When Cleanliness Nears Godliness in Bhutan

Human Wrongs Watch

‘In Bhutan, a cluster of young monks in rural Chukka discover the paradox of value, that water by itself costs nothing but is essential to life and healthy living.’


© UNICEF Bhutan/2015/Dhital | Young monks in the Pagar Monastery quench their thirst directly from the water taps that were recently installed by the Dratshang Lhentshog’s Religion and Health Programme with funding from UNICEF. Before the taps were installed, the boys had to walk to a distant stream to fetch water.


 By Mitra Raj Chital*
CHUKKA, Bhutan, 29 August 2016 (UNICEF) – As we veer off the Thimphu-Phuentsholing highway and ascend the rough road towards Pagar in Chukka district, dark red chilies drying out in the fields provide a glimpse of the hues we will soon encounter as we mount further.

And then, after 8 km of steady climbing deeper into the middle of nowhere surrounded by looming hills on all sides, the monastery comes into full view along with its small maroon-robed inhabitants. The monks, mostly children, come running to greet us.

Amidst all the commotion, a young monk donning a Spiderman shirt keeps his distance and watches us intently. As I approach him, he fidgets a little but doesn’t budge.


© UNICEF Bhutan/2015/Dhital | Legden Jurmi (seated) is the youngest of the 36 ordained monks in Pagar Monastery in Chhukha. He is 5 years old.


“What’s your name?” I ask.

“Legden Jurmi.”

“Where are you from?”


“How old are you?”


“Do you like it here?”


I try to pose a question that will get him to open up a bit.

“Don’t you miss home and your parents?”

“No,” he mumbles and runs off towards the dormitory.

© UNICEF Bhutan/2015/Dhital | The day begins at five in the morning for the monks at Pagar Monastery. This photograph was taken during their first break after morning studies – the time they return to the dormitory to tidy up.

There are 36 ordained young monks in the monastery who are supervised by the watchful eyes of four teachers. In the absence of foster homes, monastic centres like this one often function as homes to the orphans and the poor.

Here, in Pagar Monastery, most of the children, some from far-flung rural settings, have been brought by their parents to not only give them a chance for a religious life, but also for a fuller education. A few have come on their own to escape daily drudgery and hopelessness at home.

Kinga Thinley, 15, dropped out of school in Khasadrapchu and came here in January 2015 after his parents got divorced and his mother married another man. Yet, even though there is some respite in the monastery, life is tough.

Their day begins at five in the morning followed by studies and a rigorous routine throughout the day. It is only during meal times that they get a break in which they take immense pleasure, especially after lunch because that is when they get to play their favourite sport, football.

After the game, they head for the newly constructed water taps for a quick wash before heading into another round of studies or duties that they have each been assigned.

But it wasn’t always this easy. Until, the beginning of 2015, the little novices had to head to the stream quite a distance below the monastery to clean themselves, bathe, carry water for cooking, and wash their clothes.

The water taps have been recently installed by the Religion and Health Programme of the Dratshang Lhentshog (Commission for Monastic Affairs) with funding from UNICEF.

Today, the monastery has an 8-km long water source, a reservoir and a continuous supply of running water. And because winters here can get severe, the Religion and Health Programme of the Dratshang Lhentshog has provided the monastery with two water geysers, with funding support from UNICEF.

© UNICEF Bhutan/2015/Dhital | After their lunch break, the young monks get free time to play their favourite sport – football.

Saving time and improving hygiene

A lot has changed after the taps were installed.

“Earlier, we had to carry all our dirty clothes and utensils to the stream,” says 14-year-old Kinley Dorji from Wangduephodrang. “And, because we had to bathe in the open, not many of us would have a proper bath for as long as three weeks. Today, we bathe every week and wash our clothes.”

Yet, despite the installation of the taps, skin diseases often break out among the young monks – one of the boys currently suffers from a rash on his scalp.

For this reason, UNICEF plans to further collaborate with the Religion and Health Programme of the Dratshang Lhentshog to soon begin Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) advocacy and education in monasteries around the country.

But, for the time being, Kinga Thinley, who previously learned about hand-washing in his school, lines up all the monks and leads them to the stream. There he demonstrates proper hand-washing techniques, and everyone follows his cue.

It is a Saturday, and soon the monks will be treated to a movie as the evening draws in. As they hurriedly walk back up to the monastery, one of them breaks out into a popular Bollywood tune.

“Dhinkachika, dhinkachika…”

© UNICEF Bhutan/2015/Dhital | The little novices learn the importance of washing their hands with soap. UNICEF is collaborating with the Religion and Health Programme of the Dratshang Lhentshog to soon begin WASH advocacy and education in monasteries around the country.

I get closer to the tune and the person humming it. To my surprise, it is five-year-old Legden Jurmi.

“Ah! So you like Hindi movies?” I ask.


“Who’s your favourite actor?”

“Salman Khan.”

I smile. And just then, he takes my hand, looks me in the eye and says: “You asked me if I miss home.”

“I did,” I say, handing him some sweets.

He finally breaks into a smile and says: “I do miss home but only when I [get in trouble] for being naughty.”

“Do you also [get in trouble] for not bathing?”

“Of course not. We didn’t have that chance before, but now that the taps are installed we bathe whenever we can.”

*Mitra Raj Chital’s article was published in UNICEF. Go to Original.

2016 Human Wrongs Watch

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