It is forenoon here in Merak, Trashigang – quiet, and cold. These past few days it’s been raining persistently, making the weather feel dreamy and vaguely melancholic. Winter would be worse, by much colder. This community of herders keep their woodstoves burning the whole year round.
This once-remote community now has road that connects the village to the dzongkhag headquarters, and with it has come change. Merak is changing fast.
The story of change that is happening here can perhaps be best told by the unique traditional dress of the highlanders and its place today.
The attire for men comprises of thick jacket made from yak hair and sheep wool known as chuba. For the lower half of the body, trousers made from wool called kango is covered up until the knee with a skirt-like piece called pishu. For women, an apron-like shingkha reaches some centimetres below the knees. Woven from raw silk, the shingkha is covered with a toedung that looks like tego. A black or red jacket covers the toedung. Both men and women wear a disc-shaped hat called zhamu. Zhamu is made from yak hair and has five tail-like fringes that allow water to drain and keep the head dry.
While the men are away looking after yaks, women would stay behind and weave. But that’s a story from long ago. Very few of these things happen now in Merak.
Kezang Dema, 70, has a story to tell of how women only a few decades would happily sit in the loom to weave. “Every woman and girl in the village would at least weave three chubas a year. There would be fierce competition to beat each other, to see who weaves the maximum number of chubas when their husbands return.”
Chubas were woven “in our highlander tradition” not for sale or trade, said Kezang Dema. Back then, the community was pretty much cut off and trade and travel didn’t happen much. The highlanders produced their own and wore their own. Self-sufficiency in this community is today a story of distant past. Chuba, shingkha, toedung, pishu and zhamu have flown out the window and are replaced by gho, kira and jeans, and much else from other cultures.
At this time of the year, there is hardly anyone weaving in the village.
Pema Yuden, 62, is one of the few who can weave in Merak. She is weaving a blanket, tsuk-tup.
“It will be difficult to find a person weaving at this time of the year because of the rain,” Pema Yuden said. The practise of weaving is fast waning, she added.
Pema Yuden said that the reason why not a lot of women in the community weave is because of decreasing number of sheep.
“We used to have at least 300 sheep. But today, except for a few yaks, I don’t have a single sheep,” she said. “Most of our outfits require the wool from sheep. With the numbers decreasing, it is difficult to weave like we used to in the past.”
The advent of modern developmental has brought ready-made clothes at the doorsteps of the highlanders. That’s another reason women here don’t weave anymore.
“Children these days prefer the pants and coats to traditional outfits because they are easily available,” said Pema Yuden.
Another village resident, Sangay Wangmo, said change in the way people dress could have severe impact on the community’s age-old tradition and self-sufficiency.
“Of course, pants and shirts are more comfortable. They are much warmer than our outfits also. But with the loss of our dress, we are losing our unique identity,” said the 61-year-old.
She said that when in the pasturelands with cattle, people could wear pants and shirts for mobility and comfort. Once in the village, however, they should respect the community’s tradition. “Except for the senior citizens, not many in the village today wear chuba and shingkha.”
Sangay Wangmo said that people wear the traditional dress only during occasions such community festivals. “While it is good to see people keeping culture and tradition alive, it should not be restricted to festivals only. We must be proud of our unique identity and preserve it as best as we can.”
The former Merak gup, Ghayden, said that the declining number of sheep is as a result of diminishing tsamdro (pastureland). He said that every household used to have at least 200 sheep when grazing was allowed in the tsamdro near Khaling and Thrimshing.
“It used to be a mutual understanding. We used to take our sheep to those pasturelands and, in turn, the people there used to get the manure from the cattle,” he said. “After the government started producing manure for farmers, we were not allowed to graze at their tsamdro.”
Over the years, Ghayden said, with no enough tsamdro the villagers, including him, started to sell their sheep. “That’s how our people have stopped weaving. Imported cloths have now taken over, especially among the young.”
A group of students who are on their summer vacation are preparing a show for day of the community kurim. Almost all of them are wearing gho and kira. Some are in pants and jackets.
“The traditional outfit is not comfortable. Because we are dancing, gho and kira are much convenient,” said one of the students.
A gewog official said that every time a guest visits the community, they make sure they try the traditional attire on and take a few photographs. “This shows how unique our outfits are. Therefore, we must keep our tradition alive before its too late.”
But change has come and has done much damage already. This community’s resilience will be sorely tested in the years to come. All depends on the young and the way they can keep their culture alive. Merak is changing, and changing fast.