A lama in the fray

by Marcus Dam, The Hindu, April 29, 2009

Sikkim, India -- Phetook Tshering Bhutia, being the eldest son in his family, was initiated into the monastic life, a tradition in some families with links to the monastery. He was a schoolboy when he was taken to the Namchi Ngadak monastery (gompa) in South Sikkim district in the mid-1950s.

Today he is 63, spending much of his day visiting the 56 registered monasteries scattered across Sikkim, some located in far-flung areas, seeking the support of monks who have taking time off chanting prayers and turning prayer wheels to hear him speak on the Assembly polls in the State.

Phetook Bhutia, commonly referred to as a lama, is the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front’s nominee for the Sangha seat in the State Assembly — a unique constituency, one that has no defined boundary except that of the State’s borders, and an electorate of 3058 monks and nuns belonging to the different monasteries. This reserved seat was constituted when the Chogyal introduced the electoral process in Sikkim nearly two decades before its merger with India. The voters include 37 nuns.

Phetook Bhutia, who belongs to the Bhutia community, has not spent all his years within the confines of a monastery. He has had a stint in the State’s Education department as a lower divisional clerk as well as in the Home department before he retired in 2002. Since then, he has been teaching young monks and conducting rituals.

Political parties put up their candidates from within the monastic order to contest the Sangha seat. Phetook Bhutia is among the three in the fray. “Leaders of the SDF approached me and my candidature was decided after a series of deliberations among senior lamas drawn from the different gompas,” he says.

Phetook Bhutia’s concerns are understandably different from those contesting in the State’s 31 other seats. “Sikkim’s religious tradition has to be protected. Of great importance is the plight of the monks who have to take care of both the gompas they belong to as well as their families. They have no fixed income, and their earnings from conducting rituals is coming down,” he says.

“If elected, I intend to get the State government to pay greater attention to raising the earnings of the lamas belonging to registered gompas. Some of these gompas are in urgent need of repairs, and we need more funds for their maintenance from the State’s ecclesiastical department,” Phetook Bhutia adds.