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Bhutanese Folktales: common Man's Media with Missions for Society Sharma, Chandra Shekhar 2007-12

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 Bhutanese Folktales: Common Man's Media with Missions
for Society
Chandra Shekhar Sharma*
Apart from being a mode of entertainment, folktales have been
a medium of communicating social ideals, values, morals and
philosophy. Bhutanese folktales involve a mission of cultivating
Buddhist values and virtues in common man's life. And for this
very sake they involve common man and his life.
Entertainment is their aim but in a way that contributes to the
well-being and happiness of the society in the long run. In
Bhutanese society they have served as a vehicle of ideals.
Folksongs too have served as media with mission but they
differ from folktales not only in terms of content and form but
also in terms of life and pattern, treatment of subjects and
flexibility. Unlike folk songs they do not have social or religious
regulations. Folktales have been a tool for Bhutanese society to
transfer ideals and values from one generation to another via
entertainment. The paper attempts to analyse the folktales of
Bhutan as common man's media with some missions. In due
course of research it proposes to trace the positioning of
common man and his life in the folktales. The sources for this
analysis are the available Bhutanese folktales translated into
Unlike folksongs that had been composed by prolific
personalities and learned lamas to propagate highly
spiritualistic ideas in an elevated manner, folktales have
enjoyed the lap and company of common Bhutanese both in
composition and transmission. Bhutanese folksongs have
been confined to mood, occasion, ceremony and in some
cases to places, but folktales have denied any bondage. And
perhaps for this very reason folktales in Bhutan are said not
Lecturer, College of Science and Technology, Phuntsholing
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
to be just 'narrated' but to be 'released' or 'unraveled' in
leisure hours of life - an act of not just kiUing time' but of
enjoying leisure in a creative manner. This very inevitable and
peculiar fact about the process of story teUing in Bhutan has
been attested by Kunzang Choden and Tandin Dorji. Choden
"In Bhutanese tradition stories, fables and legends are not
told but are unraveled (shigai in Bumthangkha) and
released (tangshi in Dzongkha)... these concept of releasing
and unraveling are invested with much significance."i
These terms, shigai or tangshi, are related to information,
which implies that our folktales are media with a mission of
dissemination of information and transfer of knowledge along
with entertainment.
It has been quoted by different scholars that before the
introduction of a Western system of education in the sixties of
the past century, there was only monastic education in the
kingdom. However I feel that this is not true for such
statements overlook the educational aspects of folklore and
its significant contribution in the shaping of the society. If
education is a philosophical concept imbibing ideals of
equality, freedom, justice and harmony, then the process of
folktale narration is also a type of education. Keeping in view
the pedagogical aspects of our folktales it will be right to say
that before the introduction of Western education, Bhutan
had two education systems: monastic education and the non-
formal social education system of folklore.
The monastic education system was not accessible to
everyone. Besides this, the strict administration in monastic
education disinterested adolescents. Some would run away or
others would give up for the sake of establishing family. On
top of all these facts, social structure also demanded some
people to work in fields and at home. If everybody became a
geylong (monk) or lama and devoted themselves to scriptures
i Choden, Kunzang (2002), p. xi.
 Bhutanese Folktales: Common Man's Media
and spiritualism, who would be left to do regular social
chores? Sex was another discrimination in monastic
education. Females were not privileged to pursue monastic
education. Dorji Penjore writes,
"...the monastic education system that provided Buddhist
education was accessible only to a few privileged families.
Women were excluded with exception of a few nuns."2
In her novel The Circle of Karma, Kunzang Choden also
mentions such discrimination. Her protagonist Tshomo is not
allowed to read and write and attend traditional educational
classes conducted by her father at home just for the reason
"You are a girl. You are different. You learn other things
that will make you good woman and a good wife. Learn to
cook, weave and all those things. A woman does not need
how to read and write, Father says quietly but sternly
when she asks him to teach."3
In such a social scenario it became very necessary to impart
basic education about social values, prevailing beliefs,
common sense, general knowledge and religious values to
those underprivileged ones. Folktales shared this
responsibility as a media not only for entertainment but also
for education. But the role of folktales as a media has been
improperly acknowledged. Dasho Kinley Dorji too skips folk
tales in his list of traditional media while saying,
"Our scholars now remind us of the centuries-old media
that we had in Bhutan- the mani walls, prayer flags, the
festivals and dances."4
Before delving into the topic it isn't amiss to have a cursory
glance over the concept of media. Normally when we think of
media   we   are   conscious   of   only   the   modern   means   of
2 Penjore, Dorji (2005), p. 51.
3 Choden, Kunzang (2005), p. 21.
4 Dorji, Kinley (2006), p. 4.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
information dissemination. We skip over the traditional oral
culture and its role as media. Folklores are seldom recognised
for their role as media. Francoise Pommaret rightly says,
"When speaking today of media, we immediately think of
the press, TV, internet, films, etc., therefore implying that
the traditional society has no media, no form of public
Thus the role of folklore and traditional means as an
information and entertainment media rarely come to our
mind. Various definitions can be given to elaborate the term
'media'. In a broader sense, anything that serves or
propagates information is media. In this very sense media is
devoted to "...cultivating the public mind...performing a
public function."6
Media has its role. It caters to the demands of society, time,
situation and context. Based upon these factors, different
types of media emerge from time to time. Various literatures
and theories may be cited to demarcate the role of media in
any society. Pommaret points out:
" transmit values that are often cultural or
religious oriented, and that the subliminal messages that
any media conveys, are therefore reflection of the culture
in which the media themselves are produced."7
This statement has been used in the context of dances but it
also proves that folktales are media with a mission in our
society. Another appropriate observation from the Bhutanese
point of view about media's role appears in Dasho Dorji's
foUowing lines:
"Media must help society to understand change and, in the
process, define and promote right values, including public
values... responsible     for     culture,     happiness,     liberty,
5 Pommaret, Francoise (2006), p. 26.
e Dorji, Kinley (2006), p. 4.
7 Pommaret, Francoise (2006), p. 26.
 Bhutanese Folktales: Common Man's Media
spirituality, even survival of society."8
The role of Bhutanese folktales must be evaluated in the
shadow of the above sentences.
Each folktale is a medium of communication, and also a
process of communication in itself. Communication is defined
as a process of transfer of ideas or information from one
person to other for a definite purpose. Communicator,
listener, ideas or information, medium, feedback or response
are the basic requisites for a talk to be communication. It is a
two way process, i.e. both the communicator (speaker) and
listeners actively participate in it. Our folktales not only
involve these requisites but also ensure the other important
feature 'feedback' which is essential in the communication
cycle (illustrated below).
In the process of storyteUing in Bhutan the person who
narrates the tale is a communicator. The communicator has a
purpose behind telling the story, and this purpose may be
entertaining the listener or providing them moral lessons. The
message in the story is not only verbal (in the form of words)
but also lies in the sentiments and expressions that are
employed by the narrator. The sender employs a variety of
measures tike variance in pitch, intonation, gestures, pauses
in between his/her narration to portray different human
sentiments tike- melancholy, anger, sadness, jest, happiness,
and joy.
Dorji, Kinley (2006), p. 4-5.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
"The art of narration is not limited to the use of beautiful
expressions, figures of speech and ritualistic formulas but
is also equally animated and made lively through gestures
and varying intonation of the voice of the narrator"9
Mention must be made here to the commencing and closure
of the process of storyteUing. The process starts with
'Dangbo...Dingbo' (Long long ago) and 'Henma henma' (Once
upon a time) to take the listeners far away from the fatigue
and penury of their real life to a wonderland of
fantasy/imagination. This increases the anxiousness of the
listeners. Similarly the methodology of ending the story is also
worth noting. The session (not the tale) ends with a note to
bring back the listeners to the real world by using various
closure formulae.
Such an artful narration contributes to effective discharge of
concepts and in enhancing proper encoding and decoding of
the message behind a tale. The receiver, the listener, listens
to the story and deciphers or interprets the message and
gives a proper feedback. BasicaUy media has two basic roles
to play in the society. Firstly, it aims to entertain. Secondly, it
aims to bring behavioural change in the audience. The
effectiveness of the message conveyed or the understanding is
judged by the feedbacks. We have two types of feedbacks in
context storyteUing sessions:
1. Immediate/     instantaneous     feedback     (verbal     or
2. Long term feedback (behavioural)
Immediate or instantaneous feedbacks are the immediate
responses of listeners to the narrator. These can be either
verbal, (i.e. in the form of a hum or word) or nonverbal (i.e.
can be expressed with expressions). They help the sender in
knowing the attentiveness of the listener in addition to
keeping them involved by maintaining interest, curiosity and
9 Dorji, Tandin (2002), p. 10.
 Bhutanese Folktales: Common Man's Media
anxiousness among the listeners. Such feedbacks ensure
active participation, continuous interaction and active
While the narrator narrates the tale, the audience produces a
humming sound "" which implies 'that the story is
listened by the audience'. This is a common response but
there are some other responses too. To express their
sympathy or signify their listening the listener may say "Aye",
which roughly means 'yes' and when the story takes turn to
some astonishment or reveals suspense the audience express
their surprise or shock by "Yaahlamah" or "ayi wha". Another
usual response that follows the sequence one "Aei" or "tse ni"
(in Bumthangkha) or "delay that means 'then'. This
instantaneous feedback ensures that the message encoded
has been decoded properly. Being a two way process,
communication requires active participation of listeners.
While the speaker's participation remains active by speaking,
there is a risk that listener's participation may become
passive. To avoid such risk and to ensure his/her
participation a feedback technique has been intelligently
incorporated. There are three purposes behind caring for
instantaneous feedback. Firstly, to ensure that audience
listens to and not just hears the tales, because one can
provide empathetic response when one listens properly.
Secondly, it is also to ensure correct decoding, and thirdly to
keep the audience active by making them feel that presence is
This instantaneous feedback is not very natural but has been
imbibed in the listener society as a required custom of
storyteUing or listening activity. Kunzang Choden reasons:
"This customs is to prevent the spirits from listening to the
stories and stealing them. As long as human beings
responds and indicates that the story is being listened to,
the spirits cannot steal them."i°
Choden, Kunzang (2002), p. xiv.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Another reason that I came across while undergoing this work
is the foUowing. The stience or luU during the storyteUing
session may point to the absence of the listener and will invite
a demon whose one tooth touches the sky and the other to
the earth, to take away (steal) the story. These demons or
spirits are none but the inattentiveness of the listeners, which
will surely ktil the stories or vanish the stories from memory
of common man. Through such imbibed trait the listeners are
kept abound with the discourse so that they can in future
narrate the same to others.
Coming back to the long-term feedback, we must look at
behavioural changes. Folktales as a media try to imbibe some
cultural traits in the listeners, and thus act as media, a
vehicle. Various tales are narrated to fiU the education gap in
the younger generation. Certain social values are much
related to Bhutanese society. As recognised by Curriculum
and Professional Support Division (CAPSD) these are:
"Love for Family, Cleanliness, Obedience to Parents and
Teachers, Love for Animals, Honesty, Friendliness,
Thankfulness to Parents, Teachers and Friends, Love for
Plants, Respect for Teachers and Friends, Punctuality,
Love for Friends, Care for Properties, Responsibility,
Generosity, Obedience, Love for Friends and Family,
Cleanliness, Helpfulness, Thankfulness, Punctuality,
Respect, Helpfulness, Responsibility, Friendliness, Loyalty,
Unity, Honesty and Gratitude."n
These values are not new to Bhutanese oral society. It has
long back recognised these values and their importance, and
has disseminated them through folktales targeted to entertain
the young and to bring in them some behavioural changes so
that the society can be happier and more prosperous. These
behavioural changes were long-term feedback for the entire
senior generation and society. The imbibing of such values
could have been done by monastic education too but it wasn't
available to everyone. So what the mask dances and folksongs
n Teaching Learning to Be, (2001).
 Bhutanese Folktales: Common Man's Media
would do occasionaUy with some limitations, was done with a
great ease by tales. This procedure of entertaining and
educating was not just limited to academic clergy or
theocratic scholars but to the common man whose tool was
imagination and simplicity, and whose aim was a peaceful
and harmonised society. Originating from the common man
as a common man's media, these stories involve common
man's life outlook and perception on different themes. Highly
spiritual lessons of sin, salvation, suffering, offerings,
metaphysics, complexities of transcendentalism and
philosophy doesn't tie in the scope of folktales for they are far
behind the understanding of a layman. But within the scope
lies the social life of human beings and the common man's
perception and attitude.
Apart from communicating values, Bhutanese folktales have
different roles to play in society. Dorji Penjore identifies four
roles of folktales in Bhutan.
1. Educating the children
2. Entertainment and communication
3. Repositories of culture and value
4. Folktales and spiritual needsi2
The first and the second role are umbreUa roles that cover the
third and the fourth one. In addition to this, as Tandin Dorji
mentions, tales have also been used to ward off evil spirits
who have haunted a person. 13 The functions of Bhutanese
folktales can be summed up into foUowing categories.
1. Communication
2. Entertainment
3. Education
4. Enhancing Social Structure
5. Imbibing    socio-cultural    virtues,    promoting    right
12 Penjore, Dorji (2005), pp. 53-56.
13 Dorji, Tandin (2002), p. 7. Dorji mentions the way in which tales
are told for this purpose.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
virtues, and cultivating minds
6.   Treatment
Anytime, anyone, anywhere
Folktales are 'released' and 'unraveled'. But when? Who?
Where? Anyone can release it any time. Like songs and mask
dances they aren't bound to any customary chains. Whenever
wherever there is audience and someone wiUing to take
charge of being narrator, the session can take the shape.
Tales are told in leisure hours of life, where the storyteUer and
listener have ample of time to stroU in the mystic world and
enjoy its realms. We can bifurcate natural story teUing
session into two: social storytelling sessions and family
storyteUing sessions.
In famUies, the elders start the session after dinner, after
arranging bed. AU the chtidren and the younger ones sit or lay
around the 'thap' or T)ukhari' and the tale is released to enjoy
and decipher the hidden meanings. The listeners wiU from
time to time, give their verbal feedback to let the storyteUer
know that they are listening. This is a typical example of
family storyteUing sessions. During the day the old and young
are busy at work, so night is the only time where both can
find time to enjoy and interact. Thus storytelling sessions
appears to be held normaUy at night.
A social storytelling session involves different members of
society. Such sessions appear to be less frequent than the
family ones because the population and settlements are
scattered. Yet some authors say that it has been a common
phenomenon. Kunzang Choden says that it was not only
night when tales were 'released' but they were also narrated
during day and that too in social gatherings.
"As I reminisce now of the story telling sessions, I see a
circle of adults and children relaxing in the late afternoon
sun, in the West Gate field of Ugyen Choling Naktsang,
listening in rapt attention to every word of the story teller.
At other times it was the evening sitting around a charcoal
 Bhutanese Folktales: Common Man's Media
brazier in the flickering light of lawang. As the flickering
light cast remarkable arrays of shadows, the images from
the stories came to life and became real."i4
But these social gatherings appear to be occasional and not
as frequent and as usual as storyteUing sessions within the
Anyone who remembers tales, can keep the audience glued
and has confidence in the art of narrating can perform the
task. Male or female, rich or poor, young or old, anyone can
teU a tale. Choden in the preface to her collection talks about
Bhutanese men and women who had told her tales. Wangmo
asserts of an old man narrating her stories. Tandin Dorji's
organised storytelling sessions too had narrators from a wide
spectrum of society. There is no discrimination. Similarly,
place doesn't matter; whether it is an open yard or room or
field, everything holds good for this media. There is restriction
to time; it can be day or night.
Scholarship in Bhutanese folktales
Print media in Bhutan gained momentum from the last
decade of the twentieth century. Getting something published
was a tougher job before. Printing and publishing jobs were
mainly outsourced and if they were done within the kingdom
the publishers were the authors themselves. Sometimes the
publication was self-sponsored; sometimes international
agencies sponsored the job of printing and publishing. Amidst
these situations, translation of folktales into English and
getting them printed and published was a chaUenge. Tandin
Dorji notes
"... the scarcity of writing and printing facilities
compounded the difficulty and consequently the larger
section remained illiterate even after schools were opened
and facilities provided free of cost, the documentation took
quite sometime to jump from spring board"i5
14 Choden, Kunzang (2002), p. xii.
is Dorji, Tandin (2002), p. 5.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
In addition to these facts, poor readership and iUiteracy
should also be taken into consideration. Buying and reading
books happened to be a less preferred recreational activity
than other hobbies. And those who had it were very few.
School-going children, who comprise a major reading group,
stiU depend on school libraries. But now the chaUenges are
being challenged. The kingdom has three newspapers, and
some publishers with investment attitude and modern
printing facilities.
The first attempt to coUect folktales and publish them in the
form of a book was from Dasho Sherab Thaye. It was in 1984
when Dasho Thaye published his debut collection of folktales
from Bhutan titled Dzongkha Short Stories (Book One). This
pioneering work was published in New Delhi, India. His love
for this venture did not end up with the first volume seeing
the tight of the day. Two years later in 1986, two volumes of
folktales with same titles came into existence. But these two
volumes did not hunt any foreign publisher; these volumes
were published in Thimphu. These stories were in Dzongkha
and hence foreigners or those who lacked competency in
Dzongkha were unaware of the world of Bhutanese folktales.
What unveiled the treasures hidden in the oral prose of
Bhutan to the non-Dzongkha speaking community were the
compilations of translations of folktales. Before any
Bhutanese could venture into translating the folktales into
English and publishing them in a coUection, Kusum Kapur,
an Indian brought a coUection to the stands. Kumar
undertook the first sincere attempt of translating Bhutanese
stories and getting them published. During her two-year stay
in the kingdom she not only collected the stories but also
laboured on their translation. Her coUection of folktales Tales
from the Dragon Country was published in 1991 in New Delhi.
Kunzang Choden is a much-praised Bhutanese female writer.
Her literary life began with a popular collection of folktales
translated into English. This collection of folktales and
legends which is titled as Folktales from Bhutan saw light in
 Bhutanese Folktales: Common Man's Media
1993. It was published from Bangkok, Thailand. A full time
writer by profession and passion, Choden is a reputed author
in the kingdom. Her long stay in India for education made her
feel the importance of her ethnic identity. This self-realisation
inched her towards collecting, compiling and translating
folktales, which came in the form of a book.
Yeti, tike UFOs, have been haunting learned and common
people as weU ttil date. Choden's passion for tales took her to
find yeti but not in snow capped mountains, rather in
Bhutanese oral tradition. Her Bhutanese Tales of Yeti which
came out in 1997 contains popular folktales that involve Yeti
as a character. These tales tells us that Bhutanese society too
had some perceptions about yeti. This collection was also
published from Thailand. In the same year came another
collection of folktales, Tales from Rural Bhutan, was published
from Thimphu. Her coUections have made a significant
contribution in popularising the tales in and outside Bhutan.
Another female writer who gained repute in coUecting folklore
and getting them published is Kinley Wangmo. Her coUection
of folktales in Dzongkha Druk gi Lozey dang Tangyu Natsho ge
came out in 1995; two years after Choden's coUection in
English. Francoise Pommaret mentions this as "a longer
Dzongkha Version in which three short versified ballads
(lozey) appears"i6
In  1997 Wangmo published
;s from Rural Bhutan. This
collection was edited by KarLJr Singye and was published
with help of financial assistance of Helvetas.
While Choden's inclination towards folktales and their
effortful compilation symbolises a yearning for yore and
ethnic identity, Wangmo's coUection symbolises external
influences. She asserts,
"I met Ap Chethey in the spring of 1993, while traveling
Pommaret, Francoise (2000), p. 146.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
the country with Ms. Claudia Meier, a Swiss writer of
folktales who, incidentally gave me the idea and the
encouragement for this and earlier book I have published
in Dzongkha."!7
The year 1998 found yet another coUection Folktales of
Bhutan by Rita Thomas published from New Delhi. Pommaret
introduces one more writer, Tshering Gyeltshen, in her paper.
She writes, 'Tshering Gyeltshen has put in writing a
collection of popular stories which have ribald and
humourous tone "i8
But she doesn't clearly mention whether the "popular stories"
are folktales or fictional creations of his own? In 2002 came
another collection by Rinzin Rinzin titled Talisman of Good
Fortune and Other Stories from Rural Bhutan. In 2004 Gopilal
Acharya, former journalist with Kuensel and currently editor
with Bhutan Times, also came up with a slim collection of
folktales titled, Bhutanese Folktales- from East and the South;
this collection was published in Thimphu.
In his paper, = |ji Penjore cites his paper 'Was it Yeti or
Deity" as 'fortbLJming' and "Shenje's Horn" as 'draft'. If these
are collections of folktales they will certainly enrich the
scholarship in folktales.
Analytical works on folktales took some time to come up. This
may be because of two reasons. Firstly such works couldn't
find a proper platform and were less encouraged for their
utility in the society. Secondly, late compilation of folktales
delayed the focus of the people who could undergo such
The first analytical paper on folktales, "Folktale Narration: A
Retreating Tradition" was produced by Tandin Dorji, a history
Lecturer at Sherubtse CoUege, published in JBS (Journal of
Bhutan  Studies)   in  2002.   His  paper  was  an  outcome  of
17 Wangmo, Kinley (1997), p. 7.
is Pommaret, Francoise (2000), p. 145.
 Bhutanese Folktales: Common Man's Media
detailed research work that included organising storyteUing
sessions and surveys. Later Dorji Penjore, researcher at CBS,
came up with a paper "Folktales and Education: Role of
Bhutanese folktales in value Transmission" in 2005. This was
published in the 12th volume of JBS. Steve Evans, a
Communications Specialist at International Center for
Ethnographic Studies, Atlanta, has added three papers that
address the context of Bhutanese folktales. "Tears and
Laughter: Promoting Gross National Happiness through the
Rich Oral Tradition and Heritage of Bhutan" appears in Gross
National Happiness and Development published by CBS. His
other two papers, "An Analysis of Meme Haylay Haylay and
His Turquoise" and "Preserving Consciousness of a Nation:
GNH in Bhutan Through her Rich Oral Traditions", both
secured room in volume 15 ofthe JBS.
Common man's life and perception in folktales
The majority of folktales are centered on the life of common
man for they have been their media. These folktales provide
an interesting insight into the life and perception of common
Bhutanese. Folktales of Bhutan can be broadly classified into
foUowing categories:
1. Fables or animal tales where the characters are only
animals and they speak, interact and practice social
2. Animal-human interaction tales in which human
beings interact with animals and birds.
3. Rich versus poor tales. These tales project virtues in
their proclamation.
4. Demon/ghost tales (Sinpo, 'ghosti). These often project
victory of poor feUows over demons and ghosts.
5. Idiot tales depicting idiots and narrating their follies.
6. Tales of disguise.
The common themes on which these tales run are very much
related to the harmonised and peaceful society. Some of the
themes can be summed up as:
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
1. Upholding   and   teaching   about  the   common   social
2. Instilling the philosophy of karma
3. Imbibing socio-cultural and religious beliefs
As the folktales are released by the common man it is quite
inevitable that they involve the social life and pattern and the
values he perceives for the betterment of society. The tales
have a lively pattern of social life that comprise poor, rich, as
weU as spiritual and mystic beings.
Our folktales provide hints about our social structure. Most of
our characters are poor (economically backward) who would
either attend to the duties or orders conveyed by the rich or
would just survive with their small harvest. Other than rich
there are royals. This simply points that the Bhutanese
society, even in those times was divided into three classes
depending on privileges and economy. These were royals, rich
and poor with their population in increasing order and
economic condition and privileges in decreasing order in the
series. This gives a pyramidical structure of the society.
h                       / N         4
-      The Royals
1 lie KICll
.  ^              1 lie Foul                          ^
Dorji Penjore has a similar view.
"At the apex of social and political hierarchy are the kings,
who are supported by wise ministers and retinue of loyal
courtiers. Persons working as court servants are held in
highest esteem. The protagonist - usually a poor boy - soon
to become king himself is seen serving the king. Lamas,
 Bhutanese Folktales: Common Man's Media
monks, gomchens, astrologers, rich men, cattle traders,
businessmen fill the second stratum. They are mostly
assigned secondary roles to move the plot. In the last
group are the poor people and their children, hunters,
fishermen, farmers, tseri-cultivators, beggars, shepherds,
orphans, etc."i9
It is the last group that finds a prominent place in our
folktales and whose presence and actions are justified and
celebrated over the first two groups.
Another part of the social structure is the means of survival.
Our folktales attest that farming and cattle-rearing happened
to be the two activities on which the survival of the society
was largely dependent. Apart from serving the upper strata it
was the main activity of the poor in their life. Whereas the
royals happened to be largely devoted and dependent on the
administrative system, and the rich were related to trading in
addition to farming and cattle rearing, the poor mainly
depended on farming; their other means of earning was
serving the upper strata.
In the stories like "The Boy Who Went to Buy Cows", "Meme
Haylay Haylay", "The Mother and the Ghost", "Bum Dolay
Serba and Bo Serba Tung Tung", "The Adventures of Poor
Boy", "Acho Tsagye", "Gyalpo Migkarla", "Bum Sing Sing Yang
Donma", "Ap Brapchu", "Lame Monkey", "P'Chekay- the
Man...", "The Story ofthe Lazy Boy", "The Borrowed Gho", etc,
the primary activity of the poor was farming. In some stories
they barter the things they produce tike in Meme Haylay
Haylay, The Shepherd, and The Lazy Boy. But they never
barter their fields, which shows the highest value they had for
their fields. These fields and environment are symbols of
productivity and life and hence are highly valued in folktales.
In fact, folktales teach that fields and cattle are loveable
possessions and should not be bartered with anything else
because the survival of the society basically depends on them.
Penjore, Dorji (2005), p. 57.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Some characters rely on cattle-rearing. The number of cattle,
especially number of cows, one owns implies one's wealth.
But there is an interesting factor that is revealed in our
stories regarding society and its structure. The job of looking
after cattle is not confined to any class or sex; anyone
whether rich or poor, male or female, young or old, can go
behind the herd. In the tales "The Boys Who Went to Buy
Cows", "Bum Dolay Penzom and Bo Serba Tung Tung",
"Gyalpo Migkarla", "The Borrowed Gho", etc, the poor as well
as the rich come to the pastures with their herds. In noting
this, the folktales preach that no work is mean and every
work is for everyone unless incapable of doing so.
In Bhutanese folktales pasture acts as a ground for
interaction and adventure between rich and poor,
supernatural and natural, mystic and real. It also symbolises
its openness for everyone. Not only males but females too are
actively involved in this activity. Bum Dolay Penzom ("Bum
Dolay Penzom and Bo Serba Tung Tung"), Goke Zangmoi
Buthi ('The Borrowed Gho"), Ashi Yulidolma, Ashi Sartidolma
and Ashi Dunglidolma ("Ashi Dungtidolma") are rich girls who
go to pastures to take care of the finest possession and it is
here that they meet smart guys from poor background who
prove themselves to be their worthiest and most suitable life
partners. It is also apt to cite some other characters like The
Girl ("Aming Niwa"), The Poor Boy ("The Boys Who Went to
Buy Cows"), The Boy ('The Shepherd"), The Dumb Boy ("How
a Bull becomes a Tiger"), P'Chekay ("P'Chekay"), and Meme
Haylay Haylay who didn't find their life partners but indeed
meet some adventures that portray their inner strength and
metamorphism in life. While the girl in Aming Niwa
encounters a mouse by chance who turns her life happier, the
poor boy encountered a she-demon. Thus pasture proves to
be an adventurous land, a juncture that not only twists the
tale but also metamorphoses the lives of the characters. The
tales caution that pastures are not only where cattle graze
but are lands fuU of promises, no less than ferttie fields, that
can provide happiness for Bhutanese folks. These stories
cultivate an understanding that going to pastures is not a
 Bhutanese Folktales: Common Man's Media
boring activity nor a risk and in case anything unpredictable
comes, it should be faced bravely and honestly.
With pastures and fields is connected the philosophy behind
the dignity of labour. Our folktales preach this philosophy
with different characters and plots. The methodology of our
folktales as media to preach dignity of labour is not spiritual
but far more practical and full of illustrations. Labour is not
criticised but is hailed high and is portrayed as an activity fuU
of enjoyment. The philosophy of Work is Worship' lies at the
soul of the stories. We do find here the 'division of labour' but
we don't find here traces of taking a task mean. Nor we find
people classified into castes and creeds according to the work
they do in the society. Every character apart from being rich
or poor, male or female, able or disabled, young or old, are
found engaged in some productive activity. Even in fables we
find animals engaged, and those sitting idle are criticised or
are made to suffer. The chickens ('Why Fox Chases...") grow
crops; the lion and the buffalo are busy in hunting and
grazing. Similarly the deer ("Fate and the Deer"), aU the birds
("Why Bat is not a Bird"), the three birds ("Oldest of the AU"),
the cuckoo ("The Cuckoo and the Frog"), the female hoopoe
('The Hoopoe"), the hen and the monkey ("The Hen and the
Monkey"), the frog ('The Tiger and the Frog") aU have
something to do. These hardworking creatures proclaim their
victory and are rewarded with joys in their life.
More interesting tales in this context are "The Hoopoe", "The
Hen and the Monkey and 'The Tiger and the Frog". The
female hoopoe is responsible for the nesthold chores while
"the male hoopoe flew around and collected whatever he
could". This points out to us the way the tales teach the
division of labour, the dignity with which the characters take
their responsibilities, and the honour they have for another's
Demeaning others' tasks is a social evil. It is a vice and a foUy
too, for each laborer in the society contributes to the social
development    through    labour.    Bhutanese    folktales    even
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
portray this by showing that no work is bad in itseff. The
folktale titled 'The Hen and the Monkey" takes it as its
mission to teach this to the society. The monkey who
demeans the work of the hen suffers at every point he
demeans it whereas the hen takes every work assigned to her
by the monkey as her duty and performs it with smiles and
enjoyment. She gets success in doing every task with her skiU
whereas the monkey who demeans and imitates the hen's
way fails and suffers. The hen is a symbol and preaches that
one's own sktils tinted with enjoyment in doing it bring
This task of preaching dignity of labour is not only done by
hailing it but also by vibrantly criticising idleness and
laziness. The lazy characters in animal tales are thrown
towards utter criticism, mockery and sufferings. The monkey
in the above story is a lazy feUow and imitator. He couldn't
involve his own sktils in doing anything hence is made to
suffer and run away out of the house to live without a good-
wife, the hen. This mission of warning people against laziness
is reported not only through fables but also through other
tales. The lazy human beings like the rich boy ('The Boy Who
Went to Buy Cows"), the rich girl ("Aming Nima"), and the lazy
sinpo ("Acholala") symbolise their sufferings. However
Acholala's laziness is not criticised but is taken as a lucky
matter for the girl in the story. There are some stories in
which lazy characters are made to give up their idleness and
tempted to work. Stories like "Lame Monkey", "The Phob that
Provided Food", "The Story of a Lazy Boy", 'The SiUy Man and
His Wife" are exemplary in this context. They teU us how the
common man perceives laziness and his reaction, and the
ways the society would take to treat idle fellows. It is another
mission that ties at the core of our folktales.
One of the virtues that a society nestled in mountains and
dense forests requires is bravery. Our tales have been a
media to teach people lessons of bravery and to instill in them
courage, confidence, and competence which are the only tools
for  any  common  man  in  his  daily  life.   We   see  that  the
 Bhutanese Folktales: Common Man's Media
characters depicted are humble, feeble prima facie but when
it come to face the test of the time they prove to be strong,
inteUigent and brave enough. Their bravery is much related to
their virtues. The girl escapes the sinpos or boldly faces the
astounding palace of mouse or deceives the wild animals. The
boys fighting the ghosts and sinpos, and other chaUenges are
the portrayals meant to imbibe the traits of bravery in the
society. One more fact to notice the folk doing brave jobs are
young boys and girls. It obvious that the folktales (as media)
targeted young boys and girls to instill courage and other
tenets of bravery. To start with, the tales having sinpos aU
demonstrate courage. For a layman sinpos are demonic
creatures with furious faces, enormous energy and a
cannibalic nature. Anyone would surely fear them for these
characteristics. The youths win them over and proclaim:
"... for even ghosts have little power if they cannot evoke
any fear in their victims. Fear in victims empower spirits
and ghosts, who then are capable of harm and
destruction. "2°
If the above sentences are taken as hidden adages in
Bhutanese folktales it becomes clear what mission some of
the stories with ghosts, rolongs and sinpos have behind them.
Secondly such dangerous looking characters in our tales are
not just meant to create horror and scare the audience but I
feel that they have been incorporated to say that men and
women of ordinary calibre can win over them by bravery and
virtues. The boy in 'The Mother and the Ghost", "Acho
Tsagye", "Bum Sing Sing Yangdoma", the girl in "Acholala",
the geylong in "Ap Rolong", "Gauze Joy Guma" are the
characters that have been projected for instilling bravery and
confidence in youth so as to perform duties fearlessly. The
same lessons of bravery go with the tales related to yeti in
Choden's coUection.
Humtiity, kindness, respect, generosity, courtesy, are some
other virtues that are required to be practiced in society for
Choden, Kunzang (2002), p. 51.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
the greater common cause of happiness. Folktales have also
served to teach these virtues through various characters and
situations. Mutual respect to elders and trust has been
portrayed at length. Also, the cost of not valuing these virtues
has been illustrated. Fables tike "Fate and the Deer", "For Not
Paying Heed", "Cuckoo and the Frog", 'The Hoopoe", 'The Hen
and the Frog"' teU the listener about the mutual respect
among the family members and the cost of losing it. On the
other hand, we have characters tike the three obedient sons
("Tsongpon Dawa Zangpo"), the widow's son ("Mother and the
Ghost"), the princess with three breasts, Mekhay Doma, who
are examples of obedience and respectful character.
Trust is another important factor not only in the familial
sphere but also in the social sphere. Trust is the social value
that binds the society, and in family it contributes to peace
and happiness. Our tales lay much thrust upon trust or
faithfulness among couples through a variety of characters.
Among the finest examples in this context are the fables: 'The
Cuckoo and the Frog", "The Hoopoe", 'The Monkey and the
Hen", "For not Paying Heed", "Fate and the Deer". The current
of distrust runs under these tales taking its toU by breaking
the happy relationship between the couples. In these fables
the element of distrust arises from males. The female
counterparts perform their duties honestly but the males
either suspect or deny their suggestions that lead them to
heavy difficulties, sometimes even at the cost of their lives.
The frog ridicules the devotion of his wife, cuckoo. The
husband Hoopoe's unreasonable anger, the monkey's
derogatory and charging attitude towards her wife hen, the
Dengo's (dough's) unpaying and unheeding attitude towards
its wife - a slab of butter, and the same attitude of husband
deer towards his wife all signify the frivolities and vices on the
part of males who are responsible for spoiling the entire
Distrust, unfaithful behaviour and betrayal have been taken
as the root cause of sufferings and also loss of life in extreme
cases. Other tales that signify the need for trust and the cost
 Bhutanese Folktales: Common Man's Media
of its absence are: 'To Pay for Water", "Dasu and Basu", 'Why
the Bat is not a Bird?", "Who Frightened Whom?", "Abar
Sigay", "The Boys Who Went to Buy Cows", etc.
The wife is an honourable entity of her husband. Marriage,
though not a custom or tradition-bound activity, is an
important landmark. Traditionally marriage is not celebrated
in the form of ceremony nor it has much to do with religion or
society. It is very personal. Bhutanese choose their partner
very informally and become husband and wife.2! They live
together and contribute to the making of a home. Our
folktales teach that another's wife should be respected and it
is not a 'thing' to be snatched or seized, an act that is a sin
that leads to suffering. It seems that the wealthy might be
doing so, for we see rich people and kings try to forcefully
seize the wives of poor people. This pain of the poor comes
out in acute degree in two stories: "The Shepherd and the
Orphan" and 'The Serpent Princess". The virtues of poor
husbands and the brilliance of their wives works, and the
kings in the tales are defeated to gain nothing other than
mockery, humiliation and pain. This cruelty is criticised and
the victory is projected in such a way that we feel happy for
the punishment the culprit gets.
Harmony between man and nature is also important for the
welfare of sentient beings. The characters in our tales eat
meat and kill demons and wild animals, yet the folktales
propagate the philosophy of harmony. Human beings not only
live in harmony with animals and birds but also marry them
in their form and accept them as life partners. Both human
beings and other beings are obliged to each other. Even trees
are depicted as obliged to render a helping hand towards
human beings. It is in these stories we find rats, dogs, cats,
and monkeys are saved by human beings and in turn are
obliged to them. These tales depict the theme where virtue
2i In saying this I am not talking of the southern Bhutanese who are
mostly Hindus and marriage is a customary activity with social
importance. In Hindu culture marriage is a sanskaar.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
brings virtue, sowing the seeds of good deeds in society.
The poor versus ghosts, sinpos and the wealthy
Considerable attention is given to the presence and attributes
of ghosts, sinpos and the wealthy in the tales. They stand as
symbols to various follies and vices. Ghosts, according to
Bhutanese beliefs, are those bad spirits, which are invisible to
human beings and keep on moving in this world because of
bad karma during their life as a human being. They harm the
human being by various physical means. Sinpos, on the
other hand, are demons having a horrible look that comprises
two extra-large curved teeth, a tail and a giant body.
Choden's interpretation of sinpos goes tike this,
"Flesh-eating spirits that roamed the earth freely until
Guru Padmassambhava subdued them and exiled them to
another world sinpoiyul "22
By listening to the tales it becomes clear that sinpos are
visibly demonic creatures. They differ from the ghosts in a
sense that ghosts are not visible. Ghosts have deadly habits.
The wealthy in our tales are rich human beings having
luxuries and comfort yet harmful to other human beings for
their vices.
There is a message behind the inclusion of these characters.
Sinpos are full vices like lethargy, anger, cannibalism and
uncivilised behaviours harmful for the society. In tales they
pick up humble human beings either making them slaves or
eating them up. Such creatures are harmful for a peaceful
and terror-free social existence. The poor, who are laced with
ethical qualities, inteUectual abtiities and bravery as their
strength, fight with them and prevail. In no story do we find a
poor person being defeated by sinpos. Rather we find the
poor, and not even the rich, fighting and winning over the
sinpos (and also the ghosts).
22 Choden, Kunzang (2002), p. 195.
 Bhutanese Folktales: Common Man's Media
The wealthy in our tales are full of jealousy, greed, pride,
gluttony and other vices. It clearly suggests that rich people
in Bhutan in the past were not having humanly attitude
towards the underprivileged people or subjects. Never do we
find them portrayed as humble and good people caring for
laymen. And thus they too are defeated by the good qualities
of laymen and forced to learn lessons. The rich boy in "The
Boy Who Went to Buy Cows", the girl in "Aming Niwa", the
rich parents in "The Borrowed Gho", and the brother of Bum
Dolay Penzom are some of the rich characters that show
traces of vices, and low level idiosyncrasies in their attitude
towards the poor. The poor, the framers of our tales observed
this and thus criticised them politely and celebrate their
defeat. Not only this, the tales also teU the reader how the
poor were exploited and what methods of coercion were used.
Though these symbolic characters are made to suffer, their
punishment is justified. The ghosts are subdued or kiUed for
they can never learn lesson and become good for society. The
boy in 'The Ghost and the Mother" kiUs the ghost brutaUy for
it is the way for the whole society to get rid of it. On the other
hand, sinpos are tormented and tortured and even burnt to
make them run far away from the places where human beings
But the wealthy? They aren't killed! They are neither burnt
nor looted! Why? It is so because though they bear vices, they
are needed in society for they help in earning bread and
butter. On top of this they are human beings who can learn
lessons by their mistakes; therefore they are not made to
suffer by the hands of the poor but by the great leveller of
nature. The rich boy in "The Boy Who Went to Buy Cows"
loses his handsome face as the cost of his cheat, the rich girl
in "Aming Niwa" looses her beautiful hair and gets dreadful
rewards for her gluttony, the rich parents in "The Borrowed
Gho" have to surrender before the love of the poor guy Gele
Gyalwa Dupchu. Many examples can be set herein to aver the
victory of exceUent qualities of the poor over the exploitation
of the rich.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
The poor versus ghosts, sinpos and the rich signify the
triumph of divine over the demon. The contrast between the
poor and the rich is the contrast of vices and virtues in the
society which clearly delineates before the audience that vices
are punished and virtues are rewarded. Though there may be
tittle in the record of the rift between rich and poor in
Bhutanese society, the folktales point to the consciousness of
common man towards the attitudrnal differences of the rich
towards the poor. Keeping in account its role as media, these
tales have not only criticised the frivolities, and not only
preached lessons, but also celebrated the qualities of the poor
Against non-violence and spiritualism?
Bhutan is one of the few Buddhist countries. Buddhism is not
only preached but also practiced. A degree of belief in
Buddhist philosophy runs in the veins of society. The general
expectation in such a condition is that the tales may contain
non-violence, lack of cheating, and will be very spiritualistic
in nature. A general reader may think before hand that our
tales may just be related to the Buddha, the Dharma, the
monk-body and spiritualism. A cursory glance over the tales
and characters may confuse a reader with such expectations,
whether they follow Buddhism or something else. This is so
because the tales have cunningness, kilting, cheating,
inclination towards material possessions, idiocy, etc, that
appears to be on the other pole than that of spiritualism. The
characters in folktales do kill animals, sinpos, and ghosts,
but their purpose is not to uphold violence as a motive behind
living life. They kiU those who are harmful to them and aU.
Violence to our characters is just as robbery is to Robin Hood.
The ktiting of ghosts by boys becomes essential for his
survival and to uphold the peace in family and society.
Characters burn, harass or kiU sinpos because their existence
may cost the survival of peace in society. Such violence is not
just violence but a justified action. Thus we can say that
violence in our tales is supported by justice in action.
To denounce worldly affairs and move towards spiritualism
 Bhutanese Folktales: Common Man's Media
and religion is another Buddhist trait. Some spiritual
scholars praise this act of denouncement and some oppose it
on various grounds. In literary terminology, such an act of
moving away from realities is caUed escapism. Bhutanese
folktales don't preach escapism. None of the tales ask the
people to denounce worldly affairs and take the refuge in a
monastery. Rather they teach us to live in this world with
virtues, and to contribute to the fuUest of their abilities in
social development. It is so because for a common man the
three basic needs - food, shelter and clothing - are much
more important. To fulfill these basic needs workmanship is
more important than surrendering to religion or embracing
monkhood. But this doesn't mean that they oppose religion or
consider it as 'opium.' Rather they beautifuUy divide the
spiritualistic tasks too. Through folktales - i.e. their media -
they teach that youngsters must work and live with virtues,
and that devotion is for old age. The story of Mekhay Doma
has the traces of such a message. Her parents in their old age
devote themselves to the hermitage and the little girl looks
after the regular chores and supplies the essentials to their
Our characters become happy by possessing worldly things.
They fight for worldly pleasures and their life is portrayed as
happy when they achieve them. Those who lose are portrayed
as tsagye (fool). Meme Haylay Haylay, P'chekhay, the Lazy
Boy ("The Story of Lazy Boy") are depicted as fools who go on
bartering their priced possessions with less important objects.
Steve Evans and Dorji Penjore have taken unnecessary pains
in portraying Meme Haylay Haylay as a happy man, and his
foolishness born as happiness as happiness-in-fact. There are
no traces in the tale nor in social consideration that aver that
Meme Haylay Haylay (and other such characters viz.
P'chekhay and the Lazy Boy) are symbols of happier people;
rather they are portrayed as symbols of foolishness, their
idiocy. These characters are criticised at the end for losing
their initiaUy prized possession for Meme falls in cowdung,
P'chekhay forgets the songs and the lazy boy is turned out of
his home. These tales are idiot-tales meant to make people
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
laugh and to teach them a fool remains a fool. Through such
tales it is also taught that one should not be such an idiot
fellow. Scholars have tried to view these tales from their
prejudiced binoculars. Folktales must be analysed in social
context. Their meaning should be drawn in coUocation with
local beliefs. The concept of happiness in Bhutanese folk tales
is virtue-oriented, achievement-oriented and not surrender-
oriented. That is why in our tales protagonists strive to
achieve, and after achieving live happily. Each tale ends with
a note on the happiness that comes with worldly achievement
(not surrender or denouncement).
Cheating, cunningness, playing tricks, befooling others, lying
and other such behaviours are vices, often considered sins.
Bhutanese folktales are fuU of these traits. Does it mean that
they propagate these vices? Of course not. An act can be
termed as sin if it is to harm anybody for the sake of ones
own benefit. An act can be termed as a sin or crime on the
basis of the motive behind it. Some innocent characters like
Mekhay Doma, the boys in the stories "The Boy Who Went to
Buy Cows", 'The Mother and the Ghost", etc, cheat their
superior's against the latter's oppression. In "A Few Magical
Things" the protagonist goes on cheating people by his
cunning tricks but he is praised in the story. Similarly the
sparrow in 'The Most Important Things in Life" cheats cruel
vulture to save her life. On the other hand the monk in
"Tsongpon Dawa Zangpo", "Dasu and Basu", the painter in
"The Painter and the Carpenter", the rich aunt in "The Phob
that Provided Food" are portrayed as bad characters made to
suffer badly in their remaining life. What is shown here is not
bias but justifications. Achievement by cheating or
cunningness is not a sin if it is not targeted to harm other or
encroach upon another's entity.
Folktales have contributed much to the shaping of society.
The social values and virtues we wish to imbibe in the
generation today were largely discovered by the oral society
long time ago and the task of imbibing in the society was
 Bhutanese Folktales: Common Man's Media
largely done through folktales. Thus they happened to be an
influential media in the past. This role of folktale must be
recognised and utilised. Steps should be taken to revitalise
this tradition. Let us say the stories and respond with an
immediate feedback so that they can survive longer in our
Acharya, Gopilal (2004). Bhutanese Folktales: From East and
the South. Thimphu: Pekhang.
Chakravarty,   S.   R.   (1998).   "Language   and   Literature   in
Bhutan,"  in  Ramakant  and  R.C   Mishra (eds.)   Bhutan:
Society and Polity. New Delhi: Indus Publishing Company.
Choden,   Kunzang  (1993).   Folk  Tales  of Bhutan.   Bangkok:
White Lotus.
 (1997). Tales of Yeti. Bangkok: White Lotus.
 (1997). Tales from Rural Bhutan. Thimphu.
    (2005).   The   Circle   of Karma.   New   Delhi:   Zubaan
Dorji,   Kinley   (2006).   "Media  in  Bhutan:   Now and  Then,"
Journal of Bhutan Studies, 14: 5-23.
Dorji,   Tandin    (2002).    "Folktale    Narration:    A   Retreating
Tradition," Journal of Bhutan Studies, Vol. 6.
Evans,  Steve (2007).  "An Analysis of 'Meme Haylay Haylay
and His Turquoise' using Joseph CampbeU's model of the
Hero's Journey," Journal of Bhutan Studies, Vol.15.
     (2007).    "Preserving    Consciousness    of   a    Nation:
Promoting 'Gross National Happiness' in Bhutan Through
Her Rich Oral Tradition," Journal of Bhutan Studies, Vol.
 (2001). "Tears and Laughter: Promoting Gross National
Happiness Through the Rich Oral Traditions and Heritage
of Bhutan" in Karma Ura and Karma Galay (eds.) Gross
National Happiness and Development. Thimphu: The
Centre for Bhutan Studies.
Kapur, Kusum (1991). Tales from Dragon Country. New Delhi:
Mosaic Books.
Penjore, Dorji (2005). "Folktale and Education: Role of
Bhutanese  Folktale in Value Transmission,"  Journal of
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Bhutan Studies Vol. 12.
  (2007).  "Folktale and Education:   Role of Bhutanese
Folktale     in     Value     Transmission,"      in     Rethinking
Development: Proceedings of Second International seminar
on   Gross   National   Happiness.    Thimphu:    Centre   for
Bhutan Studies, pp. 258-277.
Phuntsho, Karma. (2005). "On the Two Ways of Learning in
Bhutan," Journal of Bhutan Studies, Vol. 2, no. 2.
Pommaret, Francoise (2000). "Recent Bhutanese Scholarship
in History and Anthropology," Journal of Bhutan Studies,
Vol. 2, no. 2,
   (2006).   "Dances in Bhutan:  A Traditional Media of
Information," Journal of Bhutan Studies, Vol. 14.
Teaching Learning to Be: Suggested Value Education Lessons
(2001).    Paro:    Curriculum    and    Professional    Support
Wangmo, Kinley (1997). Tales from Rural Bhutan. Thimphu


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