(For centuries, many nobles in Bhutan owned serfs who worked for them. In 1958, the third king, His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, in one of the many major social reforms drive, declared freedom to the serfs and also distributed lands to them.
This story draws an atmosphere of celebration in the name of the freedom by many serfs who worked in Trashigang Dzong then and became free from the bondage of the lifetime but also paints an image of lives of few who could not adopt to the freedom….)
Amidst the splendour of the night, the moon harpooned itself amongst the host of dark clouds. The gentle breeze from Dangmechu below echoed the very silence of souls taking rest after hard work in the fields. This was the night repeated all through life till now from the time unknown, punctuated by bangchen garpas coming from the Punakha.
This was one night in early Spring. Every soul was sleeping then when a long note of kangdung could be heard from below the Tashigang Dzong. Immediately there was a sign of restlessness among the Dzongpon , the fort governor, and his retinue since a bangchempa was arriving with a royal decree.
A late night dinner consisting of rice alongwith curry of all the meats available in the dimly lit store were ordered to be prepared. There was a complete chaos among the retinue.
It was a long anxious wait until the bangchempa finally arrived. Escorted straight to the altar room of the Dzong, he was seated on the best doe hide with his patang across his waist. Choktse, a small wooden table, was placed in the front from where he picked his phorb to drink the ara . Dzongpon and other officials listened as he blurted out amongst hiccups. “ All slaves working for the Dzong and the rich landlords are to be freed by dawn tomorrow. This is a royal decree. Please pour some wine into this phorb.”
There was a mixed reaction among the people present. The crowded room soon buzzed with people whispering. As the bangchempa rose to walk back after the dinner, the officials prepared a torch out of dried bamboo and pine raisin. He was escorted back till the bridge by one of the men running errands for the Dzongpon.
The news had already leaked out inside the Dzong. There was discontentment among a fraction of the rich landlords but it had always been their way of life.
In another corner of the Dzong, there was one room where all the slaves spent the night. This room was deprived of all the comforts that the officials in the Dzong were entitled to except the leftover foods, which is two meals a day from the common kitchen. The menu was suja, (butter tea), tsampa (wheat flour) and porridge day in and day out. The slaves occupying this room did little errands for the cooks to get a little share of rancid butter…but there was nothing called rancid that time. Everything they got was a feast.
The news came as a reason to celebrate. It didn’t take much time for the slaves to arrange for the wine. They begged the nyerchen, the store officer for some wine.
After all what was the face of celebration in life they knew of. Of course they dreamt to be home tending to their own families and cattle. They dreamt of wearing a new gho and not the patched ones. There was a dream of children, the attic full of maize hanging on the roof beams and on the bamboo baskets and a continuous supply of wine.
They screamed the coming freedom with excitement. They had already begun to quench the taste of the freedom.
In one corner of the room was Tobgay, trying to sleep. The latest news of freedom was the end of the life under bondage but to Tobgay, he was not used to it. He didn’t understand what course took him to be a free man for he had neither family, house nor any place to belong to. Freedom to him only meant a decent gho to wear without patching the worn out one again and again or to sleep peacefully after a hard day on the hard planks even if it meant without much to cover.
He had never seen anything more than the Dzong to crave nor did he ever know how he came to be in the Dzong. Never did he try questioning his existence even under the bondage for he was self-content with what he got from the Dzong.
Jaling announced the arrival of the dawn from across the Dzong where the monks dwelt. It came earlier than Tobgay had waited. The same share of time crawled for all those who dreamt to go home, free men.
Kudrung slapped the whip on the door of each room, and the people of all ranks gathered on the courtyard of the Dzong. The Dzongpon formally announced the news to the assembly of both the officials and the slaves. He also remarked that all should leave the Dzong that very morning. Other slaves bundled up whatever little possession they claimed theirs.
Tobgay left the Dzong but only to reside on the little hilltop above the Dzong in a small hut made crudely with the branches and wild ferns. And each day when the Jaling blew to announce the arrival of the new day, he would crane his neck and dream to go back to the Dzong for even under the bondage, he had something to eat at the end of the day.
The officials soon discovered Tobgay’s quiet abode. For fear of being accused wrongly by the higher authority that Tobgay is retained still as the slave, they chased him away from his home. They reprimanded him not to come back.
Tobgay went from village to village working for food and very often slept in the barns until one day he was found dead near a village stream. The gup informed the Dzongpon that a former slave had died near the village stream. The kudrung who woke him up while he was in Dzong heard of his death. The Kudrung went to the inner altar of the Dzong and burned a lone butter lamp in Tobgay’s name and declared, “ Your soul is freed too.”
Soon the strong breeze blowing from the Dangme chu blew off the lamp and he was never remembered again. Whoever remembered a quietly lived poor man?