Weaving Personal Connections with Bhutan’s National Symbols
Takin is the national animal, cypress the national tree, raven the national bird, blue poppy the national flower, and archery the national sport of Bhutan. It’s funny how each of those things sounds and seems so sacred.
A raven might seem like a larger crow and have no particular meaning to others. In Japan, they were as common as crows, and people gave them no thought. The lack of reverence from other people was almost offensive. Almost.
Back then, I hadn’t seen it often and mostly read about it in books. To me, the bird seemed majestic and worthy of respect.
Similarly, whenever I see (or hear about) archery, cypress trees, blue poppies, or takins, it evokes an inexplicable feeling, perhaps of respect. Like Pavlov’s dog, I have been conditioned to feel this. As a child, I had to memorize the national symbols. In my textbooks, each of those things was described in detail. Whatever is “national” becomes sacred. A more explicit example would be the national language, Dzongkha.
The language was an innovation derived from Tibetan languages to establish a unique national identity. Anything with those words became akin to Buddhist scripture. Throwing it in the trash was not permitted either. So the only way to dispose of papers with those alphabets was to burn them.
Meanwhile, I could throw away or step on English papers. Hah!
When some people treat Dzongkha papers like rubbish, a part of me cringes and shudders. It is horrifying, almost as bad as seeing someone spit near a Buddha statue.
Ema datshi (literal translation: chili cheese) is the national dish of Bhutan. Cooking it is simple. All one needs to do is add the ingredients to a pot, add water, cook for a few minutes, add a generous amount of cheese towards the end, and mix it. The word ‘national’ is often used with this dish, but it does not feel sacred. It is part of the Bhutanese identity but not one thing. Each person or family makes the dish their way. That may be why even though it is national, it feels personal. It is not ONE big thing. It is something for all of us.
Then there’s the national day. 17th December. The day when I feel the most Bhutanese. The day when I am reminded of my Bhutanese-ness. In 1907, our first monarch was crowned. Today, Bhutanese worldwide wear the national dress to celebrate the day within their communities. I last did so years ago. Yet, every year, on that day, I feel a strange pull. I don’t have to wear a Kira or be present in Bhutan. It has been embedded in me through years of schooling in Bhutan.
“I am proud to be Bhutanese.”