Winters are harsh in Bemji, in the northern mountains of Trongsa. Thick early morning frosts cover the whole expanse of the village. The wind bites.
However, the cold does not deter the villagers from coming together to contribute free labour. A house is being constructed. This age-old tradition of lending a hand is very much alive in Bemji.
Men and women and even school-going children, who are on winter vacation, wake up early in the morning to complete their household chores. Then they go to the house construction site to ram cold earth. Others help with woodworks.
Looking mid-distance from the madding crowd, this is not the only house construction going on. There are four more. Only a few metres separate one from the other.
Keza Dem, 43, bring home a bundle of firewood or dry leaves from the forest floor before going for other’s work.
She has already contributed free labour for three days in a house construction site, and will now go to another house construction. She has to be fair. Day after tomorrow, Keza’s sister Yangchey, 32, will also go and contribute free labour. This means Keza will have to stay behind and attend to the cattle and household chores.
“Women and girls ram earth and boys ready the soil. This has been a tradition since I was a little girl,” Keza said.
Nagtshom, 57, is carrying mud in a bamboo basket and climbing up the rickety stairs. At her age, this is a dangerous affair. But she has been doing this since she was a little girl.
“As children, way back then, we use to ram the earth at the night with the help of moonlight,” Nagtshom said. “Now, of course, we have electricity. It is so much easier.”
The activity is not all drab and tiring; there are songs and sharp exchanges of wit.
“If the walls are incomplete even after everyone in the village contributes three-days labour, then we contribute again,” Nagtshom said. “Social cohesion, more than anything else, was important. It still is.”
This is a powerful example of “community vitality” that is fast disappearing with change.
In the past, people who contribute free labour would be compensated with a lavish feast on the day of consecration. That was long before modern development when people often faced food shortages. But the tradition still continues.
Karma Tshoki, who is also constructing a house, said that building a house without free labour was impossible then. “We had little money to pay wages.”
With all the new changes fast burying or entombing age-old cultures, Karma Tshoki said that villages could be the last bastions of Bhutan that was—a happy and self-sufficient society. “We now have roads, electricity, basic health units, and most such modern amenities, but we are increasingly becoming less helpful to each other.”
It is this nostalgic call from deep within that keeps Karma Tshoki thinking about the future. There is nothing concrete to hold on to, so she goes to contribute her share of “free” labour when her neighbour is building a house.
Nyilo is gone and days are becoming longer. That means more farm work. At a time when villages are facing shortage of farmhands, this bit of culture that the people are still hanging on to will have the fields tilled and rice turning to gold, literally. It’s free labour again in the difficult terraces.
But there is also joy and happiness to celebrate together in a village like Bemji. Festivals and tsechus will come soon to add colour to the lives of otherwise weather-beaten villagers. The communities will come together again—those who live in towns and cities and can afford will bring used clothes to share with their rural cousins.
The beauty is in the songs and stories they share and relish; it is also in the feeling, in each heart, of safety, care, and love that flow abundantly for the sake of the community.