- General

Layap – The Nomadic Herders of Bhutan

The mule skids on the wet ice and slides forward on the steep track. The man springs forward and grabs it by the muzzle. They both strain against the slope, breaking skids on the edge of the sheer precipice. The mule is lying on its belly, its forelegs dangling over the cliff. Braced precariously, inches from edge, the man strains to hold the animal on the narrow track. Within seconds, the man’s teenage son runs back and deftly unloads the mule, handing over the heavy packs to the woman standing behind the animal, holding it by its tail. Together they haul the mule back on the path. Far below them the mist swirls over the jagged rocks which line the bottom of the deep gorge.

A few meters behind, a 73 year old woman is sitting on an icy path, inching forward on her buttocks, using both her hand and feet to maintain her balance. She sits still and watches calmly as her son, daughter-in-law, and grandson save the family mule and a year supply of food grain.

An hour later, along with other families, they reach a swift stream. Without a thought the men, women, children hitch up their Ghos and Kiras (Bhutanese dress) to the waist and wade across, oblivious of the water which is at about freezing point. Young men pass lewd remarks at the women who are forced to expose their upper thighs to avoid getting their kiras wet. The women respond with quick witty remarks.

By evening, families are camped along the way in caves or under leafy trees. They care for the horses first and then sit down to a simple hot meal. By dark, after a few bottles of Ara and Sinchang (Local brewed alcohol and wine); they share their experience of the past months. This year, the highlight was the meeting in Gasa (District Head Quarters), where they met their King and Queens. They marvel that their king walked just as they did, all the way.


The four day journey from Punakha, usually stretched over several weeks as they relay a year’s food supply, brings the Layaps home to one of the most spectacular region in the Kingdom of Bhutan, the raw natural beauty of the high alpine range.

Spreading upwards from 12000 feet above sea level, Laya sits on the Lap of the 7100 meters Masagang, One of Bhutan’s 20 virgin peaks which are above 7000 meters. The mixed conifer forest above Gasa Dzong, dotted with maple and rhododendron in full bloom, merge into groves of birch, juniper, maple and mountain cane. The entire slopes are richly colored by wild flowers.

Across Bari-la and Kohi lapcha, two rugged passes, the terrain leaves behind the tree- line and the vast alpine grassland undulate towards the great northern glaciers. High above the crystal waterfalls which often cut through the ice formations on the cliff side, and the clear rapid streams, are their sources, the turquoise fresh water lakes many of which the local population hold in sacred awe.

This is the world where the snow leopards roam, where the blue sheep, Sambar, and Musk deer graze in solitude. Lower down, this is the home of Takin, the Himalayan black bear, numerous deer and the wild dog. The winged inhabitants of the region include the raven, wild pheasants, snow pigeons, the red billed cough, the alpine swift, the snow partridge, and the black necked crane.


The Layaps called their home Bayu, the hidden land, with good reasons. The cluster of villages is completely hidden by ridges and appears suddenly when the travelers reaches the first houses. The people believe that they are protected by an ancient gate leading to the main village. It was here that their guardian deities kept a Tibetan invasion at bay. In an important annual ceremony, the Layaps pay homage to the protective forces which turned all the stones and trees around the gate into soldiers to repel the invaders.

But if such legend is history in Laya, history is also Legend. This was the place where Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal entered Bhutan. In a journey which resounds with conquest of human and supernatural dimensions the Shabdrung crossed a chain of Mighty Himalayan ridges and entered Laya from Tibet. In a small meadow below the villages, called Taje-kha a chorten shelters the footprints of the shabdrung and his horse.

History and legend are still the realities of today. The pristine mountain ranges have not succumbed to changes over the centuries. Neither have its people, like in many other parts of Bhutan, the land nor have the people existed in a harmony which the modern world does not adequately appreciate. And it is in this context that the Layaps must be viewed. It is against this rugged backdrop that they must be understood.


“The Layap smell”, is one well known comment. “You cannot depend on the Layaps, is another, often from civil servants. “The Layaps are backward”, say people living in the lower valleys. “The Layaps are alcoholics,” say many who know them, most people stop to look when a layap woman passes by in her distinct, perhaps ‘quaint’ kira. Some would point her out to friends.

The Layaps is all of these, if you do not look beyond the surface or if you do not understand him in the right context. A discerning observer would probably find, however, that the Layap has far more substantial qualities to be admired than those passing these derogatory comments.

If the Layaps are weather beaten as the alpine rangelands they are as untamed and unpredictable as the forces of nature which are sometimes harsh That is why, perhaps, the frustration of a civil servants who finds that the Layap cannot be bound to a deadline or even to a responsibility. When you call them they always say yes but never turn up, explains one District official.

The Layaps are also as open as their environment, normally free of social inhibition. Men and women are open and relaxed on issues like the boundaries sexual behavior. This, in fact is, often exploited by occasional visitors like tourist guides, military patrolmen, and civil servants.

Survival has also sharpened the wiles of the Layap. Today, it is a nightmare for District officials to pin a Layap herder down on a number of yaks in his herd because he wants to avoid tax. Call a Layap family for official duty during the busy season and the best bet is an old woman who is not needed at home.

But inside the rough Layap exterior is a tenderness which is invisible to the casual observer. Every Layap, for example, identifies with a 46 year old horse owner who risked his life to scale and icy cliff to his horse which had fallen. The man was oblivious to the bitter cold as he sat with his dying horse for two days, feeding the animal water from his cupped palm, the water mixed with his tears.

The Layaps are most tender in their feelings for the Yaks which are the mainstay of their semi-nomadic existence. They officially own about 2000 of Bhutan’s 30000 yak population, both believed to be reduced figures. The 300 to 400 KG beast of burden is a source of food, shelter, draught power, transportation and part of the layap Identity.


The carefree life-style comes with the alcohol consumption by the layap men. Nearly every men drinks heavily, often losing time, effort and hard earned money in drunken stupors and converting all the hard toiled food grain into alcohol. 63 years old Ap Tshering claims to be a typical example of the Layap man. “I have lived a hard life,” he says with a proud smile. “Now I have two important goals in life. I brew sinchang (local wine) during the day and I drink it at night.”

In this patriarchal society where girls are married early and move to the husband’s home, polyandry is on the decline. With clear cut gender roles the woman bears a serious domestic responsibility, looking after the Yak herds, digging the fields, weaving the traditional clothing, and generally keeping the home and family together. The men are responsible for trade and the transportation of goods, their own and for the Government.


With about 60,000 semi nomadic pastoralists spread across the kingdom’s northern region, the 800 or so layaps share a strong community spirit. They are fiercely protective about the image of their community. Internal squabbles are normally settled within the community and even a child will not divulge the name of a Layap who is guilty of some wrong doing.

As a community, the Layaps are also proud of their self sufficiency in the basic necessities of life despite the day to day physical difficulties. Wealth is measured by the number of Yaks in a herd or the volume of rice. The Layaps are also quick to inform the visitors that they constitute an important proportion of the Workforce in Gasa District.


There is a strong spiritual element in the cohesion of the Layap community. The men pay obeisance to their Pho-la, the local guardian deity. Every archery match, every business trip, every journey, every development project starts with a prayer at the Pho-la’s sacred shrine, a small chorten above the village.

Like the broader Bhutanese society the advice of the village astrologer is sought on most activities and the local medium is usually consulted during illness. It is the legacy of the Shabdrung that the Layaps celebrate the Bumkar festival to plant barley and the Aulay festival during harvest.

A superstition is strong and is, in fact, one of the protective forces of the Layap identity. E.g., the distinctive Kira (women’s cloth) of Layap women has been kept partly because of the belief in its necessity. A superstition also controls etiquette and other aspects of the local traditions.


The layaps are traders, bartering their animal products for food grain and other edibles every winter. Starting in late October, when nature offers a respite between the rains and the snow, they move to Punakha, their horses and every person laden with Yak meat, butter cheese, incense plants from the wilderness and sometime trans border goods like dried fish, shoes and brick tea. By March, when the trail becomes accessible, they move back with rice, oil, salt, sugar, chillies, clothing and shoes.

The only relief in this annual venture is a visit to the popular Gasa Tshachhu (hot spring) where they join people from all parts of the country in the baths which are believed to be of curative value and a boost to general health.

Yak products account for 49% of Layaps earning, 18% comes from trade, 15% from animal transport and 4% from tourism, the last benefiting only 5 or 6 horse owners who are in contract with tour operators in Thimphu.


It is largely the exposure from these annual trips that have given Layaps a view of a rapidly changing world outside. A handful has ventured as far as Thimphu. And, in recent years, they have watched the widening gap in economic progress with some dismay.

The urge to reach out and pluck the fruits of progress which their fellow citizens are enjoying is beginning to gnaw at the roots of Layap culture. The goal of one man was to build a house like the one he saw in Punakha, a woman preferred a car so she would be spared a heavy loads, a young girl envied the Punakha School girls, and an eight year old boy rolled his father’s hat around the campfire, his mind on the plastic toy cars he had seen in the shops.

Two women who had been selected to visit Thimphu in a cultural entertainment team returned embarrassed about their Kiras because they were clumsy compared with the nylon kiras of the Thimphu women. When told by a Thimphu official that the beautiful and unique Laya kira should be preserved she retorted. “So you can send tourists to take photographs of us?”


It is an enlightened policy that the Royal Government of Bhutan has sensitively pursued in the mountains of Laya. The goal is to improve the life of the people without upsetting the delicate balance in the distinct cultural identity of the people, the pristine natural ranges, and the rich wildlife.

Finely tuned to the migratory pattern of the people, the priorities reflect an emphasis on improving the Yak herds and fodder, on the crops, on the road, and on the transportation of goods.

But the main benefits of development in Laya have come from the establishment of Health unit, a veterinary service, and the School. The Layaps however, place their long term hopes on a 100 or so children who represent the education of the community.

The Layaps have not been aware of the image of backwardness they suffer among a section of Bhutan’s population. “Once educated, our children can face other people with pride,” said one weary mother. A 56 year old father summed up the general sentiments, “Last month, when I went to Thimphu, my son read the bus ticket and showed me where to sit,” he said glowing with pride, his right hand gripping the boys shoulder. “I did not have to face the shame of sitting in the wrong seat.”


Laya today confronts an issue which Bhutan, as a nation, has been grappling with for the past four decades. If change is inevitable, will the experience be more harsh than the bitter winds which blow over the mountains?

It is a question with a familiar ring to it. It is a question facing Bhutan. The Layaps represents the Bhutanese population on a smaller scale, the harmony with their natural environment, the deep pride in their unique cultural identity, and the fierce will to protect their home.

“We Layaps have our good points and bad points.” Explains one village elder. “But in the end, our biggest pride is our land and our self. Yes we go out to trade, buy supplies, to drink, to flirt. We complain about our hardships, the heavy workload, and the tough road. We are embarrassed about our backwardness. But we would never want to be anything but a Layap.”