Column | How Malayali teachers helped build Bhutan's education system

Students going to home after school in Bhutan.
Students going to home after school in Bhutan. Photo: Shutterstock

Malayalis have always tended to be an enterprising lot. One of the main reasons for the lack of visible poverty in Kerala is the Gulf oil boom. However, Kerala has also produced many unsung heroes with a sense of adventure who looked to different parts of the world to not just earn a living, but also build something that would last for generations. An unlikely destination for a group of teachers in the early 1960s was the Land of the Thunder Dragon - Bhutan.

“Almost everyone above the age of 25-30 years (in Bhutan) has been taught by one or the other teacher from Kerala,” V Shantakumar and Phuntsho Choden wrote in a 2018 paper for the Azim Premji University.

The beautiful and isolated Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, where Buddhism is a way of life, only had monastic education until the 1950s. The concept of modern schools remained alien to almost every subject of Bhutan till that point.

While some members of the royal family were sent to Indian boarding schools from the days of British rule in India, the common people only had the option of religious learning. By the early 1950s, the ruling dynasty realised the need to modernise the country’s education even if they wanted to continue to keep Bhutan isolated from the rest of the world. The first step was to set up Hindi medium schools in the country and almost totally adopt the Indian system from neighbouring West Bengal.

Students on their way to school in rural Bhutan.
Students on their way to school in rural Bhutan. Photo: Mark Dozier / Shutterstock

By 1960, King Ugyen Dorji Wangchuk called on the country to set up English medium schools with the help of Jesuits in Darjeeling, who sent Father William Mackey to the country. It may have looked like the natural course of action for Indian teachers from the hill station to follow suit but Bhutan at that time was a country without even the most basic infrastructure. Life was more comfortable in far more modern Darjeeling than in a country that was isolated and practically living in another era.

From Kerala to Bhutan
In 1962, Lyonpo Dawa Tsering, who served for decades as Bhutan’s foreign minister, went on a recruiting trip to Kerala. The state’s success in primary education was well known across South Asia at that time, as was the fact that it was densely populated and had a surplus of educated professionals. Tsering returned to south-eastern Bhutan with 20 teachers, who became the real pioneers of the modern education system of the Himalayan kingdom.

“They arrived in Samdrup Jongkhar, where they were given rations and a little money,” Mackey wrote in a 2002 publication released by Bhutan’s Ministry of Education titled The Call: Stories of Yesteryears. “They started walking (no roads then in the East), from village to village.” Tsering left two teachers in each of the new schools that were set up. The first arrivals had to live in these villages for ten months until the winter vacations began.

It goes without say that these teachers did not know Dzongkha or any of the other languages and dialects that were spoken in the country. They would walk in high altitudes in the winter just to be able to meet in towns like Lhuentse, which is 452 kilometres away from the capital Thimphu.

Bhutanese students learning arts in Thimphu.
Bhutanese students learning arts in Thimphu. Photo: Somnath Mahata / Shutterstock

“These were very devoted, sincere teachers, who sacrificed their whole life for Bhutan Education,” Mackey wrote. “Their contribution to our present education system in the early years was enormous. Without their devoted and sincere teaching in isolated difficult rural areas, Bhutan could never have reached its present high standard of education in the interior schools.”

The teachers also helped build boarding schools that provided the most basic meals to children, but at the same time took the pressure off parents to provide rations. Children were sent to collect firewood for the simple porridge and vegetables. When the latter was not in supply, children and teachers would collect wild fern.

Jigme Zangpo, one of the first Bhutanese students in the school, recollected in the publication about how the Malayali teachers would focus not just on the syllabus, but also on physical training, drama and cultural activities. Initially the remote schools with thatched roofs and wooden floors had no furniture and classrooms were separated by makeshift bamboo curtains. He called the teachers “sincere, hard working and strict disciplinarians.”

Unsung heroes
The list of names of these unsung heroes in the Bhutanese publication includes P B Nair, M Prasad, G B Kurup, M K G Kaimal and R Shivadasan. The 2002 publication also mentions Mr and Mrs R Krishnan, who had then recently retired.

Bhutanese girls on their way to school.
Bhutanese girls on their way to school. Photo: Kateryna Mashkevych / Shutterstock

Prasad, who lived in Paro for many years, was promoted to Inspector of Schools in 1987. He wrote: “Being in the inspectorate for 11 years gave me the experience of knowing the people, culture, tradition, and their mode of living in the urban, rural and remote areas in an elaborate manner.” He described treks along mountainous terrains and deep gorges, of crossing leech-infested terrains and sometimes walking for five days to reach some schools.

Bhutan still has a way to go before it reaches 100 per cent adult literacy, but experts have praised the quality of the public education in the country. Shantakumar and Choden argue that the country’s success in education can be replicated in some Indian states, especially when it comes to providing education to children from underprivileged backgrounds.

One of the most moving accounts in The Call: Stories of Yesteryears is of Kurup, who lived in Bhutan for 26 years. In 1962 he walked for 10 days to reach his school in Tongsa in the dead of the night. In that dilapidated building he spread his bedding on a dusty floor and regretted leaving the comforts of Kerala. He even started thinking about how to escape back.

After his porters had left the area, he heard someone knocking the door, and was afraid to open the door, as there seemed to be no one in sight in the pitch darkness. When he did open the door the teacher saw a little boy and a little girl who were giggling as they gave him a kettle with water and red rice and ema datshi, the chilly and cheese gravy that is the national dish of Bhutan. Although he couldn’t understand what the children told him, he knew what they meant, which he described as the following: “Sir, as long as we are here, you have nothing to worry about.” Kurup said this kind gesture made him have a change of heart. “I had to fight back my tears of happiness. I changed my mind. I will work for these children. I will give whatever I have to make them better persons.”

Those who are still alive among these unsung Malayali heroes should be featured in a documentary. Their stories are important and need to be passed down to future generations. These brave and adventurous teachers have permanently bridged the distance and gap between the backwaters of Kerala and the snow-covered monasteries of Bhutan.

(The writer is the author of 'Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’ and 'A Week in the Life of Svitlana')

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