Sangay Puda rarely smiles. The 33-year-old Lhop lost her husband three years ago, leaving her with a 10-year-old son and a seven-year-old daughter.

Today, a drizzle has kept her away from her cardamom field and she has come to her uncle’s shop.

A bright pearl necklace glows under her neckline, complementing her pink top. It is the only ornament she wears.

“I didn’t wear any ornaments for the last three years,” Sangay Puda said as she opens up hesitantly to a conversation. “This is the first one.”

There is a thriving custom among the Lhops and their community in Lhotokuchu Jigme, Lhotokuchu Singye, and Lhotokuchu Wangchuck in Dorokha, Samtse – Women are not allowed to wear ornaments after their partners die.

This practice of “refrain” called as “duk-tsho-hang” is observed for three years and nine years depending on how the spouses have died. It would be three years if the spouse had died a normal death and nine years if the partner had died from accidents and other unnatural causes.

A widow also cannot trim her hair and enter into others’ houses.

It is same with the men. By tradition, widows, both men and women, are also not allowed to cut their fingernails, clip their toenails, and wear slippers.

But with time, change has come to the Lhop community. They cut and clip their nails and wear slippers today.

However, remarrying is not an option—for both men and women—during duk-tsho-hang period. The Lhop society keeps a close eye on the widows to check and guide them if they were not sticking to the renounces, some say.

“Yes, I can remarry now but I don’t want to,” Sangay Puda said.

The indigenous communities of Jigme, Singye, and Wangchuck are known for keeping their traditional principles alive. Although modernity has touched the younger generation, the elders have held on to their traditions and the Lhops are proud of it.

Jamten Doya, 51, is among those who strongly believe in keeping their unique culture and tradition alive. The need for handing over their genuine ancestral tradition has become ever more important today, he said.

“Without our own values, our children would be equivalent as orphans,” he said. “It is our duty to explain them its importance.”

Jamten Doya said he is not sure if it was fair or not to refrain them from remarrying after the spouses’ death.

“But it is a custom we have been living on and it must be respected,” he said adding that it was also not possible to borrow others’ culture and tradition when the Lhops had their own. “Others have their own traditional and cultural values—this is ours—we must practice what we have.”

Sonam Tshering Doya, 48, from Lhotokuchu Jigme completed the duk-tsho-hang some years ago after his wife passed away. He believes the tradition passed down by their forefathers has to be diligently practiced.

“It was for three years,” he said. “Lhops do not consider this practice as torment; everybody knows it.”

When the restriction period is over, the Lhops offer millet beer to the dead and some words of farewell in a small ritual.

Down the slope at Lhotokuchu Jigme, Inzang Gyemo, 50, has just taken some time out from her kitchen. She recently completed the restriction of three years.

“I didn’t enter anybody’s house for three years,” she said.

Every time Inzang Gyemo sat for a meal, she brought out a plate and a mug, and put the meal for the deceased. This practice went on until her restriction period ended in February this year.

“This tradition has to be practised,” she said. “If we don’t, then we will bring bad luck to the family in the future.”

Inzang Gyemo said the duk-tsho-hang had been alive for hundreds of years. “

People just cannot neglect it abruptly.”

Carrying a dead person is a herculean task in Lhop custom. Only one person is allowed to carry the dead to their tomb called rombu.

Lhops do not bury or cremate the dead. The body is placed in a special wooden box, walled by specific stones, and left in their fields as tombs.

A wife or a husband has to carry the dead alone to a rombu if the deceased is their partner. If it were somebody from the family who has died, one person would still carry it.

In 2003, a Doya man did not return home in Singye. He was on his way home from Gedu and has been missing until today. His son Namgay Tshering Doya has turned 22.

“My mother is still expecting him to return and has not declared him dead,” he said. “A rombu has not been raised yet.”

Namgay Tshering Doya said his mother would not accept his father is dead without strong proof.

An ECCD facilitator at Singye, Rinchen Zangmo Doya, who has studied away from home in Samtse, said she was proud her people have kept the practise of refrain alive.

“However, inter-marriages are allowed now,” she said. “I am not sure if it would continue in the future.”

Meanwhile, at Singye, the evening’s fading sunlight warms the place despite the drizzle. Cardamom fields are cleansed.

Inside her uncle’s shop, Sangay Puda is impatient. She has work to do at her cardamom field. As she dashes out of the shop, her pearl necklace glimmers in the evening sun.

Rajesh Rai  | Dorokha