Landscapes, Memory and Identity


“When honestly narrated, memories can become a source of identity. It offers an understanding of the landscape and the people – and they are never meaningless. People remember the landscape names, important events, location of houses, trees, roads, trails, etc.”

SubbarpFor the last almost two decades, Southern Bhutan has remained a bitterly contested landscape of conflict, disputes and struggle. As such intersecting landscapes of different meanings and significant interests have emerged within the same geographical space. In the following paragraphs we shall draw some understanding of southern Bhutan as a characteristic landscape where such meanings and interests intersect; and examine what it meant to be a southern Bhutanese in the years preceding 1990 and immediately after. Much of the construction draws substance from memories, experiences and knowledge anchored around true events. In a society where not much written works are in existence – memories alone – however much absurd they may be – are the only materials available in store for   documenting or archiving history; and giving it a new living existence. This article challenges the readers to engage in some deeper analysis of the landscape of southern Bhutan as a site of economic, political, cultural and historical contestation.

A landscape is not just a geographical topography – it is an animate place inhabited by people, who are seen as integrated and interacting with the land in such a way that the people and the landscape become nearly inseparable. These people have their own way of life and realities – geographic location, climatic conditions, farmlands, vegetation, religion, community life, literature, culture, tradition, dress, dances, food, drinks, kinship relations, rituals, rootedness, commerce, citizenship, properties, exchange systems, history, politics and government etc, which are the sources of their identity. This is a culturalist view. In the culturalist view, the landscape is understood as a ‘lived environment’ in which the relationship between the cultural and physical environment is deemed to be mutually constitutive.

When honestly narrated, memories can become a source of identity. It offers an understanding of the landscape and the people – and they are never meaningless. People remember the landscape names, important events, location of houses, trees, roads, trails etc.  Conversely, they can easily tell – how many people live in the village – which year was the police station established – who is the Post Master – what is the name of the school Head Master – where is the dispensary located – who worships in the temple – whose daughter is married to whose son – which year did the great earth quake hit the village – when was it that a famine had hit the village last time etc.

Nepali-speaking citizens working in their farm

The landscape, I am going to discuss here is the landscape of Southern Bhutan. It consists of five districts; namely Samchi, Sarbhang, Samdrupjongkhar, Chirang, Chukha and Dagana. Since the majority of the population in Samdrupjongkhar district is a contiguous extension of Nepali speaking people of other districts, I consider the district of Samdrupjongkhar as a part of Southern Bhutan; although officially it is considered to be a part of eastern Bhutan. From Sibsoo in the south west to Samrang in the south east, the landscape of southern Bhutan is a contiguous belt made of fertile plains, green valleys, terraced farms, orange gardens and cardamom fields. Agricultural farms, large villages, cash crop plantation and thatched houses dominate the cultural landscape. Southern Bhutan is Bhutan’s most densely populated region. It is also an agricultural hub and an important trade corridor.

Here, in this spectacular landscape lies some of Bhutan’s most picturesque and prosperous villages; and living in these villages are one of Bhutan’s most hardworking and peace loving people – the ‘Nepali–speaking southern Bhutanese’. The southern Bhutanese are a mosaic of different caste and ethnic groups fused together by a common language, culture, religion, traditions, rituals, life style, dress, language, food, dances, social taboos and belief systems. Most southern Bhutanese are members of an extended family, inter–related, inter–dependent and closely woven by webs of relationships of different kinds and levels; merging and diverging at several points. They worship several guardian deities, which live in the forests, lakes and mountains. Prominently, a peasant society – its folk cosmology understands that nothing is more important than appeasing these deities and securing their protection to ensure fertility, security and productivity.

Land is central to the southern Bhutanese. They live in harmony with the surroundings; the farms and the fields, the rivers and the lakes. They maintain an intimate relationship and attachment to the land in which their social, cultural and historical roots have sprouted; and where their ancestors have toiled hard and given their best. The etymology of place names, villages, valleys, rivers and districts in southern Bhutan suggest that their presence here can be anything but long. That they would one day be disentangled from this relationship – had never occurred in their minds – not even in their wildest dreams.

Until the 1960s, no roads led up from the south to the north; so the southerners had little interaction with the highland Drukpas. They spoke Nepali and did not know Dzongkha, the language of the Drukpas. Until the 1970s, they never wore ‘gho’ and ‘kira’ – clothes worn by the Drukpa men and women. When a royal decree was issued in the 1980s, making the wearing of ‘gho’ and ‘kira’ mandatory for all – the southerners quickly protested.  Until 1990, life was pretty much normal and no big problems seemed to disturb the placid environment of the south; or at least it appeared so.

Then a strange blight hit the region, suddenly transforming the entire southern landscape into an epicenter of cultural, political and social conflict. The Drukpa political regime presented the ‘Drukpa man’ as the model of Bhutanese culture, identity and nationalism. In the view of the Drukpa man, the southern Bhutanese was an outsider, an anti–national, an illegal immigrant, probably an agent of the pan–Nepali cause or the Greater Nepal movement; whose continued presence would jeopardize Bhutan’s existence as a Drukpa State. The southerners saw him as a brute nihilist – an enemy of his language, culture, patriotism, citizenship and identity. Group psychology on each camp relied on hegemonic assumptions and narratives that underscored feelings of suspicion, insecurity and threat from the other. An environment full of polarization, contradictions, suspicion and misinterpretations prevailed – until the political waters thawed and a turbulent State violence took over.

The actions of the regime in the years preceding 1990 and afterwards led to the emergence of two different landscapes in southern Bhutan – the landscape of the government, which I would call the ‘Sarkari Landscape’ and the ‘Landscape of Inhabitants’. The pro–democratic movement of 1990 which engulfed most parts of southern Bhutan was basically a peoples’ reaction against this ‘Sarkari Landscape’. The ‘Sarkari Landscape’ is the institutional landscape and it exercised excessive power and influence. The Royal government of Bhutan, the police, army and even the courts of Bhutan were the founders and active players in this landscape.

Sarkari Landscape’ in this article denotes all excesses of the government including authoritarianism, censure, ethnic profiling, exclusion, discrimination, suppression, lack of accountability, impunity, intolerance and rejection. It also indicates powerlessness, lack of equality, opportunity, helplessness and hopelessness which are the features of the ‘Landscape of Inhabitants’. In short, the ‘Sarkari Landscape’ was and still is the landscape of fear and persecution; discrimination and resistance; suppression and subordination, domination and exclusion; destruction and displacement; silence and denial, rootedness and exile, crime and despair; dispossession and dislocation, pain and abhorrence; disparity and vulnerability; and violence and vengeance. It is also a retrospective, resurgent and revivalist landscape.

The ‘One Nation, One People policy’, ‘Driglam Namza’, ‘No Objection Certificate’ ‘National Security Act’ are some of the principle components of the ‘Sarkari Landscape. Its main elements are the ‘gho’, ‘kira’, Tsa–Wa–Sum, the Dzongkha language and the State prescribed ‘code of conduct’ to be followed in public. The objective of the ‘Sarkari Landscape’– it seemswas to destroy Bhutan’s ethnic pluralism and diversity and turn Bhutan into an ethnic enclave of the Drukpas. Such a notion was contrived on the premise of a flawed puritanical notion – that Bhutanese national ‘identity’ is exclusively embodied in Drukpa preferences and representation, Buddhism and the King. The fourth king of Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk himself argued that “pluralism is practical only for a larger country where a diversity of customs, traditions and culture enriches that nation. A small country like Bhutan cannot afford the luxury of such diversity which may impede the growth of social harmony and unity among its people”.

A view of roadway connecting Trashigang
A view of roadway connecting Trashigang

The ‘Sarkari Landscape’ created a huge population of Bhutanese refugees consisting of about 20% of Bhutan’s total population. After almost twenty years of political stalemate, most of these refugees have been resettled in various countries in the west, which is a more recent phenomenon. They have escaped the ‘Sarkari Landscape’ only to find themselves juggling in a different landscape – the ‘Landscape of the Bhutanese Diaspora’. This new landscape is seen as a landscape of freedom, security and promises but it is also largely an unknown landscape yet.

Exile and eviction has created large tracks of abandoned lands in the ‘Landscape of Inhabitants’. The government of Bhutan is distributing these lands to new settlers, mainly from the north. As such, both the Drukpas and the southerners are co–existing in the same geographical space in southern Bhutan. However, they hold very different ideas of the landscape. The southern Bhutanese perceives the landscape as a defining symbol of attachment and ownership. He views the land as trails, houses, irrigation canals, plantations, experience, rootedness, economic activities, human diligence, loyalty, service, hard work, identity, citizenship, attrition, misery and a painful eviction of relatives and neighbors. He knows that the land not only feeds him; it also gives him an identity, a point of reference; while the new occupant from the north – a representative of the ‘Sarkari Landscape’ –  looks at the land just as a ‘readymade’ resource waiting to be exploited. What has been more antagonizing – the ‘Sarkari Landscape’ has been replacing the original names of places in the ‘Landscape of Inhabitants’ with Dzongkha names. Villages do not exist anymore by the same former names – they have new village names and newer inhabitants. A stranger – a new owner now lives on this land. As things roll on, it is unlikely that the ‘Landscape of Inhabitants’ will ever be restored to its past.

While in the ‘Landscape of the Bhutanese Diaspora’ new realities have given rise to newer perceptions, which often come in conflict with traditional ideas on identity. In the traditional view – as we can see among many Bhutanese refugees who have already taken citizenship in the host countries – notion of identity is very much linked to ‘rootedness’ and the homeland as a fixed territorial entity.  A sense of entitlement to the homeland is perhaps explained when many older folks say ….. ‘to die and be buried in the homeland – Bhutan, is the last wish in their life’. People still have not made terms with the fact that identity is rather fluid and evolving and that it can be shaped by historical events and mobility.

We know; landscapes do not travel but memories do. People carry memories of the landscape for a very long time as internalized experiences. Some may know little about their roots, others may have encyclopedic knowledge; but territorial ‘rootedness’, sense of belonging, common experiences and history keeps them all in the same psychological loop. The ‘Landscape of Inhabitants’ transforms from a physical thing into a mental representation. It becomes a relic, a resource or even an ‘unintentional monument’. Thoughts about the village, houses, plough, farms, rivers, irrigation canals, properties, places of worship and even trees and rocks is very appealing and most of the time they fill up the ‘memory room’. No conversation begins or is concluded without making a mention of foods, music, drinks, shamanic or Vedic rituals and adjustment to camp life etc. Cultural programs, literary writings, poems, dance and songs often invoke stories of attachment to the landscape or the trauma of eviction and exile. People visit, revisit, review and revise these ‘memory rooms’ as much as possible and very often assertive narratives pour out. The past becomes a commentary of the present and it continues to provide a foundation for the construction of an imaginary landscape of heritage, history and identity.  

Wrap Up
On the question of identity, any claim we make should necessarily be based on our experiences, knowledge and history as survived by our memories. But in a current context where history is still being written; identity to a very large extent can also be determined by how we ‘self narrate’ ourselves and how the ‘significant others’ are narrating us. Insofar as the task of ‘self narration’ as a way of building identity is concerned; the southern Bhutanese whether living in the ‘Landscape of Inhabitants’ or in the ‘Landscape of the Bhutanese Diaspora’ have proven themselves to be highly infertile or frugal at best. Among the ‘significant others’ – there are those who try to give a professional narration based on impartial observation; and there are those – whose tendency is to smear our identity or to demonize us. Unfortunately, even in this landscape, the later seems to dominate. Looking back – in our case – we can say that the government of Bhutan aptly fits this description of ‘significant others’ – and that – current literature and narration about the southern Bhutanese have been largely polluted by the regime. It puts us in the receiving end – which is bad – but what is worse is that our own inability to ‘self narrate’ ourselves is hurting us. We have bundle of cases, not just a few – that too extremely strong ones – 20% of population evicted, ethnic profiling, suppression of conscience, democracy, human rights, disenfranchisement, inhuman and degrading treatment  – and still we are sitting with folded hands. That is our weakness rather than the government’s strength. Corrections if any, is possible only if we can reverse the direction. And for that – let me mention – it is already late – but not too late – as the saying goes – there is no appropriate time to start anything that has a worthy price.


  • Profiles in Ethnology, 3rd Edition; Elman R. Service, 1978.
  • Contested Landscapes: Movement, Exile and Place; Edited by Barbara Bender and Margot Winer, 2001.

(Author Subba is a long time writer and often writes articles for news columns. He has written dozens of articles so far – published in the mainstream media in Nepal and through BNS. He is one of the Contributing Editors of Bhutan News Service and currently lives in Charlottesville, VA with his family. He can be reached at [email protected])


  1. So beautifully written, highly intellectual and very well structured thoughts underpinned by theoretical perspectives. I am totally in agreement with author’s conceptual synthesis that personal narratives reveal social identities as they incorporate social, cultural, linguistic and institutional elements. When people narrate their experience, they demonstrate the intersections of human agency and social structure that is best understood in the context of social settings; where dialectic of control and time-space relations play major roles. The author talks about explicit memories firmly grounded in picturesque landscape of Southern Bhutan, juxtaposing the landscape of peace and landscape of fear.
    So beautifully he weaves the concepts of demographic engineering, cultural homogenisation and ethnic cleansing as a part of a continuum, deliberately induced by
    Bhutanese Govt. to remove the section of population.
    Narrative is a vehicle for communicating our thoughts and giving meaning to our experience. As the author calls, we should all reflect our memories by putting them into words as much of our stories are unheard as they are only stored in our memories.
    Congratulation RP Dai for such wonderful piece of work. Your article overlaps with some aspect of my PhD research that I am currently undertaking. I would love to read more of it. I don’t know if you remember me – we met in 2010 in Scranton.

  2. RP Dai,
    This is a extremely informative article and has the power to reflect on the unique society we have grown up.


    As we all become more of the diaspora with longer physical distance from our motherland, we need more of such articles for us to refresh and bring awareness to our younger generation.
    No where in the world community or groups have lived in such cultural upbringing that you have termed ‘Landscape of Inhabitants’. which was affected by Sarkari Landscape. To me, this piece has more for our younger generations to understand our history as we all can see our identity is diluting within the eyes of many because of the transition we all are going through due to resettlement. I can see that another decade, we will have the transition still happening, and article like this can only be the resources that can keep the diaspora reminding who we are.

    I am fantasizing this article to a nice movie one day where we can have history record as encyclopedia. Any thoughts/venture in this line, I am happy to assist.

  3. RP Daju,

    Congratulations and thank you for rekindling our memories. It takes the older generation back to their young days in Bhutan, the young to the Bhutanese adult life that they would have had, and the future to their ancestral homes.

    More than everything else in the article, I appreciate your ownership of your thoughts and ideas. It is not necessary that everyone agrees with what you have to say, but the terms that you have come up are clear indications of your scholastic abilities and your confidence in your expertise on Bhutanese issues.