Friday, December 27, 2013

Story of a community and a temple

There is a village lost in the wilderness of the Black Mountains under Wangdue. It is called Athang Rukha. It had only 118 people then, called the Oleps, with a distinct culture, language and way of life. I came across this village in 2007 when I was a freelance journalist and a filmmaker. An NGO (Tarayana) sent me there to document this people before changes ultimately swept this group. However, my visit there was life-changing for me. The poverty, misery and hunger was shocking. The community was divided. Each family I guess was struggling. I even wrote one of the most powerful articles for a newspaper titled, What does GNH mean to her? ("Her" was Ugyem, who lost her son in a jungle and the daughter-in-law in another freak accident. She lived in total misery).
UNDP's Toshi Tanaka helped secure the SGP funds for me.

But I not only complained. I also worked for them. I went back to the village carrying food, cloths, medicines and above all, myself. I then volunteered for Tarayana Foundation that had started to build permanent houses. Until then they were in temporary make-shift bamboo shacks. Tarayana had secured a UNDP project of USD 49,000 to pay timber royalties, carpenter hire charges and roofing materials. The project entailed the entire village to come together and build one house at a time. Passang Tobgye, Tarayana's field officer was stationed there while Sonam Pem, the project officer, and I would visit the place almost every month. I sourced another small amount from the SGP funding to irrigate the land, introduce fishery and light up their homes with solar lamps. I also filled the gap between Tarayana and the people there. For example, while the men were at the construction site, they were missing out on feeding their families. They worked as day labourers in neighbouring villages and got paid in food grains with which they fed their families. So I took the responsibility for the food supplies for over a year. Gradually, within two years we made a turn around. The village began to prosper. They grew their own food, sent their children to school and began to imagine a better life. Over the same period I became very close to them. In fact I know each and every family in Rukha by their names. My acquaintance also extended to half of Athang gewog as Tarayana extended the project areas to Lawa, Lamga, Mitana, Samthang, Harachu and Kashajeko. 

Now I am them.

Towards the end of 2008, when they were almost on their feet, they asked me if I could rebuild a temple on the same site where there used to be one. I refused it flatly telling them that I was there to help them and not to help the Almighty because He was capable of taking care of Himself. He didn’t need my help. Instead, we needed His – wherever He was.

But the community insisted and came back to me again and again. One thing that I noticed was that people who were earlier not talking to each other or getting along, for whatever reason, had also joined the campaign to convince me. I agreed. At that time I was actually not only bankrupt but also deeply on overdrafts with the bank. But I realized that a temple goes way beyond the spiritual needs.

Fast forward to five years, we have a community temple. As I expected the temple is a place that binds the community. It is a place where people meet informally and also where community meetings are held. And when people meet they talk, which is the first step towards peaceful coexistence. Because it is a sacred place, people respect each other and do not indulge in social vices. In fact people with problems come and seek divine interventions. I am not sure if they are heard, but they sure go away feeling that they have been. And more often than not, with the confidence they got from the temple, they overcome their difficulties. It is a place where children play and old people pray. When I go there, I normally sit and read a book or pull out my laptop. It is a beautiful place to work too.

On 25th December 2013 I could finally organise the long-awaited consecration of the temple after several delays caused mainly by lack of funds. Except for the valuable seed grant from Tarayana Foundation, we (the community and I) were left very much on our own. But we pulled on. May be it was the blessings of the guardian deity Pelden Lhamo who is believed to be residing there. May be I managed to make the people believe in themselves and in a better future for their children. Whatever be the reason, a community that was close to extinction just few years back went on to build their own houses, be self-sufficient in food, send their children to school and build a temple to look beyond this mortal existence.

I am happy to have been part of their transformation.