There is an exhibition titled “Himalayas: People’s life and Nature” taking place at a museum in Tokushima, Japan. It started on 29th April and will go on till 6th June, 2010.
I visited the exhibition on 8th May and I was happy to see a bangchu(Bhutanese bamboo-made lunch box) on display. But I was surprised to see the label informing the visitors that it was from Nepal.
I thought it was a mistake because I had not seen Nepalese using bangchu or even selling it in souvenir shops when I visited Kathmandu in 2007. So I came home and called a Japanese lady who has known both Nepal and Bhutan for a long time. She said, “I have seen some Tibetans in Nepal using bangchu when I visited in the 1960s, but I heard it came from Bhutan via barter trades in Kalimpong and Darjeeling.”
“Bangchu is a unique Bhutanese handicraft which you should take better care of. I have heard that some of the unique Bhutanese textile designs have already been patented by other countries.” She added.
I then carried out an online research on the various bamboo products from Nepal, India, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam etc. to find out if any other country makes bangchu. It is amazing that the simple bamboo has given rise to so many products of different shapes, sizes and uses in different countries. However, I did not see any product from other countries that closely resembled our bangchu.
“We should really be grateful to the people of Kheng and Thrimshing-Kangpara (two places in Bhutan where bangchu is produced) for this unique invention” I thought. A little more research revealed that bangchu is made from a bamboo locally known in Khengkha as yula, and in Sharchop as ringshu. Its scientific name is Neomicrocalamus andropogonifolius. According to a bamboo specialist, "Scrambling species such as Neomicrocalamus andropogonifolius provide strong, flexible weaving material of the highest quality, widely used in cottage handicraft industries." Studies mention that it is found mainly in central and eastern Bhutan, and in Nepal (known locally as langma) and Nagaland (known locally as kevva). But Nepalese and Nagas do not make bangchu although they use it for making other products.
Armed with this information, I called the person in charge of the exhibition the very next day. After introducing myself, I said, “I am really sorry to trouble you, but I think the bamboo-made lunch-box on display is from Bhutan and not from Nepal. I am not really concerned about it as a Bhutanese, but I think it is important not to misinform the visitors.”
He wholeheartedly thanked me for the information. He promised that he would correct the information and also said that he would write to the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka from where the items had been borrowed.
A friend from Okinawa visited me this week and I went to the exhibition again with him. This time, I saw another label put near the bangchu explaining that it is a “product of Bhutan” with a handwritten subtext that says “Bhutan is also a country in the Himalayas”. It is the only mention of Bhutan in the whole exhibition.
While Bhutan has become more popular in Japan thanks to GNH and TV programs on Bhutan that are aired now and then, I still sometimes meet Japanese who have never heard of Bhutan.
Our handicrafts are not only a means of livelihood for our rural people, but a representation of our history and culture. They assert our identity while attracting the interest and curiosity of foreigners. They are our precious legacies which should be nurtured, protected, promoted and passed on to our future generations. Mechanisms to protect them through national or international patents should be explored, while taking all the measures to improve their quality.