Bhutan’s Current Lockdown Is Nothing New, The Kingdom Had Practised It For Centuries To Contain Epidemics  

Bhutan’s Current Lockdown Is Nothing New, The Kingdom Had Practised It For Centuries To Contain Epidemics  

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Thursday, March 26, 2020 01:07 PM IST
Bhutan’s Current Lockdown Is Nothing New, The Kingdom Had Practised It For Centuries To Contain Epidemics  Bhutan has seen many lockdowns before.
  • For centuries, this Himalayan kingdom had imposed lockdowns on villages or provinces at the first signs of an outbreak of an epidemic.

Bhutan is no stranger to lockdowns to fight epidemics, and they even have a name for it — Yulsung.

For centuries, this Himalayan kingdom had imposed lockdowns on villages or provinces at the first signs of an outbreak of an epidemic.

Bhutan’s rulers — the Zhabdrung Rinpoches or spiritual heads who ruled the tiny country since the late sixteenth century and the Wangchuk royals since the late nineteenth century — have decreed Yulsung and locked down entire areas at the first signs of epidemic outbreaks.

The ancient Yulsung practice came with its own set of specific rules and regulations. All residents of a village or specific area placed under Yulsung stayed under strict self-quarantine for the entire period as decreed by the ruler.

No person was allowed to enter the area or come out of it. Violators had been meted out exemplary punishments. The practice had been for the central authorities — the ruler — to designate a person or group of persons to journey to the periphery of the area under lockdown under a strict protocol.

A person from the quarantined area would then come and meet the ruler’s emissaries and speak to them from a distance of 100 metres. The person would relate the requirements of the quarantined area.

Based on this feedback from his emissaries, the ruler would dispatch food, traditional medicines to treat the particular disease behind the outbreak, and other necessities to the affected area.

The protocol for handing over the material was also spelt out. The materials would be kept at a specific place, unusually under a large tree, at least a hundred metres away from the boundary of the area under lockdown.

The people under Yulsung would collect the relief materials an hour after the departure of the relief party. The emissaries would also leave mail and messages about their next date of visit, usually after a week.

Even within the village under lockdown, all persons struck by the disease would be quarantined in makeshift huts constructed at least a kilometre away from habitation, usually on the periphery of a forest. Contact with the rest of the village was totally prohibited.

A caregiver, usually a member of the family, would be designated to look after the ailing person. A separate hut for the caregiver, usually about 20 metres away from the ailing person’s hut, would also be constructed.

It would be the responsibility of the caregiver to cook for the ailing person and provide medicines to the person. But the caregiver was required to always maintain a safe distance of at least 10 metres from the diseased person.

The villagers would leave rations and other materials at least 50 metres away from the hut and the caregiver would collect it at designated times.

The body of a person who dies of the disease would be buried inside a forest, and the hut he was staying in would be burnt down along with all his belongings. The decomposed remains of the dead person would be exhumed after a year for a proper cremation according to Buddhist rituals.

Irrespective of whether the ailing person dies or recovers, the caregiver would be quarantined for another two weeks in his or her hut and kept under observation. S/he would be allowed to return to the village only if s/he displayed no symptom of the disease.

The practice of Yulsung has been described in detail in a historical novel The Hero With A Thousand Eyes by celebrated Bhutanese writer Dasho Karma. The 1995 novel is based on the life of Dasho Shingkhar Lam (read about him here).

Dasho Shingkhar Lam served under the second king Jigme Wangchuk and became the secretary to the third king Jigme Dorji Wangchuk before becoming the Speaker of the National Assembly and a deputy minister in 1971. The ‘Dasho’ title was conferred on him by the king in 1968.

The book contains a vivid description of Yulsung imposed on Bumthang (central Bhutan) through a kasho (royal decree) in the summer of 1949. An outbreak of suspected smallpox killed 30 people in what is now a picturesque Shingyer village, one of ten villages in Ura gewong (cluster of villages) in Bumthang province.

According to Dasho Lam’s account in the novel, the two entrances to the village were blocked and entry of outsiders or exit of the villagers was prohibited.

The messenger of the second King who imposed the Yulsung for eight months would go to the outskirts of the village every week and get the latest updates on the disease and foodstocks from a villager who would stand 100 metres away.

Shingyer’s residents depended wholly on farming and the King also ensured that their standing crops did not go to waste. He asked Dasho Lam to organise harvesting of the buckwheat crop in the farmlands in the outskirts of the village.

Dasho Lam organised able-bodied men from the surrounding villages and went to the farmlands to harvest the crop. They left it in sacks and the residents of Shingyer collected it after the harvesters had left.

A similar lockdown was imposed around the same time on Trongsa, a large village which has now grown into a small town in central Bhutan, after an outbreak of smallpox there.

Dasho Lam recounts in the book that a man from Trongsa jumped the quarantine and was caught sneaking out of the village. He was arrested and sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for 15 years.

In the later years, too, lockdowns had been imposed at the first signs of outbreak of any epidemic. The last such was in 1965-66.

Dasho Karma, in his novel, writes: “Historically, in times of the outbreak of smallpox, Bhutan relied for protection on the tradition of Yulsung and trusted the Kings to help contain the disease and tide us over the deadly epidemics”.

That, surely, finds resonance in India today.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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