On earth as it is in heaven

As impressionable young monks in a remote part of Bhutan have discovered, favourable conditions and environment can make all the difference.

2)	Nima Wangchuk, 12, (head sticking out of the railings) enjoys spending time with his friends in the monastic school

19 June 2018

Samkhar village, Trashigang, Bhutan, 23 November 2017 —On a warm October afternoon in Samkhar Monastic School, a few kilometers uphill from the main motor road in Trashigang, Nima Wangchuk, (12) sits on a wooden bench soaking in the sun. Watching other young monks run around on the small football pitch below, he recollects his past.

“I came here in 2015, a year after my father passed away,” he begins. “My parents had separated before that and my mother remarried.”

At a glance, Nima Wangchuk appears an ordinary 12 year-old. A few minutes into the conversation, however, it becomes clear that he’s had a stormy past, yet he’s unusually calm, soft-spoken and proper.

Nima’s father was driving home one nightwhen he had an accident and lost his life. He was then sent to live with his mother and an alcoholic and violently abusive stepfather.

He studied at the local primary school but, in 2015, when the beatings got too severe, he opted to leave for Trashigang to live with his eldest sister. She was working as a house helper there., Nima  eventually enrolled in the monastic school in Samkhar.

“I don’t regret my decision,” he says.

For young children like Nima Wangchuk, there is some respite in monastic schools but life there can be demanding, and the routine, rigorous.

The daily routine is hard for the 50 young ordained monks in Samkhar, more so once winter sets in. Rising at 5AM, they continuously study and pray through the day under the watchful eyes of three teachers. Only during breaks, especially after evening tea , can the novices get together with their friends and play their favorite sports like football, volleyball, carom and khuru (darts). Then, it is time to wash up and head back to the study hall for evening studies before dinner is served.

At least now, the young monks don’t have to walk too far to relieve themselves, wash their clothes, or clean up.

Young monks learning English in the monastic school.
Young monks in Samkhar learning English.

In July, this year, a UNICEF-supported project brought proper toilets with water taps and bathing facilities to the school. The monks have developed a more informed appreciation of the value of hygiene.

Throughout Bhutan, monastic centers like the one in Samkhar function as home to orphans and children from destitute or broken families.  At Samkhar Monastic School, most of the children, some from distant rural settings, have been brought by their parents or relatives with hopes of a fuller education, albeit religious, and better prospects in life. A few, like Nima Wangchuk, have come of their own accord to escape hopelessness at home.

“It is tough here,” he says. “But, I like it. Everything I need, I am given here. I don’t miss home at all.”

Although registered under the Dratshang Lhentshog (Central Monastic Body), the school relies mostly on donations from the community, even for items like meat and eggs. Yet, the children seem happy and a sense of bonhomie prevails.

“I have made a lot of friends here so I am mostly happy,” says Nima. “We always try to help each other.”

The young monks in the school rarely get visitors. So, when a UNICEF team, accompanied by the Resident Representative Rudolf Schwenk, decided to pay the little ones a visit during the Global Handwashing Day on October 12, the excitement was palpable. Even the principal appeared genuinely touched.

“We are very happy to have you here. Apart from a few parents, not many people come to visit the children. So you can understand their excitement,” the Principal, Lopen Dawa Drakpa, explains to UNICEF visitors.

“Apart from a few parents, not many people come to visit the children. So you can understand their excitement” 

The vibes in the school are pleasant and warm. You get the feeling that you are in the company of a large family.

It is true that families and children benefit from the support provided by the Dratshang. It is also true that most children are enrolled at a young age, and that being away from their loved ones at such an impressionable age could expose them to a lot of issues. These include issues like separation, abuse, neglect and violence.

In this regard, the Dratshang Lhentshog, with UNICEF assistance, has taken some important steps over the years. As well as various sensitization and awareness programs on child rights and protection, efforts continue to improve the overall living conditions in monastic institutions and in establishing alternative forms of discipline. The Dratshang Child Care and Protection Office (CCPO), in partnership with UNICEF has drawn up a Child Protection Programme Strategy and Action Plan for monastic institutions and schools across the country.

Samkhar Monastic School appears to be a success. The living conditions are respectable and the teachers seem to have discarded the old ways of employing the rod to instill discipline. Perhaps that explains why the children seem genuinely happy even while demonstrating the seven hand-washing techniques.

Earlier, we were told, the children had regularly suffered from skin and stomach infections. Such anomalies were reported to have reduced dramatically once drinking water taps, toilets and washrooms were constructed this July.

For the young novices, the setting of the school overlooking the valleys below and the conducive learning conditions there look ideal if they’re on a quest, spiritual or otherwise. Hopefully, that may indeed prove true for determined youngsters like Nima Wangchuk as they let go the baggage of an unfavourable past and forge ahead with sound body and spirit.