Bhutan Nuns Foundation initiates building a traditional Bhutanese mud-rammed house, a training centre for nuns, which respects tradition more than just four walls and a roof.

By Dr. Tashi Zangmo, Executive Director of Bhutan Nuns Foundation.

The traditional Jangkhim house

The traditional Jangkhim house

The traveler through Bhutan can notice the persistent scatter of derelict traditional buildings that punctuate the landscape, no matter where you go. Throughout Bhutan, it is easy to notice how contrasting the new buildings are with the old ones in form, size, style, materials and sating. This architectural transformation is rapid, especially in the urban Bhutan, without any debate on its consequences in terms of the national loss of distinctiveness, or the loss of history and cultural values.

A lot of old buildings are tossed into the mountains to give way to new ones in their place. Change is not unique to this age but never has it been on the scale and the speed we are witnessing today. It is happening not because these older buildings can no longer serve a useful purpose, but it is because, at this point in time, we, as a society, do not need to count the cost. How future generations will judge us, we can only guess.

When I was a child, our Indian head master used to often say: ‘if wealth is lost, nothing is lost, if time is lost, something is lost, but if health is lost, everything is lost’. From a nation’s point of view, it is possible to equate health with culture and tradition. If these are lost, a nation will have no identity of its own and will sicken and disappear as a cultural unit. A nation should, therefore, preserve its culture and traditions, and remain aware of their importance in defining the national identity.

Of course, even culture and traditions are subject to change over time. Information technology seems to have shrunk the world, opening the door to so-called modernity with all its irresistible glamour and glitter, and creating a uniformity which is not always welcomed. If the whole world looks the same, what interest would there be in visiting other places, and how should people recognize their own nation? Nowadays, everything that imported appears beautiful and desirable in the eyes of our people, especially the younger generation, even when it is nothing but trashy plastic.

Lyon Dorji Choden volunteered for earth ramming.

Lyonpo Dorji Choden volunteered for earth ramming.

Unfortunately, we seem to be increasingly unable to instill in our children the value of our age-old culture. Today, many of us Bhutanese prefer to live in a modern, brick and concrete building, rather than in the traditional, two-storied Jangkhim, rammed mud house. This tradition of building houses with wood and soil, manually rammed by people using wooden stamping tools dancing and singing in the process, may die within a couple of decades, if we fail to appreciate it and pass the methods to future generations. Many of our dzongs (Fortresses), symbols of our national culture and history, were all built with stones, wood, and mud over the centuries. They used wooden pegs instead of metal nails. It is said that not even a single nail was used while building some of the magnificent dzongs.

Until the modern development started in Bhutan, most of the houses in Western Bhutan Jangkhims. Today, most of these majestic houses have given way to modern buildings. Such buildings were rare in Eastern Bhutan. I was lucky to spend part of my childhood in just such a house, the only one of its kind in our village in the East.

My father and his older brother built it together in their late teens. My uncle spent his whole life in it with his family until his death at 83, while my parents moved away in their search for a more appropriate place to practice Dharma.


Volunteers from Ministry of Works and Human Settlement crew with their special sun hat BNF

I am, therefore, familiar with this type of building and it is a particular satisfaction that Bhutan Nuns Foundation (BNF) Training and Resources Centre in Thimphu is being built according to the traditional methods using local materials and local experts. The building has been designed and executed in accordance to the explicit wish of Her Majesty the Queen Mother Tshering Yangdoen Wangchuck. This indefatigable, visionary patron of Bhutan Nuns Foundation has always had a strong interest in preserving our culture and tradition and has been passionate about building this Training Centre using only traditional method.

Mud-rammed houses are believed to be healthier than concrete ones, and the temperature inside is more balanced. Our Jangkhim in the village with its small traditional windows was warm in the colder season, but cool when the weather got warmer. I do not remember ever seeing a crack in any of the walls. The only maintenance it required was the replacement of the wooden shingle roofs every decade or so.

Bird's egg

Robin’s egg

The house was attractive not only for its human occupants but to many kinds of birds that nested in the Jang-jim Dong which I termed as pigeon holes in the walls where the birds seemed to appreciate the chance to bring up their broods in such sturdy, safe nests. These holes are created from the wooden poles that hold the Pag Drom (the wooden shuttering in which the mud is rammed to form the solid walls). Nests and colorful eggs laid in these holes were a source of wonder and an opportunity for us children to bond with friends through shared secrets. Adults used to tell us that looking at the birds’ eggs or touching them would make freckles appear on the face, which made us fearful of seeking them out actively. It was said that even if you happen to find one, we were never to mention the location of the eggs while near a fireplace, because the smoke from the fire would go and tell the snakes and the snakes would find the nest and eat the eggs. My cousin, who is now a nun, my monk brother and I would be particularly careful of this, and we would keep the information to ourselves.

A few years ago, my brother and I went to check on the ruins of our childhood Jangkhim only to find it all covered in outgrown bushes with barely a trace of it. The old Jangkhim may not have been there but we found several birds’ nests, including a Robin’s nest with 5 beautiful blue eggs in it. The birds flew away as we arrived which gave us an opportunity to click a few pictures but we did not touch the eggs, not because we were afraid of getting freckles on our faces but we were satisfied with the chance to enjoy the beauty from a distance and behaved like proper adults. It brought us memories of the past. The big deep dimple left from digging of the soil that was used in building the house was still there but looked very small now compared to what I remembered from my childhood.

Jangkhims also offer more stability against earthquakes as the walls could crack but not tumble down at once. Of course, nowadays further safety measures are implemented but rammed-earth houses built over generations by our forefathers with common sense and hands-on experience, without the benefit of engineering or architectural knowledge, retain their air of authenticity and simply belong in our landscape and in our lives.

The BNF Training Centre project has created an opportunity to promote our cultural roots. Traditionally, whole communities would get together for the earth ramming. The technique is time-consuming and labour-intensive, because there were no machinery or tools available. The process would be accompanied by feasts, ceremonies and songs such as – “Om Sangla Mani Padme Chola Hung”. Along with the walls, the social fabric of the community would grow and strengthen.

Her Majesty the Queen Mother participating at the Earth Ramming

Her Majesty the Queen Mother participating at the Earth Ramming

Her Majesty has set the tone through this Training Centre construction in reviving this communal atmosphere of support and cooperation by her hands on participation. The most disparate groups of people continue to come together to help; in the process, they have shared a common experience, learned about their historical heritage, and generously participated in a beneficial deed by helping BNF proceed with this much-needed building.

Whole classes of students spent their Saturdays helping. Volunteers from various offices led by their CEOs, heads of departments with their staff members brought their packed lunches and picnicked at the building site between shifts. Working together at this unusual occupation has given some people a chance to meet one another for the first time, and others to get to know each other in a different way, beyond the formal constraints of an office setting. Their help has been precious and BNF is most grateful to all the volunteers who have given their time and energy, without whom the project might be impossible to realise.

The benefit of using traditional building techniques is that the result represents the people’s unique cultural identity. Not only visitors profit from recognizing that national uniqueness, it also gives the local people a sense of belonging and keeps them closer to their roots.

It is pleasant to think that when the centre finally opens, the Bhutanese nuns who will take advantage of the courses provided will not only enjoy learning in a new, pleasant, dedicated setting, but their steadfast souls will benefit from the goodwill that has been invested by so many unconnected strangers in the building process. In line with Her Majesty the Queen Mother’s wishes, they will be able to study and improve themselves in a setting, which reflects their own unique culture and heritage. BNF is happy to have been able to contribute to the preservation of Bhutanese traditions by reviving a skill, which might disappear forever in the near future.

The Bhutan Nuns Foundation, founded in 2009 under the patronage of Her Majesty the Queen Mother Tshering Yangdoen Wangchuck, is devoted to improving the quality of life and education of the Buddhist nuns of Bhutan.

In this endeavor, it was essential to provide the almost 1,500 nuns scattered throughout the country with a centralized space to ensure their safety, convenience and comfort when they are away from their nunneries. Thus, establishing the Training Centre has been one of the most important priorities of BNF. The Centre is envisioned as a place where nuns can come together, learn, share and recognize their own potential. In 2014, the gift of a generous donor made it possible to begin the construction of the six double storied residential cottages in Tshalumaphey, just outside Thimphu. Additional financial support is still required for the main training center, which will include classroom facilities, a library and a conference hall.

Nuns carrying soil for Earth-Ramming ceremony

Nuns carrying soil for Earth-Ramming ceremony

The centre will provide training programs including teaching, counseling, preparation for hospice work and general capacity building. The training aim to not only improve the nuns’ capacities to contribute to the sustainability of their own nunneries, but also to give them the tools to reach out to the wider Bhutanese society, thus fulfilling the Foundation’s commitment to education and empowerment of the nuns as a way of enhancing their capacity to support their country in its search for Gross National Happiness.

Author's photoDr. Tashi Zangmo
Executive Director

Bhutan Nuns Foundation
Phone: +975-17880202

The above article was published in Tashi Delek, an inflight magazine of DrukAir.