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Merak - Sakten (Sakteng)
A closer look at the Brokpas of Merak - Sakten
Merak and Sakteng
Despite modernisation in various parts of Bhutan and the rapid pace of development life for the Brokpas still remain simple. Tradition and culture passed down over the ages still play a predominant part in the social life of the Brokpas.

According to the study, the Brokpa men and women share equal status and responsibilities in supporting the family.

"Women seem to command a high degree of respect from their husbands and children and they often function as the head of the family in deciding such matters as marriage of their children, when to migrate and in taking charge of the family finance," said the study. Women also represent their families at all public functions- religious or social. And as men are away most of the time, herding Yaks or trading their diary products, women attend most of the local meetings. "In running an official errand and while making important decisions pertaining to the community's welfare, a wife often acts as proxy for her absent husband," said the study.

The Brokpas have their own tradition and culture which rules births, deaths, marriages and social life in the community. Polygamy and polyandry are accepted and marriages are mostly arranged. According to the study a typical Brokpa marriage would involve the meeting of a couple at a social gathering. Following this three stages take place before the girl and boy can be officially wed.

After consultation with the astrologer by the groom's parents a visit to the bride's house with an offering of wine takes place. This is called the Deunchang which is followed by the Barchang period when ceremonial scarfs are offered to all the family mambers of the bride. If the bride refuses the marriage, the girl's parents offer Gyepchang, return drink.

Agreement to the proposal is sealed with the offering of a Pangkhyep (a shawl) by the groom to the bride and a convenient wedding date is set for the celebrations. Births are celebrated with fervour as it means another addition to its future workforce. Death rituals on the other hand border on the bizarre with different rituals for different status groups within the community.

The dead body of an ordinary brokpa is kept in the water for 3-6 days depending upon the advise of the astrologers. Once it is removed from the water it is chopped into 108 pieces and thrown into the river. However, the body of a revered priest is often left in a far off open space to be eaten by vultures while the lower caste people like the black smiths their dead bodies are buried. Brokpas have their own dialect which is similar to the dialect of the Tawangpas of Arunachal Pradesh but the pronunciations are similar to dzongkha.

The language, the study said, has a Tibeto-Burman root. Religion is another important aspect of life in Merak and Sakten with the Brokpas belonging to the Gelugpa sect. Ama Jhomo remains one of the chief deities of the Brokpas. Their belief in Ama Jhomo is further strengthened by her death during which she is believed to have disappeared into the heavenly realms without suffering an actual physical death. Sherphu is another local deity of Merak. Brokpas offer an annual puja and prayers to her to seek protection for themselves and their animals.

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The Brokpa's festivals
BrokpaBrokpa children at school
Brokpas observe four important festivals. The annual tshechus in honour of Guru Padma Sambhava, the Nyungue festival of fasting and remaining mute, the Mangkurem festival (when they chant and recite the scriptures for three days and perform a mask dance on the third day to chase away the evil spirits), and the Chokor festival.

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A livestock based economy

As semi-nomadic tribesmen and the difficulties of a harsh climate discouraging agriculture (except for a few pasture lands for their cattle) the Brokpa economy is largely based on raising yaks and sheep and selling diary products. As such wealth is assessed on the heads of livestock. For example, a wealthy Brokpa may have 150 to 180 yaks in addition to other animals such as horses and sheep while a middle class brokpa may own 20 to 50 yaks, poorer ones may own as few as two or none. Semi-nomads for centuries the barter system still exists as they exchange their dairy products-like meat, wool, leather, cheese, butter for foodgrains, oil, salt, sugar, and chillies-in the neighbouring gewogs and Arunachal Pradesh, in India.

In a unique trading relationship the Brokpas and the local inhabitants share a strong social tradition called Drukor -meaning moving from one village to the other exchanging their produces for foodgrains. This unique tradition begins by late October and continues for 2 to 3 months. As the Brokpas move from village to village collecting grains they also carry some amount of butter and cheese and woven products to trade with the villagers.

It is during these trips that the Brokpas make their alliances. And almost all the Brokpa families have a host family in different villages known as Nepos who barter the Brokpa cheese and butter, meat, woolen blankets for foodgrains. With modernisation and new forms of exchange many Brokpas sell their animal and diary products for cash. However, all Brokpas are not economically self-sufficient and those that are less dependent on livestock work as carpenters, tailors, weavers or as black smiths.

Contributed by KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper
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