Understanding Social History of Bhutan through an Autobiographical Poem 'Gaylong Sumdar Tashi'
Social History of Bhutan in Medieval times.
Beginning Twentieth Century CE, it heralded rallies of scholarships and histories by the native as well as the foreign historians. Although, the scholars believed that Bhutanese historiographies as such in particular were not possible to be traced easily there were some primary sources in the form of oral traditions which depicted the historicity of the earlier Bhutanese socio-political life. In fact, oral tradition was one genre that was prevalent and existed since from the time immemorial. Another genre of historical literature, in countable numbers, was biographies which were written down by a few of those highly learned monks who had the knowledge of Tibetan scripts. Then, only a few people were access to such literary sources by the monks, the noble blood family members or the feudal lords. The people, predominantly farmers were not literate to write or read anything. Thus this availability of the texts to only certain groups led to the increased sanctity of the texts to be preserved as sacred relic leading to its mystery and surge in high tantamount of myriad myths along with. Today, this oral tradition includes folk songs, ‘Lozey’, ‘Tsangmo’, 1etc which depicts and connects the historical times. Having said this, one question that frequently strikes is: whether the past can be known through such genres? Or will Bhutanese pasts be able to historicize from such oral traditions? Although biographies and others do not fall within the “discipline of history”, I cannot help but completely agree with Salvatore’s remarks that, biographies intend to “explore both the individual and the broader social context” (Salvatore, 2004, p.189).
Coming to the present essay, I have selected an autobiographical poem “Gaylong Sumdar Tashi: Songs of Sorrow” as a primary source to evaluate and understand the social history of Bhutan during the Medieval period (17th-20th Century). This autobiographical poem was orally transmitted through generations until it was recorded in written form when the writing system was introduced in the country around the end of the 19th Century. Today, it can be accessed in both the version in Tibetan-Dzongkha2 and English (later version translated by Sonam Kinga3). Although it is a daunting task to dig and find the true facts (according to postmodernists), with an effective approach such as “historical investigation”, it would help to progress into constructing the past events (Fulbrook, 2002, p. 6). All in all, the main focus of my essay is
1 Forms of poetry consisting of four lines or a quatrain with two couplets. ‘Lozey’ and ‘Tsangmo’ are different under the genre of song. It should be recited (in Lozey) or sung (in Tsangmo) between the parties which resemble a debate in an informal gathering. (Kinga, 2001: 134-135)
2 Dzongkha scripts share similar scripts with the Tibetans. Dzongkha is the vernacular language
in the country.
3 Currently the Chairperson of the National Council (Upper House). Being given to the social and political history of the country before modernization started its foothold.
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