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The Lhops of the Am Mo Chhu Valley
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Lhop - One of Bhutan's least known ethnic group
The controversial name
The Director of CAPSCD and NIE (Paro), Jagar Dorji, has studied one of Bhutan's least known ethnic group, the Lhops of the Am Mo Chhu valley. Excerpts from his research paper presented at a colloquium in Thimphu this week is reproduced below. Kind and tolerant the later settlers called the Lhops daya, meaning kind-hearted.

Daya soon assumed its corrupt form, Doya. The word Doya, is derived from the Nepali word daya (meaning kind).

When the Nepalese immigrants came to these parts of the kingdom, they came across this indigenous community already living in the region.

The shy, kind and gentle people of the Lhop community obviously treated the newcomers rather kindly. This included the generosity of allowing the latter to till their ancestral lands in exchange of gifts of chhang, a weakness of the Lhops.

The settlers called their hosts "daya" as a gesture of gratitude. Soon they came to be known as Doya, a corrupt form of daya. This name was so widely used that even many of the Lhops themselves began to use it commonly. There is yet another confusion. To some people, the Doyas and Taba Dramtoeps belong to different ethnic groups. Taba and Dromtoekha are villages where the Tabaps and the Dromtoeps live, while the Lhops live mainly in Lhotu and Kuchu, Sanglung and Satakha villages

Chakravarti (1978) thinks the Lhop people were the semi-nomadic group that took care of the cattle belonging to the permanent settlers of Haa and Paro. Aris believes that the Lhops may be the same tribe which lives in Upper and Lower Toktokha in Chukha Dzongkhag. In fact, Aris mentions Toktop as a common name for the Lhops of Dorokha Drungkhag, Taba Dramtoekha and Toktokha. Aris would also have us believe that the three groups may have branched off from the original Dung from the Dungna valley in the western part of Chukha Dzongkhag.

The older people in the Lhop villages say that until the 1960s the entire region of Lhop was brought under the administrative jurisdiction of a certain Dung Nyerpa and hence the connection. The Toktop males wear their garment "crossed over the chest and knotted at the shoulders" and that definitely suggests that the Lhops and the Toktops belong to the same ethnic group. If so, the Lhop territory extends right into the western part of Chukha beyond the Am Mo Chhu valley. Aris refers to these people as the earlier settlers of Bhutan who might have been pushed to these corners by the more influential and culturally advanced people of the north and central Bhutan.

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The origin of the Lhop
The history and the origin of the Lhop has remained a mystery. The folk tales that could have given us some glimpses into their past are filled with myths, and the oral tradition is not very strong. But it is irrefutable that the Lhops had lived and evolved as a part of the Am Mo Chhu valley since time immemorial. It is believed that once the region around the Am Mo Chhu valley was filled with the Lhop population. Their tribe apparently lived as far as the Jaldakha valley further west, now known as Bara-Tendu, but had been wiped out probably by some deadly diseases or by the communal wars reducing the present population to some 180 households.

Lhops literally means southerners, a term mostly used by the people of the Paro and Haa valleys. Its use may also go back to the ancient Tibetan reference of Bhutan as Lhop Yuel, the country to the south of Tibet and the people of Lhop Yuel as Lhop.

Elsewhere it has been said that later migrants from Tibet might have pushed them away to the southern foothills. According to a tradition in Satakha, one of the Lhop villages, they worship a deity called Talang which is said to have its origin in the Dop-Shari village in Paro. The informants who have never been to Paro themselves, believe that there is an ox-shaped boulder which is the image of the Ta-lang deity they worship in the Dopu village.

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The Lhops and the early Bhutanese
The Lhops and the others like the Moenpa and the Mangdeps may have been the descendants of the so called Ri - Dragpa (people of the mountainous terrain) described as short and sturdy natives of an ancient country. Elsewhere the Lhops are identified with the Kiranti people who were presumably the original inhabitants of the Sub-Himalayan foothills, but later evolved into separate and unique cultural pockets due to physical isolation from each other over a long period of time.

The rough terrain of the country and the self-sustaining means available in the valley could be responsible for this isolation. There is yet another people called the Toto to the south of the Taba Dramtoekha.

The Lhops are definite that they share no common roots with the Toto people because their languages are different. For reasons that are more geographical than historical or political, the Lhops have remained isolated from the fast developing culture in most parts of the country for a long time. With the Tegola Mountain range as a natural barrier between the Lhops and the rest of the country, the community may have had less access to the forces that would otherwise enhance social and cultural interaction.

Elderly Lhop people consider Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal as a master founder of the religion for the Lhops. One of the explanations they provide refers to the present day Sombekha village in the upper part of the Am Mo Chhu valley. The main protective deity of the Sombeyhka, Kuntuzangpo, is said to have been brought by a Lhop who had worked in the court of the Zhabdrung. The Lhops even sing songs extolling the Zhabdrung's virtues and fame.

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The settlement
Several communities are found living in separate village settlements on both sides of the Am Mo Chhu valley. Rangtsekha, Doga, Dorokha, Satakha, Sanglung, Lhoto-Kuchu, Lotok and Drambey villages are on the southern part of the Am Mo Chhu while the villages of Thangtokha and Denchuka and several others face south in the northern slopes of the valley. The inhabitants of Rangtse village are said to be originally a part of the greater Lhop community and are called Yar-lhop by the people of the Lhoto-kuchu villages. But they live in villages in the upper part of the valley and seem to have little contact with the community down the valley. The language of the Yar-lhopshas also evolved to a great extent that it has lost its close affinity with the original Lhop language. The Yar-lhops themselves believe that they are different from the Lhops and speak a language that is more like the one spoken by the people of Sombeykha, which is closer to Rangtse.

The folklore of the Lhops contain interesting stories of their territorial extent. The Lhop tradition of offering has similar connotations that prevail in the Nyonked speaking areas.

"Sele La Wo Chey; Mainaguri Ya Chey" in Lhop dialect means below Sele La and above Mainaguri while another indicates that the Lhop country stretched from Selela in the north to Mainaguri in the south, and from Seti in the east to Jaldhakha in the west. "Ti" in the Lhop language means water or flowing stream and any stream with a "ti" affixed to its name, therefore, could indicate the extent of the Lhop territory.For example, the Amo Chhu is called Mo-ti (meaning Mo Chhu) and, likewise, Yash-ti, Kam-ti and Dam-ti. Later immigrants added "khola" to these names and thus the Seti Khola and the Hati Khola.

"Doo" in the Lhop dialect is the name of a tree and the Do-ti that flows from the Phuentsholing town is named after the trees that are commonly found around its sources. The Damdum river which flows out into India draining the valley to the north of Samtse town has its original name in the Lhop language. It consists of two tributaries, the Dam Ti and the Dom Ti. Dam Ti originates in the slopes of a lofty hill range seen in the northeast opposite the Samtse town while the Dom-ti emerges from the southern slopes near the Yeba La range.

The Lhops believe that their people had lived in Sibsoo, Bara, Tendu, Chengmari and in the south of the Yaba La range but had been wiped out by a terrible epidemic. When it happened is not known.

A 46-year old man, Daw Tshering, says his great grand-mother Tsurjemo had survived the epidemic and was brought to Satakha village by a man named Tsang Doji as his bride. Tsurjemo was 12 when she came to Satakha in which case the epidemic might have occurred around 1867 just after the Duar War between Bhutan and the British. After the epidemic the settlements south-east of the Yaba La range were abandoned for a long time.

Then the Haaps came and grazed their cattle and later the Nepalese immigrants used the land. The epidemic theory explains the reduction of the Lhop population to its present size. This epidemic could have spread from the plains with which the Lhops of the foothills south of the Yaba La range had contacts. The fact that the Am Mo Chu valley was unscathed suggests that the killer disease did not reach the other side of the mountains where the Lhops are found today.

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The people

The Lhops are short and sturdy in appearance. Both men and women have almost the same body stature - generally around 4-5 feet - and the retarded growth may have been caused by the intra-community marriage they still continue to maintain. People in the village of Satakha who the Lhops say are not pure Lhops but born through inter-marriages with people from other villages, appear taller and healthier. But by no means should the Lhops be under-estimated in their strength, courage and feat. They are born climbers and daring athletes. The grasses for roofing their houses are found on steep rocky scarps that are quite intimidating and spine chilling even to look at. But they climb these precarious precipices nimbly and seemingly non-chalantly to collect the grasses. Among the Lhop people, it is not uncommon to find people as old as 100 years of age.

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The Lhop community

Their houses and living environment have not changed much though modernism has begun to influence their taste in dresses and diet. They live closely, marry within the community, often among cousins, and worship local deities called Zhipda-Neda. They are very simple and humble by nature and quite tolerant. Very few are educated. The highest a Lhop has achieved in education is the Primary Teacher's Certificate in 1995. Another young man has been enrolled as a monk at the Samtse rabdey. The teachers at the Sengten Primary School, established in 1983, have been encouraging the people to educate their children but seldom successfully. The drop-out rate, however, has been falling.

Marriages outside their community is discouraged because it is opposed to their ancestral tradition. Otherwise, the Lhops maintain a sound relationship with each other within the village and like helping each other to maintain their strong family ties. There is no bitterness among the Lhop people about other people coming and occupying their land. The settlers generally see them as a friendly and simple-minded people who love to drink, chat and care little for tomorrow.

Due to their intra-community marriage, every Lhop is somehow related to one another. Cross cousin marriages may be responsible for a number of cretins found in their community as well as their short stature. The other reason may well be the lack of iodine in their diet as in other parts of the mountainous terrain of Bhutan. Loyalty and commitment among the Lhops is very important and they may even sacrifice their lives for the community.

Contributed by KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper
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