Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Oleps - the last hunter-gatherers of Bhutan

The newly constructed farm road from Taksha Zam to Rukha is carved out of sheer vertical cliffs that it would take a lot of courage, almost blind faith, to hop into the power tiller that had come to pick me. I decided to walk – not because I was scared but because I love walking. I have always walked this route; the first time in 2007 when I was assigned by Tarayana Foundation to document this unique group of people – the Oleps.

So I dropped my bags in the tractor and told them to go ahead while I made my way to Rukha on foot. Two locals remained with me to give me company. Even being able to walk free of my backpack was in itself a huge relief. For many years, following my first visit, we had to walk for two days under the scorching Sun or a torrential rain carrying everything on our backs. There was only one rudimentary footpath that ran along the river and through the leech and snake infested jungles crossing even a dangerous landslide area. The trek was so difficult that every time we made it we felt a great sense of achievement. In time a farm road was built and someone bought a power tiller – not only relieving us from the heavy loads but also shortening the two-day arduous trek into a day-long walk.

After five hours of hitting the dusty track, through some beautiful sub-tropical forests and vegetation, we reached Samthang – the first settlement lying along the banks of Harachu River. There we were invited into the house of an old friend, Tashi. His wife had, as usual, cooked some rice and nga-dho tshoem (smoked fish), a local delicacy. I made my hosts happy by gulping down a mound of rice and several rounds of the fish curry.

Another five hours of journey on foot and with the final few kilometers taking us uphill we reached Rukha.

Place, people and culture
Rukha stands on a plateau with the houses lined-up along a raised perimeter of a large farmland. The Oleps have settled here in 1982 when this land was granted to them by the King. They were originally hunter-gatherers, the last ones in Bhutan, perhaps. And together with the cousins, the Mongpas, they are considered as the first inhabitants of Bhutan. Since time unknown they lived off the forest practicing hunting, fishing and shifting cultivation. In the early 1980s as their hunting ground became part of a national park the Oleps appealed to the King and received a permanent place to settle in Rukha. However, while they got the land they didn’t know how to farm and slowly their number dwindled because of poverty and malnutrition. They worked as day laborers for the more affluent villages of Athang – getting paid in food grains with which they fed their families.

In 1997, Her Majesty Queen Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck who was trekking in the area stumbled upon them. Story has it that she was deeply saddened by their conditions. They were living in makeshift bamboo huts and in total misery. Years later, when Her Majesty founded Tarayana, Rukha was selected as the first project site. In 2007, just before the project got implemented I was hired to photograph and do some documentaries on their origins, language and the way of life. I immediately became attached to them making me volunteer for Tarayana and visiting them regularly even after the project closed. Tarayana helped them build permanent homes, send their children to school, start fishery and bought them seeds and farming tools. In time, they bounced back to life and they also embraced me as one of them.

The Oleps are part of a larger group, the Mongpas of Central Bhutan. But the origins of the name, Oley, and the history have been lost in time. They are often grouped with the Monpa - a term to loosely describe the non-Indian non-Tibetan groups that inhabited the southern regions of Tibet. However, the Oleps with their language, culture and traditions and the dependence on forest for livelihood would link them closer to the Nagas, Kukis and Mismis of North Eastern Himalayas. They are today confined to Rukha; numbering just 121 souls. And with their unique language (Olekha), culture and traditions they are the smallest ethnic group of Bhutan.

What is even more fascinating of their origins is their own version, which, of course, is bit sketchy. Their cousins, the Mongpas, have retained the legend that the Oleps and the Mongpas are direct descendents of one of the nine brothers of the Sun. The brother in time married a visiting fairy from heaven after he captured her - one fine day. To make sure that she didn’t fly away he clipped her wings and hid them in the bushes. They bore a son and a daughter. The mother, one day, discovered her wings and flew back to heaven – never to come back. Seeing the children deeply saddened, the father decided to go to heaven - promising to get her back but also cautioning that he may not succeed either and may be killed in the mission. “If you hear me shout aatsa (painful cry), it means that I have lost the battle,” he told the children. Few weeks later a cry of aatsa was heard and subsequently the injured father dropped down from the sky. He died of injuries few days later. The son and the daughter obviously angered by the death of their father traveled to heaven to demand compensations from the Gods. They were given a hunting dog and a rotary mill. This, the legend says, is the reason why the Oleps and the Mongpas have been practicing hunting and shifting cultivation.

The legend of Pelden Lhamo
Crowning the village of Rukha is a hill where once a temple stood. The temple was dedicated to Pelden Lhamo – the guardian deity of Bhutan. Legend has it that Pelden Lhamo (Mahakali) came a subdued a demon that was terrorizing the village. To ensure that the demon didn’t resurrect again she planted herself on top of the hill. A temple was built there but was later destroyed somewhere between 1933 and 1936. The period is deduced from the age of one of the oldest men living, Ap Tekpa, who is almost 90. Tekpa recounts that when he was a boy a deadly disease (probably referring to the smallpox epidemic that hit Bhutan between 1931 and 1933) had wiped out the entire village. The Oleps were living in the mountains overlooking Rukha back then. “For years after the village got empty no one dared to visit the place,” he adds. “Then few years later the temple was razed to the ground.”

In 2009 as the project was nearing completion the Oleps asked me to help rebuild the temple. I initially declined as I was more focused on alleviating them from misery rather than guiding them towards their spiritual path. But on a second thought I realized that a community temple was more than a religious monument. It brings and binds the community together. It gives them hope when they are in despair and happiness and laughter in times of annual religious celebrations. So I agreed to help and together (I would say more they than me) we rebuilt the temple from the scratch.

In December 2013 we consecrated the temple and on the same occasion the entire village took a vow to stop killing animals altogether and subscribe to the Buddhism. They were mostly animist until then. While it might be a triumph for environmentalists and serious Buddhist practitioners, I had an uneasy feeling that we might have just changed their lives, history and traditions forever. Not that I encouraged them to hunt, which was outlawed way back in the 1970s. But all along as the project got implemented my colleagues from Tarayana and I battled with changes that we were bringing to this community.

On my return journey, my friend, Kinza, insisted that I rode in his power tiller. “I want to have the honour of giving you a ride. You have done so much for me - and it is much faster.” I obliged. Two others got in insisting on coming to see me off.

As Kinza skillfully negotiated the narrow track of the farm road carved out of the vertical cliffs, my eyes scanned the world that was slowly moving away from us. My first visit and the poverty I saw back then seem as far as the distant mountains now. May be change was good - and inevitable if this community was to survive. And as long as these people maintained its unique identity, pride and sense of humanity and gratitude, which they do, they can boldly move towards a brighter future.

When we reached our destination – the highway point where I had left my car, I hugged my friends and we wished each other that “we would meet again".

In Bhutan there is no such thing as goodbye. 

(This article was written for Tashi Delek magazine, Jan 2014)

1 comment:

  1. Good morning how are you?

    My name is Emilio, I am a Spanish boy and I live in a town near to Madrid. I am a very interested person in knowing things so different as the culture, the way of life of the inhabitants of our planet, the fauna, the flora, and the landscapes of all the countries of the world etc. in summary, I am a person that enjoys traveling, learning and respecting people's diversity from all over the world.

    I would love to travel and meet in person all the aspects above mentioned, but unfortunately as this is very expensive and my purchasing power is quite small, so I devised a way to travel with the imagination in every corner of our planet. A few years ago I started a collection of used stamps because trough them, you can see pictures about fauna, flora, monuments, landscapes etc. from all the countries. As every day is more and more difficult to get stamps, some years ago I started a new collection in order to get traditional letters addressed to me in which my goal was to get at least 1 letter from each country in the world. This modest goal is feasible to reach in the most part of countries, but unfortunately it’s impossible to achieve in other various territories for several reasons, either because they are countries at war, either because they are countries with extreme poverty or because for whatever reason the postal system is not functioning properly.

    For all this I would ask you one small favor:
    Would you be so kind as to send me a letter by traditional mail from Bhutan? I understand perfectly that you think that your blog is not the appropriate place to ask this, and even, is very probably that you ignore my letter, but I would call your attention to the difficulty involved in getting a letter from that country, and also I don’t know anyone neither where to write in Bhutan in order to increase my collection. a letter for me is like a little souvenir, like if I have had visited that territory with my imagination and at same time, the arrival of the letters from a country is a sign of peace and normality and an original way to promote a country in the world. My postal address is the following one:

    Emilio Fernandez Esteban
    Calle Valencia, 39
    28903 Getafe (Madrid)

    If you wish, you can visit my blog where you can see the pictures of all the letters that I have received from whole World.

    Finally I would like to thank the attention given to this letter, and whether you can help me or not, I send my best wishes for peace, health and happiness for you, your family and all your dear beings.

    Yours Sincerely

    Emilio Fernandez