Even until 1974, the kingdom of Bhutan had no banks, no official currency and no shops. It followed the barter system. Farmers, weavers, carpenters and masons were all given grains, milk, butter and clothes in return for their work by landlords. It’s at these landowners’ manors and farms where the villagers worked, prayed and attended social events.
One such manor is Ogyen Choling, 71-year-old Bhutanese author Kunzang Choden’s ancestral home in the Tang Valley of Central Bhutan. The 120-year-old building is recognised as many things: a gompa (monastery or hermitage), dzong (fortress-monastery that serves administrative and residential purposes and nagtshang (manorial house). Today, it’s a private museum that lets visitors glimpse the old way of life in Bhutan—its culture, architecture, festivals and society, and the way in which the manor supported the 22 households of the 650-year-old Ogyen Choling village.
“Many other homes such as ours were either abandoned by their owners or donated to monasteries,” says Choden. She is the first Bhutanese writer to have published a novel in English, titled The Circle of Karma (2005). The Ogyen Choling museum is Bhutan’s first private museum, to be registered in 2002. While most homeowners either donated their homes to monasteries or sold the house’s belongings to buy a home in Bhutan’s urban areas, Choden and her brothers opted to “preserve its legacies, its stories and share it with the younger generation”.
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The manor also holds the memories of the limited time Choden spent with her parents. She was just nine years old when she lost her father, who was aged just 35 at the time. She was away at a school in Kalimpong, West Bengal, and learnt about his demise only a year later. Soon after she learnt about her father’s death, her mother passed away as well. Yet Choden would continue to go to the manor as frequently as possible. “That was and still is the only home I know,” she says.
In 1956, Bhutan introduced the Land Ceiling Act. Landowners, including Choden’s family, had to surrender many of their properties. The once bustling manor fell into disuse. Over time, many items were robbed. In the late 1990s, the last patriarch of the family died. “It was then that my brothers and I decided to restore the structure and build a museum here, so the manor survives,” says Choden.
The museum is spread across four floors and 22 rooms. The granary has old boxes in which the grains were distributed and traded. The alcohol rooms still have the huge vessels in which the local liquor was brewed, stored and served. In the weaving room, visitors can see how natural fibres were made into yarns, dyed, and woven into clothes on looms. These clothes were made for the residents of the manors and the villagers. Also on display are the heirloom textiles of the family, going back four to five generations, which were worn at important social and religious events. A few artefacts in the room of the masks, Choden says, are older than the manor. “The wooden masks and ceremonial dongs were used for dances during festivals, and we have a room full of them in very good condition,” adds Choden.
Then there is the arms and ammunition room that has swords, knives, guns and gun powders. “Bhutan didn’t have a standing army back then. If there was any trouble in the country, houses such as ours had to raise an army and give them the required ammunition, which was stored and serviced in the manor,” she says. Choden also opened the old bedrooms of the family, which shows how the best room in the house was always dedicated to a temple; it’s where the patriarch held his meetings.
Among the most surprising displays in the museum is an old box of Tibetan salt. “That was the only commodity we needed from outside the country then,” says Choden. There are precious thangkas in the collection as well, some dating back to the 14th century. “But they are so fragile that we have removed them from the display,” says Choden. However, once every year, in October, during annual prayer meets, these are displayed for people to seek blessings.
Even the architecture tells fascinating stories. No blueprints were made of the houses before construction. The design and layout were all in the heads of the carpenter and masons. “Fascinatingly, they also didn’t use a measuring tape but took measurements with their arms and feet,” says Choden. These buildings didn’t use any metal nails but employed wooden joineries.
Then there are the hanging totems, large squares suspended from the ceiling, covered with clothes inscribed with prayers. “It was believed that big houses such as these would invite malicious comments and gossip. These totems were hung to save the structure from bad energy,” says Choden. It’s also why large wooden phalluses were hung on all four sides of the house. Ogyen Choling manor still has one.
Outside the buildings, the grounds are dotted with small, white structures. These are Lu Khangs, the homes of the spirits. “We believe that every land has its resident spirits,” says Choden. “As children, we were also told by our elders which spirit was friendly and which to stay away from. We also know the stories of their origin and how they came to the village.” A ritual seeking permission for building on the land from the spirits precedes construction. “We also promise to not pollute it and not disturb the spirits in any way. That’s our link, our connection with our land and nature.”
Bhutan, a country with 72 per cent forest reserves and several unconquered mountain peaks, is full of such fascinating stories and mysteries. The Ogyen Choling museum attempts to unravel some of these. “But I am getting weak,” says Choden. “Climbing four floors of the building is getting harder every day. My only hope is that the younger generation also feels responsible towards the house, towards its legacy and preserves it.”
Riddhi Doshi is a Mumbai-based journalist, first-time pet parent and Kathak student