The Magic of Not-for-Profit


National Treasures, a dying tradition, a country neighboring China, a not-for-profit project, and certainly great fun to be involved; it all fits perfectly with CERS. And this is not even to mention the significance of the project in terms of education and conservation. CERS, with the blessing of Her Majesty The Royal Grandmother Of The Fifth King Of Bhutan, is now on board for sponsoring the production of a documentary film.
Tashigomang (Many Doors of Auspiciousness), according to the French diplomat and a scholar in Asian Studies specializing in Himalayan studies, Dr. Mathou, can be considered as an indigenous Bhutanese tradition or perhaps a genuine Bhutanese national treasure, even though the invention of this vanishing tradition has been closely related to Buddhism as a whole since the 16th century. However, it is in Bhutan that the Tashigomang has been, in Dr. Mathou’s word, “part of the local culture in the most comprehensive way,” which contrasts with other Buddhist territories where it has totally vanished.


So what is a Tashigomang? In simple language, it is a two foot tall sacred miniature shrine or temple with colorful paintings and sculptures of various saints and deities hidden behind many tiny secret doors and tiers. It is built of clay, wood, leather, silver and sometimes gold, and it has been a showcase of Bhutanese craftsmanship since 1637. In the old days, long distance travel was inconvenient for most farming families. A Manip (storyteller) carries the portable shrine around villages to tell Buddhist stories by chanting and singing. Children find it fascinating as layers and layers of secret doors are opened whilst the story unfolds. Like the Transformer in movie world, the four-sided shrine can be transformed into an UFO-like spacecraft by stretching out its arms and doors to all directions. Spinning the pinnacle will give rise to a tiny saint figure, usually the lotus born Guru Rinpoche.


The Manip will change his tone and rhythm dramatically to create mysterious effects and excitement. The narration style revolutionized the orthodox way of religious teaching, making the easily distracted children sit still. Adults bow and give cash offerings for blessings of health and their family’s well being. This entertaining yet religious ritual usually takes place in a market corner on holidays. The Manip, as a quasi-monk, acts as both custodian and storyteller, performing as an ambassador of the temple to make the ceremony mobile and generating a new source of income. His story-telling talent determines the amount of cash the temple can make.
I am assigned a ten days assignment to travel to Bhutan alone. It is my first ever trip to Bhutan, a country that I learned about from internet. “Don’t worry! If anything happens to you, just say HM, that will save you for sure!” CERS president How Man Wong assured me. “HM, How Man? Are you sure of your popularity over there?” I doubted. “Very popular, everyone knows HM, Her Majesty, the Royal Grandmother!”


The pressure is on. I travel to Trongsa, 220km east of Thimphu with a local TV journalist Surjaman Thapa and the 74 year old Manip, Kuenzang Tenzin, the youngest of the three remaining Tashigomang story-tellers. We are set to go to the temple named Sinphu Goenpa where the old Manip has started a class teaching Tashigomang tradition to young monks.
Bhutan is a country situated within the East Himalayan range. The road to Trongsa, or as the locals call it, “the Highway,” is currently being widened. The heavy construction process makes it difficult for every driver and in fact lethal for those who drive faster than 20km per hour. But not for our young drivers Karma and Surjaman, who drives his own pick-up truck leading the way. They both cruise the cars as if we are on a racetrack. I dare not to say a word but count an average of 8 curves per minute, so for the whole 7 hours 220km journey, there are approximately 3,360 curves to conquer. I do not see a straight road longer than 100 meters. Either side is a gorge as deep as 300 meters. It would be 7 seconds to impact on the riverbank below, I guessed.
After we drive across the first mountain pass at altitude 3000m, the 74 years old Manip suddenly feels very sick and demands to pull over. I give him the Chinese must-carry medicated white-flower embrocation (白花油), but it doesn’t work on him. We immediately re-route and send him to a nearby hospital. When I see him lying weak on the hospital bed, I realize how fragile he and the National Treasure are. Building up a tradition may take hundreds of years, but losing it could be just a matter of seconds.
Thanks to Surjaman who flashes his charm to urge the nurse to treat this National Treasure with priority. After putting him on a saline drip for four hours, Manip Kuenzang is able to walk again. He then refuses to carry on with the journey and insists we take him back or call a taxi to Thimphu with his Tashigomang. The Protocol Officer warns him on his sudden change of plan and the consequence, but in vain. Surjaman finally manages to persuade him to perform the ritual once just for filming. We immediately set up outside the famous Punakha Dzong, once the old capital of Bhutan.


The Tashigomang attracts villagers even before the ritual starts. The master, chanting merely for half an hour, happily makes around Nu3500. Then, we are allowed to take his Tashigomang back to his temple where his young students there can perform without him.
Surjaman’s help turns out to be valuable for our not-for-profit project. The whole of Bhutan knows him as a dedicated investigative TV journalist. Whenever our car passes by people, I notice well that Surjaman, still driving at speed, sticks his head out and looks cool for a second or two, just to make sure his face is recognized. When his fans do, they wave hands and smile at him. “These two provinces are under my jurisdiction, everything happens here is my business. I am more busy than a judge and a policeman added together.” He declares with pride.
Driving back and forth from Thimphu to Trongsa for a lot of villagers cannot be a daily routine. Our pick-up truck stops momentarily as Surjaman unloads some of stuff to a shop or to a man waiting besides the road. I ask if he does that for free, and he shakes his head, using the Indian gesture for a YES. “It’s a favor I offer to everyone in these two provinces. Everyone here is my friend, alias informants. Sometimes, I need to provide them with phone card from my own pocket. Without them I cannot do my job” Surjaman says proudly.


Back in the National Library and Archives center in Thimphu, shooting schedule is tight. Everyone stops working at 5pm sharp. “You cannot interview the Princess without approval from the Royal office. The approval is very difficult to get anyway, so you might want to think of interviewing others.” CERS friend Uygen advises me not to get into trouble. “But didn’t we have the blessing of Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother?” I protest. He returns with a speechless smile.
I build a make-shift studio with a 4x2 meters long black color flannel fabric and 4 wooden bulletin poles borrowed from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office. The camera and lighting are set to record macro details inside the Tashigomang, in particular the tiny peanut sized clay figures of deities made over three hundred years ago. It is amazing to capture the details of Bhutanese craftsmanship on film. Things seem right, but not being able to interview the Princess who leads the restoration team still makes me a little bit uneasy.
“How do you support yourself if you are not-for-profit?” This is the blunt question raised by many who encounters us for the first time. The Protocol Officer Sherub, being the most curious one, asks me politely. I try to take on the mysterious air of his country and say “Well, we need to have guts. There are the Invisible Man and Wonder Woman existing in our world. They have Batman’s financial power but not the time and energy like Flash Gordon to help the Land of the Thunder Dragon. We are just the rebels willing to face the challenge.” Sherub seems to understand. “Your contribution to my work is as valuable as a profit. Our profit is measured in value, not in currency!” I believe that it is too philosophical for him.
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“Can you tell me what you are doing?” I stick my camera with an extended microphone at a dusty Tashigomang where the masked Princess is carefully brushing off the dust. Naturally, she answers me with great detail about the procedure of restoration. I then request her to show me the restoration lab and say a few words about her vision for this project. I spend altogether 20 minutes with her. She speaks softly. Her intelligence and elegance match exactly my expectation of a Princess, of course. I feel I did the right thing regardless that this is a wrong thing to do in Bhutan. Later that evening, Ugyen was in a state of shock with his mouth open O-shaped when I show him the footage. “I will edit the film in Hong Kong and dropbox it to you. You will present the film to the Royal Family. Good luck!” I shake his hand and he shakes his head.
This documentary film is targeted to audience ages from 10 to 25 years old. They are the generation to carry on the tradition into the 22nd century and beyond. People often put the blame of losing a tradition on the new generation. Saying that nowadays there are too many unimportant distractions in their life hence lacking a successor. I feel the blame should not be laid on the young, but on us who did not conserve and protect tradition properly.