More Than Just Exoticism, The Royal Highland Festival In Laya Highlights Threats To Nomadic Communities Around The World
The heart of the festival celebrates the highlanders’ unique and beautiful clothing, dance, music, handicrafts, food, and intangible forms of culture.
By Dr Ritu Verma | Kuensel
Senior researcher and strategic adviser for the Tarayana Centre for Social Research and Development, and associate professor College of Language and Culture Studies, Royal University of Bhutan. Parts of this article were previously published in Tashi Delek, the inflight magazine of Drukair, Royal Bhutan Airlines.
As Bhutan gets ready for the Third Royal Highland Festival and the Laya Run from 23 - 24 October 2018, both anticipation and excitement run high.
The mountain highland setting for both these events is as stunning as it is awe-inspiring. The Royal Highland Festival highlights the richness and spirituality of highland culture and traditions, while allowing visitors to get a glimpse of the magnificent yet harsh high-altitude landscapes that Layaps call their home.
Highlights of the Royal Highland Festival
The festival also draws together many highlanders from across the country, who will walk days to Laya to participate and showcase their culture.
The heart of the festival celebrates the highlanders’ unique and beautiful clothing, dance, music, handicrafts, food, and intangible forms of culture. The most exciting part of the festival, besides the fun-filled games and sports events, is the competition of livestock, showcasing the colourfully adorned majestic yaks of the region, as well as the beautiful and noble Bhutanese mastiffs.
Tsagay won the best mastiff contest at the Laya
Royal Highland Festival in Bhutan.
The highland region of Bhutan is home to the Layaps, as well as pastoralist and nomadic communities from Lunana, Merak-Sakteng (Trashigang), Trashyangtse, Paro, Lhuentse, Haa and Sephu (Wangdue).
Festival is also a platform to highlight the threats to life in the Highlands
Events such as the Royal Highland Festival help to highlight that such communities around the world are under great threat, as climate change and sedentary-oriented development places pressure on their nomadic, semi-nomadic and unique ways of life.
Given the fragile arid and semi-arid ecosystems that pastoralists normally live in, nomadic and semi-nomadic herding makes sense, as it distributes pressure on the land in an environmentally sustainable manner.
Most importantly, such a unique way of life is inductive to a unique set of cultural practices, which are also under threat as GDP-centric development and mass globalisation make inroads into these remote regions.
However, efforts are underway to help preserve cultural practices, in ways that allows highland communities to thrive in rapidly changing contexts. The Royal Highland Festival, the Laya Run and the Snowman Run all highlight and exemplify the importance of Gross National Happiness, with their special emphasis on culture preservation and environment conservation.
Tips on how to be mindful of local customs and to minimise ecological impact in the highlands
Travel ethically, tread lightly, and be respectful of local people, culture, customs, traditions, ecologies and spiritual practices in this remote corner of Bhutan.
Some Bhutanese travellers express a slight amount of what they describe as culture shock, as they come across and learn for the first time about different aspects of the unique nomadic cultures.
Likewise, foreign tourists revel in the high-altitude landscapes framed by the majestic snow-capped mountains, and the colourful culture of the highlanders that are on display in full celebration.
It is important to be mindful of how one treats the lowlanders and mid-landers, as they do not want to be objectified by visitors. The highlanders deserve the same respect too.
Many cultural practices of the highlanders may be different, from marriage to funerals, and these should be treated with wonder, respect and tolerance, rather than external judgement and objectification.
It is heartening that most travellers show the utmost respect towards the highlanders, which epitomises the best of ethical and mindful travel and tourism.
Examples of actions and behaviour which might upset the local communities
However, there are a few minor exceptions which are worth mentioning as examples of behaviours to avoid: disrespectfully aiming cameras at local highlanders without their consent and permission, pulling hats off the heads of Layap women for photo opportunities, obtrusive filming on the performance area of the festival grounds by professional bloggers within metres of the festival performers, and tour companies filming footage for commercial purposes without the necessary permits and prior clearances required.
Thus, local tour operators play a key role in ensuring that tourists and visitors are briefed about the ecological and cultural fragility of highland areas. Together, we can help to ensure that tourism is ethical, respectful, and most importantly, we should learn and experience the exotic highland culture with an expansive mind and open heart in this unique and fragile area of Bhutan.
This article first appeared in Kuensel and has been edited for the Bhutan Times.