Yangyel Lhaden

When you enter Langthel Gewog in Trongsa, any random person you ask knows Ap Tawla. He is a big name in the gewog as a local healer but a fading one as the last indigenous healer from the Monpa community. 

The three villages of Langthel Gewog—Phumzur, Wangling, and Jangbi—are home to the Monpas, believed to be among the earliest settlers of Bhutan. Ap Tawla is from Wangling.

When you actually meet him, the 85-year-old Ap Tawla is not as big as his name and fame. Grey-haired, grey-bearded, and unassuming in a sethra gho with a walking staff, he looks like any other Monpa. But he is not. His physical stature is not as big as his name and fame, but he is bigger than them. 

Ap Tawla has been a local healer for more than half a century. He specialises in treating bone and joint dislocations. 

Despite his age and physical inabilities, he remains strong and carries himself with confidence as he attends to patients who seek his help. Even at odd hours, he opens his door to those in need, never turning away a soul seeking relief. 

Ap Tawla uses local medicinal herbs that grow around the village. He uses a blade to cut wounds open and his knowledge and experience to fix dislocated bones using his experienced hands. He can also treat snake bites by sucking out the poison from the bite wound while ensuring he doesn’t get poisoned himself. Only he knows how it is done. 

“There were around 50 types of medicinal herbs around the village, but there are hardly more than five now,” Ap Tawla says. “The discontinuation of shifting cultivation has caused some of these medicinal plants to disappear, as some grow only when the forest is burnt. Moreover, livestock are eating away the herbs.”

As the last practising healer from the community, Ap Tawla bears a great burden, the burden of passing on his knowledge and skills. Unlike modern medicine, his trade cannot be learnt through a curriculum. It has to be learnt when his speech is clear and his hands are stable. 

Ap Tawla’s only son has refused to learn his father’s trade. “He doesn’t want to be a servant like me, always at people’s service and never earning anything,” says Ap Tawla, who doesn’t charge anything for his services. His knowledge and expertise are meant to benefit the people. He declines any payment for his services. 

“Sometimes, I drink a can of beer or two cups of tea after I treat my patients,” he said. 

In the twilight of his bodhisattva-like life, Ap Tawla has only one wish, which is to have a male and a female local healer in each village of the Monpa community so that both male and female patients can be treated.

Recently, Ap Tawla taught six local people, including two women, his healing methods. They practise in the village. However, severe cases that they cannot handle come to Ap Tawla. Which means, Ap Tawla has not yet been replaced although he has trained them as thoroughly as he could. 

Ap Tawla picked up his skills and knowledge from his father. He replaced his father at the age of 15. Today, adults are finding it difficult to replace him.

Jangbi Tshogpa Sonam said that none of his patients had reported any issues after Ap Tawla’s treatment. 

Sonam was once one of his patients. He slipped on slippery ground with a backload of wood and dislocated the bones in his knees. He went to Ap Tawla, who treated him with soft speech but tough hands. “Agay lap sata oi—the old man with strong hands,” Sonam recollects. “I cried in pain as he put the bones in place, but I was cured.”

Ap Tawla says there is no greater happiness than bringing relief to his patients. But his happiness alone is not enough for his trade to survive. And he knows that. 

He says he would depart at any moment before finding a promising student who can carry on his legacy. 

As modernisation rapidly consumes the indigenous culture, his indigenous name ‘Tawla’ and his trade may well be the last in the Monpa community. 

Next time you are in Langthel Gewog, there may not be a name which is on everyone’s lips.