Brokpa attire threatened by modernization
Merak lies just meters below the tree-line therefore it is no surprise that Merakpas until recently had been relying on their unique traditional attire in many ways than one.
The attire for men comprises a thick jacket made from yak hair and sheep wool known as chuba. For the lower half of the body, trousers made from wool called kango is covered up until the knee with a skirt-like piece called pishu.
Women wear an apron-like shingkha which reaches a little below the knees. Woven from raw silk, the shingkha is covered with a toedung that looks like a tego. A black or red jacket covers the toedung. Both men and women wear a discshaped hat called zhamu. Zhamu is made from yak hair and has five tail-like fringes that allow water to drain and keep the head dry.
Since it required raw materials that can be derived from livestock they rear, it was also convenient for them to weave and wear, and save money, time and energy that would otherwise be spend on commuting and buying readymade garments.
However, with development making steady inroads into the mountainous hamlet,
the Merakpas’ lifestyle has not only changed but their attire is also on the verge of vanishing.
In these cold winter days especially, hardly anyone in Merak can be seen weaving. Everyone seems to be huddled around warm woodstoves and sipping suja.
However, there is a lone figure weaving a shingkha intently. She is 25-year old Pema Dema.
“I am weaving this for my mother. I have been weaving since my childhood,” says Pema Dema.
She said that nowadays, it will be difficult to find a person weaving in Merak as everyone prefers pants and coats to the traditional outfit except for a few elderly people.
In the past, while the men were away looking after yaks, women would stay behind and weave. But the tale is changing now.
Sonam Lhamo, a resident from Merak said a lot of women in the community do not weave these days because of decreasing numbers of sheep.
“Each family used to have more than a hundred sheep. But today except for a few yaks, I don’t have a single sheep,” she said. “Most of our outfits require the wool from sheep and with numbers decreasing, it is difficult to weave like in the past.”
Additionally, she said that youth prefer pants and coats to traditional attire.
Aum Sangay Yuden, 63, said that though weaving is an arduous job, every woman and girl in the village would happily sit at the loom and weave in days bygone. “As, the community was cut off from trade a few years back, the highlanders produced their own and wore their own,” she said. “But now, with modernization, our unique traditional attire is being replaced by foreign costumes.”
She added that their unique traditional dress is becoming an occasional wear, whereby the highlanders save the dress for festivals and occasions. “We should not wear our dress only during the time of festivals. In fact we must be proud to wear it always to preserve our unique culture and identity.”
Except for senior citizens, not many people in the village today wear chuba and shingkha. Development and modernization have brought ready-made clothes at the highlanders’ doorsteps.
Tshering Dorji, 18, is sporting a pair of pants and jacket. He says these are more comfortable in the pasturelands with cattle. “Pants and shirts are more comfortable and they are much warmer than our outfits.”
Though the highlanders stand to lose the identity that their attire has carved out for them thus far, youngsters are more interested in modern, conventional clothes.
A few village elders said that this could have a severe impact on the community’s age-old traditions.
Merak gup Lama Rinchen said that the practice of weaving is fast vanishing not just because of unavailability of wool but because weaving is not an easy job. “It takes months and years to weave a full Brokpa outfit.”
However, the gup agreed that since the community is connected with a road, ready-made clothes are easily and plentifully available.
“Nowadays, similar outfits which are made from burey can be purchased at Samdrup Jongkhar and Radhi in Trashigang. People from these places supply the outfits,” He said. “Highlanders buy these outfits while keeping our own as occasional wear.”
Meanwhile the Gup said that the Brokpa attire is unique and a huge attraction to outsiders because every time guests visit the community, they try on the attire.
While change has already touched the highlanders, it remains to be seen whether the youth will revive and maintain community vitality by holding together their cultural identity that seems to be quickly fragmenting.