Friday, May 28, 2010

Bhutan Boneyard Brouhaha

[Thimphu, 27 May 2010, Bhutan Observer] At least eight graves were found exhumed at a secret forest graveyard in Lamperi, Thimphu.

After a tip-off, three resi­dents of Lamperi discovered the graveyard beside the Thimphu-Wangdue highway, 5 km from Dochula towards Wangdue.

Namgay, a canteen owner in Lamperi, who was one of the three residents who dis­covered the graveyard, said they had found about 20 graves in the forest a few me­tres from the road.

According to him, eight graves had been dug up by thoedpa (cranium) and kang­dung (thighbone) hunters. “We saw skulls without crani­ums and a hand sticking out of a grave,” he said.

When Observer visited the graveyard a few days later, it was in a smelly mess. There were three skulls a few me­tres from one another. One of them was next to the road. At least eight graves had been freshly dug up.

Hand gloves, khadar, a cur­rency note, a wooden cross, and a wooden hammer lay scattered all over. A partially-decayed left hand stuck out of a grave amid skulls, ribs and cloth pieces.

Damcho Wangchu, a resi­dent of Thinleygang, said he was shocked to hear the story.

Four years back, Damcho was on his way to Thimphu at around 7:30 am when he saw a group of people taking out a dead body from a car at the same place. He thought they were taking the body for a bath before cremation. “It never struck me that they were taking it for burial,” he said.

According to Damcho, the whole area surrounding the graveyard is holy. He said the hailstorm and windstorm that blew away the roofs of some houses in Toebisa Gewog, the death of three students in Thinleygang Middle Second­ary School and four other peo­ple in the area this year could be because of this. “We never experienced such misfortunes in our gewog before,” he said.

Besides, Damcho said the drinking water source for eight villages of Toebisa, in­cluding Mesina, is near the graveyard.

Punakha Dzongda, Toebisa Gup and Punakha Superinten­dent of Police have been in­formed about the graveyard.

People say that the grave­yard may have been created by the Christian community in the capital and nearby dzong­khags.

Christians in the country say that there should be an official recognition that there are Christians in the country, and other things like burial rights will naturally follow.

Article 7 (4) of the consti­tution guarantees freedom of religion but burial rights have not been deliberated.

“No area has been identi­fied for a cemetery so far but it is possible to locate poten­tial burial sites around the country,” said Karma (name changed on request), a Chris­tian.

Earlier, most burials took place in Pungshi (Charkilo) in Mewang Gewog, some 23 km from Thimphu town towards Paro. “The people from the west used that burial ground,” Karma said. “In other parts of the country, local authorities advised the people to bury the dead in obscure and inac­cessible areas or in their own land.”

Burial in Pungshi was banned after the villagers complained of improper fu­nerals and bodies being un­earthed by dogs. Pungshi graveyard was also associated with stories of skull and thigh­bone hunters.

A 1.4-acre plot of land in Hongtsho in Chang Gewog, Thimphu, has been proposed for a cemetery. The site is pro­posed to have a compound fence, lighting and a perma­nent gate where a gatekeeper will be stationed. But nothing has been confirmed yet.

Observer learnt that, in the absence of a proper cemetery, people are buried in many places. According to a man from Chhukha, he has heard of a graveyard a few kilome­tres from Chapcha.

Lawyers say Bhutan has no law against secret burial or digging up graves for bones. “If we are allowed to burn dead bodies, I think burial should also be allowed,” said a lawyer.

Another lawyer said that digging up graves for bones could come under larceny if the dead bodies are buried in one’s own land or land iden­tified by the government for burial.

The penal code of Bhutan prohibits organ trade but lawyers say bones do not come under organs. The pe­nal code also prohibits tam­pering with dead bodies but it is only in case of unnatural deaths.

Bhutan's bone trafficking earned this sharp editorial commentary from the Observer:

Recently, at least eight bodies were found exhumed from a forest graveyard behind Dochula. Some of the putrid bodies invited scavenging dogs that scattered half-decayed parts around the place. Skulls with missing craniums and rotting limbs and ribs lie exposed to the elements and scavengers. It is a chilling scene.

It is not clear how and why that forest became a graveyard. A wooden cross lies flat on the forest floor. Nearby, a crisp one ngultrum note is on a grave. Close by lie scattered some incense sticks. Possibly, some people in the capital and nearby dzongkhags laid the dead to rest in the forest clandestinely. But it did not escape the notice of human bone traders.

Going by the remains left behind exposed, grave robbers wanted thighbones and skulls popularly used in Buddhist rituals. For a long time now, we have heard that the trade in human skulls and thighbones has become lucrative and, therefore, rampant in Bhutan. There are religious people who have taken up kapli and kangdung making business. Since buying the bones from across the border has become difficult, they have turned to the easier option of robbing the graves within the country.

Our law does not have specific provisions for trade in human bones. According to the penal code of Bhutan, tampering with a dead body is a crime, but it is only in case of an unnatural death. The penal code also forbids buying and selling of human organs. However, it is not clear whether bones would qualify as organs.

Many countries, including India, have criminalized the trade in human bones even if the process of acquiring bones does not involve digging up graves. Elsewhere, bones are usually traded for scientific research and laboratory experiments. There are stories about rampant, lucrative bone trade leading to murder.

Today, we assume that the bone trade in Bhutan has started with hunt for skulls and thighbones. We already seem to have a strong network of traders. It may not be long before the traders find out that it is not only skulls and thighbones that are lucrative.

The trade in human bones and exhuming bodies from graves are undeniably criminal in nature. But to tackle them, first the provisions of our law must be clear. Our hunt for the criminal will probably lead us from the unplanned graveyard to the sacred altar. It is how the bone trade network looks like.

Our law must also be clear on burial sites and graveyards. While everybody has the right to be buried or cremated, any place cannot be a graveyard or a cremation ground.

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1 reader comments:

Anonymous said...

Isn't there a problem with "drip" if one just uses whoever's bones?