First batch of Bhutanese student with Raja Tobgyal in Kalimpong (1914) Photo courtesy: Dr Tandi Dorji
Anagarika Dharmapala, founder of the Maha Bodhi Society, may have played an influential role
Education: In 1914, a group of 46 Bhutanese boys left for Kalimpong, India to study. They were the first batch of Bhutanese students to study modern education, enrolled in Dr Graham’s Homes.
Among them was Babu Tashi, father of Supreme Court chief justice, Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye. Exactly 150 years later on January 18, Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye joined the Maha Bodhi Society in Kolkata to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Anagarika Dharmapala.
Other notable students were Babu Gongloo, father of the former chief operation officer of the royal Bhutan army, goongloen Lam Dorji, and the first veterinary doctor Karchung and Dr Phenchung.
In the same year, Bhutan’s first school was also opened in Haa, with teachers from the Church of Scotland mission. There were around 28 students.
Anagarika Dharmapala, who founded the Maha Bodhi Society in 1891, was not happy with Bhutan sending its students to Darjeeling and Kalimpong to study in “Christian schools”. He strongly objected and cautioned Bhutan for sending Bhutanese students to the “wrong school” and wrote thus to the Raja Ugyen. The handwritten letter was addressed to one Sherpa to be submitted to Raja Ugyen.
46 Bemapur Lane, Calcutta, dated November 19, 1914
I learn that about 20 Bhutanese boys have been brought to Darjeeling to be taught English, and that they have been entrusted to the missionaries. That is bad news. Why could not the Bhutan Raj open a school in their own state and teach the youths English. When a Buddhist who is ignorant of Buddhism is put into a Christian boarding school the way of the youth undergo change. He imbibes the habits of the Christians and becomes indifferent to his own religion. The tender mind is very susceptible. What is heard daily is taken as truth and the mind goes wrong. Therefore, our Lord Buddha condemned with emphasis false faiths that with a creator, a savior, and demise the law of karma. Look at the Japanese how they brogues, they open schools and get English and Russian male and female teachers to come over to Japan and the Japanese are taught English…”
What is needed is technical and industrial education. Japan rose from her obscurity because her youths were taught how to manufacture articles which are imported into Japan. A few Bhutanese students should be sent to Japan; also a few students to learn in technical institutes. A country that has no industries remains, poor. I am very anxious about the Bhutan boys. In Ceylon our 200,000 Buddhist boys attending non-Buddhist schools are lost forever. They become Christians after they leave school or become very bad morally. The education of the rising generation should be on national lines. Christian missionaries are not the kind of teachers that Buddhist pupils should have. Submit please to Raja Ugyen on the very important subject…”
The letter from the founder could be one reason why another school was established in Bumthang in the following year, 1915, said Chief Justice Sonam Tobgye, who maintained his late father’s diary.
First batch of students in Bumthang (1915) Photo courtesy: Dr Tandi Dorji
There were 21 students, including the Crown Prince Jigme Wangchuck, and some children of the people serving in the king’s court. Babu Nagchung, who started Dzongkha Kuensel as an official news bulletin in 1965, was among 21 students to study English and Tibetan/Dzongkha in Bumthang.
However, Bhutanese students continued their studies at the Scottish mission school. In 1920, four students were sent to be trained as doctors, veterinary doctors and teachers in India.
The chief justice said Dharmapala is one of the illustrious sons of Sri Lanka, who made monumental contribution to the cause of Buddhism, the Buddhist revival and the nationalist awakening in Sri Lanka.
“He was a peerless missionary of Buddhism, who carried the message of the Buddha across the world,” he said.
Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye also said the Dharmapala presented Buddhism as consistent with science, especially the theory of evolution.
He was convinced that any movement for the emancipation of the people would have to go hand in hand with the revival of the national culture. He lamented furiously over the cultural, religious and national decline, and developed a firm determination to fight against the escalation of the foreign power in the country.
“Dharmapala’s enthusiasm and tireless efforts inspired many generations and his transcending vision and compassionate thought traversed to then unknown Bhutan,” the chief justice said.
Bhutan celebrated a yearlong sherig centenary (May 2, 2012-February 21, 2013), although Bhutan’s journey to modern education turns 100 years only this year.