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Bumthang: Yaklha - An integral part of Urap's culture
Bumthang Although yak herders in the country may be decreasing, the age-old tradition of appeasing the yak deity (yak lha) is still widely practiced by yak herders in Ura, Bumthang.

According to herders, the practice has always been an integral part of their society.

In the seventh month of the Bhutanese calendar, the yak herders and their family, led by the local priest (lhapon), move from their village to their cattle-shed in the forest the day before the ceremony.

At the cattle shed the lha-poen readies a make-shift altar and prepares torma (ritual cakes) while the yak herders and their family members spend the whole night preparing a feast offering of fruits, dairy and other products derived from yaks.

Yak
The three-day ceremony starts at dawn with a lhabsang (purification) ceremony. The lha poen erects a prayer flag made from juniper and a three-pronged pole to hold the torma (lha shing) near the cowshed and food offerings are placed at the base of the prayer flag.

The best female and male yak from the herd is decorated with colourfully dyed yak hair and tied near the lha shing.

The lha poen then touch the heads of the yaks with yak hair knitted to resemble a skull and recites prayers accompanied with cymbals and drums.

The yak herders, their family and guests sit around the yaks while the prayer is in progress. After the prayer the yak herders prostrate three times and circumambulate the yaks and pray for a bountiful yield from the yaks. Milk is then sprayed among the crowd and the yaks and then given to the people as thrichu (nectar).

The lha poen concludes his prayers in about an hour after which ara is served to all at the ceremony.

This is followed by a feast at the cowshed. However, unlike any other Bhutanese feasts, there are no meat items since the practice of Boen-kar (a part of Bonism) does not encourage consumption of meat.

The lha-poen continues his prayer for the next two days which is always concluded with a tse-ku-yang-ku (prayer for long life and prosperity).

A 61-year old yak herder, Tshewang Dargay from Ura, believes that the practice of (yak lha was prevalent before the advent of Buddhism in the country).

Ura Valley

The three-day ceremony starts at dawn with a lhabsang (purification) ceremony. The lha poen erects a prayer flag made from juniper and a three-pronged pole to hold the torma (lha shing) near the cowshed and food offerings are placed at the base of the prayer flag.

The best female and male yak from the herd is decorated with colourfully dyed yak hair and tied near the lha shing.

The lha poen then touch the heads of the yaks with yak hair knitted to resemble a skull and recites prayers accompanied with cymbals and drums.

"Before Buddhism, Bonism with its two sects of Bonkar and Bon-nag, was popular among the people," he said. The people of Ura appeased the Bonkar deity Jo Tenpai Sherub as their nor-lha (cattle god).

According to Dargay, the yak lha ceremony was observed with much funfare in the past. "We used to celebrate for weeks at a stretch but now that most of the people have left the village the ceremony is observed only for three days," he said.

Most Uraps also feel that the number of yaks have declined over the years. Most yak herders have given up their nomadic traditions to a more settled life.

This year the yak lha was observed in September at Ura Khandopang where the majority of the villager's yaks are kept.

According to the Ura Lower Secondary School Head Teacher, Wangchuk, who participated in their year's celebration, the yak lha ceremony was a very unique practice.

"It should be preserved and promoted so that the younger generation know that such kind of ceremonies are prevalent in the country," he said.

According to Dargay, the ceremony is held to bring good fortune to the people, and good health to the animals and keep them safe from the predators.

Since the ceremony is considered as a very important occasion for the local community, local schools and offices are closed for the entire three-day ceremony.

Contributed by Chencho Wangdi, KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper, 2009
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