Sunday, 24 February 2013

One face of culture on map's other side

Bhutan as an independent nation is little known by the outside world. Sri Lanka as a Buddhist island is rarely known by the Bhutanese.

For the few Bhutanese who traveled  and for the few Sri Lankan who by chance came to know about Bhutan, an agreement was reached to allow our children to study medicine in three universities here in Lanka. It was back then, when Bhutan was beginning to face crunches of doctor shortage.

Back then, they sent one or two students here to study. And those few took awfully seven long years to come back and begin to serve as GDMOs in various corners of the Himalayan kingdom.

Bhutan hardly has any trade or economic links with Sri Lanka, except the diplomatic ties as SAARC-sisters though Bhutanese children are taught about many worldly countries in their school curriculum of World Geography. We were required to draw sheets of maps of those countries, including Sri Lanka and submit the assignment. Of course, cleverer students knew the capital of Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, was Colombo.

I came to know Sri Lanka was a Buddhist state at the 16th SAARC Summit in Thimphu, when the president ended his keynote speech by saying, “may the triple gem bless you.” Only then did I know how oblivious I was about the rich repository of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka, mostly well-preserved intact in its ancient forms.

Not much to the knowledge of many, there have been a number of Bhutanese who have traveled to Sri Lanka and studied Buddhism. The people here are far religious and devoted for every full-moon day of the lunar month, called as a poya, are a public and mercantile holiday. Each poya day is observed by making a visit, wearing white symbolizing purity, to temples, very much the same throughout the island, where they offer flowers to the statues of Lord Buddha. They do not offer money to the altar but do offer oil lamps very much the same as the oil lamps used by the Lhotshampa’s during the diwali festivals. It must have been cultural influence common to practices in South Asia.

This is only one part of conduct that shows veneration to the Buddhist philosophy in Sri Lanka. And we the Bhutanese on the other hand, are blessed with so many temples and monasteries near and far all across the country. When people here in Sri Lanka ask, “How many temples do you have in Bhutan,” I take pride in saying every mountaintop and every valley has a monastery and a stupa. This is very much a part of our culture that needs its value redeemed and significance upheld.

The temples here often broadcast the hymns and songs loud and wide through speakers much similar the broadcast from nearby mosques, most of them from recorded cassettes for monks can be rarely seen in towns. Known as bikhu, monks reside in temples faraway from town centres and study and learn very much like our gelongs. There is a distinct difference in the uniform they wear. I am not here to lay out the technical differences between these monks but it is always a heartening scene, often frequently seen, where people provide due respect and honour to them. For instance, if you are travelling in a public bus seated in the first two seats behind the driver, and if a monk comes in, you must vacate and offer the seat to the monks. Accordingly, even I and my friend offered the seats to the monks while we were returning after a community visit. Similarly, women never associate or sit beside monks. This may be a form of discrimination against women, some may argue, but for those who understand the Sri Lankan culture, it is a mere form of respect for the monks.

This is only a facet of Sri Lankan life, much appealing to the orthodox Bhutanese and the older generation. It is a common feature and people find solidarity in common grounds. The youth in Bhutan realize and feel more strong about our own culture, when you live in a place away from home – we are the few fair people among the much Indian-looking Sri Lankan skin, where people think we are rich foreigners (but I hope you know the reality). We hardly understand their language, I have a long way to go if I were to like their habit of associating every curry with coconut – either coconut oil, grated coconut, etc – but it is certainly a nation with dear values and strong cultures.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

21 Days into February 2013

We are two months into 2013 and luckily the world did not come to an end in 2012.

That was the question I asked His Majesty when he granted an audience in 2010 to the students selected to study medicine.

We were fresh high school graduates, brimming with pride and self-accomplishment amongst the crème de la crème of the nation, standing atop within the top thirty students in the biology merit. There were more than forty of us, standing kabney and rachu, in the order of our merit ranking, to offer chhawang to His Majesty at the Lingkana Palace. We were then escorted into a lounge where His Majesty granted us the audience.

His Majesty spoke of his experience outside Bhutan, having ventured out to study, very much like us – the immediate challenges, the things outside and what goes through the minds of Bhutanese who live away from home. The talks centred on the need to work hard and gain skills but never to forget the values with which we have been brought up.

College, at the time when we were just selected to be sent out, was a sense of excitement and the energy to learn and find ones intellectual choices and experience the world outside. This segment of journey is overlapped by myriad of psychological changes and developments. His Majesty told us about those and many more, and at various points through college life, I get reminded of those points.

One, was the occurrence of love. I now believe that it is a phenomenon of self-discovery and self-fulfillment.

The other was, was the answer His Majesty gave when I asked if the world would end in 2012. HM fondly answered, if the world were to end in 2012, we needn't then make plans to educate people like yourselves and frame a national strategy for the nation. “I believe the world will not end.”

That was a silly question I now realize. However, it showed HM’s congenial ability to connect to the youth – children of our age, who knew only innocent things on earth. I console, that was okay to have been asked for we yet to see the world, with our eyes, learn and become an individual of capability. Then, we knew only of the facts, figures and statistics; some knew science and history and economy. Those are raw information and we hardly knew of the deductions to be drawn from those information.

Well, now that we are half-way through undergrad studies in medicine, and now that we realize we know little more than yesterday, we stand at a juncture where we are collecting as much information, skills and knowledge that the world has to provide… all these to be taken back home, and hopefully to sow the seeds of a culture of science and medicine.

The world did not end, and the mere information that we learn in colleges elsewhere on earth should find a way to benefiting humanity but firstly our people, back home who are eagerly waiting for us to return home, as capable doctors, with a lot of patience to spare for their mind.