The Nomadic herdsmen of the Eastern Himalayas(the “Brokpas”)

The Brokpas of Merak and Sakteng

The Brokpas : “Brok” meaning Highland and “Pa” meaning inhabitant, are a unique semi nomadic tribe who reside in the two blocks of Merak and Sakteng valleys of far eastern Trashigang district bordering Arunachal Pradesh, India. In fact there are Bokpas in large numbers in Arunachal and Tibet too. According to their oral history, the Brokpas originated from the Yarlung Village in the Tshona region of South Tibet and came to Bhutan after they beheaded a tyrannical king in their ancestral village. The King’s palace never had enough sunlight due to the shade of a hill, so he issued a decree to cut down and level the hill.

The villagers were then induced to kill the King by Aum Jomo in the disguise of a woman with a little child. Led through the mountains by the deity Aum Jomo and the Guru Lam Jarepa, they first landed in present day Arunachal Pradesh in India and then into Bhutan and  brought along with them scores of religious texts, their form of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, and their distinct culture. They however, could not settle in Somathang village in Arunachal because of famine and snakebites. Lam Jarepa consulted Aum Jomo, who waved a white fabric towards the east. During the journey, lam Jarepa is said to have cleared a path by piercing through a treacherous rock. This rock can still be found at Arunachal Pradesh and Sakteng border. On reaching Tsholung (evil lake that disappeared humans into clouds), lam Jarepa divided the lake into three. Each belonged to the three ethnic groups of Brokpas (Kom, Lon and Rok).  The three lakes still exist in northern Sakteng, where nomads today use the surrounding as grazing land (Tsamdro).

The Brokpas of Merak and Sakteng

The Brokpa people are semi-nomadic yak herders who have lived largely in isolation since arriving to Bhutan. The Brokpas are transhumance pastoralists whose profession and livelihood is dependent on yak rearing and use resources like high mountain pastures characteristically by their unique mobility patterns. Several of their villages, like Sakteng, Tengma, and Borang Tse, still have no road access today. Others, like Merak, can be reached by car safely only during the dry season. As a result of their remoteness in the country, the Brokpa’s language and customs are very unique than other Bhutanese ethnic groups.

The interesting legendary story that goes around says that after entering Bhutan from Tibet, a group of weaker ones couldn’t cross a high mountain pass, The Nakchungla Pass (4153m), so they settled in the Sakteng valley area and the rest went further on to the Merak valley and settled there. So between the two valleys, the joke that goes is that the Brokpas of Sakteng are the weaklings compared to the ones in Merak. It’s just an oral story, so the authenticity can’t actually be verified.

These Brokpas’ main source of livelihood are the yaks, though they raise sheep, pigs, chicken etc. Only 3% of their land is arable so they depend on their yaks and move with them according to the weather. Their principal crops include corn, buckwheat, barley, and beets. They work for long hours in the fields in order to get produce enough produce to feed their families in the harsh climate. Other important activities include herding yaks and sheep, and spinning and weaving wool.

The Brokpas of Merak and Sakteng - Yaks

So the Brokpas move seasonally with their animals with their system of transhumance mobility which are basically yaks and sheep between fresh pastures while keeping their eyes open for the revered yeti, or “migoi”, an animal so important in this part of the world that Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary was created to protect it. In the autumn Brokpa men on horseback race to the sacred mountain Jomo Kukhar (after Aum Jomo) to honour their protective deity, the mountain goddess Jomo Kuengkhar.  Racing is followed by rounds of home-brewed wine, prayers, songs and dances offered in return for blessings for prosperity. The immense privilege of trekking in this remote wilderness is to find a people whose culture seems frozen in time as they continue to live and practice their age old customs and traditions in much the same way as their ancestors did. The intrepid travelers who make it here though the deep valleys and over the 4153m Nachungla Pass might even be lucky and be treated to Ache-Lhamo nomadic celebration or a Yak Cham  or ” the dance of the yaks”.

Brokpa women

The Brokpa women wear their hair long and they typically wear red and white silk ponchos, red silk jackets decorated with animal designs, and red wool capes. They may also wear braided black wool jackets. The men wear leather or cloth pants under big, white wool trousers; red wool jackets; and sometimes sleeveless outer garments made of leather and felt. Both men and women wear turquoise earrings. The most distinctive part of the Brokpa outfit, however, is the unique felt hat like discs made from yak hair and has five tail-like “spouts” that allow water to drain and the head to stay dry. They follow the “Red Hat” sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Traditional Tibetan shamanism is also practiced by some. The shamanists believe in an unseen world of gods, demons, and ancestral spirits. They depend on a shaman (priest or priestess) to communicate with the spirits on their behalf. Most Buddhist families have shrines for worship inside their homes.

Now that modernity has set in, there is even a 7 day Merak Sakteng Trek for travelers.

Max Elevation 4,100 m
Min Elevation 1,500 m
Difficulty Medium
Season March, April, May, September, October, November
No. of Days 7 Days

Itineraries

Day 1: Chaling – Damnongchu

Day 2: Damnongchu – Merak

Day 3: Merak – Miksa Teng

Day 4: Miksa Teng – Sakteng

Day 5: Sakteng Day Halt

Day 6: Sakteng – Jyonkhar Teng

Day 7: Jyonkhar Teng – Phongmay