Monpas: changing with the times

The monpa communities living in the villages of Jangbi, Wangling and Phumzur in Langthel Gewog in Trongsa are known to be the natives of Bhutan. Earlier, Monpas were hunter-gatherers and lived very primitive lifestyles depending on natural resources. However in the last few decades, the Monpas have undergone dramatic socioeconomic transformation with increasing exposure to the outside world.

Pema Seldon
from Trongsa

Since Bhutan opened its doors to the outside world, the country has seen sea changes but a remote community called the Monpas inhabit Mangdue and Wangdue valleys in central Bhutan where men still prefer to walk barefooted and women are comfortable giving birth at home. This community of primitive people are believed to be natives of Bhutan and those who constituted Bhutan’s first civilisation.
Earlier, Monpas were hunter-gatherers and lived very primordial lifestyles depending on natural resources. They kept themselves uninfluenced by the 2,000 year old mainstream culture of Bhutan. They are still little known even within Bhutan.
There are 353 Monpas from 59 households living in Jangbi, Wangling and Phumzur villages under Langthel gewog in Trongsa Dzongkhag.

Giving birth
Yontima was 18 when she got married to Drakpa, 14 years older than her. Both are cow herders and are from Phumzar but settled in Jangbi village.
A mother of five children, Yontima, now 46, has never been to hospital to deliver her babies. She gave birth to her four children at home and at the age of 42 years, she gave birth to her youngest daughter in a cowshed. “I have always avoided taking medicines but after giving birth to my fifth child, I got severe abdominal pain due to which I was forced to seek medical help,” she said.

Funeral rites
Earlier, when people got sick, the shaman (paow) was summoned and animals were sacrificed as offerings. If people died, their corpses would be buried anywhere and would not be disposed off properly.
“I clearly remember that there was only one gomchen who knew so little of funeral rituals. Unlike so many offerings we have today for funerals, the gomchen would make a rice dough and pour chili flakes over it as an offering to the dead,” said Jangbi Tshogpa Phub Dorji.
Absolutely illiterate, poor and clad in scanty clothes, the Monpas live within their own community and all marriages take place among themselves. They are completely unaware of the country’s political and economic conditions.

Marriage & rituals
According to 68-year-old Wangling Tshogpa Dumila, when a marriage took place, the groom would go to the bride’s house to seek her hand from her family. All the neighbors would gather and the celebration would last for three months. Meat was offered to the guest as meals along with local wines such as bangchang (local alcohol).
During those times, the Monpa elders were unaware of the horoscope. The children’s ages were counted according to the number of harvests of crops (Tshemazam). However, in the 1930s, their forefathers who went as laborers to build roads from Gelephu discovered how the age of a person was counted from some Indian and local laborers which was then introduced at their place.
The Monpas would hunt for wild animals and offer them to their gods during annual rituals performed twice a year by a shaman. The wealthy would sacrifice a pig and an ox whereas the poor would sacrifice only an ox.
“This was for better harvest and protection of crops from wild animals. It’s also for the villagers’ prosperity,” said Dumila.

Winds of change
However, in the last few decades, the Monpas have undergone dramatic socioeconomic transformations with increasing exposure to the outside world.
For instance, 50 years ago, animal sacrifice was abandoned and the annual rituals are now held only once every three years.

Govt. initiatives
The Royal Government of Bhutan (RGoB) aims to integrate Monpas into the mainstream. Since April 2000, the Monpa Selvwai Yoeser Tshogpa project has been implemented in two phases: it was the government’s first development intervention for the Monpas.
With the participation of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) like Tarayana in the socioeconomic upliftment of the Monpas, the impacts were visible.
Tarayana Foundation provided metal roofing materials for 60 houses and Nu 24,000 to each Monpa household to build two-storeyed houses. Scholarships were also awarded to the children of especially poor families.

The Monpa community typically has an economic base in horticulture and animal herding.
According to the Gup of Langthel Gewog, Sonam Dhendup, the Monpas cultivate paddy, maize, wheat, barley, millet, buckwheat, peppers, bamboo-shoots, pumpkin and mushroom. Some of them have even started growing cash crops such as cardamom which they sell for Nu 1,200 per kg. In the beginning, the saplings were brought all the way from Samtse.
Looking at other villagers earning money from cardamom, Lethro also started growing the crop in his backyard last year but gave up since it needed lots of water and care and he couldn’t put in his best efforts.
“I am getting old and there is no one to help me, so I didn’t get the profit I had expected,” he said but Lethro is not giving up; this year also, he planted some cardamom and hopes to earn some profit.

Medical facilities
Earlier in Jangbi village, which is a three-hour walk from Langthel gewog , there were only four households which has now increased to 23 and a total population of 163. Many Monpas from Phumzur village which is a seven to eight hours’ walk from Langthel gewog have settled down in Jangbi village because the only primary boarding school and Basic Health Unit (BHU) under three chiwogs have been etsblished here.
Before, the villagers had to go to the far-off Langthel hospital for any emergencies. But after a BHU was built in Jangbi village in 2003, life has become easy. In the earlier days, the death rate was high among children who suffered common cold and dysentery.
“With the coming up of the hospital and BHU, the death rate of children has decreased,” said the Jangbi Tshogpa.

When the only school was first constructed at Jangbi, only 12 students enrolled.
The teacher visited each household to request parents to enroll their children in school but the parents were reluctant. “I still remember most of the parents would offer the teacher a chanjey (bribe) so that they could keep their children at home to help them with house chores,” recalls Phub Dorji. He also said that some parents even hid their children before the teachers visited their place.
“We were the school’s first batch. Some of my friends still regret not availing that opportunity. We only know the value of education now,” he said.
When it comes to education, Yontima and Drakpa are very serious about their children’s.
Three of their children are in high school and their fourth child, a son, is in class VI.
“All my children are interested to study; my elder son during his winter vacation worked at a construction site as a laborer, so that he could fund his own education,” said 60-year old Drakpa.
Further, none of his children wants to stay at home or become a cow herder or famer and as parents they support their children.
“We don’t force them to stay with us since we know the difficulties and challenges we are facing right now, said Drakpa, “I don’t think they will be able to handle it. Even if they don’t get a government job, it’s fine by me as long as they get a good education.”
The couple plans to enroll their four-year old daughter into school when she turns six.

Youths leaving for greener pastures
In every household, there are elderly people who are incapable of doing anything for themselves, parents who are farmers and children who are below five years but there are not many youths in the villages.
Many youths after finishing their studies leave their villages looking for jobs outside the Monpa communities and most youths are now starting to marry people from different communities.
“I go to my village to visit my parents once in a while but I don’t want to stay there forever. Phumzur is a very remote place and we hardly get anything out there,” said 23-year-old Sangay Khandu who works in the gup office of Langthel gewog.
Sangay Khandu, father of a two-year old son is planning to settle at his wife’s village Bjee under Nubi gewog in Trongsa.
“I want my son to lead a comfortable life. I don’t want him to struggle like I did,” he said.
For Sangay Zangmo from Phumzur , it was a dream come true when she got a scholarship to study in Bangkok. After completing her studies, she now works in Mangdechhu Hydropower Project.
According to her, with the help of technology, she keeps in touch with her mother and brother who live in the village and also sends them groceries and money.
Although the elderly people welcome the changes and developments, they fear that the traditions and culture passed to them by their forefathers might perish.

The Monpas have their own dialect called Mokha and although the parents interact with their children in Mokha, Monpa children these days cannot speak Mokha clearly.
“The children go to schools in different places and they have to speak our national language, Dzongkha, so they are slowly losing touch with our language which is sad,” said Lachung, a 52-year old villager from Wangling.
“It’s difficult for the younger Monpas to imagine the hardships of the past. But we make sure we advise our younger generations to be better citizens,” said Phub Dorji.