The black pearl of Bhutan – first contact with the Monpa people

By Astor Wong Hong Kong

The first thing that came into view after the plane soared
through layers of thick cloud was the snowcapped
mountains. Traces of snow sprawled from the top of the
hills to the foothills, eventually melting into rivers - the
arteries and veins of the country running through and
nourishing the land. Welcomed by a gust of cold wind after a few hours’
flight, I wrapped myself in a thick scarf to keep warm. It was early
December, the prologue to a few months of bleak cold winter in Bhutan.

This was my first visit to the land of the thunder dragon, but my trip
was not quite the ordinary one that a regular tourist would expect. With
the blessings of Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother of Bhutan, I was
given the extraordinary opportunity to conduct field study in the remote
hinterland inhabited by the Monpa community alongside an esteemed
professor, Dr. Seeta Giri, who was one of the only scholars who had
done in-depth research in that region. My objective for the trip was dual:
to assist with Dr. Seeta’s research to renew her book and to make a quick
survey on the Monpa communities to appraise the prospects of a future
project for CERS.

Our 11-day field trip has been very fruitful and fulfilling. Not only did
we visit all three Monpa villages, interviewing the local villagers and
conducting surveys, we also participated in the Monpa Day festival
when the community showcased their vast traditional knowledge and
cultural repertoire. The Monpa proved themselves to be the nation’s
precious gem, yet to be explored and studied.
Hidden in the depths of the Mangdue and Wangdue valleys in Central
Bhutan lie three obscure villages little known to outsiders – Jangbi,
Wangling and Phumzur. These remote villages are inhabited by the
Monpa people, who are considered one of the first inhabitants of

Bhutan. Veiled by the dense forests of Black Mountain, this indigenous
group remained self-sufficient and intact, isolated from the 2000-
year dominant Bhutanese culture. That is, until the early 21st century
when, under the umbrella of developmental initiatives of the Royal
Government Bhutan, the Monpa community started assimilating into
mainstream society.

The etymology of ‘Monpa’ is quite complex and messy, referred
by different people to different groups at different times of history.
Historically, Tibetans referred to Bhutan as ‘Lho Mon,’ which literally
translates into the ‘Southern Land of Darkness.’ The term ‘Mon’ in
historic Tibetan texts from the 8th and 9th century denoted the non
Buddhist ‘barbarians’ dwelling in the southern or western mountains
between Tibet and India. It is not difficult to detect the condescending
and discriminating connotation of the terminology – the ‘civilized’ and
‘enlightened’ Tibetans vis-à-vis the ‘uncultivated’ Mons that ‘remained
in darkness.’ Although it remains unclear whether the Monpa nowadays
are the same group designated Mon by Tibetans in ancient times, one
thing is certain – the group has inherited the inferiority laden rhetoric in
the label of ‘Mon’ - ‘dark’ and ‘uncivilized’.
Secluded in the backwoods of the country, which might be deemed by
outsiders as uninhabitable, the Monpa used to subsist on hunting and
gathering and swidden cultivation. Prior to the arrival of Buddhism in
the region, their reliance on the natural environment for livelihood made
them faithful adherents of Bonism and worship of nature. Looking up to
their fellow Bhutanese, who are educated, well-composed and devoted
to Buddhist doctrines instead of ‘savage’ practices, the Monpa regard
themselves as lesser than their Bhutanese counterparts.
This is reflected in the Monpa tale of origin1
: Guru Rimpoche once
roamed the land of the Monpa and asked the people to take care of his
sacred vase. However, the Monpa ancestors breached the vows and
traded his holiness’s vase for banchang (a local alcoholic drink). As they
had forsaken the sacred principles of the Rimpoche, the descendants of
the Monpa were cursed to work hard throughout life yet remain poor and
destitute forever. The intrinsic sense of inferiority buried deep down in
their indigenous ethos translates into a strong drive for impersonation
– to conform with the rest of the nationals through adapting their
cultural behavior and religion. In conjunction with the development
program of the Royal Government of Bhutan: the introduction of
modern agriculture, establishment of local schools, and environmental
conservation efforts like the prohibition of swidden cultivation and
foraging for forestry resources, the Monpa’s daily livelihood has
undergone drastic transformation. The community has arguably attained
better living standards and security, yet, on the other hand, they have
become more and more homogenized with the rest of the nation; their
culture is rapidly fading away in the face of modernization and poverty
alleviation initiatives. From what I have experienced, however, they are
anything but inferior. Having interacted with the Monpa community,
one would come to know them as modest – self-deprecating even – but
remarkably diligent.

Sangay’s house was our home for eleven days; her family had been
extremely hospitable and kind to us, serving us tea and changke (a
cereal-based local alcoholic beverage) to keep us warm all the time and

cooking the best local delicacies for us with vegetables freshly harvested
from the family’s home garden. It was a ‘farm-to-table’ experience that
would fit the new urban gastronomic trend. I quickly learned that the
Monpa are immensely knowledgeable when it comes to local geography
and biology, capable of recognizing and using over 270 species of local
plants for food, medicinal purposes, household or ceremonial needs.
They were also true advocates of environmental conservation even
before it became a global hot topic, as their religion has taught them to
interact with nature with respect and humility.
I used to be a skeptic when it came to ethnic-tourism, having doubts
regarding authenticity versus performance under the enticement of
commercialization, as well as the complexities of local power politics.
But here I must say I might have become more appreciative of the
prospects of ethnic-tourism after attending the Monpa Day held on
December 10. Monpa Day is not a traditional ritual inherited per se, but
an innovative event started a few years ago in an attempt to showcase
indigenous cultural practices to attract potential clientele for local
tourism. The full-day program began with an elaborate performance
of traditional folksongs and dances, followed by demonstrations of
traditional knowledge and skills, like pottery making and weaving.
Next there was a visit to the local museum (remodeled from indigenous
architecture, curation still in progress). Although this was the first year
that foreign guests were invited to Monpa Day, with the help of the
Tourism Authority of Bhutan and staff from the Folk Heritage Museum,
the event was very well organized and vividly demonstrated vibrant
cultural characteristics of the Monpa.

First thing in the morning, after a cup of sizzling milk tea that warmed
my body, I got dressed in the Monpa traditional dress, the pagay,
handwoven on a traditional loom with fibers extracted from kulima,

a local species of nettle plant. The garment was sturdy and
wind-resistant; I thought of adding a piece of lightweight
down vest underneath, but in the end I was glad I did not, as
it was totally unnecessary – I was already sweating. For the
Monpa, the pagay was no longer a customary daily costume.
The national dress for Bhutan, the kira, and modern casual
attire, like t-shirts and jeans, had been gradually gaining
popularity locally with access to a road, and thus to the
‘outside world,’ making shopping much more convenient.
Even for Monpa Day, most Monpa opted for kiras over the
pagay, leaving the latter only for performers. When offered
a choice, I insisted on wearing the traditional pagay of
the Monpa people instead of the national kira, despite the
foreseeable difficulty in locomotion. I did so for one simple
reason – to show my utmost appreciation and respect to
their unique wealth of culture and indigenous knowledge.
I could see it in their eyes – the sense of pride when they
see foreigners, who they tend to look up to as being more
‘advanced’ and ‘cultivated,’ dressed in their traditional
pagay. Seeing their confidence was why I regard the Monpa
Day as a success. Despite its tourist-oriented nature, the
event allowed an opportunity for the Monpa to renew their
identity, and to re-explore their personhood and the meaning
of being a Monpa aboriginal in the process. In the past two
decades, they have tried so hard to assimilate into the
mainstream and ‘modernize,’ as they perceived themselves
as innately ‘inferior,’ hence in need of improvement.

Through Monpa Day, with local government officials and
foreign tourists, attentive audiences who traveled a long
way just to understand more about them, the Monpa can
realize the gravity of their traditional inheritance. With

time, they may learn that their idiosyncrasy is not frailty
but an essential beauty that contributes to a multi-cultural
and dynamic nation. After the show, the local government
officials even invited the performers to the town of Trongsa
to dance in the National Day celebration. Such acts are
crucial in reinstating Monpa identity and pride. It is only if
they can re-establish their self-worth that they will be able
to get more involved in and passionate about preserving
their own culture.
On a more pragmatic note, through daily rehearsals for
the performance, the Monpa have finally gotten in touch
with their own cultural practices and language once again.
Monkha is an archaic Bodish language spoken among
the Monpa people since time immemorial. However, the
language is now on the brink of extinction due to the fall
in colloquial usage among younger generations, since only
English and the Bhutanese dzongka are taught in school
curriculums. To engage the youngsters, the local school
students were taught to sing the traditional folksong ‘Muen
gi muen ji’ for performance. Sung in Monkha, the song
delineates the origins of the Monpa people. For some of the
Monpa children, this was the first time they had heard about
their ancestry and oral history, a fundamental part of their
identity development. Another instance to illustrate the
point was the tseri dance. Tseri is a traditional agricultural
activity, a form of swidden cultivation that is now banned
due to environmental concerns. Rituals and other cultural
practices that stemmed from tseri agriculture are also
abandoned. Fortunately, the tseri dance came back to life
once again through the demonstration on Monpa Day. It was

not enough to revitalize the culture in real life situations,
but at the very least, the Monpa Day performance enabled
a social remembrance of the Monpa culture and decelerated
the distancing and externalization of the people from their
own culture under the tsunami of modernization.

This is not to say, however, that the perks of tourism
development will come without any shortcomings. For
one, how the Monpa community might benefit in economic
terms definitely deserves further discussion. Equitable
development will not be attained without liaison with local
tourism operations and government units. Hopefully, Monpa
Day will become the first step for inviting meaningful
dialogues and promoting indigenous cultural appreciation
among both natives and foreigners.
In Cantonese, ‘covering a pearl with hay’ is a saying used to
describe something valuable that is hidden in mundanities.
After visiting the Monpa villages, the first thought that
came to my mind was that Monpa culture is the black pearl
of Bhutan; it is the precious gem that we tend to neglect at
first glance, yet with time we might realize how it radiates
and shines. It is not only about Monpa ethnicity and
culture alone, but also their temperament, hospitality, and
innocence that make them unique and precious. Like the
different streams flowing from the snowcapped mountains
and merging into a cohering river, their very existence bears
immense weight in Bhutanese culture and history. Under
the haystack, there is a lot more treasure hidden within the
Monpa awaiting discovery.