l Karma Yuden, Thimphu
The response of Prime Minister (PM) Dasho Tshering Tobgay to a question raised by the National Assembly (NA) member from Bumdeling-Jamkhar constituency on November 17, 2017, brings domestic pilgrimages and tourism to the forefront. It also sheds light on the potentials of Bhutan’s 9,189 pilgrim sites, which have not been productively utilized.
When the opposition questioned the PM on the pledge made by the current government to send people above the age of 65 years on pilgrimages, he said it was important to consider viability of sending people on pilgrimages, financed by the government. Additionally, he informed the house that there are 9,189 pilgrimage sites within the country. Though he did not state that people need to visit these sites, rather than going outside the country to the same sites over and again, it has brought into focus the potential of domestic pilgrimages and its overall benefits.
Talking about this subject, Aum Choden, 69, who lives near the Centenary Farmers’ Market here, says she is surprised to learn that Bhutan has more than 9,189 “holy places.” “It may be because I am ignorant. Apart from Paro Taktshang, pilgrim sites in Bumthang, Senge Dzong, Aja Nye and others associated with Guru Rimpoche, I did not know that we are blessed with so many blessed places,” she said. Aum Choden is one of the many Bhutanese who go annually to Bodh Gaya and Tsho Pema in India. “I, my family and friends would definitely like to go for pilgrimages within Bhutan. If there are firms who organize such programs, people would respond positively,” she added.
A nun from Zilukha monastery stated that Bhutan is abundant with “Nyes” (holy sites). “People are either ignorant or clinging to the belief that pilgrimages means going outside the country,” she added. When asked what could be the reasons behind such beliefs, she explained that it could be due to inaccessibility to the pilgrim sites in the past. “Today, road network has reached all parts of the country. Even very old people can visit the sites,” she said.
Tandin, who has been for pilgrimages to India and Nepal with his parents notes that he has not visited even Paro Taktshang. “I feel embarrassed to acknowledge that I have not been to Taktshang, when I have reached Bodh Gaya five times. It is only when you are consciously told about religious sites within the country, that I feel I have to visit these places,” he says. Tandin also mentioned about the cultural and socio-economic benefits that people can reap from domestic pilgrimages. “Bhutanese spend thousands while going for pilgrimages. If domestic pilgrimages grow, the outflow of money will reduce. Hotels, restaurants, transport services and the cultural industry will benefit. Employment can also be generated,” he underlined.
Phuntsho, a young businessman in Thimphu, who is venturing into the tourism industry, also spoke about the overall benefits of domestic pilgrimages. “I believe that there is a very thin line between pilgrimages and holidays. When our people go to Bodh Gaya, Varanasi or Lumbini (Nepal), they shop and visit places, just like tourists. Thus, pilgrimages become holidays,” he said, adding that promotion of domestic pilgrimages would “lead to development of domestic tourism.” “In China, domestic tourism is a huge industry. Though ours is a small country, we have 9,189 pilgrim sites, which is huge,” he added.
From a cultural lens, Tashi, another Businessman from Mongaar said domestic pilgrimages would strengthen Bhutan’s cultural heritages. “Most of our Nyes, are cultural heritages. If these special sites do not have people coming, gradually there will be erosion of the importance attached to these sites. More people coming would mean further development and thus preservation of our very significant sites.”
Speaking from the social perspective, Tashi mentioned that there are people in Mongaar who have not been to Paro and “even Bumthang.” “The concept of visiting these places on leisure is not ingrained. But people will go if there is robust awareness and promotion of these places as a must visit pilgrim site. It has not happened. But it is never too late,” he added. “Different ministries and agencies should work together. We can even bring in pilgrims from beyond Bhutan.”