The community of highlanders is not a small town

On the lap of the Dagala range, in one of the last secluded places in the capital,  Chamgang is emerging as a new town. 

Until recently and, even today, Chamgang is known for the central jail. With its own charm, Chamgang however, is changing.

 Settlement in Chamgang began in the early 1980s. Some claim that the small jail, started in the 1970s, became the harbinger of development.  The central jail came later, between 1999 and 2000. Chamgang’s change is largely attributed to sixth gup of Dagala, Changlo Dorji, who appealed to His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo for a permanent home for the nomads in the lowlands of Dagala.

Gup Changlo’s son, Gado, now the longest serving gup after his father, said that given the hardship in the highland from climatic condition, lack of proper healthcare and education, his father appealed for land in Chamgang, which then was a popular timber and boulder extraction site. In 1981, the first group of 32 households out of 48 were granted an acre land each in Chamgang.  The remaining received 50 decimal land between 1998 and 1999.

There was no settlement around Jail area, Dawa Tshering, 64, says when he decided to settle in Chamgang in 2003. Chamgang was a forest; there were only a few makeshift hutments there,  he said.

Another resident, Yangki, said the growing population in Dagala, presence of police, and prisoner’s family settling in Chamgang, opened up Chamgang.

It was not until 1992 when Chamgang got a community school. Changlo Dorji, now 84, wanted to establish a school as no one from the nomad community other than five children, along with his son, was enrolled in a school in Babesa. Children used to get up early in the morning and had to trek for hours to the school in Babesa.

Gado said that his family and others had not moved to Chamgang when he was enrolled in school in 1978. “My father requested a Babesa resident to provide me a shelter so that I could study.”

Gup Changlo negotiated with a Class X graduate girl. She would be paid a Nu 900 monthly salary to teach in the community school. Then, the gup’s salary was only about Nu 400. 

The school began with 15 students and a teacher. 

The following year, the government sent a head master (head teacher) to the school  which is today known as Yangchen Gatshel Middle Secondary School. There are more than 500 students today and Yangchen Gatshel will be upgraded to a higher secondary school from the next academic session. 

Thimphu City bus service  also covers Chamgang area for students who have to study in schools in the city. “ The need to upgrade school to higher secondary school is urgently felt.” 

Lack of early schooling facilities and slow progress in upgrading the school posed difficulty for children to continue school. Only about four people from their community are civil servants today. The community welcomed their first civil servant, a teacher, in 2002. In the same year, Chamgang also got electricity.

From 2002, many new infrastructure developments came to Chamgang, such as RNR centre, community lhakhang, and other buildings. Chamgang Primary Health Centre came in much later, in 2011.

Tandin Penjor, 63, said that before the primary health care centre was established in Chamgang, the people used to visit the infirmary at the Central Jail. “There used to be two health assistants in the jail.”

He said that when the new residents were in Dagala, other than the medicinal plants and home remedies, they had no other facilities.

Chamgang has now not only become closer to the capital city with a road that is being expanded to a double lane, but is also reaping the benefits of progress. First came a logging road, then a sawmill, then shops, and then people looking for land to settle in the suburbs of the city. Chamgang became the choice when north and south Thimphu began filling up. Today there are people from all over the country who have made Chamgang their home.

The winter home for the nomads some four decades ago has now transformed from a forest to a full-blown town.  There are about 198 households, out of which 28 are settlers from other parts of the country.

Pema Lhamo from Trashigang settled in Chamgang 12 years ago. “It was a very remote village with only a few houses.” She bought a plot of land  for Nu 20,000 per decimal.  Cost of land in Chamgang today ranges between Nu 200,000 and Nu 350,000 per decimal.

Kesang Wangmo, a corporate employee, said that when her parents bought land in Chamgang, it was a forest. “It was a wise decision to get land here as now it is no longer a village.”

Pressure on highland traditions

In some ways, Chamgang provides a clear buffer zone between modernisation and keeping the age-old tradition of yak rearing alive. 

Chamgang is only 14.5km away from Norzin Lam and the road from Semtokha to Chamgang is being widened with a prospect to connect Wangdue via Hinglayla, the pass between Wangdue and Chamgang. That would reduce travel time by about an hour, according to rough estimates.

Dawa Tshering said that he was the last of his generation to be born in the mountains. “I was born in Seso-Yumtsho where the nomads stay for two months in summer.” His worry is that the younger generation might not take keen interest in going to mountains.

 The wind of change is coming, so the people here are trying to strike a balance between modernisation and their age-old pastoral culture. Older people stay in Chamgang along with their grandchildren who study in Yangchen Gatshel Middle Secondary school. The adults take turns to herd yaks in Dagala because their main source of income is from yaks. 

The gewog is also exploring ways to make Dagala a tourist destination and a healthy and vibrant community. For instance, businesses houses coming to the gewog have to ensure that they employ local people. About 30 people are engaged in Dagala Crystal Water- a bottled water factory. 

Factories are coming up in Chamgang, such as water, paper, incense, and potato chips factories.

Keeping the youth in touch with the pastoral tradition is the challenge for the community. Like many Bhutanese, some have gone abroad to work or are in the country’s rapidly growing towns. Some have not even been to Dagala, the mountains that feed their cattle and the yak herding community. 

Gup Gado is aware of this. “Technology and easier living in the highland is the only answer to encourage the younger generations to stay in touch with their roots in Dagala.” A Tashicell tower at Seso-Yumtsho, the highest place in Dagala and Gaytala, connects some parts of Dagala to rest of the country. “In the world of technology, without internet connection nobody would stay in highland,” Dago said. 

The gewog is also exploring ways to establish another tower to connect the whole Dagala to internet.

Gado feels that technology such as that to milk yaks could help preserve the tradition. “Otherwise, the tradition could die with modernisation.”

By Yangyel Lhaden