Buddhist statues and other religious items are perhaps the best selling products at the Mega Fair at Changlimithang, Thimphu, organized between March 17 to 23 by RENEW, a non-governmental organisation.
This speaks of the significance of maintaining a choesham (traditional Buddhist alter) for every Buddhist household in the country.
And international trade fairs are a good opportunity for Bhutanese households to add new items in their choesham.
Pema Choden, 40, from Thimphu, said she prefers religious items to other goods if she has limited budget. “Praying in front of my choesham gives me happiness and peace, which possession of expensive goods don’t,” she said.
This time, she bought a silver karmikorm worth Nu 7,000 from a Nepalese vendor. “It’s expensive but important for a Buddhist household like mine,” she said.
Having a decent choesham at home is a desire of every Buddhist although the statues and other items needed are expensive. It costs around Nu 80,000 to set up a decent choesham in Thimphu.
Most households dedicate an entire room for a choesham, which is maintained as a quiet room where several manifestations of the Buddha and his teachings are maintained in a beautiful setting. However, with the increase in rents and the shrinking of living spaces dedicating a room solely for a choesham is becoming impossible for urban households.
Choesham is a place to invoke holy beings to come down and stay so as to enrich the wisdom and compassion of the family. Fresh water, incense and fruits among other items are offered to holy beings.
Tsula Lopen Samten Dorji of Zhung Dratshang, the Central Monastic Bodoy, explained that a choesham is like a palace for housing relics. “As we are Buddhists we need a choesham to offer prayers. Prayers bring us peace and harmony in our life,” he said.
“A choesham is like a palace for housing Buddhist relics,” he said. Lopen Samten Dorji said that relics in a choesham should be maintained in the right order and manner as per Buddhist norms.
“The relics should be kept in proper ways,” he said. He said the ultimate purpose is to attain enlightenment.
Some followers of Buddhism say having an expensive choesham is not necessary for them, but that it is their faith in God that matters. Some Buddhists, however, maintain the grandeur and serenity of their choesham to demonstrate their faith in taking the refuge in God.
International trade shows serves as a platform for Thimphu residents to buy choesham items directly from the manufacturers, most of which come from Nepal. Most of the products are hand-made and they cost much higher than those made in Bhutan and imported from India.
Shova Shakya of Stupa Crafts from Patan, Kathmandu said, among other religious items, she sold a stupa worth Nu 700,000 to a Bhutanese customer. “Bhutan is a big market for our products,” she said adding that it was her second trip to Bhutan.
“Although the recent snowfall spoilt one of my choetens, I could make some money from the sale of other items,” she said. The snowfall of March 11 had disrupted the trade fair but the stalls were raised again and the trade fair was held again from March 17 to 23.
Most of the vendors from Nepal, however, left on March 22.
International trade fair is also an opportunity for Bhutanese buyers to buy genuine products without having to travel abroad. Many Bhutanese travel to Nepal to buy such products while others cannot afford a trip.
Namgay, 51, bought a Guru statue worth Nu 50,000 from one of the stalls. He said he already had a few statues in his choesham. “I want to upgrade my choesham with a bigger statue,” he said.
He said a Bhutanese house is incomplete without a choesham in it. “It also helps bring wealth in the family as per Buddhist beliefs,” he said.
A regular participant of international trade fairs in Thimphu, Anup Sinchuri of Kathmandu-based Light Buddha Tibetan Arts, was one of the busiest shopkeepers at the trade fair. He specializes in karmikorms and bumpas and has “regular customers” in Thimphu.
“Most of the buyers are my regular customers. They come every year to my stall,” he said.
The prices of karmikorms and bumpas at his stall ranges from Nu 1000 to Nu 20,000. Most customers bargain for a discount, but he said Bhutanese are willing to pay reasonable prices.
“We don’t charge unreasonable prices,” Anup Sinchuri said. “We sell with the least possible profits,” he added.
It is not only the statue sellers from Nepal who benefit from Buddhist beliefs. The choesham culture is one of the contributors to furniture companies.
A medium-sized choesham made of soft wood costs between Nu 40,000 to 80,000 in Thimphu. It takes about 20 days to make a choesham.
Tashi Dorji from Trashiyangtse, who works in Samphel Furniture in Thimphu, says choesham is one of the best selling products for furniture houses. He said his customers wait about two to three months to get their choesham delivered after the order is confirmed.
“Carpenters take about 10 days to make a choesham. Then we need 15 more days for painting it,” Tashi Dorji, who is a painter, said. “Buyers must pay some of the cost in advance to confirm their order,” he said.
A corporate employee said the owner of a choesham should select images and statues of Buddhas as per Buddhist rules. “However, we should not take pride in keeping expensive items in our altar,” she said.
She said Buddhism is about finding peace and happiness in whatever a person has in his possession.
Besides the famous concept of Gross National Happiness, Buddhism is Bhutan’s unique selling points. Buddhist heritages are one of the attractions for tourists in Bhutan and tourism contributes a major chunk of revenue for the government.