Thimphu: “The thing about oral traditions is that no one owns stories. There is no copyright. The fact that I wrote them doesn’t mean they are mine,” says Kunzang Choden.

Kunzang is 71 and the woman who wrote down in English some of the hundreds of folk tales swirling Bhutan in over 16 languages, very few of which have written forms. Kunzang is sitting on stage on day one of Bhutan Echoes: Drukyul’s Literature Festival, which was held earlier this month in Thimphu. 

Kunzang says that when you tell a story told to you by another, it lives. “There is no such thing as plagiarism”. What there is, is an onus to listen to the story well. 

“There has to be constant interaction,” Kunzang writes in the preface to her Folktales of Bhutan. If the story takes a sad turn, you have to say “ayi wha”. If you are surprised, say “yaah lama”. After every sequence, a listener must say, “Aeii” or “tse ni” in the Bumthangkha language, or “delay” in Dzongkha. Both mean, “and then?” The teller will then continue. 

This custom, she writes, is to prevent the spirits from stealing the stories. “As long as a human being responds and indicates that the story is being listened to, the spirits cannot steal them.” A pretty airtight copyright arrangement.

Kunzang Choden on day one of the Bhutan Echoes festival in Thimphu. Photo: Bhutan Echoes

Bhutan may be small and mountainous but it has, what the Oxford scholar Karma Phuntsho in his landmark History of Bhutan notes, is a “very complicated and puzzling” linguistic tradition. 

“While Bhutan has about sixteen local vernaculars, only one of them is written, and that too, with no established orthographic and grammatical systems,” Karma writes. But Kunzang, in her talk with Sonam Wangmo Dukpa at the festival, says folk tale traditions exist in as many as 24 languages. Until a formal education system was introduced 50 years ago, these tales were the only method of imparting education in Bhutan.

These stories were often dark – as folk tales tend to be. People routinely got strangled by snakes, tigers fled in fear from devious frogs and whole palaces disappeared under water to punish their owners’ hubris. The stories were thus meant for adults too. In fact, a person is supposed to listen to folk tales all their life, and at their deathbed too, says Kunzang. “When someone was very sick and no medicine would work, they would invite a storyteller to engage her mind,” she says.

Sitting cross-legged in the room, with a patient audience also listening in, the hired storyteller would begin a story – “Dangbo…o…o Dingbo…o…o.” 

This is how every story in Bhutan begins, across languages. The phrase means “long, long ago.” The longer you stretch the vowels, the older the story. 

Attendees listen to speakers at a session of the Bhutan Echoes festival in Thimphu. Photo: Video screengrab/Instagram/BhutanEchoes

As custodians of such richness of old, Bhutan’s young are clear in their remit. As early as 2018, Tshering Tashi – who is one of the directors of the literature festival – had told NYT that for Bhutan’s writers creation is a luxury. “Our foremost job is to record.”

This onus seeps into the Bhutanese writers and thinkers who speak at the festival. Every aspect of Bhutanese life is a story waiting to be written. Meanwhile, the country is opening up and many of its young are migrating to other countries, so it’s a race against time to put down what you know. It doesn’t matter if this story did not originate from you.

Story-tellers like Dechen Wangdi, who curates the ‘Humans of Thimphu’ page with his team, express through their work this value of telling an already told story. In a format popularised by the Humans of New York model, these stories have a telling image and are accompanied by simple text. Ugyen is a transwoman. Namgyel Lham won a barista competition abroad. A man without a face was sexually assaulted by his football coach. A blind woman without a face was thrown out by her family when she was raped and got pregnant.

These stories do not begin with ‘Dangbo dingbo’ – they are lived as they are told. But they carry forward a digitally-driven oral tradition. Who owns these stories?

Kunzang would agree that it is no one and everyone. 

This tradition of borrowing and thus propagating also seeps into Bhutan’s textiles, its clothing and fashion. 

The designer and street fashion chronicler Karma Tshering Wangchuk, who is famous as ‘Lhari,’ agrees that Bhutan’s clothing traditions are similar to many authors’ ideas of Bhutan in literature — where legacy is borne by retelling the same stories with a little essential change in each retelling. 

“This might be a unique DNA amongst us Bhutanese, the core spirit of who we are,” he tells The Wire. A traditional blouse worn with a statement brooch tells you more about a personality than a mohawk does, he feels.

In his session with designer Julia Booth, Lhari speaks of an idea of fashion that comes from borrowing from family closets, digging through trunks, and raiding friends’ family wardrobes for that one strip of fabric. 

The cover image used by Lhari’s ‘Bhutan Street Fashion’ page, showcasing the range of individual styles across various translations of traditional garments. Photo: Facebook/BhutanStreetFashion

He says that just like elders tell stories to the rest of the family, Bhutan’s contemporary fashion is dictated by its grandmothers.

This is significant because until recently, Bhutan had a strict dress code where the man had to wear a traditional gho and the woman, a kira. The easing of this code led to a curious thing. Men and women continued to wear them. “It might stem from us subliminally knowing despite our small number we seek strength in numbers,” says Lhari, echoing Tshering’s missive about remembering.

A question comes to Lhari from the audience. A designer from the West had unveiled a collection inspired by Bhutan. Does he think this is wrong? 

Lhari says that there is definitely a discord between concepts like copyright – because “no one really owns these culturally borrowed and shared wisdoms” – and expressions of tradition in Bhutan. He cites the kushuthara – a maddeningly intricate woven textile – as something saliently Bhutan’s and which needs protection from appropriation. But in a different session, Pema Choden Wangchuk, museum curator of the Royal Textile Academy, cites the same kushuthara to tell us how difficult it is to lay out the provenance of Bhutan’s clothing simply because it is borrowed, passed down, shared, and modified constantly. 

Pema Choden Wangchuk (left), with Namrata Dalela and Dr Vandana Bhandari. Photo: Soumashree Sarkar

It cannot be easy to see yourself as a custodian of centuries of your own past. But somehow – inscrutably, in this age of the internet and its fastness – Bhutan’s very youngest, too, get this message. A case in point is the fact that almost all the school-going winners of the national storytelling contest – who received prizes at the literature festival – credited their older family members or friends with the stories that won them the honours. 

Tshongpoen Dawa Zangpo is a delightful fable narrated to me by my doting grandmother,” says Class 11 winner Kinley Sonam Phunsum. 

“This story was told to me by my uncle, who heard it from the person who experienced it firsthand,” says Class 9 student Yeshey Lhamo. 

“I had heard many amazing stories from various relatives, but none of them had made me feel as touched as my Asha’s story,” feels Maylam Wangdi, the Class 8 winner. 

“My grandpa told me this beautiful story called ‘Dema’,” says Samden Jurmey Dema, of Class 7.

Perhaps the spirits who steal stories – those that Kunzang warns of – can yet be warded off.