Discover How The Lhops Of Bhutan Build A Rombu (Tomb) For The Dead To Reach Gahala
According to the Lhops, the tomb which is also known as the Rombu hold significant value in their lives for it connects them to their ancestors.
By Rajesh Rai | Kuensel
For the Lhops (Doyas) who live in Lhotokuchu Jigme and Lhotokuchu Singye, Dorokha, a unique culture of entombing their dead in their own lands still exist today.
According to the Lhops, the tomb which is also known as 'Rombu' holds significant value in their lives for it connects them to their ancestors.stors.
Who are the Lhops?
The Lhop popularly known as ‘Doya’ is considered the oldest aboriginal inhabitants who settled in the southwest of Bhutan. The local term ‘Lhop’ literally means southerner, a term mostly used by the people from Paro and Haa.
Most of the Lhops are concentrated in Dorokha, Samtse district. However, their history and origin have remained a mystery. According to the locals, most Lhops live in the three villages of Jigme, Singye and Wangchuck.
Most Lhops depend on agriculture, livestock farming and cardamom cultivation for a living. Besides that, they also grow oranges and maize.
How do the Lhops bury the dead?
The Lhops who live on a slope that rises from the Amo chhu (Torsa) bank will put the dead body of a family member in a box made out of a special wood called Kimbu, walled by specific stones. The box is then put in the fields as tombs.
The Lhops believe that they would then journey to a valley which they fondly call ‘Gahala’—their ultimate resting place after death. The Lhops point to a valley shaped by the two highest peaks at the farthest north as ‘Gahala’. Gahala is visible from Jigme and Singye and to cross that valley, being buried inside a Rombu is the only way to get there.
The Lhops cannot use others’ land, not even the government’s land to place the Rombu. It is mandatory to construct the Rombu in their private lands because a person would have to borrow and live in others’ land in Gahala in his afterlife if his Rombu is raised in others’ land.
Challenges facing this age-old tradition of burial
However, with the increase in population and land use, finding space for a Rombu is becoming a challenge. The Lhops say their lands are getting smaller and they have often pondered about this risk of shortage of land due to its use for Rombu.
Inside the kitchen of a Lhop's home
“But until we die, we will keep this practise alive,” Sonam Tshering Doya said.
As Rombus cannot be dismantled, it is imminent that the Lhops would have to face land shortage in their struggle to the Gahala.
In his cardamom field, Doyi Tshering, 55 is also worried about population growth and its impact on Rombu and private lands.
“Lands are already getting smaller today,” he said. “If the government could give us land for Rombu, I think our community’s committee should identify one.”
Shopkeeper Jamten Doya, 52 have similar thoughts about Rombu.
“Inheritances have already decreased the size of the lands today,” he said.
However, he said that even if the government allowed the Lhops to use government land for Rombu, they would still prefer to use private lands. “People are stubborn and would want to keep the Rombu inside their lands.”
Jamten Doya said that the community had already discussed asking for a government land once. “But we dropped the idea since it is not according to our custom. Rombus have to be constructed in the queue to whoever died earlier in the family.”
How is a Rombu constructed?
Rombus are found in the fields of every household in the Lhop community of Lhotokuchu Jigme and Lhotokuchu Singye. While some are situated far away, there are some which are close to their homes.
Only stones are visible from the exterior but the Lhops say a lot of work and procedures are involved in its construction.
There are several challenges they face in constructing a Rombu. First of all, it is a lengthy process. A deceased person is wrapped in a bamboo carpet. It would then be placed in a customised box which fits the body. The box is made of Kimbu (wood) tree, as other woods are not used for this purpose.
According to the Lhops, two small holes are left open—one at the head side of the box and one at the rear side of the body. If the box has other openings, they should be obscured by clay paste. The head of the dead is kept facing the Gahala.
This is a Rombu. The Lhops bury their dead family member in a stone wall with fencing and roof for protection. It is believed that their dear ones are buried closer to home. If the smell from the rot comes home, it is believed to be a blessing for the family.
The box has to be walled by a special type of stone from all corners, including the floor. Inside the walls, a stone oven would be kept. The Lhops believe that the dead will use the oven for cooking on the journey to Gahala. On top of a Rombu’s exterior, a plate and a mug are also kept.
A stone would also be placed on top of the rombu. It is for the deceased to get back and hold onto the stone during difficult times such as encountering calamities on the journey to Gahala.
In the summer, green grasses will cover the tomb and in winter the stones will be exposed. If the body of the deceased was not found, a Rombu would still be erected. The dead’s clothes would be used in place of the body and the rituals would remain the same.
“It is an ancestral practice passed down by our forefathers and it has to go on,” a villager from Lhotokuchu Jigme, Sonam Tshering Doya said. “It would be a tragedy not to practise this custom.”
This article first appeared in Kuensel and has been edited for the Bhutan Times.