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Civil Engineering in Bhutan – As I think
Posted:May 15, 2017
 
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Maybe isolation during the age of baby boomers was inevitable for us, for we were surrounded by mountains, rivers, forests and ridges. While it makes a foreigner to scratch his or her hair, when we flaunt the fact that majority of us are polyglots.
 
If you mention Bhutan today, you would hear about her stories of being the Last Shangrila, the first country to ban tobacco, or the country which formulated Gross National Happiness, a country thriving to be a hydro-power nation, a country nestled and nested between the two super powers of Asia, a country which deems to have high regard to their culture and tradition. One of the youngest democratic nations in the world, Bhutan has more to offer to the world than it meets the eye.
 
Today, our construction industries struggle and are solely dependent upon workers from India. Although developing, there might not be one single firm whose turnover, upon a year would cross Nu 1 billion per year. However, batching plants and transit mixers happen to be a sign of improvement and progress for a firm. Not many firms own it. Two tower cranes and skyscrapers in Bhutan seems like a distant dream.
 
In terms of technology, we are shrugged and disdained to be one of the late bloomers. However, many won’t know the stories behind, and our citizens, although they see those structures everyday, not many would see it through the eyes of curiosity and appreciation.
 
The answers, however, lie in those structures, their existence speak of tales which is beyond spirituality and being holy places.
 
History taught us who built what and when, and today many folks visit these sites, but let’s see it through an engineering point of view.
 
Bhutan has many dzongs, which were build during the era of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, and no nails were used then. No cement mortars nor lime mortars were used. These are all load bearing structures built with mud mortar, stones and woods. The locations are modern engineers’ nightmares. Who would have thought it would be possible to build those structures at odd locations? Paro Takshang, for instance, was built on a cliff cave. The building doesn’t have proper foundation.
 
Punakha dzong was built on a delta of Pho-Chu and Mo-Chu. If you ask today’s engineers, they would firstly deny taking up the project. The reasons are obvious. Dzong as the structure is big, there will be settlement and consolidation, and a carriage bridge needs to be built before we do it. But during those days, how could they do it? Today’s engineers would as well tell you that a proper treatment of that site is required and they would find their solace in pile foundations, grouting and anything that’s new in the market.
 
A pride for Bhutanese is that Punakha dzong stands upon the delta, withstanding earthquakes, and glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF).
 
Here’s a little history about cast iron. The earliest artifacts of cast iron dates back to 5th century found in China. The western world could only use them in 15th century, and Henry the VIII also used cast iron as cannon balls. What a malice from a menace of a Tudor?
 
The most famous iron bridge over River Severn, which spanned 30.63m, was open in 1781. Thomas Paine, one of the founding fathers of America patented his design of iron bridge, which was opened in 1787, built across the Schuylkill river. These stories are glorifying ones for the western world, who tamed the irons and experimented upon innovations and innovative folks.
 
Somewhere in their shadows of glories and triumphs, the stories about iron cage bridges of Thangthong Gyalpo never surfaced. Thangthong Gyalpo had built Chakzam bridge, a suspension bridge, which spanned 137m in Tibet in 1430 and the world got its first suspension bridge then.
 
Still today, one can witness his bridge in Bhutan, and his iron chains withstanding rust and corrosion.
 
In terms of hydropower plants, expats take great credits for getting involved with Chukha or Tala Hydro power plants. It’s a modern day engineering marvels. The tunnels were dug in one the most youngest mountains of the world, where the strata is still unstable and is a learning, discovering and shocking playground for any geologist. These two projects are one of the most successful ones in Himalayan range, and all we care about is its budget and how much we have earned from them.
 
Engineering in Bhutan had touched pinnacle in olden days, just that historians didn’t glorify her stories of engineering marvels. Today, we buy equipment and machineries, which the western world thinks to be the most efficient, and we don’t brace our age-old techniques.
 
With time, not many structures whose windows and trusses have absence of nails, and we think we are on the road to modernisation.
 
Next time you go visit a lhakhang or a holy site, just put yourself into the shoes of those builders, who made these magnificent structures exist, just imagine, how was it possible then to built those?
 
So, if a Bhutanese is to understand civil engineering well, one doesn’t have to look upon other nations, the answer lies within.
Kuensel Online, May 16, 2017
 
 
 
 
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