It’s 7pm. Most shops in Trashigang town are closed. The bustling town is disturbingly quiet.

Outside one of the shops, a group of people is engaged in a deep conversation. A headhunter (khekpa) is on the loose and has reached the neighboring dzongkhag.  

“Jigme, get inside now or ajang (uncle) khekpa will take you,” yells a woman from afar. A child screams. The woman laughs as she enters the traditional one-storied house. 

The rumor of three men donned in black has become the talk of the town since Thursday. The rumor surfaced following a voice message in one of the social media apps, WeChat, mentioning the appearance of the duo that went viral overnight.        

“Existence of khekpa could be a rumor, myth or even reality but no one knows for sure,” said Tashi, a retired soldier. “The story of men who abduct children for their head has been there since I was a child.” 

The voice message that went viral is from one of the tshogpas, Dorji Wangdi, from Khamdang gewog in Trashiyangtse. In his message to the members of a WeChat group, he said that three men (two non-Bhutanese and a Bhutanese) have entered the gewog. 

“My intention of the message was in no way to instill fear or create panic among the people,” said Dorji Wangdi. “It was just a precautionary measure that I took as a member of the community for the safety of the children in the gewog.” 

He said that the rumor of headhunters became almost certain to him following an incident on May 2 where a woman who was travelling from Doksum towards Tshankharla in Khamdang was apparently attacked by two men who were believed to be headhunters.     

“Immediately after I heard the news, I informed about the incident in the parent-teacher WeChat group,” he said. “I wanted to alert the teachers and requested them to make provisions to send the students home early from school for safety reasons.”

Dorji Wangdi said that the news of presence of headhunters in the east doing the rounds in social media made him react promptly. “Since no one saw those men, it couldn’t be established that they were headhunters,” he said. “However, when there are already rumors, we could not stay ideal at the same time. That is why I reacted.” 

Following the incident, a police investigation is currently underway in Trashiyangtse. Sources say that the claim that the woman made on the presence of headhunters in Khamdang might not be true. The headhunter rumor of the men going around in a bolero car reportedly first spread from Mongar.

Trashigang dzongdag, Chekey Gyeltshen, said that the dzongkhag administration has not received reports that would indicate the presence of headhunters. “I’ve discussed with the police and no such incidences has been reported to them so far.”

A civil servant, Karma, said that because stories of existence of headhunters have been there since ages, not heeding to news on social media would be unwise. “Even if the news are just rumors, we cannot help but take precautions,” he said. “And in doing so we are in a way acknowledging their existence.”

Karchung, 70, said that stories of headhunters were told to scare children and keep them indoors in the past. “When I was a kid, my parents used to tell the same story. I still don’t know if there are real khekpas around.” 

He said that according to the stories he was told and the ones he told his children, the headhunters beheaded people, especially children and used the heads at constructions sites of bridges and hydropower plants. “It was believed to be an offering to the local deities to protect the infrastructures from disasters.” 

“Headhunters are just myths,” said an engineer. “Similar news went viral during the construction of Kurichu and Chhukha dams. Since Kholongchu project is about to begin, the story of headhunters is resurfacing.” 

Younten Tshedup | Trashigang