A mystical land of majestic mountains dotted with religious monuments like monasteries and choetens, waving prayer flags, towering dzongs overlooking lush green valleys.
This is a typical description of Bhutan as it was a long time ago.
Looking around today, using the same description would be misleading, if not false, especially in the capital and some dzongkhags in western Bhutan.
Rapid urbanization, unplanned development and a frenzy of land buying and selling have pushed monuments into the background. What remains are the hills that surround the city. Even the hills, once the tsamdros (pasture) are not spared. Commercial interests have hampered the protection of traditional architecture with the exception of the two dzongs and a few monasteries in the city.
While the greatest monuments or landmarks remain, the most visible change in the landscape is the disappearance of monuments forced by the construction of roads and houses and the increasing traffic in the capital.
Little Namgay Khangzang Choeten in Changbangdu, on the left side of the highway, is almost buried under the road. The roof that protrudes from the ground is the telltale sign of its existence.
Nidup, 60, who lived near Choeten, said people walked around Choeten in the past until the highway was built. “It was an important landmark and it was called Changbangdu choeten. He is now forgotten and can hardly be seen, ”he said.
Nidup said the planners wanted to remove the choeten. The choeten had been there for as long as Nidup can remember. As if to teach Nidup a lesson, they raised the level of the road and buried the choeten.
Another Namgay Khangzang Choeten is stuck between the two lanes of the road above the Supreme Court in Jungzhina. The ongoing road construction has traced the road through its foundations, leaving no space for people to bypass.
Dhantsho, 67, from Lhuntse, who has been touring other choeten in the area, said it was too risky to speed up the cars.
Popular monuments like Changgangkha Lhakhang are surrounded by tall concrete buildings. To the south, the first Dzong built by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel is overrun with concrete structures, including shedra facilities.
A small Choeten which was the landmark between Babesa and the village of Tshalimahel had been demolished to make way for an extension of the road. “The choeten was the border of the two villages,” said one resident. “We didn’t know it had been demolished until recently.
Next to her, another choeten which has been repainted is surrounded by toilets belonging to workers from thromde.
Many wonder how the hills surrounding the city became private property. ” Before it was tsamdro or government land because no one had property rights over tsamdros“said an elder from Chang village.
Planning, not urbanization, This is the problem
Responsible for cultural heritage, the director of the Department of Culture, Nagtsho Dorji, said planning developments should not jeopardize such monuments. “It is planning rather than urbanization that is the problem,” she said.
The Ministry of Culture refused a recent request to transfer the Namgay Khanzang choeten above the Supreme Court. She said the department refused because the monuments cannot simply be moved at will. “They were built in certain places for specific reasons and they have their own historical value,” the director said. “Problems like this have arisen because different agencies are working in silos. “
The choeten, if properly planned, could have reduced the ugliness of the tri-junction. Today it looks like the choeten has sprouted from the four-lane track overnight.
Nagtsho Dorji said planners shouldn’t even ask the department if they can move monuments that fall under their planning. Indeed, the conservation of heritage sites is not only the responsibility of the ministry. “Every Bhutanese is responsible for this,” she said.
It is not only town planning that disrupts cultural heritage. An official from the Ministry of Culture recalls an incident in which people attempted to move a Choeten from Changjiji during the construction of the current housing complex.
The choeten were spared after the workers began to fall ill.
Nagtsho Dorji said she comes from a conservative background but believes change and development is needed. “The problem, however, arises when things are not properly planned,” she said.
A city planner for the Ministry of Public Works and Human Settlements said heritage sites are one of the many areas they consider when planning. But the problem is when two different agencies are involved in the planning and implementation.
“We are currently reviewing Thimphu’s structural plan and this should resolve the issue of agencies working independently. She said planning will take a holistic approach once the review is complete, meaning all stakeholders will work together.
All is not finished in the capital. Some inhabitants or faithful are mobilized to save ancient monuments. In southern Thimphu, which was a village until ten years ago, several choetens and lhakhangs have been restored.
Babesa’s famous “back to back” statue looks better now. In Tshalimahel, a family renovated a choeten on the road and fitted it out with mani (prayer) wheels. It has become a favorite place for the elderly to gather and say their prayers.
Tshaligoenpa Lhakhang opposite Babesa is being renovated by the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, which has also built traditional structures that contrast with the uniquely styled concrete buildings rapidly growing below.
“If it had not been for the Foundation, the neighborhood would have gone to a wealthy businessman who would probably have planned a tourist resort,” said a resident of Babesa who preferred to remain anonymous.