The remote highland community of Laya comprising five chiwogs with 246 households and a population of 1,000 can be distinguished by their unique apparel, especially the women’s.
The Layap women wear a thick, long, black, ankle-length skirt (zim) and jacket (khothay) made of yak wool and conical hats woven from bark strips of the birch tree.
Cheki, 63, from Pazhi village sports a conical hat with a pointed spear at the top ornamented with colorful beadwork at the back. The beads are of white, red, orange, and blue hues.
Talking to Business Bhutan, the former Gup of Laya, Kinley Dorji narrated the legend behind the Layaps’ attire: in the eighth century, when Guru Rinpoche was helping the Tibetan King, Trisong Deutsen in building the Samye monastery. Guru performed an effigy ritual to appease and bring local spirits into conformity. The effigies known as the Lue were then dropped as far as Laya and Merak. The male effigy was dropped at Merak and the female effigy in Laya. The people of these places then began to copy the dresses of these effigies.
He also said that in olden days if a Layap man loved a woman, he wove a beautiful hat and gifted it to the woman.
“In those days, the hat signified the status of women in the community. Women from the upper class would decorate their hats with strands of precious stones and pearls. More the beads (jerus), the richer the woman. Lower class women would have strands of ordinary beads bought from Nepal,” the Gup added.
However, as modernization makes inroads into the Layap community, the zim has been replaced with half-kira and pants and khothay with jackets and shirts. Only a few still wear their traditional dress including the conical hat.
Today, just three hat weavers remain in the entire village.
Of them, one popularly known as Dodo has been weaving hats since he was 25.
The now 53-year-old learnt the art from a neighbor.
“I learnt the craft because it did not make sense to buy from others. Further, I could give to family members and also earn extra income,” he said.
The weavers put their skills to maximum use during the month of May during the Laya Bonko festival and other occasions like Aoley.
In two months, Dodo is able to weave around 20 to 30 hats. He said he would gladly teach his skills but people are not interested.
Conical hats come in good, medium and poor quality.
Tenzin and his wife are the other two weavers in the village. They weave about 100 hats a year. It has been about 23 years since they started weaving.
Tenzin agrees that the culture of weaving and wearing hats is at threat as most youth are keen on collecting cordyceps which fetches more money.
With the passing years, conical hats have changed in size as well. Earlier, the hats were larger to cover the entire head of a woman and protect from the elements but today the hat is woven depending on the size of the head.
Hat circumference differs from 5-8 inches.
Fifty-six year old Om from Pazhi village said that the hat is an integral part of Layap women’s attire and they have been wearing it for ages.
“We hope our children will learn the art of weaving the hats and continue the legacy of wearing it like us,” said a concerned Om.
But some Layaps believe that only low class people weave the hat and the craft is associated with bad luck.
“We believe that weaving the hats will block prosperity and success in life. This is why there is high chance of our age-old culture of wearing hats vanishing,” said Cheki.
Then there is a contradicting belief that if they stop wearing the hats, the village spirits will be upset.
The conical shaped hat used to cost Nu 250 earlier but today one costs up toNu 600 due to shortage in supply.
It is mandatory for girls from age four and above to wear the hat.
“The hat is a very important part of our dress. We have been wearing the hat since the time of Zhabdrung’s arrival,” shared Lhamo from Nyelo village adding that youth these days are least interested in taking up weaving hats as a profession. “I am worried about the future of our hats.”
There are more than 500 women in Laya.
Chencho Dema from Laya