A mention of Bhutan evokes images of serenely beautiful pastures, gorgeous Buddhas, Gross National Happiness, and the Taktsang monastery clinging to a cliff-side high above Paro valley.
But did you know about Bhutan’s amazing stamps that sing to you (that’s right) or give you a whiff of local roses (no kidding)? Now those are some unique souvenirs to bring back! Read on. :)
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[My piece in The Hindu dated 3 August, 2014, on the philatelic tradition of Bhutan]
Collectors are an odd species. They camouflage themselves well among regular people, so you don’t realize you are in the company of one until you unwittingly trigger their confession. Travelling in a plane, you could be unwrapping a bar of chocolate when a co-passenger taps you on the shoulder, eyeing your hands with unwarranted interest, and lets you in on his secret with an apologetic smile – he collects candy wrappers from all over the world (of all possible things, you think). As you wordlessly pop the chocolate into your mouth and hand over the sticky remnant to him, he drops it into a plastic pouch, tucks it away in his coat pocket, and resumes looking out of the window, once again back to normalcy.
More conventional obsessions find greater acceptability – philately, for instance, or numismatics. This does not mean that collectors of stamps or coins lag behind in that requisite amount of nuttiness which is essential for any serious pursuit. Coin collectors have been known to procure cherished items at grossly unreasonable costs (in more ways than just monetary) and the rivalry between eminent stamp collectors is the stuff that never makes it to legends, for general lack of interest, but is intense enough.
A recent visit to Bhutan brought me in close association with some passionate philatelists. For most people, Bhutan symbolizes a culturally rich and self-isolated country that famously advocates Gross National Happiness as an index of citizen well-being. For the single-minded folks in philately circles, Bhutan is best known for its unique stamps that are traded among collectors at a steep premium owing to the Himalayan nation’s relative inaccessibility to foreigners.
Bhutan’s postal system is young, with human couriers being the only mode of delivering mail prior to 1955. After 1962, Bhutan leapfrogged into the world of philately with the help of an American named Burt Todd. A personal friend of the royal family, Todd was a maverick entrepreneur who came up with the absurd suggestion of selling postage stamps on a large scale to generate funds for the Himalayan kingdom. To engage the attention and loosen the purse strings of philatelists, Bhutan went on to lay claim to a series of innovative firsts in issuing stamps: 3-dimenstional; rose-scented; silk stamps showing thangka paintings; stamps printed on steel (many now gone to rust); and the most sensational “talking stamps” printed on tiny vinyl discs or CD-ROMs, with adhesive at the back, that play Bhutanese folk songs on a regular record player and even contain video footage in the case of CD-ROM stamps.
The idea turned out to be a raging success. Not only did revenue from postage stamps fund some major infrastructure projects, it remained a chief source of Bhutan’s national income until the nation opened up to tourism and set up the first hydropower stations. The irony was, at the height of its stamps’ popularity, Bhutan did not even have a functioning international airport; mail to other countries was routed via India, affixed with staid old Indian postage.
Soon after finalizing my Bhutan trip I was swamped with appeals to bring back stamps worth a small fortune. Requests arrived as bulleted lists and colour-coded spreadsheets – diligently maintained wishlists of serious philatelists – and I prepared for a long, tedious stop at Thimphu’s General Post Office (GPO), jostling for attention and scavenging for items.
But the Thimphu GPO, with its cheerful staff, turned out to be a pleasant affair. Despite the plethora of stamps available for sale, arranged in several thick albums, the lady behind the counter had the uncanny knack of knowing exactly which page to flick open for the particular sheet I wanted. I left the GPO in a self-congratulatory mode, lighter by several wads of currency notes and clutching paper envelopes more precious than they appeared to be.
At the airport a week later, my helpful deed was put into perspective. As I saw a young family struggle with heavy duffel bags – filled with rocks, I was told, picked up from all over Bhutan by their 10-year old son, a budding rock collector – I had a moment of silent gratitude for my philatelist friends. After all, all they ever want from me is a bunch of stamps.
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Looking for an even more unique gift to take back home to friends?
Stop by Thimphu’s General Post Office and get yourself some personalized stamps: a picture of yourself (or a friend or a pet) printed on a set of official Bhutanese stamps! Just carry the required image in a USB drive and walk out with your own customized stamp-sheet for no additional cost. Better still, get your friend’s mug printed on a stamp, affix it on a picture postcard and post it to their home address. Hopefully you’ll be over at their place sharing your glorious Bhutan stories when they get their mail, so you can catch their “wait, what?!” expression. :)