For the Lhops (Doyaps) of Lhotokuchu Jigme and Lhotokuchu Singye, Dorokha, life is frozen in time through an indigenous and unique culture of entombing their dead in their own lands.
The residents say that the tombs known as the Rombu hold significant value in their lives. Left as a tradition to the descendants, Lhops say it connects them to their ancestors. They say Rombu is a call afterlife into their heaven.
The residents of these villages, on a slope that rises from the Amochhu (Torsa) bank, put the dead body in a box made out of a special wood and walled by specific stones. It is then left in the fields as tombs.
The Lhops cannot use others’ land, not even a government land to keep the Rombu.
Lhops believe they would journey to a valley they fondly call Gahala—their ultimate resting place after death. Lhops point Gahala to a valley shaped by the two highest peaks at the farthest north. It is visible from Jigme and Singye.
To cross that valley, Rombu is the only method.
It is mandatory to construct the Rombu in their private lands because a person would have to borrow and live in others’ land at Gahala afterlife if their Rombu is raised in others’ land.
“It is an ancestral practice passed down by our forefathers and it has to go on,” a villager from Lhotokuchu Jigme, Sonam Tshering Doya, said. “It would be a tragedy not to practise this custom.”
However, with the increase in population and land use, Rombu is becoming a challenge. Doyaps say their lands are getting smaller and they have often pondered about this risk of shortage of land due to its use for Rombu.
Sonam Tshering Doya said with the increase of population, problems would multiply. Citing the example of how lands would get divided as an inheritance, he said it would be a challenge as lands do not expand and there will be shortage.
“But until we die, we will keep this practise alive,” Sonam Tshering Doya said.
As Rombus cannot be dismantled, it is imminent Lhops would face land shortage in time in their struggle to the Gahala.
In his cardamom field, Doyi Tshering, 55, is also worried about population growth and its impact on Rombu and private lands.
“Lands are already getting smaller today,” he said. “If the government could give us land for Rombu, I think our community’s committee should identify one.”
Shopkeeper Jamten Doya, 52 have similar thoughts about Rombu.
“Inheritances have already decreased the size of the lands today,” he said.
He, however, said even if the government allowed the Lhops to use government land for Rombu, they would still use private lands. “People are stubborn and would want to keep the Rombu inside their lands.”
Jamten Doya said the community discussed asking for a government land once. “But we dropped the idea since it is also not according to our custom. Rombus have to be constructed in the queue to whoever had died earlier in the family.”
Construction of a Rombu
Rombus are seen in the fields of every household in the Lhop community of Lhotokuchu Jigme and Lhotokuchu Singye. Some are far, some close to their homes.
Only stones are visible from the exterior but Doyaps say a lot of work and procedures are involved in its construction.
There are several challenges they face in constructing a Rombu. It is a lengthy process first.
A deceased person is wrapped in a bamboo carpet. It would then be placed in a body-size customised box. The box is made by Kimbu (wood) tree, as other woods are not used for the purpose.
According to the Lhops, two small holes are left open—one at the head side of the box and one at the rear side of the body. If the box has other openings, they should be obscured by clay paste. The head of the dead is kept facing Gahala.
The box has to be walled by a special type of stones from all corners, including the floor. Inside the walls, a stone oven would be kept. Doyas believe that the dead would use the oven for cooking on the journey to Gahala. On top of a Rombu’s exterior, a plate and a mug are also kept.
A stone would also be placed on the top. It is for the deceased to get back and hold onto the stone in difficult times such as calamities on the journey to Gahala. In summer, green grasses cover the tomb and in winter the stones expose out.
If the body of the deceased were not found, a Rombu would still be erected. The dead’s clothes would be used in place of the body and other rituals would remain the same.
Kimbu tree is rare. Lhops do not grow this tree because they have a belief that one who grows the tree would die.
Jamten Doya said Kimbu tree has been a problem today. “We can’t easily get them. It is also illegal to fell the Kimbu,” he said. “But the government has turned a blind eye for now.”
With the scarcity of the Kimbu wood, Doyaps have already started using small chunks of the wood. Making an entire box using Kimbu is not anymore practised these days.
The Doyaps also said a dead also has to be carried by one person. A wife has to carry the dead alone if the deceased is her husband or vice-versa.
The younger generation has mixed feelings on Rombu.
A class XII graduate, who works as an ECCD facilitator, Rinchen Zangmo Doya, said she doesn’t think Lhop tradition and culture, would last forever. “Youth are going outside and copying other culture.”
She said change is inevitable.
Another class XII graduate in Lhotokuchu Jigme, Dhimba Tshering, 23, said Lhops are known for the unique traditions.
“We should conserve our culture,” he said. “But with modernity catching up, it would be difficult to follow all these practices.”
Meanwhile, village elders like Jamten Doya fear that there are high chances their traditional way of life would give in eventually. “But as long as we are alive, the tradition must go on.”
Rajesh Rai | Dorokha