Pemi Tshewang Tashi’s obedience in the context of Hierarchal and social Fabric of the Bhutanese Society.
During the medivieal era in Bhutan, different regions were ruled by lords called Penlops and zongpons. The three penlops were of Tongsa, Daga and Paro and the three Zongpons were of Thimphu, Wangdi and Punakha. They were roughly equal in ranks yet all yearned to become the Tongsa penlop for it was very coveted unlike other lords.
Jakar Zongpon Choje Pem Tenzin bargained with Tongsa penlop Choje Dunkar Gyeltshen and central government to upgrade his rank from Zongpon to Penlop. The Tongsa Penlop sought the help of Wangdi Zongpon Andruk Nim who sent his chamberlain Pemi Tshewang Tashi and troop to Tongsa. Although he died, he gave birth to one of the best ballads in our country.The birth of the ballad is reflected in The ballad of Pemi Tshewang Tashi; A wind Borne Feather.
Dasho Karma Ura’s The Ballad of Pemi Tshewang Tashi: The Wind Borne Feather is one of the finest literary pieces our country has produced. Unlike other countries, Bhutan has countable literary works depicting the medieval era and The Ballad of Pemi Tshewang Tashi, is the best work one can refer.
During those days respecting and obeying elders and higher authorities were crucial aspects of Bhutanese culture. According to the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, obedience is “when people or animals do what they are told to do.”
And for Bhutanese of medieval era, it was out of question to disobey their masters or lords. They had to obey to all the words from the lord. Pemi Tshewang Tashi, the chamberlain to the Wangdi Zongpon Andruk Nim, defines what obedience is. He gives up everything for his lord. This is what he says,
“To dismiss it, is as dear as gold,
To carry it out, is as heavy as the hills” Ura (2011, p.38)
This is one the best example from Pemi Tshewang Tashi’s ballad to portray how the orders of lords and masters were valued in medieval Bhutan. The lines are immortalized by Bhutanese that people use in every possible context. No written literature in our history portrays obedience like Tshewang Tashi.
The above two lines are very powerful and thought provoking for people of modern Bhutan. It represents the life and the hierarchal society in medieval Bhutan. The obedience of the courtiers for their lordship and people to the courtiers were commendable acts. During those days, lords were no less than gods. They were sun and the moon for the people. Their words were laws and actions were deemed as example in the society. This is supplement when Pemi Tshewang Tashi said,
“To give up a young bull as meat animal
Is a practice of all lay people.
But the almighty Lord Andruk Nim supplies a man as meat animal” Ura (2011, p.54)
He knew he have to give his life but that was an obligation in those days. Once uttered, the words of the lords were meant to be implemented. The unquestionable obedience can be seen when Pemi Tshewang Tashi, before departing for the east tells his friends,
“…First, to serve the lords who are above
Second, to perceive the adversity of subjects who are below
Third, in between, for oneself to be successful
You must strive carefully, my friends” Ura (2011, p.43-44)
The people placed more importance in serving the lords then fulfilling their own dreams. The actions of Pemi Tshewang Tashi were impelled by the powerful creed of courtiers and attendants. He tells them firstly to serve the lord, secondly to attend to the people’s hardships and only thirdly to pursue their own success. The belief is well depicted by Pemi Tshewang Tashi, who soldiers on to fulfill the command of Lord Andruk Nim. Such were the people in medieval Bhutan.
Power and authority descended from the lords to the courtiers and then to the peasants yet people did not have choice. The orders of the lords, during those days, were considered as the final word and there was no doubting their wisdom of words. Pemi Tshewang Tashi reveals this from the following lines;
“Since his only command was passed and I came out
There is no option but to fulfill the command
For we are lord and servant during this span of life.” Ura (2011, p.42-43)
There was nothing he can do as the words were uttered by Andruk Nim, his lord. Such was the nature of the society then. The Bhutanese proverb “Poen gi ka ni len chi een” which, in English means ‘Lords commands are just once” summarizes the notion of people in the hierarchal medieval Bhutan.
Although Tshewang Tashi knew he would not come back, he proceeded towards Tongsa. The hierarchal society in the medieval Bhutan obligated the people serve higher authorities. Denying lord’s command was like, revolting against one’s boss, in today’s context. The command of the Lordship was considered wise and there was no questioning about it.
He knew his lord has packed gift which he equates with his life. He was pinned between his obligations and command of his lordship. Such was the situation in the hierarchal world in medieval Bhutan. The couturiers often did not like the commands from their lords but the lordship was their almighty.
Throughout the journey towards Tongsa the Chamberlian, Pemi Tshewang Tashi commands and gives orders to his troop who passionately listens. He was lord of the troop and they had no say on his words. This clearly reveals the hierarchal society during those days.
Offering to lords and other authorities were customary. It is reflected in the ballad when Pemi Tshewang Tashi describes the offerings made to him on is way towards Tongsa. For example;
On their journey, the orchard keeper of Rabuna offers fruits to Pemi Tshewang Tashi (Lord). This clearly gives a picture of the hierarchal society where offerings to the lords seemed to be a compulsion.
At Sonamthang, Pemi tshewang Tashi sat on the carpet of bamboo mat with endless edibles in front. Although the sentiments of the people are not mentioned, we can conclude that the offering was a burden for the people looking at the living standard during those days. The offerings to higher authorities are still prevalent today when officials visit remote villages.
Bhutanese are ominous in nature but the society was much more ominous during the time of Pemi Tshewang Tashi. Bhutanese refrain from beginning anything if unexpected omens are shown. For Pemi Tshewang Tashi, there was no choice irrespective of the omen. Before the journey, Pemi Tshewang Tashi makes offerings to the trio of deities of Pel Yeshey Goem who he finds turned to the east. This was a very unpleasant omen for anyone to forward but for Pemi Tshewang Tashi, obedience was all above omen.
As Pemi Tshewang Tashi journeyed, his dedicated horse, Dunkar Matha confirmed the outcome of his mission. It vaulted thrice in the front, jolted thrice at the back and threw him down on the ground. Despite this, Pemi Tshewang Tashi had to pursue his lord’s commands. Such was the time when iron-fisted lords had no second thought on their orders.
Bhutanese society, in those days, were very superstitious who were true most the time if not often. The dream, Pemi Tshewang Tashi saw, during night halt at Chokhornyik was very unwelcoming yet he had to proceed. He knew the omen wasn’t good, so he sends one of his men back to instruct the people back home to perform rituals for them. Despite knowing the result of his mission, Pemi Tshewang Tashi could not turn back because it was a command from his lord. Such was situation when Bhutan was ruled by dictator-lords.
As a Bhutanese citizen a millennium after Pemi Tshewang Tashi, I feel life was tough during those days. People had no say and the words of the lords were final. The people were obliged to obey the lords, yet I feel the need of it or at least a fraction of it, at this modern time. Obedience, a part of our culture, is fading away and a time will come when it just becomes a word in the dictionary. As a GNH country, we need to preserve our age old traditions and obedience is one piece of it. It is still required in the fast changing world. Choden (2004, p.8) points out “Obedience is a way of life for the Bhutanese-one still relevant to the country in the twenty-first century”
The primitive lifestyle of the medieval era may be mocked at today but the relation they shared needs to be highly respected. Today, the subordinates fail to recognize their boss and vice versa. Knowing our village people may be far from truth, we don’t even know our next door neighbor.
The question of whether we are going in the right direction is asked, when Tshering Choda inquires on his blog, “We even don’t know our next door neighbor. Are we making a progress? It indeed is a question to ask ourselves!” Today, though we may not do what Pemi Tshewang Tashi did, yet we are proud that there was this man who gave up his life for his lord. It is an inspiration for the modern world.
The picturesque life of medieval Bhutan is presented in The Ballad of Pemi Tshewang Tashi which, learners like us can refer today and do further research. Above all the obedience of Pemi Tshewang Tashi shall and will be loved forever.
Press, C.U. (2008) Cambridge advanced learner’s dictionary. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.
Ura, K.(2011). The ballad of Pemi Tshewang Tashi: a wind borne feather. Thimphu: The centre for Bhutan studies.
Choden, T.(2004) Comparative analysis of the representation of obedience in selected Bhutanese and English literature. Newcastle: Tshering Choden.
Choda, T. (2013). “Pemi Tshewang Tashi’s obedience in the context of hierarchal and social fabric of the Bhutanese society.” http://khendruks.blogspot.com/2013/08/pemi-tshewang-tashis-obedience-in_7479.html Accessed: 9.1.14
Note: The article is an assignment for my degree course.