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Bhutan's Brokpa people and their unique costumes

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

Photograph by Heavenly Travels

Merak and Sakteng are two remote gewogs in Trashigang district where Brokpas, the nomadic yak herders, showcase their unique culture and traditions. The Brokpas can be easily spotted as they wear different costumes unlike other Bhutanese. Their costumes are typically made from wool, silk, and yak hair to help them adapt to the harsh geographical environment.

The most distinctive part of their outfit is the unique hat called tshipizham, which is made from black felt and woven from yak hair. The hat has five fringes protruding from it, known as "tsipee cham," which help the Brokpas protect themselves from rainwater. The hat also serves as a cushion on their head while carrying heavy loads. Heavy loads are carried on the back with a strap over one's head.

The Brokpa men wear red wool jackets that are tight around the waist with a belt. They also wear knee-high leather boots, which are now replaced by gumboots. The men wear a vest made of deerskin or yak calf hide with the furs intact to provide warmth. The rough leather also provides protection while herding yaks. Underneath, they wear knee-length shorts known as kanggo, usually cream or white in color, with slits at the sides from the waist kept in place by two leather strings. But these shorts are now getting replaced by nylon track pants. The men carry a dragger tucked in their belt at the waist level.

The Brokpa women keep their long hair tied up in plaits with colorful ribbons. They wear pink and white striped raw silk dresses on top, covering up to waist length. They also wear red-striped skirts with some animal and flower motifs woven on them. Women wear additional black wool shawls during the winter to keep warm. Brokpa women are excellent weavers, and they love jewelry. Most of them wear traditional jewelry like corals interspersed with cat's eye, zee, and semi-precious stones around the neck.

All the pieces of their dresses have their own purpose. For example, the animal skins worn by men are meant to keep them warm, and like that, they have tshipizham which has five tentacles, each with its own reason. The hats are flat and are made from yak hair, so each hat has five tentacles. These tentacles are designed to draw away the rain and keep the hat dry.

According to oral tradition, the Brokpas made their way to Bhutan after beheading a king called Drayba Jabu in Tibet in the year 1347. The Brokpas have been able to maintain their unique culture and traditions despite being cut off from the rest of the world. Their costumes are a testament to their resilience and adaptability to the harsh environment they live in.

In conclusion, the costumes of Merak and Sakten are not only unique but also serve a practical purpose in the lives of the Brokpas. From the hats to the animal skins, each piece of clothing has its own function, and together they make up an outfit that has helped the Brokpas survive in the harsh environment of the Himalayas. The costumes are a symbol of the Brokpas' rich cultural heritage and their ability to adapt to changing times while still preserving their traditions.

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