As Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck relates in her book, A Portrait of Bhutan, legend has it that the people of Tshona in Tibet were struggling to cut down a huge mountain in front of the palace of the tyrant Yarsang, in order to bring more light into his palace. No matter how hard they worked, the people were not able to make any progress at all, were desperate to tend their own fields and feed their own children, and were at a loss as to what to do. “Rather than cut down the mountain,” suggested a beautiful young woman, Aum Jomo, “Let us cut off the head of the tyrant Yarsang.”
Faced with this brilliant suggestion, the people arranged a great feast to honor Yarsang, saw to it that he got drunk, and then decapitated him. Staring down at the headless body of their former tyrant, the people realized the seriousness of their deed, and knew they had to flee their homes. Aum Jomo and their much-loved Lama Jarepa offered to lead them over the mountains to a new home.
Taking their yaks and sheep with them, the people of Tshona traveled for many months through the inhospitable land of Tibet, finally arriving at a very high pass. The majority, too tired to attempt to cross the high pass, turned back, wandering until they came to a wide valley on the top of a hill, that was covered with bamboo and rhododendrons. They named it Sakteng or “land on the top.”
Those who were strongest, however, managed to make it over the pass with their animals, and came down to find a picturesque, uninhabited, shrub-covered plateau, facing a river and surrounded by hills, forests and a wonderful small species of juniper. These hardy refugees set the shrubs on fire to clear the land and called their new home “Merak” or “set on fire”.
Today was our day to enjoy “set on fire!"
Kezang arrived early with a pile of Brokpa clothes for each of us to wear. The dress of the people of Merak and Sakteng is unique in Bhutan and he felt if we were to spend time with the people, we should dress as they do.
Each of us women donned a red and white striped raw silk dress called a shingkha, over which we wore a zuktangdhotung or jacket, with lovely flowers and animal designs woven into the material. We tried to hold the dress tightly between our legs in a pleat, while we draped a blanket or maykem over our backsides and tied it on with a kara.
Women also wear a most unique hat or tsipuzam made of woven yak hair, sort of like a French beret, and with five tails hanging off the rim. The Brokpa women claim that these tails keep the rainwater and snow off their faces. We would get that hat later!
For the men, Kezang brought a lovely belted red wool jacket or tshokhan chuba. Often the men add shorts, a tunic of animal hide, high socks and boots –generally rubber these days - but we kept the male dress simple, just using the jacket.
Dressed up as respectable Brokpas, we headed out to explore the area. Our first stop was the local school in time for morning exercises. The kids giggled in amazement at these white chilpas, dressed up in their clothes, and clustered around for pictures or just to stare.
The primary school had about 230 students, many of whom were boarders, as they lived too far from Merak to come and go easily.
When they finished school in Merak, the students then continued their education in Trashigang. After the prayers and national anthem, during the announcement time, the principal asked each of us to say a few words to the students. Then we had the opportunity to visit the classroom, surprisingly clean and well stocked. The school also had an excellent library with a wide selection of books.
The principal explained that the coming of electricity to the village had made a huge difference to the students. Now they could study at night and do far more work. At the same time, with electricity came television and, soon, the internet. Now students were exposed to a world that they had never seen – a world of Bollywood, consumerism and other outside influences. There was much worry among the adults about how to preserve a culture in such a fast-changing world, how parents, who grew up in a world with no machinery, electricity and other modern conveniences, will cope with children, who come to adulthood in a society that is vastly different from their own.
After visiting the school, we crossed back over the ravine separating our campsite from town, and walked to the small village of Gengo we had passed the day before, as we walked into Merak. Gengo boasts a wonderful old lhakhang or temple, dating back to the 15th century, according to some, and later by others. Some say it was built by a famous Merak Lama, Lodey Gyatso, who also built the sister monastery of Tawang, across the border in Arunachal Pradesh.
When we arrived at the lhakhang, it was closed as the result of the death of a four- month-old baby. Kezang had been the temple’s caretaker, however, and his family were the present temple overseers. As a result, they let us inside. To me, one of the treasures was the wonderful wooden floor, worn soft by the prostrations of so many worshippers. The two key deities in the temple are the thousand-armed Chenrizi or god of compassion and Guru Rimpoche.
Yet, it is said that the temple houses another treasure. In addition to an excellent collection of relics and some beautifully designed chortens made of copper and wood, there is a statue that is said to be of either Thangtong Gyalpo, the famous “Iron Bridge Builder” of Bhutan, or, of his son, Buchung Gyalwa Zangpo. Moreover, it is said that the holy mummy of Buchang Gyalwa Zangpo is enshrined in the wooden Gomang chorten in Gengo. History suggests that Thangtong Gyalpo did spend time in the Merak area and was responsible for bridges in Tashigang and other nearby areas, so perhaps Merak acted as a center of activity for him.
Walking through the area around Gengo, Kezang pointed out numerous stones that embodied different legends and stories of Aum Jomo and her consort. One of my favorites was a large rock with a narrow hole.
It was said that Aum Jomo’s consort stuck his member through the rock to illustrate his strength and worthiness of her. In another place, you stuck your fingers in a hole and scratched as best you could to scrape off some gold. A third rock was shaped like a pig’s thigh, as Aum Jomo does not want people to eat pig.
After exploring Gengo, we headed back past our camp to Merak and Kezang’s home for a lunch prepared by his mother and sisters. At one time, the house used to have three separate rooms. Now, as the family has grown and brothers and sisters have married, the brother occupies the downstairs, and the sister-in-law has the other room upstairs. We all clambered up to the first floor and the main room for his mother – kitchen, prayer room, sleeping room and storage all in one.
Interestingly, polyandry - one woman married to several husbands – is not uncommon in Merak. In a way, polyandry serves several important purposes. It keeps the property intact. This way, a house does not have to be divided among so many family members. Secondly, polyandry serves as sort of birth control, as one woman can only have a limited number of children. Lastly, in a society where men can be off with the animals, someone is home with the wife.
Kezang’s family fed us a delicious lunch of soup, vegetable and meat momos, emadatse, rice with corn and tsampa, or barley flour, as well as a great tomato relish or achar. Kezang’s sister makes some of the wonderful hats and Kezang showed how her hats were tightly woven, so as to repel water, where as some of the cheaper hats simply absorbed water. Needless to say, I bought one!!!
After lunch, we went to the home of the woman who had woven the clothes we were wearing. She did all of her weaving on a back strap loom, and it took her about seven days to complete a jacket. She was young and quite beautiful, and was trying to supplement her income from farming and livestock with weaving. Weaving was not something she had learned at home. Rather, she had studied how to set the loom and make the traditional flower and animal designs that were popular in the Merak area. Again, electricity in the homes meant a lot to her and other villagers, allowing them to work in evenings, as well as helping to alleviate the eye-strain from laboring in semi-darkness.
From the weaver, our path led up the hill overlooking the village to the Samteling Lhakang Merak’s main temple, built in 1890. The temple is contains a set of handwritten scriptures that Aum Jomo was said to have carried from Tibet and some very well-done paintings.
When we arrived, the head lama and gomchens, or lay lamas, were conducting a service to prepare for a purification ritual to cleanse people of illness or sins. In the middle of the temple was a table with a large figure made from butter and tsampa and surrounded by about 400 small figures shaped sort of like tiny people. Kezang told us to take some money, rub it all over our bodies, and then put in on the trey with the figures. Next, he handed us some corn, and told us to once again, rub it over our bodies and but it on the trey. By rubbing our bodies with the money and corn, all of the illness or impurities we harbored were transferred to these items and then left on the trey to be thrown out. All of the Merakpas would have the opportunity to do the same cleansing, and then the trey of figures would be thrown outside the town limits, purifying the town and its people.
Kezang sat with the head lama and gomchen and began chanting also. We sat and let the sound of the chanting, drums and horns wash over us, until one of the helpers brought us some salt tea. We drank and then it was time to leave. Kezang turned to us saying, “Leave your body on the trey, but make sure to take your soul when you leave!”
Walking out the door into the fading light of the day, I truly hoped my soul was with me, and not on the trey with the impurities!
Walking back to camp, we passed people grinding tsampa and corn, feeding animals and doing their daily chores. All smiled at these chilpas dressed in local clothes and were extremely friendly. What a special day.
At night we talked a bit about Merak. The village has about 140 families, each with about ten, yes, ten children! At an altitude of over 11,000 feet in altitude, Merak gets extremely cold and can experience more than six feet of snow on the ground. During the frigid winter months, school is closed, and most people take their livestock and head down to warmer and lower climates. The Merakpas often have a host family down low with whom they can stay over the winter and to whom they bring butter and cheese. In the summer months, that host family comes up to Merak, bringing things like vegetables and fruit.
Not everyone leaves for winter though. Weavers tend to stay, those who watch the temples and have other local jobs and old people who no longer like the nomadic life wait out the cold months in their homes. Often the yaks are left to roam free during the winter months, as they are fine in the snow and do not do well at low altitudes. They actually can swim and do not mind bathing in the frigid waters.
Kezang also talked about the local habit of night hunting, where a bunch of boys get together and decide to sneak in and pay a visit to a girl they like. Sometimes this was both dangerous and funny! Kezang had us rolling with laughter as he described climbing up the vines to the room of a girl he wanted to visit one night. In his mouth, he held the flashlight, so he could see where he was going. Just as he got to her room and pried open the window, he coughed and the flashlight flew out of his mouth into the room and onto the floor with a crash. Dogs started barking, Kezang could hear people heading outside to see what was going on, so he leapt to the ground, twisting his knee in the process and hobbled off into the bushes before anyone could follow him. Ah the perils and misfortunes of love!