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A master craftsman's story
Master craftsman
Sitting by the window of his comfortable home in Thimphu, 70-year-old Namgay Tshering spends his time praying, reading scriptures and religious biographies. But he is not one of those pampered old men wallowing in the care and hospitality of his children in his twilight years. He is a master craftsman enjoying his days of retirement. In a 50-year career as a troelko (gold and silver smith), Namgay Tshering has taught and trained scores of smiths and has left behind a rich legacy of his own skills. "Not really to boast, I can safely say that I have done a bit for my country," Namgay Tshering told.

And the "bit" that he had done includes the construction of the 17 feet pelphug chorten in Taktshang, the 15 feet machen chorten in Punakha, the Druk Wangyel medal (the country's highest national award), and the two kilkhors (mandalas) in the Thimphu and the Punakha dratshangs.It also includes three swords and a bathra for His Late Majesty, hundreds of souvenirs for state guests, and countless other gold and silver artifacts, ornaments and wares for the royal household.

He had cast and constructed over 25 bronze, silver and gold chortens and made the kudung chortens for the previous Namkhai Nyingpo and Khamtrul Rinpoche. His works can be found not only in many major lhakhangs in Bhutan but also in Nepal and India. Of all the work that he has done in his lifetime, he is "most honoured" by the machen chorten in Punakha dzong which houses the embalmed body of the Zhabdrung.

Namgay Tshering was the engineer, designer and supervising craftsman of the machen chorten which took some 30 men six years to complete. Another work that "brings pride and joy" in his heart is the Druk Wangyel medal. He designed and made the Druk Wangyel - the highest national award instituted by His Majesty the King - in a record 20 days.

The Druk Wangyel was posthumously awarded to the late prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi, by His Majesty the king in 1985. Namgay Tshering was born into a family of troelkos in Drawanglo in Paro where a troelzo tradition existed since the Zhabdrung's time. His maternal uncle served in the court of the first king. His own father, who was a renowned troelko, worked for the second king. He learnt the art and craft of troelzo from his father at the age of 10. Namgay Tshering said that learning troelzo is a difficult and demanding job.

A learner or trainee begins by carving human forms, birds and animals, all the saints and renowned masters in the Buddhist pantheon, and all religious signs and symbols in their most intricate detail. "It takes a great deal of patience, skill and endurance," he said. "Very few people can master the troelzo in its entirety. Out of 60 people who begin learning at the same time, may be only about three will become a good troelko. "His greatest regret today is that the craft to which he dedicated his life, skill, and love is declining. He feels that troelkos these days are commercially driven and are more concerned with outer appearance than with doing a genuinely good job."

Everybody wants to have an easy time and make good money," he said adding that for the craft to succeed whoever takes it up "must be genuinely interested, devoted to the profession and determined to excel". He also feels that special recognition and incentives need to be given to those who are exceptionally talented and good." Zorig chusum (13 arts and crafts) must not be allowed to disappear," he said. "All the dzongs, lhakhangs, chortens and in fact our unique cultural and religious identity owe its existence and origin to zorig chusum. What we are able to show to the outside world as distinctly Bhutanese is essentially because of zorig chusum."That is why although he is retired, he continues to teach. He has taught about ten boys since retiring in 1998. Two boys are presently training under him. "I am doing my best to impart whatever I know to those who are interested to learn," said Namgay Tshering, the teacher of about 70 troelkos.

Namgay Tshering has seen his country evolve from wilderness into a modern nation state in a lifetime spanning three kings. He said that the Bhutan of today is like a dream compared to the one he knew as a young man. Pem, his partner in life, love and struggle for over 50 years and mother of his eight children said she could not describe how hard, difficult and cruel life was in those days. "There was a heaven and earth's difference between gom (authority) and yop (subordinates)," Namgay Tshering told.

"Everyone is so equal today I feel like there is no gom."
This article was contributed by KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper 2004
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