This banner features ripe pine corns above Tandin Ney in Thimphu. Picture taken on April 15.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Tracing the source of Gamri

(I wrote this article eight years ago when I first visited Sakteng)

Children of Sakteng                               Photo: Bhutan Observer
From Trashigang town to Phongmay to Joenkhar to Thragthri to Sakteng, the lamentable cry of Gamri is loud and clear. The journey from Phongmay to the plain of bamboos is long and tiring. One climbs up the mountain ranges with Gamri always flowing by one’s side – now by right, now by left. One imagines that one would reach the source of the stream long before one reaches the plain of bamboos.

After hours of walk, Gamri ceases to make its lamentable noise. One fancies that the stream has suddenly disappeared altogether. But next moment, Gamri reappears – this time in all its beauty. It quietly flows across the plain of bamboos. Sakteng is here, but the source of Gamri is lost beyond many high mountains.

This is a fairy land. With identical little houses clustered together against the vast emptiness of the glacial valley, the majestic mountains surrounding the valley still snow-capped and sparkling at the approach of summer, the gently undulating plains dotted with grazing yaks and woolly sheep, and silvery Gamri flowing across the length of the valley, it is idyllic and picturesque. This is Sakteng, the plain of bamboos.

Sakteng, the plain of bamboos. But the plain of bamboos without bamboos. Wondering, one goes into the village and meets a host of identical looking people, identically dressed. Bamboos had been cleared by Ama Jomo, the community’s local deity, to build the village, say these people.

A group of Tibetan migrants were looking for a suitable place to settle in. Ama Jomo was the leader. The group was crossing Nyagchungla, the high pass between Sakteng and Merak, when the old and the weak succumbed to fatigue. The leader looked back from the mountain and saw a sakteng, a plain of bamboos (sak – bamboos, teng – plain). Immediately, she cleared the bamboos and founded the village of Sakteng for the old and the weak. The rest of the people moved beyond Nyagchungla to Merak and settled there.

It was a long, long time ago. Now, Sakteng has changed a lot. At five, little Rinchen already goes to school in her favourite shingkha (Brokpa dress for women). Her ambition is to become a Miss! Leki Pemo, 68, goes to the BHU to treat a headache. Pema, 15, hates being sent to brangsa (nomadic cowshed) across Nyagchungla. She does not want to follow yaks and sheep like her mother. She wants to follow a young man to Thimphu. Many young men and women find non-formal education programme as their link and gateway to urban Bhutan.

Though much has changed, much abides. Chuba (Brokpa dress for men) and shingkha are still the much preferred dress of the community. Ama Jomo is still revered. The phrase, Aai ten Brokpa lugsu (in our Brokpa tradition or custom) is much repeated. Yaks and sheep are still their source of livelihood.

On a chilly crisp morning, one goes for a short stroll around the village. There is a ruddy-cheeked young girl, barefoot, on the marshy bank of Gamri, singing a traditional Brokpa song as she tends her yaks – Nge phayul gangri karpo dra (my fatherland is like the white mountain). One goes near her and asks, “Do you like to be a herder?” “No”. This answer has always been with her, troubling her. “What do you want to do, then?” One asks. “I want to go to Thimphu,” comes the straight answer. “Why?” One is tempted to ask. “I don’t know,” she giggles away.

This short conversation gives one an insight into what is going on in the mind of the girl. She sings the traditional tune just because she is in sequestered Sakteng. In her sub-conscious self, she sings a modern tune. If she makes it to Thimphu, she will sing a modern tune, and her fatherland, which is physically and metaphorically like a white mountain, will have no one to sing an eulogy to her enduring nature.


  1. Nice piece....makes me nostalgic..

  2. Saktengs and remote villages sequestered between mountains are changing fast.Whether the change is for better or worse,it is debatable. But,like the article which says about the village girl singing about her fatherland by the river side and yet wanting to go to Thimphu for no reason represents the kind of illusion our youth have about the bright city lights. The day may not be far when there will be no one to sing songs by the riverside back in the villages if, like the girl, all others who nurture similar dreams make it to Thimphu and other urban centres leaving their villages behind.