Interview with Khoo Poh Cheng in Singapore

Published: 21 April 2015

Hello, I’m Khoo Poh Cheng for Druk Asia. With us today is Dr Lopen Karma Phuntsho, a leading scholar on Bhutan, who teaches Buddhism and Buddhist studies. Dr Karma completed his monastery studies, before pursuing a PhD in Oriental Studies at Oxford.

Since 2003, he has been working as a research fellow at Cambridge University and CNRS in Paris. The author of several books and numerous articles, he speaks and writes extensively on Bhutan’s history, religion and culture. He is also the founder of Lopen foundation, a leading charity in Bhutan. Dr Karma’s book, a “History of Bhutan” is a landmark attempt to chronicle in English for the first time the entire history of the Kingdom of Bhutan. Dr Karma, would you care to tell us a little more about the genesis of this project?

I, as you described, work as a scholar on Bhutan and Buddhism. And Bhutan is a country that is very little known to the outside World. The general interest in the World to travel and explore new places and ideas, especially with the rapid globalisation, has grown rapidly in the last two decade or so. So with people’s curiosity to know new places, exotic places, there’s a lot of attention on Bhutan, and places like Bhutan, which are not yet known very well. And a lot of people who come to Bhutan, approach it with a very orientalist perception, seeing it as a Shangri-La, as a happy country. And then there are also other people who see it as an autocratic third-world country. Even among scholars and specialists working on the Himalayas, there is a misconception that Bhutan is just an extension of Tibet. So with increased and enhanced interest in Bhutan, and with the lack of information that is objective and authentic, I felt that there is a need for a book that chronicle the entire history of Bhutan, to basically explain the very interesting and complex past that Bhutan had leading to its present state. So, when I was working for Cambridge University as a researcher on the dogmation(Eh… No idea… LOL!) of cultures in Bhutan, I did a side work to take notes on Bhutan’s history, and those notes ended up as this book.

So you mentioned the orientalist lens by which many people view Bhutan. So what is the theoretical framework that you use, in which you use to frame your perception?

So Bhutan as you known, and you also see through the art exhibition that would be held here, is a very cultural and ideology rich place. It has a very complex and long history. We have a very strong historical tradition, but then, modern historical is a recent phenomenal. Not many modern historians have studied Bhutan carefully. And as a result, we don’t have a very clear historical periodization, for instance. So one of the things that I did, coming from both a traditional and monastic background, as well as with training in modern western academia, I try to make periods, historical periods in Bhutan’s history. And using that periodization framework as a skeleton to flesh out the history, giving it a total historical narrative. While doing so, one of the mean strength I have, is that I have access to lots of traditional resources that is often written in classical Tibetan or in Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan. And at the same time, access to modern historical methodology. So I combine these two to tell the story of Bhutan, in a narrative style, but giving some analyses whenever it is necessary. So I would say my role is like a football commentator, commenting on various historical events that went on in Bhutan in the last 2000 years.

And much of these events are translated in oral history, passed on orally, has that been a challenge for you to preserve these resources before they are gone?

Yes, in fact when you look at Bhutan’s past; there are two sources for historical information. One is the written heritage, and I have been involved in a programme to digitalize monastic libraries and archives for the last nine years. We have photographed, digitally photographed over 32 temple libraries and archives. So they form a very good source for historical information. But, a lot of these only represent the high perception and high culture of the monks and the scholars. Vast majority of the Bhutanese in the past, until 50 years ago, were illiterate, and they transmitted their values, principles and cultures through oral forms. So Bhutan has a very rich oral past. In order to tell a comprehensive and complete history of Bhutan, one needs to read written text, as well as record and document oral narratives. And that’s what I’m involved in right now. I’m managing a project to document all intangible culture of Bhutan, including oral traditions. And I have used quite a lot of such oral traditions to incorporate in this book.

You speak 11 languages.


So, how has this accessibly to language affected your writing this in English. Would this have been a very different history of Bhutan, if you have written this in Dzongkha for instance?

11 languages is perhaps an exaggeration, I do speak quite a number of languages. Like most Bhutanese do, and we grow up in a very multi-lingo community in Bhutan. Bhutan is linguistically very very rich, we have easily over two dozen languages in the country and about 16 that are endemic, unique to Bhutan. And I grow up speaking about 5 to 10 of them even as a child. It’s lucky to be from central Bhutan, where we get exposes to many languages. Not just dialects, I’m making a very clear distinction here. Several dialects even become language group, same language speaking people. We growth up speaking many mutually unintelligible languages. I would say this linguistic gift have been of great help to access information from various sources. When you go to Bhutan and travel across the country, if you want to get raw, authentic information, you need to be able to speak that language. I only speak about 6 Bhutanese languages out of the 24 or 5 spoken. And even language wise, Bhutan is still an uncharted country. We don’t exactly know how many languages and dialects we have. So, the language used is very useful. Rendering that into English is another matter. I wrote this book mainly for non-Bhutanese audience, as I explained earlier; there is a lot of interest in Bhutan, but no volume that gives a complete information on Bhutan. I wrote this thinking of all the foreign scholars and visitors to Bhutan, who wants more information on Bhutan. For the Bhutanese, I would refer them back to the original sources, written in Dzongkha and classical Tibetan, or told in oral form in a different language.

So with these English speaking audiences in mind. What are some of the lessons you can drawn from the vast amount of research that you have done on the history of Bhutan?

One of the things that we must remember, when we talk about history, from a Bhutanese’s perspective, is that history serves a particular purpose. History in the traditional Bhutanese literature comes in the form of chronicles, but also a lot of biographies and autobiographies. All these historical literature have one specific purpose, and that is to really help an individual know and understand himself or herself first. So if I want to know myself fully, I need to know my origins, my background, my own strengths and weaknesses, my sensibilities. By knowing so, I will be able to improve myself as an individual. And if I improve as an individual, and the community will improve, and that will lead to a much bigger improvement and enlightenment of the society. History plays a fundamental role in defining and educating people. It has this vital role in unification and enlightenment if society through individuals. And for Bhutanese, that is the primary purpose of history. Of understanding oneself and one’s past properly. In order to learn lessons from the mistakes of the past and to take pride in the good things from the past, and to go forward, with the ultimate objective of reaching enlightenment or Buddhahood.

So for you, what is personally the most illuminating aspect of this project?

I come from a very historical family and background. Most Bhutanese have a very avid sense of history, and in writing this book I had to read so many sources, and those were very fulfilling. And some chapter and some stage in Bhutan’s history, that has been underexplored, understudied so far. And I have revealed in this book, quite a lot of new information, in very mundane, conventional language, to a wider readership. And I find it very illuminating and fulfilling in being able to do so.

Thank you Doctor Karma, wish you all the very best in the rest of your endeavor, and the rest of your research.

Thank you.