Drrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr! It’s completely dark. I need some seconds to realize that my alarm clock is wringing, that it is 4:30 in the morning and that I have to get up, because today we are leaving to Merak at 5:30. I feel very drowsy, it was a rough night, the rats have been celebrating family parties and braveness competitions in running over my pillow.
I get up in a hurry, pack my things, gulp down two pancakes and rush outside, one minute late. Outside I meet nothing but silence and darkness, no sign of my companions anywhere. I sit down and wait. A half an hour later I hear a noise, Kinley, one of the young Park Guards, who are accompanying me to Merak, is strolling around the corner. “Ready?” he asks me. “Ready!” I shout enthusiastically and get up at once to put on my bag. Kinley stuffs a toothbrush in his mouth. “Justgotup”, he mumbles and I realize that I rather sit down again. BTS – Bhutanese Stretchable Time. How could I ever be so stupid to set my alarm clock on 4:30…
An hour later we are climbing up the hill, passing grazing grounds and patches of forest, climbing and climbing, accompanied by the gurgling sound of the river deep below us in the gorge. Several small farmhouses appear next to the path, one farmer-women invites us for tea. A big grey cat is purring on her lap and as we are waiting for the tea, more and more family members peep in curiously.
In the following we are playing the Bhutanese social “please have - no thank you - game”. The Bhutanese are experts in this kind of behavior and you should learn it quickly if you don’t want to become famous as an impolite clumsy clot. The rules are very clear and it works like this: The ama (mother) invites us for tea. We say very politely no thank you. She insists on inviting us and we insist on not troubling her. Finally we accept and she will offer us tea and whatever she has. When she is pouring the tea in my cup I have to start saying dikpe dikpe (enough), but she will ignore it and fill the cup as much as possible. In addition she has to watch me carefully, because as soon as I have drunk a little, she has to offer me a refill. I should finally accept two refills (after having said a reasonable amount of “dikpe-dikpes”. Bhutanese don’t even find it illogically to say dikpe in exactly the moment that they are stretching out their hand to receive more). Finally we get up and I leave a return-present or a tip, which of course the ama will refuse, and I have to insist on her taking it several times, before she will accept it with many expressions and gestures of gratitude. Then we will take leave, expressing even more gratitude.
Their politeness can be difficult for Bhutanese, once they are abroad. Chadho once told me that he was invited together with some Bhutanese friends for a dinner-party during his studying time in Australia. Their host offered them food and according to the Bhutanese code of conduct they refused politely and waited for the second offer, which unfortunately never came. Too shy to ask for food, they had to watch the others eating the whole evening while being very hungry themselves.
At lunchtime we reach the first Brokpa Winter-settlement. A few yak-crossbreeds are grazing, though the grass is shorter than on a golf-court already. Several huts made out of stone or even bamboo mats are scattered over the hills. Through the gaps in the walls the smoke of the open fireplaces escapes out of the dark insides of the tiny huts, children are playing, some of them barefoot, while I am even freezing in my big boots.
A Brokpa is waiting for me with his pony, which is supposed to help me up the hill, but it is so small that I decide quickly to get down again, to prevent it from breaking down under my weight even though its owner asserts that it has already carried many big and fat Bhutanese officials and VIP’s all the way up to Merak.
Again we climb and climb and after crossing a last range we drop down into a beautiful gentle river valley. Now and then we pass a group of Brokpas, sitting around a fire, or leading their ponies down to the lower valleys to barter butter and cheese for rice and maize. When seeing us, some of them only exchange the obligate “where going? Where from?”, but some of them are very talkative and their pinkish noses hint that their cheerfulness might have had a little support from the locally brewed Arra.
A range of high snowy peaks suddenly appears and my guides tell me that this is Jomo Khumkhar, the home of Ama Jomo. “Ama Jomo is a very respected and powerful deity, this is her territory,” Kinley whispers into my ear, “if you don’t respect her rules, she will get angry.” As I inquire about the rules I get to know, that in certain holy places I should not eat pork, eggs, onion or garlic, I shouldn’t shout or throw stones, and I must avoid going there if there has been a case of birth or death in the village in the last three days. “What will Ama Jomo do, if she get’s angry?” I ask and they tell me that there will be either harm to me or to the village. “Three years ago, we had a Health Worker in Merak, who didn’t respect the rules and roasted pork. He was walking back to Merak and not far from here, he suddenly left his companions and ran away. They called him and searched for him and suddenly they found his clothes further down on the path, but the men was never seen again and his body was never found.”
I have read about Ama Jomo before in a paper of Sonam Wangmo, the nice Brokpa tour operator, which I have met in Thimphu: “The Brokpas possess a written document, the Jomo’s Namthar, which explains the origin of Ama Jomo as well as the origin of the Brokpas: According to the Namthar, during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo of Tibet (r. A. D.627-649 ), there lived a local ruler in the land of Tsona, south of Tibet. One day, he ordered his subjects to level a mountain peak, which prevented the sun from shining on his fort. The irrationality of the ruler’s command lay in two circumstances: the enormous bulk of the mountain, and the primitive hand-tools in use at the time. The serfs slaved for several years with no visible results, until one day, out of desperation they plotted to murder their ruler. A young woman by the name of Jomo initiated the plot by telling her fellows-labourers, “It is better to chop of the wet head of a man than to chop of the dry head of a mountain.” Given this impetus, the serfs united to carry out the conspiracy. At a feast given in honour of the ruler, the latter was to be struck down when in a drunken stupor.
The murder was successfully carried out and the serfs, led by Lady Lomo and Lama Jarappa, her spiritual leader, fled from Tsona with whatever food supplies, scriptures, and livestock they could bring out with them. They travelled – crossing parts of India - all the way to the plain of Sakteng and then proceeded to the area of the today Merak. But the mountain (15´000 feet) , which had to be crossed in order to get to Merak proved an impossible feat for the old and the young children as well as the physically disabled ones. Lady Jomo sent them back to Sakteng, where they established the first Brokpa settlement. The young and the healthy people went to Merak with Lady Jomo and Lama Jarappa. Today, the Brokpas in Merak are economically more prosperous than the Brokpas living in Sakteng, which has led to the belief that the young and the healthy people who settled in Merak were better equipped and better able to work than the ones left behind in Sakteng. Brokpas living in Merak, in general, tend to be more shrewd and enterprising than the Brokpas in Sakteng and the surrounding regions.
While Lady Jomo controlled the secular concerns of the Brokpas living in Merak and Sakteng, Lama Jarappa controlled their spiritual activities. While Lama Jarappa became the head Lama of the region in perpetuum by virtue of successive reincarnations, Lady Jomo is believed to have disappeared into the heavenly realms without suffering an actual physical death. Having transformed her physical body into a spiritual one, she is believed to have made her spiritual abode near Merak on top of Jomo Khumkhar.”
Thinking about the strange history of the Brokpas we reach Gengu, a small village, two kilometres from Merak, where Dhono, the Park Ranger, accompanied by the Merak Gup (Mayor) and the Deputy Gup, receives us with hot tea and Arra. We are being forced over and over again to drink Arra, so that when we finally leave for Merak, as it is getting dark already, I feel like a rusty tub in the breaking waves and my strangely disobedient feet walk so many unnecessary circles, that in spite of my total exhaustion I probably walk a few extra kilometres that day.
Finally the shadowy figures of the Merak houses appear in the dusk, 3600 meters above sea level, and when we all sit in the candle-lit park quarter’s kitchen, my legs numb from climbing 2000 meters, my mind foggy in order of Arra and the change of altitude, I haven’t even got enough strength left to participate in the lively ongoing “dikpedikpe-game”, and just hold out my plate to receive some of the dinner, deliciously cooked on the wood heated iron stove, without any further caprioles of politeness.