The villages of Laya and Lunana in the Bhutanese Himalayas are some of the highest and most remote human settlements on earth. The people who live there, the Layaps and the Lunaps, are semi-nomadic yak herders who spend time between the villages and the high altitude yak herding camps. The villages and yak camps cling to the sides of immense river valleys and reach altitudes of 6,000m where resources are few and hardiness is a pre-requisite for survival. In Lunana the people have no contact with the outside world for seven months of the year, isolated by a combination of impenetrable harsh winter weather and treacherous high mountain passes.
The country of Bhutan is a tiny Kingdom wedged between India, China and Tibet and although economically and politically dwarfed by its neighbours, Bhutan remains culturally proud and robust. To travel across Bhutan is to journey from lush green sub-tropical rainforest in the south to some of the highest mountain peaks on earth. Trade with Tibet is an important source of income as well as a means of accessing western goods such as radios, footwear and clothing. The spiritual life of the country is based on Tibetan Buddhism, the religion of the Dalai Lama.
The Lunap and Layap people number around 3,000. Just over 50% of these are Lunaps. The villages are made up of simple painted wood and stone houses with the wealthier families owning the bigger houses. In Laya some of the larger houses have two storeys, the ground floor used as stables for their animals, who act as a central heating system for the living quarters above. There is obviously a clear wealth gap between the poorer Lunaps and the wealthier Layaps, with Layaps often having rice supplies piled high in their homes as a symbol of wealth. Layaps have been known to look down on Lunaps for this reason and there has been hostility between the two groups in the past. Travellers' tales often tell of the Lunaps giving a frosty reception to outsiders, others tell of a welcoming people who are proud of their culture but secretive about its processes.
Polyandry is often practiced in these communities. A woman can be married to more than one man at the same time. Sometimes the co-husbands are brothers. By using this system a family can pool its resources - one husband can be away on a trading mission whilst the other is able to help tend to the yaks at home, and the family land is not split up from one generation to the next.
It is not only the yaks that are central to the way of life in these communities. Agriculture is another important means of survival in both the regions. Village life will often revolve around the growing of barley, buckwheat, mustard and wheat. Although such agriculture is not as reliable as yak herding, it is still very important. Other activities include milking and producing butter/cheese, making wool products such as clothing or material for new tents, constructing new stone houses and producing and selling souvenirs. The children in Laya and Lunana can attend school if they wish, although families sometimes choose to educate the children themselves. There are basic health facilities in both Laya and Lunana but often the health offices are only consulted as a last resort after traditional remedies have been used. In amongst all the requirements of a busy daily schedule the Layaps (and Lunaps to a lesser extent) also work with the small number of tourists that move through the area during good weather.
Outside of the villages lie the satellite yak camps. These exist at up to 6,000m and form an essential part of the Lunap/Layap way of life as it is movement between these camps that allows them to let their cattle graze different pastures sustainably. The yak tents, made of tightly woven yak wool, seem to defy the laws of physics. Natural light can get in through the large holes in the weaving and smoke can escape. However, at the same time the structures are one hundred percent waterproof. The people claim that the wool itself has been blessed by highly esteemed ancient spiritual figures and it is this blessing which gives the wool its miraculous quality. Due to extreme weather some yak camps are only occupied in the Himalayan summer. For both Layaps and Lunaps there is regular movement between village and yak camp.
Another central element to the Layap and Lunap way of life is movement. They are a semi nomadic people and move between yak camp and village, between pastures and town in search of winter work. When moving from pasture to pasture the people call on their ancestral knowledge of their environment to avoid over-grazing. When moving down to warmer towns in the winter the people will stay with host families where labour and yak products are exchanged for a place to stay. All this migration shows how adaptable Layaps and Lunaps are to extreme environments. They use initiative and age-old knowledge to make shelter in caves and rocky outcrops away from treacherous Himalayan weather.
One specific type of expedition that Lunaps and Layaps lead is the search for Yigatso Gimbo in high altitude valleys. Yigatso Gimbo is a cordycep - half caterpillar, half fungus and is renowned as a medicinal remedy across this region of the Himalayas. It can fetch huge sums of money for those collecting it (around US$1,000 per kilo) and during June/July there is a gold-rush in certain valleys. Some say that the Yigatso Gimbo is an aphrodisiac but the people themselves just seem to use it as a means of easing rheumatism and general muscle pain. The cordycep is often fried in butter, added to arra (local whiskey) and then drunk.
Whilst men are often on the move with their work (known as Pho-La), life for the women is more sedentary. Mo La (women's work) is about tending to 'bjis' (female yaks) and looking after the domestic space. When it comes to agriculture the men may be involved in ploughing with yaks but again it is the women who carry out the majority of this work, weeding, harvesting and threshing for example. One particularly interesting division of labour relates to weaving. Women spin and weave sheep's wool for their distinctive clothing and blankets but you will find men spinning with a drop spindle as they wander around Layap or sit on the doorstep. Men will also spin and weave the coarse yak hair for tent weaving so it seems ok for a man to spin and weave as long as it's related to home building.
The bjis require specific attention from women and must be tended regularly. They are milked at dawn and let loose to graze. Their calves must be tethered and cared for throughout the day. In the evening the bjis are rounded up, often from several hundred metres above the camp. The (male) yaks are much more self-sufficient and spend most of their time tens of kilometres from camp. They will only be brought back to camp for 'salting'. Salting is a job which requires a great deal of strength and is carried out by the men – a yak is wrestled to the ground by its horns and force fed salt to the back of its throat. Rounding up yaks and bjis at this altitude demonstrates the peoples’ biological adaptation to the environment, sprinting up mountain-sides and near vertical ascents to gather their animals.
The Layap women look different to those in Lunana and in general the dress of the Layaps is far more vibrant and colourful. The dress of the Layap women consists of yak wool garments with a distinctive conical pointed hat (that is unique to Laya). The hat is the same hat in which they were banished from Tibet in the 15th century and they continue to wear it to this day. If they fail to wear the hat they believe they will upset the village spirits. The Layap and Lunap men are similar looking as they are often simply dressed to deal with extreme weather and long trading missions. Modern western clothing is present in both Laya and Lunana and men will often wear these garments on the trail - such clothing is easy to source from Tibet. However there are still occasions when no modern material can beat their traditional clothing and when on the trail men will wear yak visors that consist of threads of yak hair tied across the eyes to protect against snow blindness.
Dzongpa is the national language of Bhutan but Layaps and Lunaps each have their own dialect. A Dzongkha speaker will be able to understand some simple elements of the Layap or Lunap dialect. Communication is made easier by the fact that during winter work in the towns, Layaps and Lunaps have the chance to speak Dzongpa and bring back this knowledge to the village. Due to the women's more sedentary role they get less of a chance to travel and learn Dzongpka.
The spiritual life of the Layaps and Lunaps is a fascinating demonstration of what anthropologists call religious synchronism. Buddhism was introduced into Bhutan from Tibet in the 7th century but in these communities it did not simply replace the existing animistic and shamanistic practices. The animism and the Buddhism complement each other. For example, local animistic gods and demons have been made into defenders of Buddhism and there is a happy balance between the two. In Lunana for example, there are sacred forests that belongs to the Due Shing, or demon trees. People entering this forest without the permission of these spirits will be punished. When people fall ill or suffer misfortune it is often believed that they have disturbed or displeased such spirits. The Layaps and Lunaps each have their own adaptation to this convergence of belief systems - in Lunana you must walk around Chortens (shrines) in an anticlockwise direction to please the spirits and in Laya you must move around them clockwise. If the spirit world is ever disturbed then a 'tsip', or astrologer, is consulted to appease the spirits. The astrologer for this reason can be a very influential person in the village extending his influence beyond religion to village politics.
Each year in Laya a household will hold its own ritual called a Choku that is carried out to honour the deities and spirits that protect that house. The Choku is a time of great celebration where members of the village are invited to join in the ritual for two or three days' festivity. These ceremonies are pre-Buddhist in their origins and involve the village shaman or Pow. For example, in Laya there is the 'Bongkpo' festival that is held in May and that celebrates the onset of spring bringing fertility to crops and livestock. Other Buddhist ceremonies are observed on holy days (10th or 15th of the lunar month) as a part of routine offerings.
Politically, Bhutan is undergoing great change and in 2008 will become a constitutional monarchy with democratically elected candidates. The Bhutanese people are unsure as to what this means for their future. It will be an interesting phase for the entire country that will no doubt have repercussions for the more marginalized communities like the Layaps and the Lunaps.
Being so marginalized and so remote, healthcare and education is another important issue for these people. Satellite phone communication already exists in Laya, and Lunana is in the process of having a new one installed. Health facilities are installed but academics and scientists are working on ways to use technology (for example, the Internet) to improve the care that is offered and find ways to get regular modern supplies to these remote regions. Teachers are also given government grants to take work in more remote regions to help educate the children through the small schools that exist in both communities.
Tourism is a concern and the Bhutanese authorities continue to monitor its impact carefully. Despite operating a low impact, high yield form of tourism, numbers are still increasing year by year and this can put strain on the communities and peoples themselves as well as resources such as bridges and trails. The culture and society in Laya and Lunana are robust and vibrant but are not without threats and they must continue to stay abreast of issues affecting their country. Such awareness will hopefully mean that the unique, highly ritualised way of life that these people lead can continue as the people themselves wish.