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Wangdue and Trongsa Dzongkhags
A glimpse into the Monpa community
map The Monpas have been pushed to the hinter-land of the remote Black Mountain forests today but they were here before the founders of modern Bhutan built dzongs in the valleys of Paro, Bumthang and Thimphu, says a study on the Monpa community, conducted by two Sherubtse College graduates under the research grant of the UNFPA.
"The Monpas kept themselves uninfluenced by the 2,000 year-old mainstream culture of Bhutan," according to the researchers, Sonam Dendup and Pema Chhoedup. Monpas inhabit Mangdue and Wangdue valleys in central Bhutan and are often considered the first inhabitants of Bhutan.

They are different from the Monpas of Tawang in Arunahal Pradesh. "The term Monpa once came to mean little more than southern or western mountain dwelling non-Indian non-Tibetan barbarian. Not only the language but some of the social institutions peculiar to them and their dependence on forest for livelihood served to link them to the forest dwellers of Kumuan and Nepal and Nagas, Kukis and Mismis etc. of north eastern Himalaya," says the report.

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About the Monpas

Monpas occupy Jangbi, Wangling and Phumzur villages under Lhangthel gewog in Trongsa Dzongkhag and Rukha village (locally known as Oalay and hence Oalaps) in Adha gewog in Wangdi Dzongkhag. The former pocket has a population of about 200 with 38 households and the later has a population of about 108 with 12 households.

The two groups are not in direct touch with each other. According to the report there are 944.4 males per 1000 females in the Monpas villages of Trongsa and 951.7 males per 1,000 females in Oalay village in Wangdi.

Age-wise distribution of Monpa population shows that a majority of them fall under the age group of 15-29 with 65 persons followed by 54 persons in the age group below seven years. The average household size is 8.8.

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Education and economy

The educational attainment of Monpas is very minimal with only 15 who had monastic education and 34 who have access to modern education, including the school going children. All the 34 come from the Monpa villages of Trongsa. Formal education started only in 1996. "Interestingly, there are more females (17) going to school as compared to males (14)," says the report.

The report also says that with the increasing exposure to the outside world there now has started a new trend of out migration. In all, 15 people have already migrated from Monpa villages to the other parts of the country for employment opportunities, monastic education opportunities and marriage links established outside their villages.

Traditionally, Monpas engaged themselves in weaving bamboo and cane products. They started shifting cultivation and recently switched to agriculture. Today, a majority of the Monpas engage in farming (165 out of 206 working population). Thirty three are engaged in weaving, five work as labourers and three are employed in government jobs.

Cane and bamboo form the most important raw materials. Bamboo is used in a variety of purposes as building material, weaving material, for making mats and pots for carrying water and storing milk. Young shoots of bamboo and cane are also consumed. The shoots are also used in making ropes and as fodder. "Owing to the over-exploitation of bamboo forests, Monpas today travel more than six hours to obtain the raw materials. The Monpas of Trongsa travel to 19 different places to fetch bamboo and cane. Now there is a gradual disappearance of bamboo forests," says the report.

Wheat, Maize, Buckwheat and Mustard are the main produce of Jangbi and Wangling while households in Oalay and Phumzur grow paddy. The average land holding per household is three acres. "Nevertheless 27 out of 35 sample households depend on market for the food grains," says the report.

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Monpas communities

According to the report Monpas are a close-knit community. They live and work in groups and have joint family system. Family decisions are usually made by the male head of the family. In the absence of the male family head, the decision might be taken by the female family head. At times this is done collectively.

Bonism was the main religion before the advent of Buddhist doctrines. But they still remain the faithful adherents of the former. "The Monpas of Trongsa do have the stories of Guru Padmasambhava who they claim visited their place on the way to Bumthang via Nabgikorphu. But their faith on Bonism remained undeterred," say the researchers. Altars are almost absent in all the Monpas households. Animal sacrifice was practiced until recently during the Bon rituals though this practice is today substituted by offerings of boiled eggs. "Now more and more of them are converting themselves into Buddhists with quite a few of them joining the monastic body as Gyalongs and Gomchens. Recently one Lhakhang has been constructed in Jangbi village by them," says the report.

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Ecomic and social changes

The Monpas had their own dress called 'Pangay' which is now being replaced by the national dress. Their language, Monkha, doesn't resemble any other languages in the country though it has roots in the Tibeto-Burman family like other languages of Bhutan. "Today, due to the cultural influence posed by the outside regions their language is facing a big threat of extinction. In Oalay only one woman speaks the language fluently. However, all Monpas in Trongsa speak Monkha," say the researchers.

Monpas parents do not play any role in the marital decisions of their children. They have equal preference for both male and female child, though some would prefer daughters as they would remain at their parents' home after the marriage. Boys go to their in-laws' place.

Most Monpas still prefer traditional practices to cure sickness. Superstitious and orthodox in nature, the Monpas believe that their cause of sickness is not exactly due to their poor health, sanitation and hygiene but due to evil spirits and bad Karma. "But it is encouraging to note that more and more of them are turning to modern medical amenities. They also have started adopting family planning measures," says the report.

Monpas are no longer hunters and food gatherers. They are witnessing tremendous economic and social changes. Today, 14 households have access to proper toilets, 31 households have safe drinking water and 16 households have expanded their agriculture activities. They are also concerned about their fast depleting bamboo forests. But the forest cover around Oalay is rapidly recovering as they have done away with the practice of shifting cultivation.

"Road, electricity and proper irrigation facilities are some of the expectations these people have now. In Oalay people do not even use Kerosene. They entirely depend on resin," the researchers say.

"This section of Bhutan's society has the least education of all the Bhutanese people and they are among the poorest. They seem to have no development, no school and no hospital. Though the royal government is bringing them to the national mainstream their survival as an indigenous community would be meaningful and possible only if we allow it to grow with its own intrinsic worth," the report concludes.

This article was contributed by KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper
February 2002

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