Tag Archives: Bhutanese

Panchami and the Bhutanese Refugees

Back from New York, Teej and fasting.

I fasted from about 9pm on Friday night until about 9pm on Saturday so that when we were in the South Asian section of the city (Jackson Heights, Queens) I could eat at the Nepali restaurant with our friends. I found fasting a bit easier this year, I think because we were so busy walking around and doing things in the city that it made the day pass more quickly and kept my mind off of it. Although when someone sitting next to me at the tennis match ate a delicious smelling panini it made my mouth water.

Me at the US Open, Roger Federer in the background, wearing my red Teej clothing

On Sunday P and I woke up early and drove back to Massachusetts so that I could meet up with AS and S-di at the Bhutanese refugee gathering. By the time I arrived one of the pujas had already taken place, but I was quickly ushered to the newly forming ring of women preparing for the second puja.

AS and S-di were dressed in beautiful red saris, AS wearing the same clothes as she wore several months prior for her wedding including potes, bangles, dori and tikka. Since I was walking in straight from the highway, I was only wearing a red shirt and sweater and P’s mother’s red Teej necklace, but at least I had the right colors on.

AS explained that the women had organized a puja for Panchami, which is technically the fifth day (panch= five) but was actually the third day of Teej (Day 1—Daar feast, Day 2—Teej fast)– sometimes I really don’t get the Nepali calendar. The puja is in honor of seven gods represented by seven stars in the sky that are in the shape of a question mark (I’m assuming she was referring to the “seven sisters,” or Pleiades, in Orion’s belt, but maybe she meant a different constellation?). Again, the women generally fast until after the puja, and the puja is supposed to cleanse them of any sins they committed during the year (particularly sins they may have committed breaking menstrual taboos such as touching food, etc).

I enjoy pujas, especially larger chaotic ones. I don’t ever really understand anything that is going on, but there is always a lot of activity and confusion. Yesterday the large cluster of women sat in a circle with the priest (the only man in the group), who had spread before him an assortment of puja paraphernalia such as flowers and flower petals, fruits, rice, water, and incense. As the priest chanted prayers the women would pass around paper plates/bowls with flowers, water, or rice. I’d periodically be prompted to take a small handful of flower petals or water, hold it between my hands (in the namaste gesture), drip the water on my head, or touch the petals to my forehead, and then throw the petals into the middle of the circle.

At one point I was given a small plate on which  I  had to place a banana, apple, rice, flowers, water dyed with red tikka powder, and coins, and I offered it to the priest as a blessing. Even if I’m unsure of what to do, the other participants are usually willing to share or help me out, passing me handfuls of rice or miming the hand gestures I should follow.

Near the end of the puja the women stood, and started shuffling clockwise around the pile of puja material while the priest chanted, and plates with apples stuffed with handfuls of incense were lit as an arti and burned like candles. We were supposed to circle the altar seven times (but I might have only made it around three), and after the priest circulated through the crowd giving post-puja red tikkas.

Here are a few pictures from the event—

women sitting in the circle near the priest

AS (left) explains a few nuances of the puja as I'm passed a bowl of water. The priest's peach-pink-gray topi hat is seen to the left.

Listening to the priest for the next step. S-di is in the red sari with green pote to the left

Center of the puja activity-- bananas, flowers, yogurt, incense, apples, oranges, money, rice, nuts, even glass bangles

Giving offerings to the priest

Apple arti

Circling the puja area. You can tell the married women from the unmarried women by their necklaces (or lack there of).

Puja aftermath

And apparently a Nepali website (Sajha.com) captured me in action too-- chatting with AS and S-di

And posing for pics! AS, me, S-di, and an acquaintance of S-di's

For more views of Teej you can check out Nepal News video clip on celebrating in KTM this year.

“Gross National Happiness” and Ethnic Cleansing

WordPress featured  a blog posting on Bhutan today, and since the tiny Himalayan country was also a topic of conversation at dinner the other night, I figured it was time to bring it up as a post. I must admit, I am not an expert on this topic, but I’ll try my best to explain.

Before I moved to New England, I knew very little about the country of Bhutan, but I admit it intrigued me. I had it on my list of places to try and travel to some day. I knew it was a fairly isolated state (the government strictly regulates tourism and travel), that it had a monarchy, that Buddhism was the prevailing religion, that the citizens of the country were required to wear traditional Bhutanese clothing, and that rather than measuring the GDP the king measured the GNH– Gross National Happiness. Who wouldn’t want to live in (or visit) a country that measured national happiness? It must be a happy place, right?

Tell that to the 100,000+ ethnically Nepali Bhutanese refugees living in camps in Eastern Nepal!

Ethnic Nepali Bhutanese Refugees at the camps in Eastern Nepal

I started learning more about Bhutan when the city I currently live in became one of several resettlement centers in the United States. The US government has agreed to bring 60,000 (ethnic Nepali) Bhutanese refugees for resettlement. Australia, Canada, Norway, Netherlands and Denmark have agreed to take most of the remaining population from the camps in Eastern Nepal (which have sparked its own issues, I’ll mention this later).

Due to the resettlement process, I occasionally see older people in Nepali dress walking down the road when I drive around town. Since many from the resettled population are older and have limited English language skills, the local Nepali student population has become active in helping the Bhutanese families transition to their new home. P and I have driven vans of refugees to a nearby temple for festivals, and some of our neighbors have been much more active—having dinners, organizing donations, acting as medical translators for health visits, and participating in outreach activities.

I found this nice synopsis of the cause of the refugee situation online (taken from “Cultural Orientation Resource Center Refugee Backgrounder booklet on Bhutanese refugees”):

The great majority of Bhutanese refugees are descendants of people [of Nepali origin] who in the late 1800s began immigrating to southern Bhutan—lowland, malarial-infested regions shunned by the Druk Buddhist majority—in search of farmland. There they became known as Lhotsampas (“People of the South”).

Contact between the Druk in the north and the Lhotsampas in the south was limited, and over the years, the Lhotsampas retained their highly distinctive Nepali language, culture, and religion. Relations between the groups were for the most part conflict free. Under Bhutan’s Nationality Law of 1958, the Lhotsampas enjoyed Bhutanese citizenship and were allowed to hold government jobs.

In the 1980s, however, Bhutan’s king and the ruling Druk majority became increasingly worried about the rapidly growing Lhotsampa population. Concerned that the demographic shift could threaten the majority position and traditional Buddhist culture of the Druk, Bhutanese authorities adopted a series of policies known as Bhutanization, aimed at unifying the country under the Druk culture, religion, and language. The policies imposed the Druk dress code and customs on the Lhotsampas and prohibited the use of the Nepali language in schools. Nepali teachers were dismissed, and Nepali books were reportedly burned. The government also established new eligibility requirements for Bhutanese citizenship that disenfranchised many ethnic Nepalis, depriving them of their citizenship and civil rights.

When the Lhotsampas began to organize politically to protest the policies, the authorities declared the activities subversive and unlawful. Some Lhotsampas became activists in the Bhutanese People’s Party, which called for Bhutan’s democratization. Smaller ethnic communities also began to advocate for a more democratic political system. In 1990, large-scale protests led to violent clashes with the police and army and to mass arrests. Ethnic Nepalis were targeted by the Bhutanese authorities, who destroyed the Nepalis’ property and arrested and tortured activists. Individuals were forced to sign so-called “voluntary migration certificates” before being expelled from the country. In December 1990, the authorities announced that Lhotsampas who could not prove they had been residents of Bhutan in 1958 had to leave. Tens of thousands fled to Nepal and the Indian state of West Bengal.

Many of the refugees that are now resettled in the US have been living in refugee camps in Eastern Nepal for 15+ years. The entire story can’t help but tarnish (for me) the quaint idyllic picture the Tourism Council of Bhutan likes to paint of the government and country, and the idea of “Gross National Happiness.”

In addition, since Nepal has its own civil conflicts, political instability, and infrastructure problems, many Nepali citizens are also looking for a way out of the region. Since six countries have promised to resettle the Bhutanese refugees, there have been instances of fraud where Nepalis have tried to take advantage of this benefit by disguising themselves as Bhutanese refugees and applying for resettlement. Needless to say the process can be messy.

Lastly, when the refugees finally make it out of the camp, life is still not easy. The economic hardships in the US have also hit the refugee population. NPR had an interesting profile on Bhutanese refugees who can no longer find work after their resettlement stipends conclude, even when they are willing to do the most menial of jobs.

So much for “National Happiness.”

For more information:

Cultural Orientation Resource Center: Refugee Backgrounder booklet on Bhutanese refugees
Wikipedia: Bhutanese refugees
Wikipedia: Bhutan
Human Rights Watch: Nepal- US Offer to Resettle Bhutanese Refugees Sparks Tensions
NPR: Bhutan’s Reluctant Turn From Monarchy
NPR: Gross National Happiness Measures Quality of Life
BBC: In Pictures- Refugees use photos to tell their story
BBC: Bhutan celebrates its sense of nationhood
BBC: Bhutanese Refugees Start a New Life

Recent Stories of Nepal in the News

I came across a few articles on the BBC this morning about Nepal so I thought I would share the links. Then I thought I’d pull together a few other links I’ve been thinking about lately for good measure.

The first article was about a reprise in a call for “Gorkhaland” in the Darjeeling area of West Bengal. There are many Nepali speakers and ethnic Nepalis who live in this region of north-east India, including P’s grandfather’s family who hail from Kalingpong. When P’s father was young P’s grandfather sent him to live with his wife’s parents in Kathmandu. Eventually his grandfather and the rest of the family moved to the KTM valley as well, but when P was young the relatives still living in Kalingpong wanted P to come and live with them and attend primary school in their “ancestral home.” This was in the early 80s when the original “Gorkhaland” separatists were involved in skirmishes, and it was eventually deemed too risky to send P, and he spent the next 15 years of his life living in Kathmandu.

I guess recently a new state was created in southern India and this has rekindled interest in fighting to create the state of “Gorkhaland.” The  article talks about the situation in more detail: “India new ‘Gorkha’ state talks to continue.”

The second article has more details about the Maoists in Nepal. I was on a roll for a little while talking about Nepali history, and I’ll get back to that at some point, but where I was leading to was a discussion of the “People’s War” and the Maoist insurgency. Fighting was put on hold during the past few years as the Maoists and the government tried to reach a peace agreement. Among other things this led to the removal of the king and the Nepali monarchy in general, and electing Maoist officials into the national government. However various events have led to a disintegration of the fledgling peace, and lately large demonstrations and strikes have occurred. You can read more about this at: “Growing fragility of Nepal’s peace process.”

This piece I’ve been sitting on for a while waiting for a time to mention it. The New York Times runs a multimedia series called “One in 8 Million” which feature stories about various (and diverse) people living in the 5 boroughs of New York City. A while back they had a feature on a man named Tika Chapagai, a recent immigrant from Bhutan (the country known for measuring its “Gross National Happiness”) by way of Nepal. This topic probably warrants its own post some time, but I just wanted to mention briefly that one of the newest refugee populations currently resettling in the US are Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees, many of whom have spent many years in refugee camps in eastern Nepal. I don’t really know all the back story to this refugee situation, but according to Human Rights Watch, Bhutan stripped the minority ethnic Nepalis of their citizenship and forced about 100,000 into exile in the early 1990s, allegedly in an attempt to ensure a homogeneous culture. I have several friends that are employed as translators for the Bhutanese that have been resettled in our city. I believe one of my readers also works with this population, so perhaps he can chime in, and I’ll look into more information to write a proper post sometime soon.

Another article that has recently featured in the New York Times was about two Nepali taxi drivers in New York City who shared the driving duties for a cab. One drove the night shift, the other the day shift. One day the night shift driver tried to kill the day shift driver with a meat cleaver, and after the attack jumped to his death from one of the city bridges. The article unravels the events that led up to the attack. P and I have a friend who works as a taxi cab driver in New York, and on a visit to the city a year ago we got an inside view of what the job entails. The article is both interesting and sad.

Last but not least I wanted to link to another article which was kind of interesting and bizarre. It was a Time Magazine article called “Somali Refugees in Nepal: Stuck in the Waiting Room” and it was about a community of Somalis who were trying to get smuggled to Europe but wound up stranded in Kathmandu.

Happy Reading!