Religion in different avatars, such as religious discourses, pilgrimages and others play a vital role in boosting a local or a nation’s economy. Over 2 million Muslims have attended this years’ Hajj pilgrimage at the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, contributing in different ways to the economy. The Indian city of Bodh Gaya in Bihar is spurred mainly by religious tourism, just as Nepal’s Lumbini.
Similarly, the people of Bumthang has been one of the major beneficiaries of religious tourism, both domestic and international. While the Covid 19 pandemic has severely affected the district’s hospitality industry, the ongoing religious discourse at Tharpaling monastery is providing relief for the business community. The people of Chumig especially, are reaping the benefits from the current ongoing religious discourse. More than 30 migrant shopkeepers have set up shops around the monastery and a few at Urug.
While there were more than the 30 who wanted to set up temporary business sheds, only few could get the opportunity, with lucky dips determining the fortunate ones. One is Tshering Samdrup, a regular shopkeeper from Chumig, who has set up business in the Tharpaling premises, with hopes to strike when the iron is hot.
Tshering said that his income has increased during the religious initiation at Tharpaling monastery. Though he has not calculated the net profit he would make, Tshering is definite that he can make more profit from this short seasonal business. “This is the opportunity provided by the monastery,” he added.
However, he said that the shopkeepers face challenges. All the items are brought from Chamkhar town which is 96 kms from Tharpaling. Business runners in the monastery are allowed to transport their goods from 8.00-12.00pm only. Tshering Samdrup said, “We cannot serve customers as we wish.”
Chumig Throma Tshogchung has also targeted to mobilize funds for the temple’s construction and has thus opened a restaurant at Tharpaling during the kawang. Members running the restaurant say that most of the Throma practitioners who are attending the teaching visit the restaurant. They make about Nu 40,000-50,000 per day. “The benefits come in different ways. We serve the devotees and get paid. We also receive the teachings,” a member said. However, transportation problems and the rain has affected the potential of the business.
The same is echoed by a restaurant owner from Chumig, Sonam. “This significant religious discourse has indeed helped us all. We owe the monastery for providing us such an opportunity,” he said.
But there are challenges and the heavy downpour has made it worse. Water supply is disrupted and there are no proper washrooms for the public.
Sonam said there are no identified individual or agencies to look after the welfare of the shopkeepers and the people.
He said that in future, there is need for larger area and wide road. “Continuous supply of goods, should be permitted,” he said.
Initially, the committee for business runners at the monastery premise planned to allow only fifteen restaurants and other shops. It was for 15 days as it was expected that the religious event would go on for 21 days. Shopkeepers have to pay Nu 15,000 as tax to the monastery. However, the number of days has now been shorted.
Sonam said that initially the committee informed that only business owners from Chumig will be allowed to set up business in the monastery premise during the event. But the number of shops exceeded 30 and business persons from the other dzongkhags (districts), have also set up the business.
Sonam said that business opportunity within the monastery premise should be given only to shopkeepers of Chumig as it the only people of Chumig who serve the monastery most. But there are many from outside according to business owners of Chumig.
Earlier, it was discussed that those from other places will be allowed to set up business at Urug, en-route to Tharpaling monastery from Gyetsa.
However, the business did go well at Urug and they approached the committee to let them set up business within the monastery premise. Wangmo from Punakha, who has set up a cloth shop said there are also people outside Chumig who support the monastery financially.
“There should not be any differentiation and all should be treated equally,” Wangmo said, adding that they are also proving services to the devotees at reasonable prices.
Underlining that in future, all should get equal opportunities to do business, she said that necessary infrastructure should be improved. However, she said that the people are aware of the challenges faced by the monastery.
Those minting the most during the event are taxi drivers, who people allege are charging higher prices. The Kawang Tshogpa with the help of Road and Transport department and the Royal Bhutan Police have arranged bus and taxi services. Devotees plying from Chamkhar in a bus have to pay Nu 300 per person; Nu 100 from Chumig and Nu 50 from Gyetsa. Taxi charges are higher than buses.
There are also others like Sonam Yangzom from Urug village, who is hosting about six guests. Though the rent has not been fixed, she said that she expects the guests to pay her n accordance with the services delivered. Sonam Yangzom’s daughter said that guests are asked to pay electricity bill and rent as per their wishes. “This would be a service from the local people to devotees who came from far away places,” she added.
The principal of Tharpaling monastery, Khenpo Tashi Dorji said many have come for business purpose. He said that it is required and that the monastery has created business opportunities for all. The monastery has provided all required help to those conducting business, like providing water and electricity supply. The responsibility to look after the business rests with the Chumig gewog administration.
Meanwhile, the Mangmi of Chumig gewog, Kelzang said the religious event helped not only the local economy but even benefitted people from outside.
The assistant economic development officer, Pema Tshomo said that with the religious events, the demand for accommodation, local transportation services (air, bus and taxi), retail business and local products increased. “Devotees pouring in for religious events have propelled the local economy,” the officer said.
Chumig Gewog has benefited the most owing to the event being held at Tharpaling, according to the assistant economic development officer. This has boosted the dzongkhag’s local economy by providing more opportunities to the business community, who have been able to sell their products and services at a scale that is higher than usual.
The dzongkhag is hopeful that some devotees may extend their stay after the event and visit other spiritual/religious sites. This would further promote tourism and boost the local economy.
Bumthang is the spiritual heartland of Bhutan and through years with increasing number of visitors, the people have enjoyed the benefits in many ways.
Sangay Rabten from Bumthang