Not just in distance, but thanks to income from cordyceps collection, in lifestyle as well

COVER STORY: Wangmo, 58, a highlander from Thangzo, Laya was in Punaka to attend the three-day Punakha tsechu that concluded last week.  She comes to Punakha every winter.  This time, she was with her mother and friends.  Wangmo has with her some thick Chinese blankets, a flask and a carpet.  These are gifts for her host in Punakha.

There was a time when the people from Laya used to come to Punakha with a couple of pieces of dried cheese.  That was the gift.  So it has been for centuries.  But now times have changed.  Hosts in Punakha get lavish gifts from their friends from Laya who visit them when it is too cold up in the mountains.

Laya (3,840m above sea level) is a village of 230 households in Gasa that is fast prospering due to the cordyceps business.  In winter, Layaps migrate to Punakha and Wangdue.

“Things have changed. We have things of all kinds to give our hosts,” said Wangmo. “We eat in hotels.”

Layaps sell their highland products, like yak meat, hide, dried cheese, and incense, and take back rice, salt, sugar and oil, among others.  Winter is a time when Layaps come to lower dzongkhags for holidays.

Pay, 68, is a Layap woman.  When she was a kid, her parents would take her from village to village in Punakha. In the evenings, they would have collected bags of rice and other necessities to take back to Laya.

“When we ran short of things to barter, we used to beg. Sometimes, our hosts wouldn’t let us stay inside. We’d have to pitch tents in the fields.” said Pay. “Things have changed now, of course. People have money and that has made all the difference.”

Laya is a village that is prospering on cordyceps money.  It was Wangdue they travelled farthest from their homes to not so many years ago.  Layaps today can be seen even in one of hottest and humid places like Phuentsholing, where they go to buy a year’s stock from the border town.

“The greatest and the most important thing that happened to the Layaps was the Royal Kasho (edict) that allowed the highlanders to harvest cordyceps. Life has become so much easier,” said Pay.

Sangay Wangmo, another Layap woman, said although Layaps have money, many still prefer putting up with their hosts to staying in hotels. “Money is hard to come by. We know how to value it. But it’s a culture of staying with our hosts that we want to preserve.”

Karma from Norbgang in Punakha said that Layaps used to come to Punakha during lochoe (annual ritual). They would collect rags and broken pieces of utensils and go back.  Back then, hosts in Punakha were treated very highly by Layaps.  Hosts would help Layaps sell incense and yak products.  Now, it is the hosts who have to treat the Layaps well, because of the money they now have.

Laya gup Kinley Dorji said that legalisation of the cordyceps collection in 2004 has helped change lives of the people of Laya by much.  Every Layap today is constructing not just one but two or three houses at a time with cordyceps money. Each Layap household earns about a minimum of Nu 50,000 to a maximum of Nu 1 million, depending on the number of people going for cordyceps collection.  People keep their stores well stocked with grains and other necessities, like salt and oil.  People carry expensive mobile phones and tape recorders.  Some have installed Dish-TV at home.  Gas stoves have replaced traditional cooking arrangements.

Gup Kinley Dorji said Layaps used to spend three months in lower places in Punakha.  Now they stay for just about one month.  About 98 percent of households own horses, which is another important source of income for the Layaps.  Now the village has more than just yak products and incense.  It has electricity and mobile connectivity.  Soon the road will come, even if only until Taktsimakhang, a settlement a few kilometres from Laya proper. 

Some Layaps have even bought land in Punakha, Gasa and Wangdue.

Kinley, a Layap, said that Layaps have money, but many do not have any idea about financial institutions. “Some Layaps carry huge amounts of money with them wherever they go. They don’t trust the banks,” Kinley said. “Very few care about making good investment.”

And affluence has brought change some cultural changes.  Young Layaps prefer wearing jeans to their traditional dress.  Women wear kira.

Sixty-year-old Sangay Wangmo said that this aspect of change is something to be really concerned about. “We’re losing our culture. The rate of change that we’re witnessing is quite alarming. It’s a very sad thing to happen.”

Gup Kinley Dorji said that efforts were being made to save the culture of the community.  For instance, traditional Layap dress is mandatory in school.  Awareness programmes on the importance of preserving the unique Layap culture are regularly conducted in the gewog.

But the rate of change is putting increasing pressure on highland culture.  The number of households rearing yaks has dwindled over the years.  Today, only about 73 households in Laya owns yak.  A recent survey showed that there are only 3,400 yaks in the whole of Laya.

For Layaps, the advantages they have as highlanders are also the cause of a loss they feel very deeply.

By Dawa Gyelmo | Punakha