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.

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