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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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