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Folktales and Education: Role of Bhutanese Folktales in Value Transmission Dorji Penjore between 2005-06 and 2005-08

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 Folktales and Education: Role of Bhutanese Folktales in Value
Dorji Penjore*
This paper begins by introducing Meme 'Haylain' Happiness, a
concept drawn from a Bhutanese folktale about an old man, Meme
Haylay Haylay, who exchanges his turquoise for a song, and happily
returns home singing the song. It challenges whether we are ready to
pursue happiness in our daily life like Meme Haylay Haylay who had
realized that more happiness would flow from singing a song than
from guarding a turquoise. The paper then explores the roles of
Bhutanese oral tradition in educating children who could not avail
either monastic or modern education. It argues that modern education,
which mostly provides secular, pluralistic, egalitarian and market
values necessary for running economic, political and legal institutions
and machineries of modern nation-state is deficient in many ways;
and it is the oral tradition which fills this gap by inculcating universal,
humanistic and Bhutanese values. It also discusses the main
junctions of the Bhutanese folktales which are of trivial events, but
embedded with multi-layered meanings of great moral and social
importance, with experiences drawn from daily life. The common
motifs of the tales are chosen to relate them to daily realities of
Bhutanese people. Lastly, this paper comes out with some policy
recommendations to promote, document, disseminate and study the
Bhutanese folktales through mass media such as press, radio, TV,
internet, and film industry. These are the surest means of preserving
and promoting our unique culture.
What is Meme 'Haylain' Happiness?
One of the most popular Bhutanese folktales, "Meme Haylay
Haylay and his Turquoise" provides secret on how to find
human happiness, or foolishness, as most would argue.
Researcher, The Centre for Bhutan Studies, Thimphu
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Meme Haylay Haylay and his Turquoise1
Once upon a time there lived a poor old man called Meme
Haylay Haylay. One day he went to dig a meadow. As he
uprooted a stand of Artemisia plants with a great effort, he
found a big, round, shinning turquoise. The turquoise was
quite heavy that a man of his age could hardly lift it with one
hand. He stopped digging and went home, carrying the heavy
stone in his cane basket.
On the way he met a man leading a horse with a rope.
"Where are you going, Meme Haylay Haylay?" the horse-man
"Don't say Meme Haylay Haylay any more," the old man
replied. "Meme's fortune is burning today. As I was digging a
meadow, I found this turquoise."
Before the horseman saw the jewel or uttered a word, Meme
Haylay Haylay threw a proposal, "Will you exchange your
horse with the stone?"
The horseman stood speechless, for who in the world would
barter a turquoise for a horse.
"Don't joke, Meme Haylay! Your turquoise is priceless,
whereas my horse is worthless," the horseman replied.
"Priceless or worthless, you talk too much. Let there be a less
talk. If you are for the trade, take this stone and hand over
the rope," Meme Haylay Haylay said.
The horseman lost no time in throwing the rope and went his
way carrying the stone, feeling happy. Meme Haylay Haylay
went his way, feeling happier than the horseman.
That was not the end of Meme Haylay Haylay's business.
On the way, he met a man with an ox and exchanged his
horse with the ox. He then bartered his ox for a sheep, the
sheep for a goat, and the goat for a rooster.
 Role of Bhutanese Folktales in Value Transmission
He last met a man singing a melodious song. Tears of
happiness swelled Meme Halay's eyes as he listened to the
song. "I feel so happy by merely hearing the song. How
happier I would feel if only I know how to sing myself," he
"Where are you going, Meme Haylay Haylay?" the songman
asked him.
"Today, don't say Meme Haylay Haylay," the old man replied.
"Meme's fortune is now burning. As I was digging a meadow, I
found a turquoise. I exchanged it for a horse, the horse for an
ox, the ox for a sheep, the sheep for a goat, and the goat for
this rooster. Take this rooster and teach me how to sing. I like
your melody so much."
After learning the song, Meme Haylay Haylay parted with his
rooster and went home singing the song, feeling the happiest,
richest and most successful businessman in the world.
The audience's reactions to the above story are mixed since
there are many versions of the story. Variations resulted more
from how people preferred to interpret and less from their
frail memory. Two versions differ sharply in how they end. In
the above version, Meme Haylay Haylay returns home singing
a song, feeling so happy. In the second version, Meme Haylay
Haylay meets a man playing a flute and exchanges his rooster
with the flute. While playing the flute, he steps on a pad of
fresh cow dung and slips. When he gets up to his feet, he
discovers he can no more play the flute. He ends up
possessing nothing. In another version, he learns how to sing
a song and forgets it after skidding over a cow dung.
Whatever the versions, Meme Haylay Haylay, like the great
Buddhist saint Drukpa Kunley, satirizes the conventional
business practice of profit-making. Drukpa Kunley attacked
the "abuse of authority by privileged hierarchs, exploitation of
the ignorant and superstitious, preoccupation with peripheral
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
religious concerns, wealth, and fame, and many other forms
of 'spiritual materialism;"' he worked "to free the human
spirit's divinity from slavery to religious institutions, and
moral and ritual conventions," believing that "total
renunciation and detachment, including detachment from
...religious institutions, were necessary conditions for perfect
happiness," and used "sex," "outrage and laughter" etc as "the
skillful means" "to shock people out of their lethargic
acceptance of the neurotic status quo of their minds, and out
of their attachment to conventional forms."2
Meme Haylay Haylay makes a mockery of his barter
counterparts — horseman, ox-man, sheep-man, goat-man,
rooster-man, and song-man — who bartered their happiness
for material possession. Perhaps Meme Haylay understood
the futility of finding happiness through wealth accumulation,
and that more happiness would flow from singing a song than
from guarding a turquoise. But most people portray Meme
Haylay Haylay as a foolish man who is not to be emulated. A
bad business is often compared to Meme Haylay Haylay's
business, and a common sense holds that one should not
emulate Meme Haylay Haylay. When the tale ends, audience
has to make a choice between Meme Haylay Haylay and his
barter counterparts. The great Buddhist master, Shantideva
The goal of every act is happiness itself,
Though, even with great wealth, it's rarely found.3
Individuals and families, societies and nations, dreams and
visions, systems and institutions, ideas and ideals can be
divided into two camps: Meme Haylay Haylay and his barter
counterparts. Are we winning like Meme Haylay Haylay, or
squandering like his barter counterparts in pursuing
happiness? In which camp do we belong? Are we ready to
adopt the Meme 'Haylain' (my word) way of finding happiness
in our daily life? But Meme Haylay Haylay is an alien, a
misfit; everywhere outnumbered as in the story!
 Role of Bhutanese Folktales in Value Transmission
Introduction to traditional education
Bhutan is still an oral society. This is not surprising since "up
to 70 per cent of the world's peoples are oral cultures,
meaning they require or prefer to communicate through
narrative presentations, storytelling and other traditional art
forms."4 Modern education was introduced only in the late
1950s, and before that, 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.5 But folk composition, narration, acquisition,
memorization, and the daily use of indigenous knowledge
through oral mediums have been a continuous process. It is
the today's equivalent of universal education. Children who
could not avail either monastic or modern education for
various reasons have always resorted to the traditional
education system. Farmers use the oral tradition to express
their ideas, values, norms, beliefs, superstition, culture (or
indigenous knowledge system), and to pass them onto their
children orally, and through active participation in and
passive observation of both formal and customary socio-
religious, cultural and political institutions and events. They
have used this indigenous learning system to acquire and
acquaint with the local knowledge required for interactions
with man, nature and spirits.
Bhutan's success in education is mostly attributed to modern
education system. The contributions made by family and
communities are seldom mentioned because un-priced family
services are always taken for granted. Every child has a
family, but students share one school. A family supplements
for any deficiency that any elder family members discover in
children's values and characters through use of proverbs and
folktale morals as pedagogic tools. Parental influence starts
from the day a child is born, while school comes later when
foundations have already been laid. Most rural households
have one or more family members in bureaucracy, business
or schools. But the secular, pluralistic and egalitarian values
(understood    synonymously    with    modern    values)     they
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represent are mostly out of place in villages. These values,
which are necessary for effective running of economic,
political and legal institutions and machineries of modern
nation-state, do not evolve from within; they are imposed
from without, without much relevance in their daily life.
Modern education is limited to imparting cognitive, linguistic
and vocational skills, and promoting pluralistic and
egalitarian values. It rarely transmits important cultural and
social values, knowledge, and behaviours. Indigenous
knowledge systems of families and communities, age-old
institutions and rituals that punctuate life cycle richly
supplement deficiencies of the modern system. Most
Bhutanese children grow up hearing folktales from their
grandparents or parents, and this rich oral tradition is
instrumental in shaping their personality in their formative
stages. Modern education may succeed in creating an efficient
machine out of man for the market, but in creating value-
based, socially responsible and civil individuals, oral tradition
plays an important role. Certainly there is a potential for
schools to be neutral institutions in promoting universal and
humanistic values in overcoming serious incongruities
between what is taught and what is socially and politically
valued. But the market has always enjoyed the upper hand.
Similarly, rural oral societies have played a big role in
preserving our unique culture. In doing so, people do not
make concerted effort; they do it by merely living their daily
life. Any action, work or participation in daily life is equivalent
to living the culture, and more so the transmission of the
culture and values to the next generation.
Functions of Bhutanese folktales
Some of the Bhutanese oral literary genres are srung
(folktale), glu gzhas (folksong), dpe gtam or dpye gtam
(proverb), gtam rgyud (legend), bio ze (ballad), tsang mo
(western equivalent of quatrain?), gab tshig (riddle), dgod bra
(joke). Folktale is the most popular and widely available folk
literary genre.  Known as srung,  trun,  krun etc in different
 Role of Bhutanese Folktales in Value Transmission
dialects, village elders are repositories of folktales of different
versions. They have perfected the art and committed to
memory by repeated narrations to their children, close
relatives or other children.
Bhutanese folktales exist for life's sake, serving multi-purpose
functions for individual, family, society and community.
There are multi-layered meanings embedded in tales. Most
folktales are of trivial events, but of great moral and social
importance, with experiences drawn from their daily life such
as farming, fishing, hunting, religion and rituals, cattle
business, adventures with domestic and wild animals,
interactions with human companions and spirits such as
ghosts, life and death battles with man-eating demons,
business journey to other villages, conflict and conciliation
with rulers etc.
This paper discusses four main functions of the Bhutanese
folktales - their roles and functions in children's education,
entertainment and communication, as repository of history,
language, culture and values, and their spiritual functions.
Some common features and their relation to every day life of
the people are discussed next.
1. Education of children
Of many functions, the most important one is the education
of children. Poet Schiller wrote "Deeper meaning resides in
the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in any truth
that is taught in life." The Bhutanese extended family system
functions as a school where grandparents, parents, elder and
other family members educate and prepare children for their
adult life. Folktales serve as an inherent vehicle for
intergenerational communication that prepares and assigns
roles and responsibilities to different generations in their
communities. Values are acquired through maintenance of
and direct participation in social, cultural and religious
institutions. Education is not only acquired, but lived
through. They are more of pedagogic devices and less of
literary pieces, deliberately composed to inculcate values into
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
children with no formal instruction on what and what not to
do. Distilled folk wisdoms like proverbs for example validate
values and beliefs, which are reinforced practically in adult
life. Folktales make children imagine and create their own
mental pictures, and this mental exercise leaves deepest
impression on them, imprinting folktales' rightful place in
their imagination. Folk wit and wisdom are not taught
through formal arrangement, but through direct observation
in earlier stage and direct participation in events themselves.
To children, entertainment is the end, and values inculcation
comes as a by-product without their being aware of it. To
parents, value transmission is the main objective and the
entertainment is a by-product. Scolding parents distill
folktales into proverbs and use them to guide children's
behaviours, thoughts and actions.
Listening to folktales momentarily transports the audience,
mostly children, to a different world; later reflection connects
the folktale world to the real world that they would soon face
as adults. It is when they first understand and link these two
worlds that values so imparted are used in their interactions
with man, animals, physical world and spirits. These
wisdoms are not ordinary one; they have been time-tested
through many years of interaction or experience with the real
world. The morals of tales are packaged into proverbs. "A
confederation of frogs can kill even a tiger" for example is a
distillation of the folktale, "Come on Acho Tag! Jump!"6
Stories express moral or practical wisdom and provide an
insight into the adult world. It is common for village elders to
quote from some well-known folktales: like in the tales, you
will end up getting nothing, or don't behave like a tiger in the
tale. Child is exposed to knowledge, experiences, morals,
customs, rituals and belief that they are supposed to live
through as adults through tales. Tales also introduce social
customs, institutions, and organizations, and their processes.
Characters that do not observe some basic social values are
punished. Some of the values are the respect for ruler,
parent, senior, superior, master, old person, teacher, lama,
monk   etc.;   help   or   advice   for   children,   subject,   junior,
 Role of Bhutanese Folktales in Value Transmission
subordinate, disciple, student etc. One popular lozey provides
clue to some important social values:
My friends who have been companions since I was a child
Do not be remiss, please listen to me once;
Before I return from the east to the west
These are the things you have to keep in your minds:
First, to serve the lords who are above
Second, to perceive the adversity of subjects who are below
Third, in between, for oneself to be successful
You must strive carefully, my friends.7
When old people stay at homes with children during the day,
the former nursing the latter, and often narrating folktales,
parents and adults are out in the fields. But folktale narration
is the replication of what elders are experiencing in field even
as tales are being told. Children will soon face the life
portrayed in stories as adult. This prepares children for adult
life. It warns about the danger of wild animals, and cultivates
universal values such as compassion, generosity, and
honesty, while disapproving attributes such as cruelty, greed
and dishonesty. Usually narrated in late evening or before
children go to sleep, the timing is appropriate since plots or
memorable scenes often come in dreams. This helps in
drawing lessons from tales. It is also a sleeping pill.
2. Entertainment and communication
The images of the world portrayed in folklore are often harsh
and dangerous so that children learn lessons. There was a
little space for interaction between two communities
separated by swift rivers and high rugged mountains. Various
languages and dialects were another barrier for easy
communication. The forms of entertainments are limited to
playing traditional sports like archery, khuru, degor, kap etc
on special days such as losar (new year) and duchen (sacred
Buddhist days). Women were mere audiences without any
traditional sports, except for singing and dancing folksongs.
And worse, there was no institutionalized or formal sport for
children.   In   absence   of  any   form   of  sports   and  games,
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
folktales come as great relief for entertainment-hungry
The oral tradition ("the use of words in highly stylized form")
acts as communication tools and strategies for social
interactions, playing an important role in social life.
Communication is not restricted to surviving generations;
future generations can communicate with the dead through
folktales despite it being a one-way communication.
3. Repositories of culture and values
Oral tradition is a source of the country's culture and values,
providing insights into history of villages or regions. As
society that has just evolved from an oral medium, and when
a literary medium is in its infancy, information on different
villages and people, their habits, norms, beliefs, traditions
(ethnography etc) still exist in oral form, and they have been
never committed to writing. For example, it is impossible to
conduct a research of a particular village without assistance
of goshey, nyenshey, and lapshey (village elders who can
understand, listen, and converse). Folktales help in instilling
a sense of belonging, patriotism and identity to their village.
The settings and plots are designed to increase children's
awareness and diversity of the culture and geography.
According to William P. Murphy "the folk were seen as the
repository of the old customs and manners of an earlier stage
in the nation's history, reflecting the unique spirit and genius
of the nation."8
4. Folktales and spiritual needs
Folktales also serve the spiritual needs of the people. Some
Bhutanese folktales are similar to those in neighbouring
countries, mostly Tibet, India, and Nepal. Some definite
influences came from the Jataka Tales - stories depicting life
and activities of previous incarnations of Lord Buddha. These
stories arrived in the country through Buddhist texts, school
textbooks, pilgrims and travelers, mostly the Tibetans. They
are transmitted to people by monks and lay monks. These
 Role of Bhutanese Folktales in Value Transmission
tales explaining sublime Buddhist teachings through parable
are told and retold to farmers.
Features of Bhutanese Folktales
1. Society and social structure
Bhutanese folktales provide clues to the ancient society,
social hierarchy, organizations and their processes. It is
peopled with characters like good and bad kings and queens,
princess and princesses, ministers, lamas, rich people,
businessmen, traders, astrologers, monks, the poor. These
characters, including the world of animals and spirits, engage
in social, political and economic competitions. 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, 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. They are normally given
protagonists' roles.
The social system is not rigid since any clever and kind-
hearted poor boy or orphan ends up becoming a king. The
king is as much a subject of ridicule as he is of respect.
Everyone aims to become a king, and it is not difficult given
the stupidity and foolishness of a cruel king when placed face
to face with a shrewd and clever protagonist. So the kings
together with rich people are often reflected in bad light. A
poor boy is seen waking up inside dzong surrounded by
servants and later crowned king.
In other societies, oral literary forms serve manipulative
functions of privileged social groups whereby plots of folktales
usually authenticate their privileges. This is not true in
Bhutanese context where folktales are really folk, peasant, or
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
farmers' tales. If every folktale upholds interests of respective
vested groups, then existing Bhutanese folktales serve
farmers' interests. The king and the rich people normally
represent bad qualities in contrast to ordinary people, the
poor and orphans who all represent good qualities. At least in
folktales, the social, economic and political hierarchy is
overturned or subverted. The poor boy becomes the king, and
the king is reduced to an ordinary subject in disgrace; and
worse, the king meets a cruel death.
2. Farming tseri and mothers' trick to transform lazy sons
In many folktales, farming is the common motif, and tseri
(shifting cultivation?) the main activity. The wetland is never
mentioned. This shows that tseri cultivation must have been
a dominant farming activity in ancient times when there was
no modern irrigation system to convert dry land into rice
terraces. Tseri cultivation was widely practiced until it was
banned in the early 1990s for environmental reasons. In the
stories, a lazy-boy-turned hero displays his strength and
skills in clearing forests; old man and woman go to clear
forests for tseri cultivation and adventure with wild animals
follows. Crops cultivated are rice grown in dry land, millet,
barley, buckwheat, and maize. In some stories the types of
crops grown are not specified. Clearing forests is considered a
difficult job, and so a lazy boy is deaf to his mother's advice to
clear the forests. For instance, in 'The Lazy Boy and the
Fish"9 the king plans to take the lazy boy's wife as his queen.
She is not an ordinary girl; she comes out of a fish. The king
orders the boy to clear forests to sow one uwa10 of millet.
Usually a man could clear forest to sow one phuwa of millet,
and thousands phuwa11 equals one uwa.
Another common motif is the trick mother use to transform
her lazy son into hardworking man or hero. As it is often the
case in farming society, young boys avoid the twin tasks of
farm work and load carrying. This attitude forebodes ill for
the family where human labour is the backbone of livelihood.
Men, more than women, are the main source of farm labour.
Lazy son is not only degrading to person himself, but also to
 Role of Bhutanese Folktales in Value Transmission
family and society. The boy, a protagonist, is too lazy even to
eat breakfast cooked by his mother, forget getting up early;
layers of dirt cover his skin; and his legs are red after sitting
near hearth most of the time. The mother's advice and
scolding are compared to pouring water on stones. One
morning, the mother comes out with an idea: when the boy is
sleeping, she keeps a dried beef at the attic. As smell of beef
draws many cawing crows, she wakes him and literally forces
him to climb up to the attic. The boy wakes up lazily and
finds meat in the attic. He takes the meat and exclaims,
"Mother, I found this!" The mother replies that if he can find
meat in the attic, he can find anything outside. She packages
advice through a popular proverb: it is better to get up than to
sleep; it is even better to go out than to merely get up. But the
boy is still lazy. Next morning, the mother keeps butter
outside the house and wakes him up, "Wake up! Wake up! Go
and see why dogs are barking and fighting outside. The boy
goes out and finds butter. From that moment, the boy begins
to believe his mother and himself.
The next day is a different day for him. He begins to work,
clear forests, burn it, plough land, sow seeds, and reap
enough grain to last for one life time. He then leaves his home
and mother in search of adventure. During his journey to
unknown destination, he does impossible task of subduing
demons, defeating other heroes, and solving obstacles and
problems faced by villages or communities. The story often
ends with the boy becoming the king. The moral of such story
strikes young men and women who are by nature not hardworking and instill a sense of self-belief It holds the common
wisdom that even a lazy boy is capable of becoming a rich, a
hero or a king. The boys shake off their laziness after hearing
the story.
3. Characters in disguise
One interesting characteristic of Bhutanese folktales is roles
played by disguised characters in plot development.
Characters are disguised as fish, dog, frog, deer-bone or bird.
They usually appear to heighten the plight or suffering of
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
protagonists' who are already going through difficult time.
But protagonists never reject or abandon them; good or bad,
they take good care of and accompany them. Plot develops
into this template: when protagonists are away, disguised
characters show their real identities and begin to clean
house, make fire, and cook delicious food. Handsome man
appears out of frog, beautiful girl out of fish, lovely son out of
bird etc. Suspicious protagonists pretend to go out to work
and stay hiding inside the house. Assuming that protagonists
are out, disguised characters show their real identities in the
form man, son or girl. They leave their body skins, feathers or
scales behind. Protagonists usually come out of hiding and
begin to burn the body skins, scales or feathers much against
others' protests. It is followed by Why did you play this trick
to me?' The other replies, "It isn't the right time to burn it;
you'll suffer for this. Since you have anyway burned it, throw
its ashes all over the house and fields." Ashes do wonder.
Next morning, they wake up inside a dzong and ashes get
transformed into gold, silver, clothes, grains, meat, pork,
cattle, yaks, horses, sheep, goats, chicken. They either marry
or live together happily thereafter. Protagonists had the
potential to become more powerful and richer, but their
hubris spoils them. It was a deliberate plot. The disguised
characters while moving the plot provide a valuable lesson
that an adversity is a disguised prosperity. That whatever be
the present pains resulting from the farm work, good times lie
ahead. This lessons strike deep inside childhood memory in
their formative stage, especially children of poor people and
5. Journey for cattle business
The Bhutanese term for rich is phyug po, meaning 'the one
with cattle'. As in the past, cattle are the main form of wealth
even today in rural Bhutan. In folktales, cattle business is
one common motif. Plots are woven around protagonists'
journey to buy cattle in other lands. Normally, two
characters, mostly the rich and the poor man's sons,
representing two opposite values, travel to distant lands.
During the journey the rich man's son tries to deceive his
 Role of Bhutanese Folktales in Value Transmission
poor friend. First he attempts to get his money, and later to
get his cattle even at the extent of killing his friend. But he
himself gets deceived in the end. The values embodied by the
rich man's son are negated as he lands in trouble. He is
either transformed physically into an ugly man or returns
home as a poor man. On the other hand, values represented
by the poor man's son always enjoy the upper hand. To
validate the poor boy's values, even circumstances are made
to favour him. This only confirms the Bhutanese sayings - as
you blow the fire in one direction, the fire burns your beards
from opposite direction. Normally, they make a bet. The poor
man's son either wins the bet or gets all the rich man's
money, or rich man's son's cattle and returns home with a
hundreds of cattle. The honest poor man's son becomes rich
without much effort. While it is every human's aspiration to
become rich, becoming rich through socially unacceptable
means is rejected. There is no honour and glory in getting
rich through deception and falsity.
In many folktales, tshomen or king or queen of tshomen
invites protagonists to reciprocate their gratitude for saving
their sons or daughters from humans. They are awarded with
a norbu - wish-fulfilling jewel. After acquiring the jewel,
protagonists never wish for palaces and wealth to equal the
kings. If they want, the whole world could have been at their
command: they could raise army and conquer the whole
world. But that is not what parents want to teach their
children. In one story, the protagonist refuses to accept even
the wish fulfilling jewel; he rather wants to be with his
companions, the dog and cat. In 'The Statue which Spoke" an
avaricious astrologer who lives on the goodwill of his rich
neighbour tries to deceive her into getting her jewel, and as a
consequence, he meets a tragic death.
In the stories how rich man became rich is not shown. He
was already rich when the story began. The poor struggle for
a simple living by digging the land, growing crops and
guarding it from wild animals. But how the rich man became
rich   is   indirectly   shown   through   his   son   who   always
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represents bad qualities like wickedness, avariciousness,
cruelty, deception, and dishonesty. These qualities made
them rich. The poor becomes rich through right reasons, good
causes, and justifiable means.
6. Klu, ghosts, spirits, talking trees
The Bhutanese interaction with the outside world is three-
dimensional. Beside humans, physical entities like wildlife
and invisible forces play an equally important role. In
folktales, humans interact more with animals, trees and
spirits like ghosts than human counterparts. This can be
easily understood since rivers and mountains that separate
different communities limit human interactions with other
communities. There is a strong belief in the forces of chosung
(protecting deity), existence of migoe (yeti), tshomen (mermaid
or water spirit), bjachung (mythical bird), druk (dragon),
sondre (malevolent spirits of the living), shindre (malevolent
spirits of the dead) etc. There is communication between man
and a pantheon of deities and spirits of both Buddhist and
pre-Buddhist faith, Bon, who are considered as forces behind
prosperity, well-being, good fortune (bde legs); long life (tshe
ring); health (nad med) free of epidemics; riches (longs spyod)
and bumper harvests free of famine; timely rainfall free of
drought; and elimination of pernicious influence (gdon) that
leads to poverty, illness, early death, epidemics, famine, and
drought. Folktales reinforce the belief in these forces.
The protagonists' adventure with animal is also a common
motif, and animals play a big part in plot development. That
animals, rocks and trees cannot speak but only in folktales
draw children's attention, and helps in remembering and
understanding stories clearly. Animal characters include
domestic animals like cow, ox sheep, goat, chicken, cat, dog,
and rat, and wild animals like snakes, deer, barking deer,
porcupine, monkey, langur, sparrow, crow, bear, tiger,
leopard, fish, frog, hoopoe etc.
 Role of Bhutanese Folktales in Value Transmission
One interesting mythical-animal character is a migoe or yeti,
abominable snowman. Rational minds reject its existence, but
it is a common sense reality for Bhutanese farmers. Their
encounters are not only confined to Bhutanese stories,12 but
also in Bhutanese mountains. In one story,13 the yeti abducts
a woman as his wife and even bears the beast's children.
In one story,14 a man leaves his pregnant wife home and goes
to hunt in forests with his friend. At night, he decides to take
a shelter beneath a tree and asks the tree spirit to give him
refuge and protect him from any harm. His friend does not
bother to ask for the shelter and sleeps beneath another tree.
At night, the man hears different tree spirits talking: "A child
is born in a village; it's time to write the child's fate and then
feast on the family offerings. Aren't you going?" one spirit
asks. "I can't go; I have a guest to protect him tonight," his
host tree replies. After some time spirits return and his host
tree spirit asks, "What offering did the family make? And
what fate did you write to the child?" "It was a waste of time.
The poor mother is alone, and there is no offering at all.
Angry, we wrote the child's destiny that he should be killed by
a tiger," the spirits reply. Soon, the man realizes that the poor
mother must be his wife. He rushes home and finds that he
was right. As allotted, a tiger kills the boy. As asked, the tree
spirit saves him, while a host of malevolent spirits kills his
friend for not seeking a refuge of the tree spirit.
The story teaches that the physical world does not belong to
the man alone, and every tree, water body, rock, cliff, and
mountain have owner. Spirits take care of trees, which are
important to humans, while spirits draw their partial
livelihood from human's offerings made during birth, sickness
and death rituals and rites. There is a mutual
interdependence between physical world and man.
Policy Recommendations
The objective of preserving and promoting Bhutanese culture
features in most past five-year development plans long before
the   cable  TV,   that  triggered  an  urban  discussion  on  its
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
negative impacts on children, was introduced in 1999.
Traditional culture, the one that the government is promoting
to a few sections of urban populations in Thimphu and urban
areas through its various initiatives is largely intact in rural
villages even without government's effort. One can take
comfort that about two-thirds of Bhutanese populations are
farmers. But this demographic strength cannot withstand
forces of change as tentacles of motor roads clasp even
baeyul, the hidden lands. For example the government was
deaf to genuine community complaints that the Nangar-Ura
by-pass motor road would destroy some sacred nyes which
are of national importance. Deprivation of modern
development services such as road and electricity was a
blessing in disguise despite people having to transport
backbreaking iron, steel, cement and other commodities on
draught animals and on their backs. Electricity, while
illuminating village nights, also brings in TV and host of other
gadgets that are far removed from genuine needs of people.
But we have desperately failed to use the strength and
wisdom of the urban populace and promote them in schools
through curriculum and to larger population through mass
media like TV, radio, press and film. This failure can be
largely attributed to the government and public failure to
recognize and appreciate values and wisdom represented by
the people. The concept of 'folk', meaning farmers and rural
peasant groups, has been assigned a lesser, peripheral
importance without much relevance. This paper presents
three concrete policy recommendations for bringing our rich
oral traditions into the centre of our life.
1. Archiving and documentation
Walls of rural Bhutanese houses may have once echoed and
re-echoed with folktales narrations, but frequency of
narrations today has become ever fainter and lesser. There is
a huge gap between the original folktales reservoir, what can
be narrated today, and what was documented or committed
to writing. School children take lesser interests in listening to
parents' stories when they have worldwide choices of better
 Role of Bhutanese Folktales in Value Transmission
stories to listen, read and watch in textbooks and mass
media. So people's ability to recollect or narrate folktales is
under threat as there are lesser occasions to narrate them.
Death of any village elder is a loss of one important
irreplaceable heritage, and one important task ahead is to
document all available folktales and knowledge that exist in
oral form. A few books on Bhutanese folklore have been
published not through government's initiative or support, but
through effort and initiative of private individuals.15 One can
find one or two copies of these books in every schools library
amidst heaps and shelves of folktales books from other
countries. The government must initiate a major programme
to document and archive existing folktales, folksongs,
proverbs, myth, legends etc.
2. Promotion through mass media
Mere archival or documentation is of less use if they are not
promoted through various mediums. Communication media
can be exploited to educate and disseminate folktales. There
is a tremendous potential to reach and reorient public about
richness of Bhutanese folklore given the proven efficiency of
mass media like TV in commercial advertisement.
For wider Bhutanese audience, no media is more effective
than radio. National radio service, Bhutan Broadcasting
Service Corporation (BBSC) enjoys a broader and larger
audience. Broadcast in four languages, Dzongkha,
Sharchopkha, Lhotshamkha and English, it is popular
because of its affordability, reliability and effectiveness.
Different ministries and departments have been using it to
educate farmers on farm techniques, health, hygiene,
sanitation, family planning, child immunization, and
STD/AIDS to the public. BBS could develop on the existing
story narration radio programme (mostly foreign stories) by
including Bhutanese tales. Similarly, there is another story
programme in Sharchop service where stories narrated by
farmers are broadcast. It is a popular programme. Kuensel, a
bi-weekly national newspaper, presently has a literary page
for children consisting of poetry, short stories (fiction), essays,
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
reflections etc mostly contributed by students. But Bhutanese
folktales do not have any space. Like Dzongkha edition of
Kuensel which publishes poetry, tsangmo and lozey. Kuensel
needs to publish folktales and other oral literary genre for
wider readership.
BBS-TV is widely blamed for its inadequate national
programmes to balance foreign programmes telecast in more
than 50 foreign channels. The public demand here is not to
rival foreign programmes with similar forms and contents,
but to produce unique programmes about the Bhutanese
people, by the Bhutanese producers, for the Bhutanese
audience, something that cannot be produced by other TV
channels. This initiative, besides promoting folklore and
inculcating values, will help fight intrusion of foreign
programmes into Bhutanese homes.
If Bhutanese film industry is guilty of one sin, it is the failure
to adopt and adapt oral traditions, and rampant borrowing of
foreign forms, themes and stories. The nascent film industry
is a servant of the market which is largely dictated by
commercial interests and tastes of urban audience who are
exposed to Bollywood and Hollywood films. Films are
produced for literate urban audience, and producers never
think of entertainment of rural population. There is a huge
potential for the Bhutanese film industry to raise its
standards and relevance by adopting and adapting timeless
stories from oral traditions. The first motion picture, "Gasa
Lamay Singye" is about a mediaeval historical true story
(folklore). It drew success solely from the story. Similarly,
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rimpoche's "Travellers and
Magicians", the first international Bhutanese feature film,
explored the theme from Bhutanese traditional story, and
drew parallel to the modern themes. There are many unique
themes and stories in folklore, lozey (ballad), myth, legends,
and namthars (hagiography) that are not yet listened to. For
example, The Ballad of Peme Tshewang Tashi16 can make a
great film, and so will Gelong Sumdar Tashi.17
 Role of Bhutanese Folktales in Value Transmission
Internet provides one efficient means of disseminating
Bhutanese folktales. Folktales of different countries can now
be accessed in the internet. Website should be encouraged to
post Bhutanese folktales; and interested individuals,
especially students, should be encouraged to document, and
posted in the web.
3. Incorporate it into curriculum
Including folktales in the curriculum is an important process
of cultural orientation of children as they grow and learn
away from homes. This helps in reinforcing whatever they
learn orally from parents at homes, and in clarifying notions
that parental education is irrelevant or relevant only in
villages, while those taught in schools are useful globally.
Schools are the right targets of folklore dissemination since
students who acquire secular, egalitarian, and market values
are the biggest agents of change. After they complete
education to join government service or business, their role as
parents and agents of change would be severely tested.
Vigorous enforcement of oral tradition in schools will help in
balancing modern values they acquire in schools.
But it does not mean folktales are not studied in schools.
English and Dzongkha textbooks taught in primary schools
have some space for folktales and stories. This is further
reinforced by the 'values education' initiated in the late 1990s
to provide holistic education. This initiative incorporates
values as "an integral part of teaching and learning like all
other areas of learning." Textbooks and teacher's manuals
have been developed to lielp teachers in schools to impart
values education explicitly to our youth," with a clear aim "to
realize our roles in imparting true values, become role
models, steer the young minds and show them the true
Bhutanese way of life," and "leave no room for misguided and
misinformed individuals in our country."18
For this paper, I have analyzed Teaching Learning To Be -
Suggested Values Education Lessons, Section I, a teaching
manual  for  imparting  values   education  to   students  from
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
classes PP to VIII. The manual has identified 25 values such
as "love for the family, friends and animals; obedience,
gratitude, friendliness, fairness, punctuality, responsibility,
honesty, and loyalty, personal hygiene (cleanliness),
obedience to parents and teachers, friendliness, thankfulness
to parents and teachers, love for plants, respect for teachers
and friends, love for friends, care of properties, respect for
friends and family, helpfulness, generosity, respect and
Table 1: Folktales and stories prescribed for value education lessons19
Love of the family
Untitled story (squirrel as
a pet)
Love of animals
Androcles and the Lion
Love for friends and
She Truly Loves
The Naughty Turtle
The Rats and The
The Three Dolls
Watch Your Company
The Dignity of Labour
(Story of George
The Monkey and the Fox
Why the Hippopotamus
has Tiny Tail
The Responsible Son
Dishonest Shopkeeper
The Truthful Cow
Honesty is the Best Policy
6, 7
The Ant and the Cricket
A Treasure Box
The Tale of a Rich Young
The Loyal Mongoose
The manual is deficient on following grounds:21
a. Story-telling methodology has been identified to impart 12
values. Out of 20 stories chosen to "show them the true
Bhutanese  way  of life"  and teach Bhutanese  values  and
 Role of Bhutanese Folktales in Value Transmission
morals, not one Bhutanese folktale is selected;
b. All folktales or stories are either from the west or India as if
Bhutan is bankrupt of stories. Besides Dasho Sherab Thaye's
Bhutanese folktales in Dzongkha compiled in the early 1980s,
there are a few compilations written in English, beginning
with Kunzang Choden's Folktales of Bhutan (1994). The above
manual was published only in 2001;
c. The fables or stories with animal characters like lion, turtie,
and hippopotamus etc have been chosen; the reality is these
animals are never seen by Bhutanese at the early age. The
animals like cat, dog, cow, horse, donkey etc would have been
more effective, and there are many Bhutanese tales with these
animal characters;
d. The first story is about a pet, squirrel. Squirrel is a wild animal
and it is very unnatural for children to consider squirrel as a
pet in Bhutanese houses;
e. Human characters like Mother Teresa (to teach the love for the
poor) and George Washington, the first US president (to teach
the dignity of labour) should have been replaced by Bhutanese
figures whom students know or are familiar with;
f. While all stories irrespective of their origins convey universal
values, they cannot fully inculcate Bhutanese values;
g. Stories have been segregated to impart particular value or
theme, while the reality is that most folktales weave around
many themes and values. Narrating or teaching folktales in
Dzongkha which integrates rural values have more value than
theme-specific stories;
h. The medium of instruction is English, forgetting that national
language Dzongkha or 19 or so regional dialects are values by
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
i. Imparting values like "love" for the family, friends, plants and
animals is limited in the sense that 'love' - a Christian concept
(popularized by Christmas and birth day celebrations) - is
different from Bhutanese concept of jamba and tsewa
(compassion and affection?);
j. Science will be more effective than folktales in promoting
cleanliness or hygiene;
k. Students should be made to narrate home-learnt folktales in
classes, and they should be lectured less. It should not be
taught, rather student should be rather made to enjoy,
focusing on value inculcation through entertainment, not on
1. There is no space for children's imagination if a teacher tells,
"today, our story is about the importance of respect for
family," and begins to narrate a theme-specific story.
[Bhutanese] grandfathers never spell themes or values; they let
values sink into grandchildren's minds as they grow. Values
are understood or learnt as they grow, unlike theme-specific
stories which are studied and tested in examination; and
m. Lastiy, there is no room to impart basic Buddhist values.
Thomey Sangpo's "Gyalsay Laglen" (37 Practices of
Bodhisattva) is taught in classes 9 and 10, but by then it is too
This paper concludes with a hope - HOPE - that folk wisdom
will find a small space in our school and life's curriculum
even as we enter the cyberspace.
 Role of Bhutanese Folktales in Value Transmission
CAPSD (2001). Teaching Learning To Be - Suggested Values
Education Lessons, Section I (Classes PP-VIII),
Thimphu: Curriculum and Professional Support
Division (CAPSD), Ministry of Education
E.Ojo Arewa and Allan Dundes, "Proverbs and the
Ethnography of Speaking Folklore", A Warner Modular
Publication, University of California, Berkley
Evans, A. Steven (2004). "Tears and Laughter: Promoting
Gross National Happiness Through the Rich Oral
Traditions and Heritage of Bhutan", in Gross National
Happiness and Development; Thimphu: The Centre for
Bhutan Studies, p. 637
Geden Rinchen (1996). 'gro ba'i mgon po chos rje kun dga'
legs pa'i rnam thar rgya mtsho'i snying po mthong ba
don ldan; Keith Dowman and Sonam Paljor translation
(2000), The Divine Madman: The Sublime Life and Songs
of Drukpa Kunley; illustrated by Lee Baarslag; Pilgrims
Publishing, Varanasi & Kathmandu
Jigmi Y. Thinley (1999). "Gross National Happiness and
Human Development - Searching for Common Ground",
in Gross National Happiness, 1999, Thimphu: the
Centre for Bhutan Studies; p.9
Murphy, William P "Oral Literature" in Annual Review of
Anthropology, Vol. 7 (1978), 113-136
Padma Tshewang,   et  al  (1995).   The  Treasure Revealer of
Bhutan: Pemalingpa, the Terma Tradition and its Critics,
Bibliotheca Himalayica Series III, Volume 8, Edited by
H.K. Kuloy, Kathmandu: EMR Publishing House
RGOB (2003). Education General Statistics 2003, Thimphu:
Planning and Policy Division, Ministry of Education
Shantideva. Bodhicharyavatara (byang chub sems dpa'i spyod
pa la jug pa). The Way of the Bodhisattva (1999),
Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group,
Boston: Shambhala
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
1 This is an abridged story.
2 Dowman, Keith (2000)
3 Shantideva "Bodhicharyavatara" (Vigilance, No. 77, p.73)
4 A. Steven Evans. "Tears and Laughter: Promoting Gross National
Happiness through the Rich Oral Traditions and Heritage of
Bhutan", in "Gross National Happiness and Development", the
Centre for Bhutan Studies, 2004; p. 637.
5 There are two parallel monastic education systems. The first one is
the formal one provided by the central monk body (dratshang) at the
national level, and the second one is centered around individual
Buddhist lamas with some lay disciples (gomchen) at local level,
mostly in the east and central Bhutan. Monastic system catered
mainly to the study of the five major sciences (rig gnas che ba Inga):
astrology (rtsis), poetics (snyan ngag) metaphor or synonymies
(mngon brjod), metre (sdeb sbyor) and drama (zlos gar); and the five
minor sciences (rig gnas chung ba Inga): craft (bzo), medicine (gso
ba), sound (sgra), logic (tshad ma), philosophy (nang don rigpa).
6 Dorji Penjore "Was it a Yeti or a Deity?" (forthcoming 2005).
7 Karma Ura (trans.) "The Ballad of Pemi Tshewang Tashi - A Wind
Borne Feather" 1996, p.32-34
8 "Oral Literature" in Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 7 (1978),
9 Dorji Penjore, Was it a Yeti or a Deity? (Forthcoming, 2005.)
10 Uwa is a huge cane container used for storing grains.
It is a container for measuring grains.
 Role of Bhutanese Folktales in Value Transmission
12 Kunzang Choden's Bhutanese Tales of Yeti (1997) is solely about
yeti stories.
13 Dorji Penjore, Shenje's Horns (draft)
14 Ibid.
is Folktales of Bhutan (1994) and Bhutanese Tales of Yeti (1997) by
Kunzang Choden, Tales from Rural Bhutan (1997) by Kinley
Wangmo, Folk Tales of Bhutan (1998) by Rita Thomas, Talisman of
Good Fortune and Other Stories from Rural Bhutan (2002) by Rinzin
Rinzin, Heard from Grandparents (2002) by Drugyal Higher
Secondary School Literary Club, Bhutanese Folk Tales - From the
East & the South - (2004) by Gopilal Acharya. Sonam Kinga's
Speaking Statues, Flying Rocks (2005) documented various
Bhutanese myths, beliefs, and history based on oral sources.
16 The ballad was beautifully translated into English by Mr. Karma
Ura. See, Ura's "The Ballad of Pemi Tshewang Tashi - a wind borne
feather" (1996).
17 See Sonam Kinga's English translation of the lozey, "Gelong
Sumdar Tashi - Songs of Sorrow" (1998)
is CAPSD (2001)
19 Teaching Learning To Be - Suggested Values Education Lessons,
Section I (Classes PP-VIII), Curriculum and Professional Support
Division, Education Department (Provisional Editions, 2001). I am
grateful to Mr. Sonam Kinga for referring me to this book.
20 Pre-primary
21 I am grateful to Sonam Kinga, a graduate student at Kyoto
University, Japan for his comments especially in values and general


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