Loss of the Brokpa Dress Culture in Bhutan
The impact of declining sheep rearing practice would lead to the loss of the brokpa dress culture, which is unique in the country. The brokpa dress for both male and female is made of sheep and yak wool.
Unlike five years ago, a visitor to Sakteng in northern Trashigang today would not be able to catch the sight of grazing horses, sheep and yaks.
A cluster of identical houses stand in the glacial valley now with the silvery Gamri Chhu flowing across. The traditional practice of sheep rearing for wool production in this nomad community has drastically declined and has become almost a story of the distant past.
Herder Karchung, 61, used to own a flock of 100 sheep and earned more than Nu 200,000 annually by selling wool products. But his sheep fell prey to wild dogs when it was out grazing in 2013.
“A pack of wild dogs preyed on my sheep in three nights,” a father of seven sons said, adding that not one sheep survived. The herder today depends on rearing yaks for livelihood.
He reported the incident to the forest officers in the Sakteng range office. “Foresters came to the pastureland and took some photographs of the carcasses. However, I was not compensated for the sheep lost to the wild dogs,” Karchung said.
Stray dogs are another problem to the highlanders of Sakteng
Stray dogs are another problem to the highlanders of Sakteng today. Zowo Passang from Tengma chiwog reared about 50 sheep in 2012. He harvested wool thrice a year and earned about Nu 100,000 annually. But, Passang lost all his sheep to stray dogs within a year.
“Except for a few pet dogs, you cannot see a single stray dog during the day,” Zowo Passang said. “Come dark and packs of aggressive canines are out hunting for sheep.”
A flock of sheep was spotted at the bank of the Gamri Chhu in October last year. Sakteng mangmi Lhundup also said that herders face problems both from domestic and wild predators in rearing sheep.
“When herders take their sheep along with yaks for grazing in summer, the wild dogs, foxes and even bears prey on the sheep,” he said. The sheep fell prey to stray dogs when they return to the villages in winter.
Donning of traditional dresses declining due to the unavailability of wool
He said that herders have been requesting the gewog administration that they be compensated for sheep lost to predators. It is also a concern to the community to see the use of traditional dress declining due to the unavailability of wool.
The attire for men comprises of a thick jacket made from yak hair and sheep wool known as chuba. The woollen trousers, called kango are covered until the knee with a skirt-like piece called pishu. For women, an apron-like shingkha reaches a few centimetres below the knees. Woven from raw silk, the shingkha is covered with a toedung that looks like tego.
Importing expensive wool from India
Herders say that they import wool from Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. “When we can’t produce wool at home, we are compelled to import expensive wool from India,” Zowo Passang said.
Thinley Wangdi of the Department of Forests and Park Services said that the sheep rearing practice among highlanders has not been replaced by anything as of now even though the community has been raising the issue of declining sheep population at meetings.
He said that the department provides meagre compensation to those who have lost their livestock to tigers and snow leopards due to the lack of fund. Those whose sheep have been killed by wild dogs and bears have never been provided any compensation.
“However, the management of Sakteng Wildlife Sanctury (SWS) is looking for a project to initiate the human wildlife conflict insurance scheme that may compensate if the communities are willing to insure sheep,” Thinley Wangdi, who also looks after the SWS, said.
“But we haven’t secured the fund yet. If we are successful in securing the fund, we will also supply additional sheep to the community in collaboration with the department of livestock.”
The government donated some sheep last year in Sakteng and Merak to encourage sheep rearing.
Loss of the brokpa dress culture in Bhutan
He said the impact of declining sheep rearing practice would lead to the loss of the brokpa dress culture, which is unique in the country. The brokpa dress for both male and female is made of sheep and yak wool. “Selling clothes made of sheep wool is not the main income generating activity of the brokpa community,” the official said.
Sheep in Merak and Sakteng were believed to have originated from Tsona in southeast Tibet. According to oral history, around 1347, a group of Tibetans migrated with their yaks and sheep after assassinating their local ruler Dreba-Yabu and were looking for a suitable place to settle in. King Dreba-yabu made his subjects cross the high peak on the eastern side of the palace that blocked the sunlight.
Oral history has it that when the group was crossing Nyagchungla, the high pass between Sakteng and Merak, the old and the weak succumbed to fatigue.
The local protective deity of Sakteng and Merak, Aum Jomo, was the leader and when she looked back from the mountain, she saw Sakteng, a plain of bamboos (sak means bamboo, teng means plain).
Aum Jomo and her group cleared the bamboos and founded the village of Sakteng for the old and the weak. As a result, the rest of the group moved beyond Nyagchungla to Merak and settled there.
By Rinzin Wangchuk (This article has been edited for the New Bhutan Times)