The stone slab is oily and smooth. There is no altar but three men are prostrating, murmuring some prayers. There is a small fire built to burn pine leaves as incense. On the stone slab are rice, meat, fruits and some cash.
The men leave the place and wait. Two crows circle around the stone slab. They are satisfied. They believe that their protective deities are pleased. The three men will repeat the offering in three other places before they return home satisfied.
This is a culture, an intangible culture, in Bhutan. Every family is believed to have protective deity (Kencho as locals say). Every year, they have to appease them to ensure a healthy and successful year. When somebody falls sick in the family, they immediately offer a nyender (cash offering) to the deity.
One of the three men is old. He is 63 and soon his legs will not be able to carry him. They have to walk a day to the monastery. He is worried. His children are working. One is abroad. “I don’t know if they will continue this culture,” he says.
The concern is echoed at Paro in the beginning of this month when culture experts, researchers and scholars met to discuss Bhutan’s intangible culture. There were many issues raised. There were concerns of vanishing intangible cultures like lha soe (appeasing local deities).
The colloquium comes at the right time. There is a huge focus on tangible cultures like our dzongs and lhakhangs, songs and art. These will never be under threat as we have a department to look after them.
What would be a concern for Bhutan is its vanishing cultures. With development and modernization, a lot of intangible cultures have already disappeared. How many of us maintain silence when at thee dinning table. How many of us follow our parents to name our new born? Today, lunches are events to discuss issues. Children are named after footballers, singers and actors. And they are all not Bhutanese.
In the old days, it is said that robbers would know if a family was having a meal. There would be pin drop silence except for the sounds of clattering ladles. We eat with the TV on with spoons and forks. Bhutanese etiquette like saying a grace before every meal has disappeared except in the dzongs and schools where it is mandatory.
While we boast of a rich culture, the colloquium in Paro has reminded that there are many that we are losing. With the change in time, most will be gone, but it is time to look into those that we can preserve.
The old man who walks a day to the monastery to appease his deities says his son and grandsons will have to keep the tradition. With his grandson into mobile games and internet, it would be a challenge to make him trek to the monastery once every year.
He would visit the nearest hospital if he falls ill and not walk to the monastery to seek protection.