Dawa’s Story as Allegory…

Review of Dawa, the Story of a Stray Dog in Bhutan by Kunzang Choden. This review, originally posted on May 4, 2013, is now updated and reposted here /Don M.:

Publisher’s synopsis: Dawa looks like just another scruffy Thimphu street dog, but don’t be fooled: he understands Dzong­kha, he has an urge to see the world and his bigger-than-normal brain is matched only by his compassionate heart. His is an extra­ordinary life; follow its tragic beginnings to his ascen­sions as the Legendary Leader of Howling in Thimphu, to the miracle that saves him. Dawa’s story will appeal to all who have experi­enced life’s rigors – but have never given up hope on the possi­bilities.

The book was first published in 2004; now republished in a special 10th anniversary edition, 2014, from http://www.Riyangbooks.com.



“Why did you desire to be a leader?”

“Mainly for the joy of howling,” Dawa said…


al·le·go·ry, noun.   A story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one. (Oxford Dictionary)

coverEarly in this fascinating dog story from Bhutan, after we are introduced to the scruffy yellow street mutt named Dawa, the author, Kunzang Choden, tells us that “there is nothing extraordinary about Dawa if you think of him as an old stray dog. But throw away all preconceptions and seize the privilege and honour of getting to know Dawa, the uncommon dog. If you look at Dawa as a personality, he is a unique dog who is blessed with a most incredible life. This is the story of Dawa…”

And the story of that “uncommon dog” goes (in brief) like this. He is a stray, one of thousands of stray dogs in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. He was born in Paro, a city in the western part of the mountainous country, but early in life he takes on certain leadership roles, especially as the head of the nighttime pack of howlers… After living and learning all there is of Paro, Dawa feels an itch for adventure, and a spot of mange, and sets off to travel the country, to expand his horizons and better himself. Most of the book is about his wanderings, and of the places and people, and other dogs, that he meets. Along the way he crosses many high passes, visits sacred sites of worship and pilgrimage, meditates in a cave (like a monk), and encounters the fascina­ting Bhutanese culture. Eventually, however, he returns west, to the capital city of Thimphu, where he opts to retire and live out his life in peace at the Buddhist temple (lakhang) called Chandgangkha, high on a hill overlooking the Thimphu valley. It’s where the Bhutanese elite live…

Early in the book it is clear that Dawa has unusual powers — of common sense, of right and wrong, and of a certain level of canine authority. He can understand human language (Dzongkha, the main language of Bhutan). And, of course, like the human elites around him, he has to learn the honorific form of the language so that he can understand and perform appropriately in his adopted social milieu. And, he feels com­pelled to invent a prestigious pedigree, a sign of high status. The one he comes up with links him directly to one of the noble lineages of Lhasa, Tibet.

Along the way, the author drops hints about her underlying intent. It becomes clear early on that Dawa’s story is allegorical in the sense that the dog’s life and feelings reflect the life styles and beliefs and social behaviors of upper class, elite Bhutanese. It shows up early on, for example, in passages like this (dressed up in dog’s garb, so to say):

“His magical howling was heard and recognized by the entire dog popula­tion, and they answered him from everywhere… Even the snootiest, over-groomed and overly well-fed pet dogs, in the comfort of their carpeted homes, let out involuntary yelps in answer and then sheepishly pretend­ed that the sound was not from them….”

And at one point she writes even more openly that Dawa “was often amused by the analogies humans made to dogs,” much as she, with writer’s license, is amused by those very humans Dawa’s life appears to mirror.

Dawa’s place of residence (in retirement) is on the hill where so many upper class Bhutanese live, overlooking downtown Thimphu:

Dawa “is an old dog who spends most of his time outside Chandgangkha lhakhang. This ancient temple, built on a hillock overlooking Thimphu, is a historical landmark. And this is where Dawa has chosen to spend the rest of his life. It is an ideal place, for it provides the safety and tranquili­ty an aged dog needs and at the same time offers an overview of the city he loves. He knows how to stay out of people’s way, and nobody seems to mind his presence there. He spends most of the days gazing over the city with a sense of contentment and belonging. It is his city. His choice of a retirement place in close proximity to the town allows him occasional visits to his old haunts without too much exertion. During these visits, he enjoys interacting with the younger dogs. He does not impost or intrude into others’ lives; he just socializes in the way dogs do. It is on such occasions that you might see Dawa in the town. If you see an old scruffy dog, look again, carefully. It just might be Dawa.”

This enjoyable little book is both written and was first published in 2004 by an established Bhutan­ese writer, recently reissued in a limited edition dated 2014 by Riyangbooks.com.


Kunzang Choden’s books (below) are available in North American from Amazon.com, in Europe from Amazon.co.uk, and in South Asia from Amazon.co.in.

Other books by Kunzang Choden of Bhutan (from http://www.Riyangbooks.com):

Ogyen Choling: A Manor in Central Bhutan. Edited by: Kunzang Choden and Dolma C. Roder. Designed by: Riyang Books.

Synopsis: Perched on the outcrop of a mountain, the Ogyen Choling manor overlooks the picturesque and secluded Tang valley in Bumthang, Central Bhutan. The same family, now in its 20th generation, has had possession of the manor since the 15th Century. Once the home of the religious nobility of the region, the manor has stood witness to a changing nation. Most significantly the social reforms of the 1950s saw the family yield considerable political and economic power. Ogyen Choling has not only survived these changes but has adapted to these new realities to create a niche for itself as an important site of cultural heritage. Ogyen Choling’s architectural significance, its connection to a fading pre-democratic past and its continued religious relevance makes it the ideal site for the museum which opened to the public in 2001. In this book Françoise Pommaret locates Ogyen Choling in the regional historical context, while Pierre Pichard, provides rich details about the manor’s traditional architecture and the members of the Ogyen Choling family share their memories of growing up and living here.

For Young Readers:

Membar Tsho – The Flaming LakeBy: Kunzang Choden. Illustrations by: Pema Tshering.

Synopsis: Membar Tsho- The Flaming Lake brings the story of Terton Pema Lingpa to our children in poetic verses with vivid illustrations. The book is the first of its kind to introduce the important figure of Pema Lingpa, the cultural concepts of tertons, hidden treasures and hidden lands and the sacred spot of Membar Tsho in Tang, Bumthang.

This story by Kunzang Choden, who is also from Tang, Bumthang describes in an emotive narration, Pema Lingpa’s second act of discovering treasures from Membar Tsho in 1476. Pema Tshering, a founding member of VAST-Bhutan (Voluntary Artist Studio, Thimphu ), enlivens the story through his sensitive artistry with watercolor paintings.

Tshegho: The Garment of LifeBy: Kunzang Choden. Illustrations by: Yoko Ishigami

Synopsis: Dechen and her mother live in a village in Bhutan. Dechen’s mother wants to teach her to weave, but Dechen is not interested. She finds weaving boring and whines that she will never be able to learn. One day, something changes her mind.

Find out what happens to make Dechen happily learn to weave. Yoko is a Japanese artist, who has been studying traditional Bhutanese painting at the National Institute of Zorig Chusum, Thimphu and working to infuse inner peace into her own art.

More Titles by Kunzang Choden:

The Circle of Karma (2013), Tales in Colour and Other Stories (2015), Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti (2013, by Kunzang Choden,  Kunzang Dorji & Karma Wangda), Folktales of Bhutan (1995), Room in Your Heart (2011), Chilli and Cheese: Food and Society in Bhutan  (2008), Bhutan: Land of Spirituality and Modeernization / Role of Water in Daily Life (2004, by Dieter Zurcher & Kunzang Choden).