One goodbye, too many goodbyes…

Lopon Tharpala

The sound of slapping echoed on the tin-roof of my village-school as I tended my family cattle nearby while Mr Gupta disciplined his charge to measure up and meet his headmaster-teacher expectations of the first generation of local boys at school. If that was what school was about, it wasn’t for me. I had made up my mind and remained school-scared until I had to relent. Once admitted though, a new world opened up for me and there was no turning back. There was Lopon Tharpala.

The austere school environment softened up with a glimpse of Lopon Tharpala and that was incentive enough to stay on and succeed. I learnt my first letters of the Dzongkha Alphabet and Numerals from Lopon Tharpala, moving on to the beautiful stories of Jetsun Mila Repa, Pungthang Dechen Phodrang Dzong, regular handwriting, reading and grammar, and then prayers to Lha Jambayang.  

Namchu Sir, Lopon Tharpala, and H. B Sir, as the teacher-trio was called, made a wonderful team and reinforced each others’ strength and brought it to bear on the welfare of the students and the community.

Lopon’s endearing smile, generous laughter, great sense of humour and good cheer set him apart and won the deep respect of rustic village-boys for whom the only link to the world outside were the school and the teachers. We had fun watching Lopon and other teachers play the only sport then as their bare feet kicked the ball at random and sent it flying into the bushes exciting a horde of restive boys to go scrambling for it.

Looking back at the half century since Lopon Tharpala’s arrival at Dorokha, I realise with deep gratitude and humility that our old, two-storey, four-roomed village-school had in essence received the blessings of an enlightened human being, a community benefactor and a learned educator.

Lopon quickly learned the local language, keenly participated in festivals and celebrations, supported the local lhakhang and led the first pilgrimage to the historic Rangtse Ney. As the people discovered the treasure in their midst, they would often visit Lopon for his wise counsel, support in need, and even for mediation and peace-building among members of the community.

Revered Lopon Tharpala was particularly kind to me and my family. I remember Lopon visit our house regularly and receive Tika from my parents during Dasai and Bhai Tika from my sisters during Diwali. He would enquire of my parents’ and siblings’ well-being every time I met him or communicated with him, even as my parents remembered Lopon with great fondness and affection.

A noble being with compassion for all and malice towards none, Lopon Tharpala left behind a deep void in Dorokha when he left the school to join St. Josephs School in Kalimpong on deputation to teach Dzongkha to our Bhutanese students there and therabouts. Even away from home, Lopon Tharpala earned the respect and love of the local community for his many laudable contributions to building goodwill and fellowship, extending his helping hand to the commonest man on the road while he gained the trust and admiration of those in authority. I felt Lopon’s positive vibes everywhere during my brief visit to Kalimpong in my college days.

Back from Kalimpong, as Lopon Tharpala settled in Gelephu, he brought an extraordinary presence and power of his deeply spiritual self and social consciousness as a wise elder there. Lopon retired as the Headmaster of Gelephu Primary School after a long and distinguished career as a highly revered educator, having taught many batches of students from the remotest corners of Bhutan to members of the royal family.

The large number of religious monuments that Lopon made, the spiritual activities that he initiated and sponsored, and indeed the enrichment of community life that he inspired will be a living legacy of our revered Lopon Tharpala. Lopon set up the biggest incense-making facility in Gelephu that produces among the finest incense-products in the country.  

Lopon Tharpala was a recipient of the National Order of Merit from His Majesty the King in recognition of his long and outstanding service to the Tsa-wa-sum. Lopon also received a Letter of Appreciation from His Holiness Chyabje Rinpoche in acknowledgment of his many religious services. The Ministry of Education was honoured to invite Lopon Tharpala to the inaugural function of the year-long celebration of Sherig Centenary in 2012 where he, and many of his retired contemporaries, received the Sherig Badge from Her Royal Highness Ashi Kesang Wangmo Wangchuck as pioneers in the advancement of education in the country.

In the supreme irony of fate, even the gods crave for the best pick of the basket. It feels like a dream that my beloved Lopon is no more. In Lopon Tharpala’s sudden demise, humanity has lost one of its most precious gems, the country is poorer by the loss of a most noble citizen, the family the dearest presence, and this doting student an irreplaceable source of strength. 

Ours was a bond nurtured over many decades on pure goodwill, sublime love and sacred reverence that only the finest teacher-student relationship can achieve and cherish. Lopon Tharpala knew that he had a sacred place in my heart and I knew that I had a special space in his prayers. Lopon wished the best for me and was worried that I hadn’t secured even the minimum for myself and my family while I devoted all my time and energy to the cause of nation-building.

It was my good fortune to make my pilgrimage to Lopon in 2017 in the course of my visit to the Regional Referral Hospital in Gelephu to discuss the placement of RTC’s B.Sc Nursing students for their clinical training there. Lopon was most happy, animated and full of life and in his native good cheer to see me. My companion, Dr. Nikhil Jain, was struck by the edifying spirit of the interaction between an old student and his revered teacher.

Little did I know then that it was to be my last visit to my Lopon. I made a tribute-call to him on Teachers’ Day this year. Little did I know then that it was to be my last call! Lopon wasn’t able to pick up my recent call but I told myself that my Lopon would be just fine!  That too was not to be…

At other times, when I took time to reach out, Lopon would call and enquire after my health and family well-being. On certain occasions, Lopon would pre-empt me and extend his loving greetings. Lopon even embarrassed me by bringing me special home-made breakfast to the guest house during our 2011 Annual Education Conference in Gelephu.

Even at 84, Lopon was keeping good health and retained his positive outlook, devoting his time mostly to prayers and meditation till a sudden turn in the system took him away from us. It was on the auspicious 15th day of the ninth month of the Female Ox year of the Bhutanese calendar when our beloved Lopon Tharpala breathed his last in his peaceful rest at his home in Gelephu, surrounded by his family and loved ones, after receiving the sacred Phowa from his own Tsawai Lam.

Druk Thukse Lopon Tharpala represented a rare class of educators who exemplified sublime wisdom, pure goodwill and all-embracing humanity. He belonged to an age when the teacher was Lopon in the true sense of the term. It has been a singular privilege for me and my peers to have received the gift of that light at the feet of teachers like Lopon Tharpala. That makes my personal void bottomless…

As we bid goodbye to our revered Lopon, we pray that his sacred soul join his ancestors in Zhingkham and take a swift rebirth to return to our beloved county. May the members of the bereaved family receive the courage to overcome this irreparable loss and return to life’s normal rhythm soon…

Thank you, dearest Lopon, for the light and the love that I will always treasure…

Thakur S Powdyel, your ever-grateful student in prayers…