many of us do believe that such unusual phenomena do exist, we would like to deliberately believe that they are just our illusions and that they are unreal. Unless you see it with your own eyes, you will never believe in such mysteries. There are many people who do not believe in the existence of ghosts saying it’s just a psychological phenomenon. But I met a man in 2004 who was forced by circumstances to believe that such a thing does exist.
When I was a child, I often used to hear elder people talking about Lemlemas, the ghostly spirits that would roam the brooks and creeks at night. I was told that those who go out at night for fishing are most likely to encounter them because they would be usually roaming the river-banks in search of food. It’s believed that they feed on fishes. Those stories would scare us to death and we would never dare to go out during the night since there was a brook nearby. We were told that if they find a human being, they would kill and eat only the cartilages: finger-tips, palms, ears, nose-tops and soles. Although I always questioned the existence of such spirits, some of the stories I heard were quite convincing that they literarily froze me with fear.
While studying in Khaling as a small boy, I had heard about so-called Sondreys, the living ghosts that are believed to evolve from some women. I was told by senior friends that the souls of some women temporarily leave their physical bodies when they are asleep and wander around as balls of strange fires. Many people used to share their experiences of seeing such mysterious fires at night, which keeps on glowing into one big single flame and then spread away into smaller ones. Even my youngest sister-in-law claims to have seen such a thing when she was a little girl in the village. When I was in school, some of my senior friends who were partially sighted used to claim seeing such fires at a distance and would explain it to us. It was very scary at the time. I was once sick for a couple of days with intense pain on my chest and after the drugs prescribed by Basic Health Unit did not relieve me of the pain, some people wondered if I was attacked by such a living ghost or Sondrey as it is locally called. Subsequently when the pain subsided, people told me that the scratched marks were visible on my chest, which they claimed was that of the Sondrey.
My uncle and his family are devoted Christians and they believe in the supernatural powers of Jesus Christ and the bible. But on the other hand, I am a devoted Buddhist and I believe in the teachings of Lord Buddha. After having learned Buddhist philosophies in Dzongkha lessons in the school for years, I have understood more about Buddhism than any other religion and hence, I decided to call myself a Buddhist since my early school days. So when I went to my uncle’s place during winter vacations, I was spiritually in conflict with rest of the family because even my father was a Christian after he was convinced that believing in Jesus Christ would help him get rid of his physical disability. He was paralyzed on the left-side of his body after he suffered a brain stroke due to hypertension and he had tried almost everything available within his reach to treat his life-long disease. But he never compelled me to become a Christian to get rid of my disability. He told me a couple of times that if I believed in Christ, I might regain my sight but after I convinced him that I have understood more about Buddhism and that I would continue to believe it, he never persuaded me to go to the church with him although I occasionally went to give him company.
A couple of months ago, there was an article on BBC website about how the legendary stories of Yetis in the Himalayas could have developed originally as a strategy for keeping children within the community, away from the reach of dangerous wild animals. It suggests that those legendary stories could have helped elders to instill fear in children so that they always stayed close to their home where they were safe. This hypothetical conclusion has been reached after no scientific evidence of the existence of the mysterious Himalayan creature could be established despite decades of vigorous research and expeditions launched by mountaineers to find one. The article further presents the recent scientific finding which suggests that the hair samples supposedly from Yeti collected from Bhutan and India matched with that of Brown Bears which were believed to have once lived in the Himalayas. It also highlights that brown bears can stand on two-legs at times and leave unusually large footprints which many people have claimed to have seen. So, is the mysterious Yeti the real brown bear as scientists are suggesting today?
In the early hours of 26th October 2010, a devastating fire ravaged through Chamkhar town in Bumthang raising 66 shops to the ground and leaving about 267 people homeless for months. The fire which was believed to have started from a mobile phone shop belonging to Kuenzang Tshomo lasted for three hours before local residents, school children and travellers brought it under control. The fire started at around 1:45 in the morning when everybody was fast asleep. Two people perished in the fire and one was injured. A helper of a shop and a traveller who was on his way from Trashigang to Thimphu were among the dead. While the police could not establish the actual cause of the fire, many attributed it to possible short-circuits or negligence. But a handful of victims doubted if it was intentional although they did not have any clue who could be behind the act.
I have flown in and out of Paro International Airport four times within the span of past five years but I had not realized how dangerously the aircraft maneuvers around the valley to avoid the surrounding terrains. I had heard from my friends that the flight path to and from Paro seems to cut through two rugged mountains and it seems if the pilot misses a blink, the plane could crash into the terrains on either side. It’s no surprise that Paro International Airport is ranked as one of the top ten scariest airports of the world.