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Laya-Gasa: Layaps
Laya Gasa
A decade ago, the semi-nomadic yak herders Layaps called their home be-yul, the hidden land, where Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal first entered Bhutan. Sitting at 3,800m above sea level on the lap of the 7,100m Masagang, one of Bhutan's 20 spectacular peaks, Laya had little contacts beyond its confines, some of the only exposure being an occasional sponsored trip to Thimphu by a group of Layaps to partake in cultural shows.
When Laya opened to tourism in the early 80s, women and children gathered around the "white guests" (tourists) and stared in awe. A discarded canned food tin caused a scramble. There was no school, no health units, no livestock units.

Today tourists are greeted by school children with: "Where are you from? What is your name? " in English.

Today Laya boasts a wireless telephone, a basic health unit (BHU), a livestock unit, two non-formal education centres, a renewable natural resources centre, a Jigme Dorji national park branch office and four shops. Solar panels are used by more and more Layaps. The number of yaks have increased manifold and mules and horses are a familiar sight in Laya, they being the measure of wealth. Laya's gup Passang says that about 90 percent of the geog's 140 households own either yaks or horses or both. Government had also given number of yaks to the people as soelra.

Layap's lives have become much better
Layap women harvesting
"Layap's lives have become much better," said 49-year old Laya Tongra Damchoe who, after a stint at the royal academy of performing arts in Thimphu in the 70s, returned home to tend to yaks. Damchoe said that in the old days rice was carried on backs and took five days to reach Gasa from Punakha. "We used to sleep in caves and under trees."

Ugyen Tshering, 40, a veteran guide who has been trekking past Laya for years believes that Laya's growth has galloped faster than Thimphu's.

Before houses were few and far between and most were in ruins with roofs fallen apart, Ugyen said.

Today there were many houses, colourfully painted and fitted with solar panels. "During annual religious ceremony in Punakha, Layaps would gladly butcher pigs for food and alcohol. They don't do that no more."

Lhaba Tshering, 27, who studied till class nine in Gasa and who is now a non-formal education teacher in his village said that the people of Punakha and Gasa no longer called them "bjops". "They call us Layaps." The school also faces the problem of dropouts and absentees. From the 106 students that had enrolled in the beginning of the year about 16 had left by October. Teachers expect 30 more to leave with the onset of the migration season to the warmer valleys of Punakha. Students leave because their parents want them to herd yaks. Said Ap Pema Dorji, 51: "If our children go to higher education and later when they get jobs in towns and settle there, who will look after the yaks, do business and bring home rations?"

Attitude was changing
A modern Layap boy surveys the recent yak show

The students enjoy school and have dreams and ambitions. Eight-year old Kinley Wangchuk of class II wants to be an engineer, Pema Wangchuk, 10, class II, a pilot, and Passang Thinley, 8, class II, a teacher. Nine-year old girl Tshering Gyem of class I likes studying English and wants to be a doctor. They represent the hope and future of Laya. There is also the adult non-formal education on practical subjects like agriculture, livestock and cleanliness bringing a change in the mindset of the Layaps. About 90 percent of the adult learners are men who take care of business and are considered the family providers. The women herd and milk the yak and do almost all field works including collecting firewood. Men is dominant by tradition.

Only about 30 percent of the students in Laya school are girls. Most young girls tend to yaks in the high pasture land and are away for most of the year.

The BHU manned nurse and health assistant provides immunization and care to pregnant mothers besides other basic health services. Sometimes the BHU staff go after yak herds for immunization follow up because a mother couldn't come to the BHU due to her yaks. Today an increasing number of Layap mothers come to deliver babies at the unit.

Gup Passang said that Laya could do with more development like a wider mule track especially from Gasa - a lifeline for the Layaps. "During winter the narrow steep track is frozen with ice or covered with snow which makes traveling extremely hazardous, and in the past yaks have fallen off the track," Passang said.

Layap woman dress
Layap school girls
Progress and development has brought about other inevitable changes as well. Except for a few elders, the Layap men have long since abandoned the traditional chari gho and shoe (yue-lham) for the conventional gho and socks and leather shoes. Laya Tongra Domchoe said that the art of making yue-lham was forever lost. Only the women still wear their traditional dress against a growing preference for imported sweaters and shirts. The long over-jacket worn over their kira had disappeared.

"The craft of weaving and stitching traditional clothes with wool, imported from Tibet,is dying with the old people," said 32 year-old Lhakpa Tshering, Laya's former chimi. To preserve the Layap woman dress, it has been made compulsory for all girl students to wear their dress to the school.

Drinking and now smoking is a problem in Laya according to health assistant, Sangay Dorji. There are four shops in Laya and all sell cigarettes and imported and national made liquor. The Layap's preferences have jumped from singchang to whisky, the former being considered mild. Recently a drunk man slept outside his house and froze to death. It's not uncommon to see a father and a teenage son drinking together in bars. Assault cases are high.

The practice of polyandry that ensured that property stayed within a family is also waning. Layaps have begun to settle separately leading to land fragmentation and increasing the pressure on limited grazing land.

By December, a snow carpeted Laya is empty except a few old people. The Layaps would have migrated to Punakha to return by March with their yearly supply of rice and other essentials. As more Layaps gain exposure and more children pass through the education system their age-old routine is not as exciting as going to watch the "video" which the rich neighbour's bought recently. "Things change, " said Ap Pema Dorji. "Whether it is good or bad, or simply change, is difficult to say. Sometimes old things die out for new things to grow."

Contributed by Kencho Wangdi, Kuensel, Bhutan's National Newspaper

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