Prayers to keep the Zhabdrung Statue

Prayers to keep the Zhabdrung Statue

Indian Foreign Secretary assured hope amidst Bhutanese longing for the statue to be lodged for a longer duration inside Simtokha Dzong

At 6 AM in Thimphu, despite the chilly Thimphu breeze before daybreak, 77-year-old Aum Sangay Zam makes her way to the historic Simtokha Dzong to circumambulate and prostrate before the revered Zhabdrung statue, a ritual she has been devotedly performing for the past eight to nine years.

“I have been coming to seek solace from the statue for the past eight or nine years, as it gives me immense happiness,” she shares. However, the knowledge that this special Zhabdrung statue, loaned to the Bhutanese government by the Asiatic Society in Kolkata in 2016, will eventually be returned has deeply affected her and others like her. The six-foot statue, a possession of the Asiatic Society building in Kolkata, returned to Bhutan after the Government of India (GoI) agreed to a year-long loan in 2016, but could be taken back anytime.

“It pains my heart to know that one day the statue will be taken back,” says 65-year-old Meme Dorji, one senior citizen amongst the droves who makes the journey from across Thimphu to perform his devotions at Simtokha Dzong every dawn.

To the people of Bhutan, Zhabdrung is more than just a historical figure; he is the unifier of the nation, revered and worshipped for his spiritual prowess. The statue, estimated to be 250 years old, is a tangible link to this revered figure, making it a highly sought-after relic for Bhutan’s sacred temples and dzongs.

The history of the statue is as fascinating as it is tumultuous. It was acquired by Captain Hadyat Ally after the British army captured Buxa on December 7, 1864, during the Duar War, and subsequently gifted it to the Asiatic Society. This act of gifting has legal implications under the Asiatic Society Act, which stipulates that a relic once gifted cannot be transferred without the donor’s permission. With Captain Hadyat Ally long passed, this presents a unique challenge in the statue’s repatriation.

A former diplomat shares, “Despite these complexities, the gesture by the GoI to loan the statue to Bhutan accentuates the deep cultural and religious ties between the two nations, ties that predate formal diplomatic relations and trace back to the era of Lord Buddha and Guru Padmasambhava.” “This act of kindness reflects India’s understanding and respect for the spiritual and cultural sentiments of the Bhutanese people,” she added.

During a recent press briefing in Thimphu, the Bhutanese media requested if India could extend the loan period of the statue to Bhutan. The Indian Foreign Secretary, Vinay Mohan Kwatra instantly reciprocated, saying that it will be a ‘top notch’ issue on his agenda to be discussed and deliberated with the respective institutions and GoI, providing a glimmer of hope for people like Aum Sangay and Meme Dorji.

“The cooperation in returning the Zhabdrung statue should serve as a model for other areas of collaboration between Bhutan and India, including hydropower, trade, and politics,” a senior bureaucrat from Thimphu said.

“It symbolizes the mutual respect and shared values that underpin the relationship between the two countries, reminding us that the bonds of friendship and cooperation are not just diplomatic formalities but are rooted in shared history and mutual respect for each other’s cultural and spiritual heritage.”

Meanwhile, Yeshey from Olakha said that he is positive about the government taking on this issue with the GoI. “The GoI has been very gracious in letting us have this very sacred and significant statue for many years now. I am definite that the government will request for it to be kept for some more time and that the Indian government will reciprocate.”

Yeshey added that the recent visit of Indian Prime Minister (PM) Shri Narendra Modi to Bhutan indicated the depth of Indo-Bhutan relation. “We later saw on social media kupars/pictures of PM Modi and our Gyalseys at Lingkana Palace. We then thought that Indo-Bhutan relations are very special. We are definite that India will concede to our request for the Zhabdrung’s statue.”

As Bhutanese people continue to visit the sacred sites in India, strengthening the cultural ties, it is hoped that the two nations will maintain this level of cooperation and understanding, embodying the spirit of more than just friendship but of deep-rooted kinship.

By Tashi Namgyal, Thimphu