Lhop Widows From Samtse, Bhutan Keep Their Culture Of ‘Duk Tsho Hang’ Alive
There is a thriving custom among the Lhops – women are not allowed to wear ornaments after their partners die.
By Rajesh Rai | Kuensel
Sangay Puda rarely smiles. The 33-year-old Lhop lost her husband three years ago, leaving her with a 10-year-old son and a seven-year-old daughter.
Today, a drizzle has kept her away from her cardamom field and she has come to her uncle’s shop.
A bright pearl necklace glows under her neckline, complementing her pink top. It is the only ornament she wears.
“I have not been wearing any ornaments for the last three years,” Sangay Puda said as she opens up hesitantly to a conversation. “This is the first one.”
Who are the Lhops?
The Lhops popularly known as the ‘Doyas’ are considered the oldest aboriginal inhabitants who settled in the southwest of Bhutan. The local term ‘Lhop’ literally means southerner, a term mostly used by the people from Paro and Haa.
Most of the Lhops are concentrated in Dorokha, Samtse district. However, their actual history and origin have remained a mystery. According to the locals, most Lhops live in the three villages of Jigme, Singye and Wangchuck.
Most Lhops depend on agriculture, livestock farming and cardamom cultivation for a living. Besides that, they also grow oranges and maize.
Customs observed by the Lhops
There is a thriving custom among the Lhops and their community in Lhotokuchu Jigme, Lhotokuchu Singye and Lhotokuchu Wangchuck in Dorokha, Samtse – women are not allowed to wear ornaments after their partners die.
This practice of ‘refrain’ also called ‘duk-tsho-hang’ is observed for three years or nine years depending on how the spouses have died. It would be three years if the spouse had died a normal death and nine years if the partner had died from accidents and other unnatural causes.
A widow also cannot trim her hair and enter into others’ houses in the meantime. The same goes for the men. By tradition, widows and widowers are also not allowed to cut their fingernails, clip their toenails and wear slippers.
But with time, change has come to the Lhop community. They cut and clip their nails and wear slippers today.
However, remarrying is not an option—for both men and women—during the ‘duk-tsho-hang’ period. The Lhop society keeps a close eye on the widows to check and guide them if they do not stick to the renounces, some say.
Inside the house of a Lhop
“Yes, I can remarry now but I don’t want to,” Sangay Puda said.
The Lhops hold on strongly to their traditions
The indigenous communities of Jigme, Singye and Wangchuck are known for keeping their traditional principles alive. Although modernity has touched the younger generation, the elders have held on to their traditions and the Lhops are proud of it.
Jamten Doya, 51, is among those who strongly believe in keeping their unique culture and tradition alive.
“The need for handing over their genuine ancestral tradition has become ever more important today,” he said.
“Without our own values, our children would be equivalent as orphans. It is our duty to explain them its importance.”
Jamten Doya said that he is not sure if it was fair or not to refrain them from remarrying after their spouses’ death.
“But it is a custom we have been living on and it must be respected,” he said, adding that it is also not possible to borrow others’ culture and tradition when the Lhops have their own.
“Others have their own traditional and cultural values, this is ours, so we must practice what we have.”
Sonam Tshering Doya, 48, from Lhotokuchu Jigme completed the ‘duk-tsho-hang’ some years ago after his wife passed away. He believes the tradition passed down by their forefathers has to be diligently practiced.
“It was for three years,” he said. “Lhops do not consider this practice as torment; everybody knows it.”
When the restriction period is over, the Lhops offer millet beer to the dead and some words of farewell in a small ritual.
Down the slope at Lhotokuchu Jigme, Inzang Gyemo, 50, has just taken some time out from her kitchen. She recently completed the restriction of three years.
A typical Lhop house
“I didn’t enter anybody’s house for three years,” she said.
Every time Inzang Gyemo sat for a meal, she brought out a plate and a mug, and prepare a meal for the deceased. This practice went on until her restriction period ended in February this year.
“This tradition has to be practised,” she said. “If we don’t, then we will bring bad luck to the family in the future.”
Inzang Gyemo said that the practice of the ‘duk-tsho-hang’ has been alive for hundreds of years. “
“People just cannot neglect it abruptly.”
The unique burial rites of the Lhops
Carrying a dead person is a herculean task in Lhop custom. Only one person is allowed to carry the dead to their tomb called ‘rombu’.
An image of a Rombu. The Lhops bury their dead family member in a stone wall with fencing and roof for protection. It is believed that their dear ones should be buried close to home. If the smell of the rot 'comes' home, it is believed to be a blessing for the family.
The Lhops do not bury or cremate the dead. The body is placed in a special wooden box, walled by specific stones and left in their fields as tombs.
A wife or a husband has to carry the dead alone to a ‘rombu’ if the deceased is their partner. If it was somebody else from the family who has died, one person will still carry it.
In 2003, a Doya man did not return home to Singye. He was on his way home from Gedu and has been missing until today. His son Namgay Tshering Doya has turned twenty two.
“My mother is still expecting him to return and has not declared him dead,” he said. “A rombu has not been raised yet.”
Namgay Tshering Doya said his mother would not accept that his father is dead without strong proof.
An ECCD facilitator at Singye, Rinchen Zangmo Doya, who has studied away from her home in Samtse, said she was proud that her people have kept the practice of ‘refrain’ alive.
“However, inter-marriages are allowed now,” she said. “I am not sure if it would continue in the future.”
Meanwhile, at Singye, the evening’s fading sunlight warms the place despite the drizzle. The cardamom fields are cleansed.
Inside her uncle’s shop, Sangay Puda is impatient. She has work to do at her cardamom field. As she dashes out of the shop, her pearl necklace glimmers in the evening sun.
This article first appeared in kuensel and has been edited for the Daily Bhutan.