The Boneless Tongue

Some Reflections…

It was a long wait. But it was a wait every bit worth the two decades or so of tantalising anticipation and legitimate optimism. And, here it is, finally! A rare sensibility was hard at work. The second edition of The Boneless Tongue, the priceless magnum opus of one of Bhutan’s pre-eminent academics and scholars, Dr.DorjiThinley, President of Paro College of Education, Royal University of Bhutan, is with us now.

And, what a rare treasure this most Delightful Compendium of Bhutanese Elegant Poetry, Metaphorical Sayings, and Accumulated Wisdom is The Boneless Tongue!Traversing a breath-taking span of over 1300 years and sampling some 900 of the finest verses from the timeless repertoire of Bhutan’s incredibly rich heritage, The Boneless Tongue speaks to the very soul of the nation.

A unique renaissance has been set in motion.

This wholesome fruit of the joyful labour of love of an exceptional scholar and indefatigable researcher, who commands rare ease and facility with the richness and nuances of both the Dzongkha and English Languages as well as the profundity of Classical Choeke, The Boneless Tongue is a triumphant affirmation of the measureless poetic wealth hidden away in the fertile memories of our multi-generational communities which are the natural home of the spontaneous Muse.

The variety, subtlety and potency of the unfettered linguistic devices inherent in the effortless expressions and exchanges of our pastoral folk are an envy of the so-called learned and advanced frontier-denizens.

All languages, written or otherwise, aspire to achieve the elegance and economicity of poetry, dissolve into the timelessness of maxims and proverbs, and culminate as the repository of universal wisdom. The Boneless Tongueis proof of this, and more.

Look at the incredible insight and irony loaded into thislittle verse of a mere three lines, of just eight syllables each, that so beautifully and inescapably drives home the universal message of impermanence and futility, as in the following:



gzha` kha dog legs rung yalba`irgyu// `brug `ursgrache rung stongstongnang//nor longs spyodche rung phungba`igzhi//

(47) Although radiant, the rainbow will inevitably fade away;

Although thunderous, the dragon merely inhabits empty space;

Although vast, wealth and riches are only sources of dispute.

The inimitable translator’s uncompromising commitment to retaining the intent and integrity of the source language while providing a faithful rendition of the verse into the target language and maintainingthe same structure and similar syntactic orderis clearly evident throughout.

Each selected verse in The Boneless Tongueinvariably follows this arrangement: enshrinement of the text in the source language followed by its phonetic transcription and explanation of the meaning in English to achieve as close a match as possible both semantically as well as structurally as in:


`phyar `phyargnamkhar `phyar rung// `babsaaentsigur rang ain//

Although raised high in the air,

The place where it drops is the chopping block.

This verse metaphorically suggests that no matter how high one’s status or position maybe, symbolized by the raising of the chopping knife, eventually they must come down toface reality and deal with everyday tasks or challenges, symbolized by the chopping block. Itsuggests the typical Bhutanese value of humility, reminding one not to become too proud ordisconnected from the practical realities of life despite their elevated status. [Verse 52].

Note how multi-layered history and fervent aspiration come alive in a single couplet of immortal verse:


`brugpa`ispungthangbdechenlu// zhaggcigsdod rung skalbabzang//

(309)The thunder dragon’s palace of great bliss in Punakha —

How fortunate it is to spend even a single night there.

When a verse or saying is drawn from a historical, religious, political or indeed any occupational source, and there are many, the translator leaves no stone unturned to unearth the last fibre of allusion or reference to provide the reader with the full benefit of the relevant antecedents.

There are significant differences between the first and the second editions of The Boneless Tongue.While the 2005 edition consisted mostly of verses in Dzongkha and English and their translations, with brief explanations and annotations in places, without much benefit of research or contextual description of the verses, the current edition is a world apart.

There is a far richer contextual description here drawing from a variety of perspectives including literary, thematic, historical, cultural, spiritual lines of sight; the quality of translation itself has significantly improved with enhanced emphasis on content fidelity, accuracy of language, preservation of thematic and literary essences, as the author explains.

Special attention has been paid to ensuring the integrity of the country’s rich heritage and the unique features of its linguistic and literary wealth. The introductory sections are in themselves a most insightful guide to help the reader appreciate the gems, each one more coruscating than the other, that form the body of the text inside. The thematic arrangement of the vast array of verses on multiple themes drawn from myriad sources is an added bonus to the reader.

Translation is an act of faith. The translator has to embody the same vision, dream the same dream and walk the same road as the original writer or speaker. Dr. DorjiThinleyhas not only gleaned the finest pearls of poetry and translated them with unflinching fidelity to the original, he has exercised utmost scholarly discipline and followed rigorous research protocols including adhering to the highest standards of translation advanced by the seminal minds in the tradition. 

Here is a veritable autobiography of a nation, a re-discovery, re-affirmation and re-assertion of the vital life of a people. The second edition of The Boneless Tongue is a 342-page ‘compendium’, but it is more. It is an encyclopaedia of a nation’s inner life manifested in the vibrancy of its thought and expression from the most sublime to the mundane, ephemeral and the eternal, soul and substance.

The revelation of this treasure couldn’t have come at a more urgent time. As the old order gives way to the new, much that we have inherited from our wise ancestors risks being lost. Hence, the critical importance of this precious gift to succeeding generations of Bhutanese citizens from an exceptional Bhutanese scholar imbued with deep love for his country and its priceless heritage.

The Boneless Tongue, launched at a special function at the College on May 22, 2024, looks back to the vast ocean of the country’s inborn literary and linguistic genius and it looks forward to take its rightful place among the masterpieces of national and global Literature Studies.

Welcome to this feast of Bhutanese Elegant Poetry, Metaphorical Sayings and Accumulated Wisdom and the celebration of the incredible versatility of the boneless tongue of the Drukpas!

Thakur S Powdyel, former Minister of Education

Author: My Green School: An Outline for Human & Societal Flourishing.

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