COVER STORY: Sounds of rhythmic drumbeats accompanied by piercing female voices resonate from a single-storey house in Tangchey, Trongsa. All around, there are fruiting mandarin, guava and tall sugarcane forests.
Tangchey sits on a high flat. It is the village of the Monpas, one of the earliest inhabitants in the country.
The outstanding voice is of Pamo (Female Shaman) Dorjimo’s, who is conducting a ritual for a sick child in the village. The Pamo is adorned in brownish mathra kira with stripes of dark green. Her tego is glittering. Over it all, she has a maroon-robe, knotted like a magician’s cloak. She has a white khadhar (scarf) on her forehead.
On the walls are pictures of lamas and rinpoches. Offerings are made of shapes and sizes myriad. And the shaman dance begins. The power of the extra-terrestrial is being invoked.
This is the last remnant of a community giving in to change. Monpas will now no longer exist. Change, otherwise called development, is shaping a new culture in this old village. Boenkar, is the new term, of change and adaptation.
Boenkar is a new and refined version of Bonchoe (Bonism). It does not encourage animal sacrifice. But religion besides, the community is experiencing pressure from all sides. Modernization and development has come, and schools and electricity, among others, are giving a different shape to this traditional society.
Change is in the air.
Monpa are considered to be the oldest inhabitants of Bhutan along with Olep from Adha Rukha in Wangdue, among others. They are also loosely described as non-Tibetan or no-Indian tribe who settled in the south of Tibet long ago.
Similarities have been between Bhutanese Monpas and forest dwellers of Kumuan and Nepal and Mismis, Nagas and Kukis of northeastern Himalaya. The common being their language and the way they led their life.
The traditional Monpas were agriculturists and hunters.
According to available records, Monpas are the descendants of the one of the nine brothers of sun. The story has it that the brother lived at a time when heaven and earth were quite close to each other. Changes have occurred, of course, in shapes and sizes myriad. The tribe comes from the union of man and a fairy.
Culture, tradition and religion
Monpa lived in the forests of Bhutan, and they developed a unique customs and traditions of their own. Ghos and kira are foreign. They have Paghay to cover their bodies. Even their language is unique. It is called Monkha.
Monpa used to practiced Bonism or Bonchoe. They worshiped mountains, lake, sun and moon. Not anymore. Times have changed with development. The first citizens of this country have learned to adapt to the change. Animal sacrifice could have been their tradition, but they now loathe it now.
In some ways, changes were forced upon them. The dzongkhags signed an agreement with Monpa, their pawos and pamos, to stop the practice of animal sacrifice.
Boenkar was the result of it all. But even this new belief system is under threat today. Belief systems and religious establishment have curious and complicated ways, indeed.
Now, the Monpas have a lhakhang, and prayers are not their own. Access to electricity and roads are playing a transformational part, sad albeit it is.
Changing lifestyle of the Monpas
The Monpas were traditionally a community of hunters. They, however, do no longer raise pigs and kill animals as part of their ritual systems.
Today, Phumzur, Wamling and Jangbi have only eight Pamos and Pawos left in the villages. In fact, Monpa from Pumzhur, Wamling and Jangbi have already lost its traditional dress Paghay after the opening of Trongsa-Zhemgang-Gelephu highway.
Today, no one in any of the three villages wear Paghay. It is only under rare occasion that they wear their traditional dresses. It is when they perform traditional dances during the visits by high profile officials.
Now with change, even Paghay has been improvised. The treal Paghay, which is woven from nettle bark, is now few and far between. It has become a thing of past.
And according to the community, producing Paghay from nettles dwindled after some leaders who own tsamdros in Phumzur area barred Monpas from collecting nettles from their territory. And with such impositions died the indigenous wisdom of processing Paghay.
With introduction of modern education, most children now are able to speak foreign languages like English, Dzongkha, Khengkha, and forgetting the community language.
Today, almost every child in the villages can speak Monkha, but fear of losing community language is ever so great.
A community is dying. Should we celebrate or mourn this eventuality.
By Tempa Wangdi