Friday, July 24, 2009

Painful Deaths

Wamrong is one of the three Dungkhags (sub district) in eastern Bhutan covering two gewogs (blocks) of many hamlets, villages and people. Until recent past, it had three gewogs under its jurisdiction. However, when the political delimitation was carried out in 2007, it lost Nanong to Pema Gatshel Dzongkhag (District). Wamrong, as a main village still exist some 25 kilometers from the Wamrong Dungkhag.

How Wamrong came into existence is a story worth being written down before it is forgotten. Its history may evaporate along with the land itself. Today, Wamrong remains just a lunch stop for travelers to Trashigang and Gudama ( Samdrup Jongkhar). Due to excessive deforestations and loose soil, massive landslides occurred few years ago and washed away many land leaving people uncertain of the future. Bhutan Government, understanding the magnitude of the problem, resettled many farmers by giving some land to cultivate in Southern Bhutan. Those who continue to live in villages there survive on the perils of waking up dead or alive near the river. Monsoon is awaited with excitement and fear. Excitement, because they are depenedent upon rain to cultivate their farms and scared because the same monsoon which keeps their family alive with food supply would take their lives and their land.

The name Wamrong was derived from the word Wagom, which means beehive in Sharchop language. This places was famous in earlier days for the production of honeycombs. It is being said that an official called Kuenzang Dhendup who was sent to collect taxes happened to impregnate a woman in Khaling. The son, Dhendup, grew up to be a tall and very handsome young man. However, he did not see his father because the father had left for the capital to attend to his duty. Although people revered him as a son of a government official, he did not like the idea of being without a father. So he decided to leave Khaling and go somewhere and start his own village. After traveling for few days, he arrived at the present day Wamrong village which he found suitable because of abundant pasture for the cattle and warm climate. After he and few people settled down, other villagers from other part followed him and soon it was village. However, the other people had come for different reasons. They had come to escape heavy taxes that were being levied upon people those days in the form of cereals, clothes , wine and labour.

Dhendup however, did not want to risk being sent bangchen garpas to punish them for avoiding taxes. Bangchen garpas were officials who served the governors those days and they were infamous for their cruelty. So he collected taxes like honey, woven clothes, butter, cereal, crops, wine and other items being imposed and deposited it to Trashigang Dzongpon (the Governor of Trashigang). This form of taxation continued to be paid for four successive generations until his great grandchildren like Thinley, Sangay and Tshewang became grandparents themselves. Then the country had moved from barter to monetary economy. However, people preferred to exchange goods instead of paying cash because people did not have cash very often. The only time they saw money was when they traveled for a week or so to Gudama, the nearest border town and sold out oranges. With the money that they got, they brought back cotton yarns to weave clothes, mustard oil and salts. Those who went to Gudama were not allowed to enter home as soon as they arrived. They were required to live in barns near the house and avoid contacts with other people due to the fear of contacting Tshatpa or malaria being brought from the border. Those days, there were little known cure for Tshatpa and it was the most dreaded disease those days .Those who suffered Tshatpa risked the danger of being ostracized by the society and most died painful death. The same was the case for other epidemics like small pox and leprosy. Many people died in many villages but it is suspected that people must have died of ostracization more than the disease itself.

Few years later, the road from Samdrup Jongkhar to Trashigang.The road cut travel time to Trashigang and Samdrup Jongkhar to just a day from a week. People no longer bothered about the malaria and other disease because by then they had hospital a day walk from their home. Patients could at least go to hospital even though people needed to carry the patients on the back.

When the road was first built, people marveled at the huge trucks carrying the stones and sands. People waited by the roadside carrying eggs in their hands and showing it to the driver so that they could get a lift. The driver charged extra egg saying that the truck also ate eggs like the driver. School children didn’t have school nearby. They traveled to Trashigang Central School in Trashigang to get education. They carried their own stock of food and walked some eighty kilometers to get the new stock. Not all were rich to provide crushed corn flour to their children. So, many had to adjust their stomach to hunger. Shoes and stockings were extreme luxury. They used smoke soot for ink and read under the light of lentsong. Lentsong are pine wood resins which catches fire easily and burns bright. In fact, sending children to school was a burden for the parents because they didn’t have anyone to look after their cattle, fetch firewood and help cultivate land. So when people didn’t want to send their children to school, the officials went to each house and took the children to school. Some parents bribed the officials not to take their children to school.

After some years, those children who went to school got Government job and began to live in comparative luxury. When they went back to villages with their family wearing clean clothes, children in villages began to imagine freedom from ploughs, ox and axe. many regretted for not having gone to school. Many ran away from home and became drivers of lorry after many years of toiling. Instead of wearing clean clothes, most were wearing Mobil stained clothes. The faces and clothes were anything but clean. After sometime, they forgot what the color of the clothes were when it was first bought on the roadside shop. They spend most nights on the way and made their own living. Yet some send back some money and helped their parents and siblings.

Yet there were those who were left in the villages who were neither bold enough to find their own life outside the village nor were lucky enough to go to school. So they became followers of local priests. During the apprenticeship with priests, they learn to make some ritual cakes, read some prayers and make some offerings. They also learn to demand beer instead of home brewed wine and complain about the food and money offered by the host. When the ritual is completed, most are not able to carry their own body on their legs because of excessive consumption of wine.

Ritual and spiritual wellbeing play a very important role in many villages in Bhutan. However, death ritual is believed to be one of the most important rituals because people believe that the deceased need to transit to another life after death. Transition is not always swift because when people were living it is believed that many people have attachment to their wealth, family, friends or unfulfilled dreams and ambitions. Even though they are dead, the deceased do not accept and realize that they are dead. This is where the role of good practitioners and priests come into play. The practitioners and priests help the deceased realize that he or she has died within the time span of 49 days and that he/she needs to find a new body and thereby leave all attachments.If they fail to do that, the soul is known to go through endless suffering of predicaments which is known as bardo in buddhism.

However, many villagers have not been very lucky to get the services of good priests or practitioners who can call the deceased by names and then send the dead off to their next lives. Many were in fact sent to the world of predicaments where the souls roamed in pain in search of path. Having said this to you, it reminds me of the story that I heard when I went to my village sometimes in the end of March to vote. People talked of a widow named Tshering who had died few months before leaving behind seven children. However, only three of them were minors and had lived with her when she was alive. She had died of throat and stomach related disease.

After many months of her death, there was some gathering of villagers in one of the houses and during the gathering, Tshering possessed one of the women present there and demanded to know where her children had gone and requested people to bring them back to her. Her minor children had been taken away by their elder siblings after her death. When she was questioned, she is known to have expressed the pain she went through by living on cliffs, caves and trees. She was known to play flutes very well when she lived. The possessed lady imitated playing a flute.

There were many instances of such possessions being talked about by the villagers. If nothing is done, the village would soon be the village of souls wandering in anguish and pains.

The villages yearn for some good practitioners and monks to show them road when alive and dead. More than the people, the drinking gomchens (lay monks) need good teacher to show them that they have messed the death of many people. Death is as important a part of one’s life as life because it is the beginning of another life elsewhere. We need to reach the destiny and not be caught in the current of bankless river.

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