End of the Road: Will Bhutan’s Brokpa tribe preserve its unique identity?

Will Bhutan’s Brokpa tribe preserve its unique identity or has the race to modernize begun?

By AJ Heath

In the last decade the Kingdom of Bhutan has undergone a rapid transition, from a closed Buddhist Kingdom to a constitutional democracy and is now admired worldwide for its uncompromising pursuit of Gross National Happiness. But as Bhutan development accelerates, its government and people are engaged in a tireless struggle to preserve its culture and keep its unique identity alive.

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During the summer months the Brokpa Yak herders live a semi-nomadic life, as they search for fresh pasture land for their yak.

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Drinking butter tea is a regular part of Brokpa life and is always served to guests. Since yak butter is the main ingredient, it provides plenty of calories and the herders are said to often drink up to 30 cups of it a day.

Traditional ways of living and cultural practices, particularly those in rural communities, are quickly disappearing in the quest for new lifestyles and less laborious job opportunities. In an attempt to combat globalisation the government has drafted a heritage bill, which they hope will protect the cultural traditions of isolated communities like the Brokpa Tribe in the far eastern corner of the country.

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A herder wearing a jerkin made of yak hide for extra warmth.

There is some debate that these isolated communities have missed out on the mainstream development, with some arguing that the government wanted to conserve these villages as ‘living museums’, to satisfy high-end tourists. International tourists can only visit Bhutan on an organized tour, which, alongside a daily visa fee to the government, can cost about $250 a day. Even so, at some local Tshechus (festivals), tourists are now almost outnumbering the locals, with many complaining that Bhutan is no longer the last Shangri-La they have been told of.

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Yak are tethered at night near the campsite to protect them from attack by predators and to have the cows ready for milking in the morning.

Women command a high degree of respect from their husbands and children and often function as the head of the family. They are pivotal in deciding such matters as marriage of their children, when to migrate and in taking charge of the family finance.

Wedged between glacial valleys of the Greater Himalayas, the Brokpa villages of Merak and Sakten are remote in the extreme. Cut off for centuries, the only way to visit the villages is to complete a grueling multi-day trek, along river valleys and over a 4,300m pass, but this is all about to change. Within the next few months the first road to the villages will be completed and the pressure to modernise will become exacerbated.

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Smoke from a Brokpa yak herder’s fire drifts into the early morning air. It is a 4-5 hour hike to the nearest road and the Brokpa rely heavily on their yak.

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The tranquil peace of the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (home of the yeti) is shattered by the sound of heavy machinery, as diggers cut a new road into the mountainside.

 

 

 

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A Brokpa women in tradition clothes made from Yak hair and sheep’s wool. Their distinctive hat known as ‘tsipee cham’ is made of yak felt with long twisted tufts, said to prevent the rain from running into their faces.

The Brokpa are ethnically distinct from other Bhutanese, having migrated through the Himalayas from the Tshoona region of Tibet a few centuries ago. Traditions and culture passed down over the ages still play a predominant part of their social life. They mostly depend on yaks and sheep for their livelihood and do not typically grow crops due to the high altitude zones they inhabit. They speak a unique dialect and worship their own deities.

They wear a singular style of dress, made famous by their distinctive yak felt hat, known as ‘tsipee cham’, with long twisted tufts, said to prevent the rain from running into their faces.

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The nearest road currently ends a couple of hours hike from the village, so all commodities have to be transported by yak.

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Merak lies at 3,500m above sea level and has about 213 dwellings. Electricity to the village was only introduced in 2012.

As you walk around the narrow lanes of Merak, it is quickly apparent that apart from the introduction of electricity in 2012 and community shared taps of running water, little has changed in centuries. Rails of yak meat dry in the sun, women sit on their porch weaving traditional blankets on back strap looms and around each corner you’re likely to encounter a caravan of yak lugging goods to the village. During the summer months the Brokpa yak herders live a semi nomadic life, as they search for fresh pastureland for their herds high up in the Himalayas. The village can be eerily quiet on most days.

Having been semi nomadic for centuries, the barter system is still robust and wealth is assessed on the heads of livestock. Women command a high degree of respect from their husbands and often function as the head of the family. Polyandry is still practiced, in fact it is a common norm for a women to marry all the brothers in a family. This prevents their ancestral land being partitioned over time and by using this system a family can pool it’s resources — one husband can be away on a trading mission, whilst the others are able to tend the yak at home.

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Dawa spends hours dying the wool red, so that it can be tailored into the traditional red jackets that the men wear during the winter months and at festivals.

 

 

 

 

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Tshewang Choden, 45, is excited by the road and expects it to bring greater amenities and services to her village. “The road makes me happy, as it will greatly improve my family’s living conditions and make life easier”.

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For a long time, Bhutan was the only nation in the world to ban television. TV and internet were only introduced into Bhutan in 1999, but there are still some isolated communities that do not have access to either.

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A 21st Century problem -A young Brokpa boy hangs out of a window searching for better mobile phone reception.

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Within the last few years shops have started to appear, bringing with it the added issue on non bio-degradable packaging. Rubbish disposal is now a growing problem for the village.

Change for the Brokpa tribe is unavoidable and their reliance on their yak is bound to diminish over time. Goods to the village will now be transported by road rather than for days on the backs of their yak but will the road and the increased number of tourists it is bound to bring in, escalate their desire to modernize or could it pressurize them into preserving their unique way of life?

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