The significance of Bura Maap

By Ugyen Penjore, Kuensel Online, December 22, 2006

Timphu, Bhutan -- To be awarded the red scarf or the Bura Maap by His Majesty is a unique Bhutanese tradition that honours dedicated service and a recognition of being among the best (Dasho).

<< The Bura Maap origins are traced to Bhutanese monks, who wore them to denote the attainment of  togdenpa (one who realises).

Such an honour, according to Dasho Karma Ura, who was among the six officials conferred the Bura Maap last week, is incomparable to any honour in other cultures on both sides of the Himalayas. But the real connotation or significance of the Bura Maap are not known to most Bhutanese. According to Dasho Karma Ura, circumstantial evidence indicates that the Bura Maap (red endi-silk cloth) is a unique piece of institution established, most probably, by the first Druk Desi, Tenzin Drukda. 
“The successors of the first Desi like Desi Minjur Tenpa, Desi Gedun Chophel and Desi Tenzin Rangay were noted as appointing Nyi-kelma who are effectively decorated with Bura Maap,” he said.

He added that Bhutanese monks wear red scarf or Bura Maap, a colour associated with tantric Buddhism (sangngag). Ideally, the red scarf of a monk denotes that he is togdenpa (one who realises).

Dasho Karma Ura added that the sword as part of the regalia might have been added as monastic officials gave way to lay officials over time.

“Swords as a protective weapon and daily implement were, and still are in rural Bhutan, commonplace,” said Dasho Karma Ura. “The right to bear arms in terms of patang, along with Bura Maap, might have been given as a privilege to the trusted and accomplished persons working with top officials.”

One of Bhutan’s oldest living scholars, Dasho Lam Sanga, who was conferred the Bura Maap in 1988 said that the tradition could have started by the Zhabdrung. “There are neither documented evidence nor does the scriptures say it,” he said. “But it was in Zhabdrung’s era where many of the government posts were held by ordained monks.”

“The dzongpons (fort lords) were also appointed from the monk body and when they had to mingle with the common people, the monk robes proved uncomfortable,” he added. “So they wore ghos like the common people and then wore the Bura Maap on the gho to distinguish themselves.”

Given the fact that senior ordained monks ran the Bhutanese theocracy and that monastic education was the only education system, the Bura Maap could be traced to the monk body.

The significance of the Bura Maap transcends beyond the commonplace perception of it as just being a symbol of a Dasho.

The Bura Maap is awarded from the Golden Throne by the monarchs and it gives a weight to the institution, according to Dasho Karma Ura.

“Apart from the considerable social regard for Bura Maap, the ceremony of its conferral is crucial,” he said. His Majesty garlands a white silk roll (dhar) around the collar of a fully outfitted recipient. A white silk is used because white silk is likened to divine wear and the spirit of gods descend only on this fabric.

The consecrated silk has to be ritually blessed and consecrated so that it can convey the blessed, enlightened motivations and capacities of His Majesty to the recipient.

According to chief justice, Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye, who was the first Bura Maap recipient from His Majesty in 1974, the red scarf symbolises honour, respect in the society, recognition by the government, and added responsibilities on the person who was conferred.

He said that a person is empowered when conferred the red scarf. “ Red is associated with power or empowerment in Buddhism,” he said.

The Bura Maap tradition is also more than an honour or recognition. “If Bhutanese culture survived and flourished today it is the tradition of the scarves and the patang,” said the chief justice.

“People always seek for recognition, respect and identity in the society. For example we could have lost the tradition of kabney and patang had it not been the tradition that it had to be worn with the gho. In fact it was the kabney and patang tradition that had retained our Bhutanese tradition.”

While some compare the honour of receiving the Bura Maap and the patang to prestigious honours in other countries, Dasho Lam Sanga said that the Bura Maap is the highest honour a civil servant can receive in Bhutan. “But it is also not necessary to be a civil servant to receive the honour since it is a recognition of one’s service,” he said. “It is no less than receiving a medal of honour.”

Late Dasho Nishoka, a Japanese agriculturist who worked and lived in Bhutan for 28 years was a recipient of the Bura Maap.

As one Dasho, who was conferred the Bura Maap last week said, it is also a recognition of the system or the institute he or she represents.

At an individual level Dasho Lam Sanga said that it is a recognition of people with outstanding accomplishments and contributions to the society.

Today there are 33 Bura Maap officers in the civil service and many outside the civil service. According to Royal Civil Service Commission records, the secretary for international boundaries, Dasho Pema Wangchuk is the senior most serving red scarf officer at 66 years.

Late Majesty the third king awarded him the red scarf on February 24, 1972.

Former judge Dasho Gagey Lhamo was the first woman to receive the red scarf from His majesty the King on October 7, 1993 and Dasho Yangki T Wangchuk is the second.

The title of Dasho had been an issue of debate and one common understanding is that a person conferred the red scarf and the sword only can be called a Dasho.

According to the chief justice, the moment a person was conferred the red scarf and the sword he was called a Dasho. “Dasho means the chosen one,’ he said. “It is an honour conferred to persons recognising their services and asking him to serve better in future. Usually it is conferred at the later stage of their service.”

The title of Dasho seems to predate the first Zhabdrung, according to Dasho Karma Ura. “The biography of the first Zhabdrung notes that a Dasho hosted him during one of his early visits to Paro,” he said. “In general, Dasho was probably a hereditary title before it became an official title. Children of aristocrats were popularly addressed as Dashos.”

Dasho Lam Sanga, however, argues that it is not only the person conferred with the red scarf or patang that could be addressed as a Dasho. “Dasho literally means the best. Therefore, whoever is conferred a dhar can be called a Dasho,” he said.

He pointed out that in the past people called anybody wiser, wealthier, and more powerful a Dasho. “Officers conferred the red scarf are ,however, called a Nyi kem.”

Explaining Nyi kem, Dasho Karma Ura said that Nyi kem means ‘doubly-installed’.

In the past, a Nyi Kem were entitled to riding horse, had the privilege of drawing double food supplies, and could even fix woola and rural tax.

“A Nyi kem drew two dre (three kilogrammes of rice) per meal, before the advent of salaries in cash. Other such distinctive marks of a Nyi kem were his red tora and phob kemar chen,” said Dasho Karma Ura.

Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye said that the title of Dasho became a difference between the young officers and senior officials when Late Majesty the third king conferred the equivalent title to officers in the armed force.

“A lot of people opposed, but it remained,” he said. “Now people even feel offended if they are not called Dasho.”

Apart from the debate, today in the civil sector, a Dasho is referred to a person who is conferred the red scarf and the patang by the Druk Gyalpo.

“It is a different feeling altogether when you come out of the Throne room after receiving the dhar,” said Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye, recalling his experience to Kuensel.

“When you are waiting for the dhar you are called by your name and when you come out even your friends address you Dasho,” he said.

“It took time for me to get used to the servicemen saluting. The boots thumping the ground often frightened me.”