Tribes Of Bhutan - The Brokpas

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Merak and Sakteng is home to the Brokpas, a semi-nomadic yak herding tribe who originated from the Tshoona region of Tibet.

(Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan)

By Zann Huizhen Huang

The remote villages of Merak (Burnt area) and Sakteng (Bamboo ground) in Eastern Bhutan is home to the Brokpas, a semi-nomadic yak herding tribe who originated from the Tshoona region of Tibet.

According to oral tradition, the Brokpas made their way to Bhutan after beheading Dreba-Yabu, a tyrannical king in their ancestral village in 1347.

Carrying scores of Mahayana Buddhism texts, Aum Jomo, a deity and Guru Lam Jarepa led the Brokpas through the mountains to the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

Who are the Brokpas?

‘Brok’ means pastoral land in Tibetan while ‘pa’ is a demonym - a word that identifies the natives of a particular place. In fact, the land that the Brokpas inhabit today is a fascinating blend of glacial valleys, rolling pastures and lush, verdant forests.

Photo: Druk Asia 

Due to its geographical isolation, for centuries, the only way to reach the villages of Merak and Sakteng was a few days of gruelling trek, over valleys and mountain passes as high as 4300m. 

As the Brokpa tribe is ethnically distinct from other Bhutanese, the language spoken in their villages, located in the district of Trashigang, is known as Brokpa or Mira Sagtengpa.

They worship their own deities and every autumn, the Brokpas would honour Jomo Kuengkhar, a mountain goddess by observing a two-day festival to seek her blessings for prosperity.

It is also not uncommon to see polyandry practised here, that is, one woman with a few husbands (normally all the brothers of a family).

This is done for practical reasons, to preserve their land and properties as well as for the division of duties.

For instance, one husband might be tending to yaks in the valleys while another might be bartering goods in other villages.

Livelihood of the Brokpas

Due to harsh climactic conditions at high altitudes, which are not conducive for the cultivation of crops, the Brokpas are heavily dependent on yak and sheep herding for survival.

Source: Youtube/Denkars Getaway 

Besides being used as beasts of burden, yaks provide meat and milk for the consumption of the Brokpas. 

The fur, skin and dung are also used to make various yak products which are then bartered for grains, oil, salt, sugar, chillies and other necessities with neighbouring gewogs (villages) and even in Arunachal Pradesh, India.

For the pastoral community, yak wool are spun and woven into clothes, hats and even tents, although this is becoming less common as plastic tarpaulins are regarded as more convenient replacements.

The traditional costume of a Brokpa women is made of woven yak hair and sheep’s wool. The unique hat, known as ‘tsipee cham’ is made of yak felt with long twisted tufts, designed to prevent rain from running into their faces.

 

Photo: Druk Asia 

Yak butter is their staple diet as it keeps the Brokpas warm during the long, cold winter months; and to help them cope with their nomadic lifestyle, especially in the summer where the Brokpas need to move in search of grazing land, yak butter tea helps to keep the herders well-fuelled for the day.

The wealth of a Brokpa is somewhat determined by the numbers of yaks or livestock such as sheep or horses he owns. A rich Brokpa would typically own around 200 livestock or so as compared to a humble one who might own just a couple of them.

Change coming to the Brokpa tribe

No matter how well the Brokpas have preserved their tradition way of life, they cannot resist the tides of change and globalisation.

In 2014, the village of Merak was connected with road till its village centre while globalisation has slowly seeped into their way of life, as electricity and communal tap water were provided for the villagers in 2012.

And like many other parts of Bhutan, rural-urban migration is inevitable as the younger generation leave their villages in search of better opportunities in Thimphu, the capital.


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