The 108 Chortens at Dochula Pass in Bhutan

The verdant landscape of Bhutan dotted with spirituality as one climbs up from Phuentsholing to Thimphu

Thimphu: In the high-altitude Dochula Pass of Bhutan, there lies a concentration of 108 stone stupas built in three impressive layers. These are the Druk Wangyal Khang Zhang Chortens. There is a café, too, with glass walls opening up to the mighty snow peaks above and a misty valley below. Dochula Pass is a compulsive stopover for tourists travelling from the capital city of Thimphu to Punakha, overlooking the Himalayas.

Drukpas — as persons from Bhutan or of Bhutanese descent are called — are often seen leaving offerings (apple, coins, and so on) in different parts of the stone Chortens. The Chortens were built to honour the memory of fallen soldiers, which probably explains the air of sacredness surrounding them, as also their local name — Gyul Las Nampar Gyal Wai — ‘the Chortens of victory’. The word ‘victory’ somehow rang hollow to me in that lofty mountain pass covered in fragrance of wild flowers. But then your history catches up just when you think you are the farthest from it.

The 108 Chortens at Dochula Pass in Bhutan

And the Kurmas stopped coming

Kurma is one of those words difficult to translate without eroding a bit of its essence. Kurma, or one’s kith and kin, was how the people at Paneri in the neighbouring Udalguri district of Assam in India used to describe the people from Bhutan. Every year, come winter and the people of Paneri get ready to receive their Kurmas, the Bhutanese traders who would soon descend from the mountains with their saleable crafts.

Most households would have a separate house, with a cooking hearth, for the Kurmas. Generation after generation, the Bhutanese Kurmas would come and take shelter in these houses as per the code of friendship and amity, scripted by an ancient custom and adaptability.

Pre-dating recorded history, the Bhutanese continued trade relations with the plains people of neighbouring Assam through the duars (gates). There were nine such duars on the Assam frontier of Bhutan — Charduar (Chariduar), Kariapar, Buriguma, Kalling, Gharkola, Boksa, Chapaguri, Chapakhamar, and Bijni. From the Bhutan mountains, it was the Trashigang-Lhasa route that was meant for the Assam-bound traffic.

Nearly two centuries ago, in 1838, Captain R Boileau Pemberton, who took an expedition to Bhutan to conclude a treaty between Bhutan and the British East India recorded a caravan of 400 Kampas (traders from Tibet-Bhutan border) on their way to Hajo in Assam. Pamberton records that the goods brought down by the Kampas consisted principally of red and partly-coloured blankets, gold-dust and silver, rock salt, cowries, musk and a few coarse Chinese silk, munjit (madder), and beeswax and exchanged for lac, the raw and manufactured silk of Assam, cotton, dried fish and tobacco.

That was then. The brave new world of post-colonial South Asia was turning into a macabre theatre of tragedies. In his magnum opus, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez talks about a massacre deep inside the tropical South American rain forests in the fictional universe of Macondo. A massacre so intense, that it became surreal. Erased from people’s memory, like it never happened.

The lower Himalayan foothills rolling down from Bhutan to Assam have witnessed quite a few of these ‘silent massacres’. These are the ones that nobody talks about, ones that no one made much sense of. Just like that, death came knocking one fateful day in 2000 and snuffed out a saga of trust, friendship and warmth that had existed between the people of Assam (the bordering districts of Udalguri, Barpeta and Kokrajhar in southwest Assam) and Bhutan.

Between December 20 and 23 that year, it was reported that at least 15 Bhutanese nationals were killed over three days in the western districts of Assam bordering Bhutan by suspected militants of the banned National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).

This was an incident that left behind a set of difficult questions to the local people, but was short-lived in the collective memory of the state where death and violence had become banal by then. As against the ‘official’ pointers to the NDFB, the locals found the scene murkier, suspecting the role of the ‘state agencies’ in fermenting trouble between the ‘insurgents’ (Assamese/ Bodos/ Kamtapurias) and the Bhutanese. After all, it was also the period when the Indian government had been repeatedly pressing the Bhutanese authorities to crack down on the militants. In fact, Kuensel, the Bhutanese newspaper had reported on the Bhutanese authorities holding talks with militant leaders for a negotiation. The killings at this point would have acted as the final straw influencing Bhutan to toughen up against the ‘intruders’.

The Bhutanese killings were also explained as a retaliatory action from the insurgents that followed a three-day visit of Bhutanese King Jigme Singme Wangchuk to southern areas bordering Assam during which the king reportedly told villagers not to offer assistance and food to members of Assam-based militant groups. The insurgents, in turn, accused of being ‘used’ once by the same Bhutanese authorities to ‘evict’ the Lhotshampas from Southern Bhutan, an ethnic group with its origins in Nepal — an eviction that is sometimes called ‘Bhutan’s dark secret’. Whatever be the ‘right explanation’, the stage was all set for an extraordinary event for the tiny Himalayan state — one that would call for 108 Chortens as memorials.

A clash, celebrated and mourned

It was an event unprecedented for the petite kingdom that claims to profess the path of ‘peace’. The year was 2003, and the campaign was called ‘Operation All Clear’. It was a defining moment where ‘their memory’ and ‘our history’ began cruelly intersecting. A saga of ambitions and survival of one side pitted against the claims and authority of the other — all of this were now preserved in the shape of 108 stone Chortens.

It was the biggest ever mobilisation of the Royal Bhutan Army, meant to ‘flush out’ from the Bhutanese soil the ‘rebels’ from Assam, as also the camps set up by the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), the NDFB, Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO). Bhutan Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck left the classroom at Oxford to join the military raid ‘to defend motherland’ and got injured in the process, sources reported.

Some of the ‘rebels’, it was reported, were doctors and surgeons who were chasing a dream of ‘liberation’ and living in the forests. In a different life, in a different world, maybe, the doctors and the prince would have shared a classroom and not bullets. But this was not to be. There were casualties on both sides. Quantitatively the damage was much more to the ones from Assam, ‘the encroachers’, who were perhaps in the search for shelter and allies in their fight for ‘self-determination’.

Many women and children are still waiting, well over a decade, for the news of the whereabouts of their ‘rebel’ husbands/ fathers. For Assam, though, a few deaths and disappearance had become the new normal. To the Dragon Kingdom, though, deaths in combat were new and few, thus they were considered to be heroic, though mournful.

So, a ‘Buddhist Kingdom’, the only one to have remained so in Southeast Asia and the only one that has taken measures over the years to reduce the size of their active army, did what they were best at doing. They captured the ‘event’ by building Chortens that represent the Karmic ‘tree of life’, symbolising favourable rebirths. But it was also to be a beacon of heroism for a kingdom, a national entity conscious of its marks in the international geo-politics. An entity in need of national markers.

As Drukpas reverentially encircle them, tourists are seen posing for photographs. A big number of them are from India. Do they know the story behind these Chortens at all? Will they make any ‘sense’ of it if they do? Will they identify with the story? How will they react once they know of it? Will they react at all? The possibilities are bewildering, embarrassing or even frightening.

The view from atop the hillock in Dochula Pass which houses the 108 Chortens
Atop the hillock in Dochula Pass which houses the 108 Chortens
On almost any given day, tourists are seen clicking pictures of the Chorten structure, often posing in front of it

A rainbow to end the day

Whatever be the complex narratives of the realpolitik, just in less than two decades, it is near impossible today to envision this shared existence that was once moulded by a sense of collective space, history and culture. Today, those ‘kurma’ houses are all gone. Dilapidated, broken down or just left to decay; people of one land looking forward to receiving people from another; even keeping a house ready for them. What better example of ‘trans-border cooperation’ could one find?

All these are now a forgotten and inexplicable past, ironically in the heyday of ‘acting East’. Where, at one point, we had societies across the geopolitical and cultural spectrums bonding together over shared norms, now we have ‘pop culture kitsch’. Technology has brought the world closer but in many ways has replaced the human touch with vicious ignorance. At times ‘popular culture’ reflects the cultural poverty that we are mired in, when we are looking at our neighbours from a perverse gaze; the quintessential leaf wearing dancing tribals — a vulgar and unpardonable myth enthusiastically propagated by Bollywood.

Meanwhile talks are on to ‘revive’ and boost the Assam-Bhutan economic bonds. Bhutanese Prime Minister Dasho Tshering Tobgay, who was the chief guest at the Advantage Assam global investors Summit in Guwahati in February this year, put it succinctly that, ‘neighbours who are close are much more important than relatives who are far away’ and that ‘Bhutan stands to benefit from Assam’s growth and prosperity, as we are bound by history, geography, and shared hopes and aspirations.’

In September, Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal inaugurated an Indo-Bhutanese border trade centre at Darang in Baksa district of Assam ‘to promote sustainable economic exchange between India and Bhutan’. This is a place that is not far from where the forgotten massacre had taken place. There has been also an agreement in principle to construct a four-lane highway of 264 km along the Indo-Bhutanese border encompassing four districts of Assam.

But would the Kurmas come down these roads anymore? Or are they meant for a new generation of ‘fortune seekers’, trying to tap into Bhutan’s ‘white gold’, its water resources? Will these improvements in infrastructure and communication reconnect the lost emotional and cultural bondages too?

The questions came to me, as I looked outside the cafe window. A thick blanket of cloud covered the high Himalayan snow peaks. The clouds would perhaps depart gradually, unraveling the snow peaks in all their majesty. Till then, under the gloomy sky, we all sit. ‘Assamese’, ‘Bhutanese’, ‘Indian’, and so forth — who are we to the snow peaks? At moments, one earnestly wishes for a reality which is just simple and sincere and thereby beautiful.

It was one such moment for me that morning at the cafe in the mountain pass surrounded by the 108 stone Chortens. I could see the soft drizzle still continuing outside but it was time to move on. Meanwhile, over cups of coffee, I had found out that the ‘Gho’ (traditional Bhutanese male dress) that Nidup, a newly made friend from Issuna village in Paro, was wearing was made in Assam and purchased in one of the border fairs (melas) that dates back to centuries. The historic Magh Mela (in January) at Subankatha in Assam, where the Bhutanese merchants used to camp for months and exchange their products, has been revived as an Indo-Bhutan Friendship Mela. The Chorten outside suddenly felt more significant to me. The rain was ebbing out, maybe a rainbow was in the offing too.

The popular Druk Wangyel Cafeteria in Dochula Pass
A board displaying the list of Himalayan peaks visible from Dochula Pass on a clear weather day

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