A Time Machine into Bhutan’s Past: the Folk Heritage Museum

A Time Machine into Bhutan’s Past: the Folk Heritage Museum

In a relentless pursuit of cultural preservation and the heritage bequeathed by our forefathers

Nestled in the heart of Thimphu, Bhutan, amidst the echoes of its bustling daily life, stands a remarkable bastion of heritage-the Folk Heritage Museum (FHM), locally known as Phelchey Toenkhyim. This living museum breathes life into the rich tapestry of Bhutanese rural culture, offering a window into the tranquil past that shaped the vibrant Bhutanese way of life.

The sprawling manor house of the then local chieftain Kawang Mangkey, it stands as a timeless testament to medieval Bhutanese history. Steeped in tradition and rich with cultural significance, this abode captures every little element of Bhutan’s past.

As visitors step through its weathered gates, they are transported back in time to an era and the then rhythm of life and customs of a bygone age. Within the hallowed halls of this magnificent estate, the story of ancient Bhutan unfolds, weaving a narrative that spans the breadth of time, from the humble beginnings of its people to the heights of their cultural and spiritual achievements.

At the heart of the museum lies a captivating exploration of the lives and livelihoods of Bhutan’s ancestors. Through meticulously curated exhibits and immersive displays, visitors gain insight into the daily rituals and practices that shaped the fabric of society in centuries past. From the intricate craftsmanship of traditional artisans to the time-honored traditions of agriculture and trade, every aspect of ancient Bhutanese life is brought vividly to life.

The museum’s narrative delves deep into the spiritual and philosophical underpinnings that have long defined Bhutanese culture. From the awe-inspiring small yet significant chortens that dot the Heritage, to tools used for farming, and others, it offers visitors a deeper understanding of the forces that have shaped Bhutan’s collective consciousness.

As visitors wander through the museum, they are not merely spectators but participants in a timeless journey through the annals of Bhutan’s history, where the past and present converge in a celebration of the human spirit.

Each floor of the historic heritage tells a different story, with the window-less Okhang (ground floor) that served as a warm shelter for farm animals during the bitter Bhutanese winters, and a safe haven from the free roaming wild animals.

The Barthog (first floor) houses Phuna (store room), safeguarding grains and food, speaking of the agricultural roots of the nation. The Phuna, mainly used for storage of beverages and household items, tells us the art of Bhutan’s preservation.  And then Gyelkha (tall narrow timber-framed windows) allows natural lighting and air circulation. Large joint families sometimes used this area for living if the space on the second floor was not adequate.

At the uppermost floor of this manor is the Thabtshang (Kitchen), the beating heart of domesticity in days of old. It is a sanctuary of warmth and sustenance, its hearth crackling with the promise of nourishment and fellowship. Further, it is not merely a space for culinary endeavors but a multifaceted hub of activity, where the boundaries between work, leisure, and nourishment used to blur into a seamless drapery of communal living.

Beneath the flickering glow of the hearth, people gathered to partake in the simple pleasures of sustenance and companionship, weaving the threads of their lives into the fabric of community.

The Choesham (Altar), an essence of every Bhutanese house gives life to the museum standing as a living testament to the profound spiritual heritage that has long defined the fabric of Bhutanese culture. Visitors are transported to a realm where the sacred and the mundane intertwine in harmonious union. But the altar is more than a mere symbol of religious devotion; it is a repository of collective memory and ancestral wisdom, embodying the spiritual aspirations of generations past and present. As visitors gaze upon its intricately adorned surface, they are invited to contemplate the timeless teachings of Bhutanese Buddhism, finding solace and inspiration in its profound depths.

Beyond its structure, the museum grounds are a living exhibit of the past. A traditional water-mill, stone-slabbed courtyard, and kitchen gardens flourishing with vegetables that have nourished the Bhutanese people for over a century are just a few highlights. The famous traditional hot stone bath and the cultivation of native trees and plants used in daily rural life further enrich the visitor’s experience, weaving a vivid narrative of a self-sustaining, interconnected community.

The essence of the museum transcends the preservation of objects; it is a focal point for reviving and sustaining the intangible aspects of Bhutanese culture. Initiatives like the revival of the dying art of pottery making at the museum are testament to a dynamic approach to cultural preservation, ensuring that these ancient skills continue to thrive and evolve within the modern context.

The story of the FHM began with a visionary idea from Her Majesty Gyalyum Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck. In 1997, amid the modern advancements enveloping the nation, Her Majesty foresaw the urgent need to preserve the rapidly fading rural traditions. Despite initial doubts about the timing, the subsequent flourishing of the museum accentuated the timeliness and necessity of this cultural sanctuary. Officially opened on July 28, 2001, the museum was embraced by the nation, becoming a cornerstone of cultural education and pride.

The FHM transcends its traditional role as a mere depository of history, and a place for tourists to visit. It has evolved into a dynamic educational center and a portal to the past. It is an indispensable destination for every Bhutanese soul, including scholars.

As Bhutan marches confidently into the future, the FHM serves as a steadfast beacon, reminding both natives and visitors alike of the timeless values and traditions that form the bedrock of the nation’s identity. It is a sanctuary of remembrance, where the echoes of the past mingle with the aspirations of the present, forging a bridge between generations and fostering a deeper appreciation for the cultural treasures that define Bhutanese society.

In a world of constant change and flux, the FHM stands as a citadel of stability, its walls imbued with the spirit of resilience and continuity that has sustained Bhutan through the ages. It is a living testament to the enduring power of heritage, a reminder that while the world may shift and evolve, the roots of identity run deep, anchoring the Bhutanese people to their shared history and collective destiny.

If Bhutanese and tourists alike want to see and experience the lives and ways of medieval Bhutan; the food they ate, games they played, breweries they drank, agriculture and animal products they churned and others, there is no place more befitting than the FHM to visit.

By Tashi Namgyal, Thimphu