First Bhutan Heritage Scholarship Recipient Dendup Tshewang on Cultural Heritage

The Bhutan Heritage Scholarship was initiated by our dedicated alumnus, Samten Yeshi, through the Druk Nyo Foundation which his father founded in 2017 and is supported by ASIA, an Italian NGO working with Bhutan, Tibet, and other regions in the area. The first recipient of the fellowship is Dendup Tshewang, who is currently beginning his second MA year. In his thesis project, he deals with the sustainable management and heritage protection of a small village in Bhutan, Ura Dozhi. 

Dendup Tshewang hails from Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital and largest city. He is passionate about heritage conservation, and he has been transforming his passion into practice as a civil engineer since graduating from the National Institute of Technology in India. 

Is there anything you would like to share about your background that drove you to get involved with cultural heritage preservation?

Well, I would like to share my personal story about how my own experience drove me into the cultural heritage preservation field, especially for rural settlements. During my childhood, I was raised in a village where people lived in harmony with the natural environment and most importantly among themselves. Throughout the year we would have numerous festivals and celebrations where all the people from the village would gather and celebrate together. The entire village was like one big family.

However, within less than a decade my village was no longer the same village that I grew up in. Due to rapid modernization everything changed. The rich cultural traditions that once held the village together fell apart and disappeared without trace and the once harmonious village transformed into one huge competing ground, where everyone worked very hard to make ends meet. No one favored such a change, however everyone somehow accepted it as they felt that it was inevitable. Then, after joining the Department of Culture I realized that we as heritage professionals can step in and help make such changes run more smoothly and harmoniously in rural villages such as mine. So this is how I got interested and involved in the preservation works of cultural heritage sites in Bhutan. I hope that with the knowledge and exposure I will acquire after studying here at CEU, I can continue to help make such transitions run more smoothly for cultural heritage sites in Bhutan with heritage protection as a focus point. 

How did your studies at CEU help/motivate you to do the work that you do?

My studies at CEU within the Cultural Heritage Studies Program have helped me broaden my perspective in the field of cultural heritage. And the wide range of courses that the heritage program offers, from the very basics right up to advanced studies, really enabled me further in gaining a better understanding within the field of  preservation. I am confident that after my graduation I will be well prepared to face real-life on-site situations that deal with heritage preservation works. Furthermore, with my exposure to a global view on heritage preservation practices, its success stories and shortcomings, I feel confident that I can contribute towards progressing heritage preservation works in Bhutan successfully. 

What are you most passionate about regarding Bhutan’s cultural heritage?

Bhutan is a country with very rich cultural traditions most of which originate from the people’s devotion and belief in religion. The people of Bhutan have lived in harmony with nature guided by Buddhist principles and ways of life for centuries. It is through this devotion for religion that people have built numerous temples across the country dedicated to Buddhism and have adopted related customs and traditions which are now our heritage. The main thing that makes me passionate about Bhutan’s cultural heritage is that it is still a living heritage. For instance, the heritage structures that we have are not for public display but rather for people’s everyday use. Furthermore, as most of the cultural heritage sites are Buddhist sites (temples and sacred sites), it is also an opportunity for me to serve those holy sites. 

How would you describe the most rewarding aspect of your job?

I would say the success of the preservation work is the most rewarding aspect of my job. Because preservation work is not simply drafting some rules and hoping for people to abide by them. It requires a lot of research, consultation, and planning to determine how one should proceed with the preservation of cultural heritage. It is always a question of what/how to preserve, how to accommodate a change without compromising the heritage and at the same time without depriving heritage custodians of their comfort. 

Who would you say are the eminent leaders and institutions in Bhutan involved in your work?

Currently, the Department of Culture is one of the central government institutions in Bhutan who is involved in the preservation and promotion of cultural heritage. Additionally, there are various religious organizations and foundations who actively dedicate their resources towards preservation works. Our preservation works are also supported by various organizations from abroad through financial assistance and capacity building. One such example is the founding of the “Bhutan Heritage Scholarship” which supports capacity building in the field of Cultural Heritage studies at CEU. The Bhutan Heritage Scholarship was founded by the Bhutan Nyo Foundation and ASIA Onlus and currently there are two Bhutanese students pursuing MA degrees within the Cultural Heritage Studies Program at CEU through this scholarship. We hope to contribute enormously towards the cultural heritage preservation of Bhutan after our studies at CEU. 

We hear a lot about threats to cultural heritage sites worldwide. Is this also true of Bhutan and if yes what poses the greatest threat to cultural heritage sites in this part of the world?

Unfortunately, it is true for Bhutan as well and I would say it is unchecked modernization that poses the major threat to heritage sites. Ever since most of the country was connected by paved roads, including heritage sites, visitor numbers have been on the rise exercising extreme pressure on these sites. Such an increase in visitor numbers is accompanied by infrastructure developments and commercial activities within and around the heritage sites which undermines their integrity and sanctity. And without a proper management plan in place, such unchecked development poses major threats to the heritage sites. 

What advice would you pass along to fellow CEU students who are interested in career opportunities in cultural preservation?

If you are a person who is passionate about learning and hates monotony at work, then cultural heritage preservation work is for you. It is filled with opportunities and challenges as there are no fixed rules towards preservation processes. With every site, a new management plan is required depending on the importance and value of the given site. While every mistake made serves as a lesson for improvement in later preservation works. So, in this way, I would say it is a continuous learning process when it comes to cultural heritage preservation works. 

Bhutan is well known for its happiness index. Do you really feel that your fellow Bhutanese citizens are happy?

Bhutan’s metric of Gross National Happiness (GNH) as our developmental philosophy rather than Gross Domestic Product has gained popularity in the West recently and we are famously known for being one of the happiest countries in the world. Such an approach is seriously considered while formulating any new policies in our country in order to ensure that the happiness of our people is not compromised while focusing on economic development. Therefore, happiness is a natural product of such policies and I personally feel that Bhutanese citizens are happy.

What role does happiness play in your lives, and do you see a big difference between Bhutan and Austria/ Vienna where people pride themselves for being grumpy?

I think happiness is the ultimate goal of every human being on this planet. People work hard every single day for a comfortable and happy future.  However, sometimes we get so carried away trying to make our future happy, that we forget to live our present. Therefore, happiness plays a crucial role in my life as a reminder to live in the present.

Though Bhutan and Austria are miles apart with very different cultures, I think there is hardly any difference when it comes to happiness. During my last year in Vienna, I have never heard anyone complain about their living conditions here. On the contrary, I have heard lot of people complimenting Vienna for its beauty and its friendly neighborhoods. I personally like Vienna and I am very happy here.