Bhutan’s Wild Wild East: A fascinating temple whose walls preserve a painful history of migration
December 23, 2022
Pema Choden Tenzin
The author (center; head uncovered) with three generations of Brokpa women. © Pema Wangchuk
With thoughtful itineraries honed since 1999, we unveil the depths of Bhutan's happiness philosophy, the daily physical adventures through the beautiful Himalayan landscape complemented by the intimate and in-depth cultural experiences sensitively curated for you every day.
Through the eyes of a select few informed leaders we saw the dilemmas of a culture: A hitherto sheltered nation discovering the arguments for and against remaining a cloistered society in this 21st Century. I loved the adventure, and I loved the discovery. Unlike anything else I have ever experienced!
Lola W., California
“Do you know the story of my people?” asks local guide Kota Sangay, as we make our way to the temple in Bhutan’s remote northeastern Sakteng valley. Now, as I explore the temple’s fascinating interiors, I understand why he asked me that question.
Ama Jomo advises her people: A section of the startling wall mural inside Sakteng valley's Jomo Doksa Temple. © Pema Wangchuk
For there, painted in vivid colors on the temple walls, is the ancient history of how Kota’s people, the Brokpas, came to Bhutan with their Moses-like matriarch Ama Jomo (for whom they named the temple). It’s a tale of persecution, of loss, and of redemption. Here, a scene describing the atrocities of the cruel King of Tshona—what was then part of southern Tibet—who caused them to flee their home. There, the perilous journey they took across the harsh landscape of deep gorges, snowy mountains, high passes, and freezing rivers.
The author takes in the incredible details of the Jomo Doksa Temple wall mural. © Pema Wangchuk
The story, as told:
There lived a tyrannical king in Tshona, Tibet, who persecuted the [Brokpa] people with the most outrageous demands. The final straw came when he told them to move an entire mountain as it was keeping the sun’s rays from falling on his palace. Worked to near-death conditions at a mad and unrealistic task they could not complete the Brokpas, under the leadership of their matriarch Ama Jomo, decided it would be far easier to kill the king than move the mountain. And that they did: An act of violent regicide depicted graphically today on the Jomo Doksa temple walls. It was to escape the no-doubt harsh punishment waiting for them that Ama Jomo and her people fled south, finally arriving in Bhutan, where they settled down first in Sakteng and then Merak. And so here they remain to this day, Ama Jomo’s people, tending livestock—mostly yak and sheep—as the infertile terrain doesn’t allow for most types of cultivation.
A graphic image of the killing of the cruel king of Tshona © Pema Wangchuk
“Most people know Ama Jomo led our people here, but she had help from Lam Jaropa, our spiritual teacher who also came here with the people,” explains temple caretaker, Chhunku, pointing at a painting on the wall that illustrates how the people lost their way and fell off a cliff into a waterfall. Next to it, a panel that shows how the lama miraculously saved them by levitating them over the cliff.
In the matriarchal-leaning, sheep and yak-rearing societies of Sakteng and Merak, women are strong figures within the community, literally and metaphorically. © Pema Wangchuk
Promised Land: The rich, ancient cultures of Sakteng and Merak endure within the fragile ecology of the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, protected as the 'home of the yeti' by the Bhutanese government's Nature Conservation Division and Department of Forestry Services.
Toward the end of their journey, the Brokpa people first landed in Northeast India’s Tawang region, but the altitude was unsuitable for their yaks. They pressed on, eventually arriving in what’s presently Sakteng valley. “Ama Jomo waved a white cloth in the distant direction of Bhutan, and Lam Jaropa carved paths out of bare rocks as they climbed mountains on their treacherous journey,” my hosts tell me. “Oh, and they also fought lake-dwelling demons that ate people.” As the exiles made a final push towards Merak, the last high pass, Nakchung La, daunted many. Eventually, the older and weaker members of the tribe stayed on and set down roots in Sakteng. “The ones who weren’t strong enough to continue to Merak stayed back,” a Merak resident told me with some ill-concealed pride.
The word Merak literally means “set on fire.” Legend has it that when the Brokpas came to Bhutan, the place was first cleared by fire to create their settlement. The houses in Merak today are a tight cluster with barely a muddy pathway between them, a fact that reflects their tight-knit society.
The Brokpa language is unique and distinct with regional influences from Kurtoep (the language of eastern Bhutan’s Kurtoe region), Tibetan, and Sharchop (the dominant language in Bhutan’s far-east). Their traditional wear includes colorful weaves and patterns—what we’d describe as “jackets” and “skirts,” for the women, and the heavier sheepskin, leather and yak-hair textiles for the men.
A split-frame of a man and woman from the Brokpa culture of eastern Bhutan in traditional attire. © Pema Wangchuk
The author and her host at the drinking ceremony. © Pema Wangchuk
It's a wild party: The traditional Brokpa wine offering called Tshogchhang
Alcohol is an essential part of eastern Bhutanese hospitality but, oh my, the Brokpas sure know how to take it up a notch! If you visit Merak, you’ll be welcomed by a group of locals (mostly women) who’ll prepare a Tshogchhang, or ‘sacred wine of welcome.’ It’s part of a ceremony where the visitor is served alcohol at a gathering attended by the important elders of the community. You’ll see this tradition in various other parts of Bhutan, but believe me, it’s different here in Merak!
You first drink three cups representing Gizhab (Respect) Thuenlam(Harmony) and Tsedung (Trust). Refusing any one of the first three cups would be tantamount to an insult. Much colorful singing and dancing ensues in the wake of the three cups of wine as the women keep pouring more alcohol. What happens if you refuse the subsequent pours? Well, then the ladies come and pinch your thighs and run away giggling! In the past, they say, women have even sat on the guests, often to the delight of the male visitors!
Despite my initial shock when the serving women held down my cup and literally forced the alcohol on me, I found it all very refreshing. It reminded me how Bhutanese women truly can be uninhibited, funny, and comfortable in their skins.
As the night wore on, I grew as red as a tomato, my urbane inability to handle the alcohol an enormous source of amusement to my hosts. “Madam zhey le reb mala mai” (I see that madam can’t drink all that much) teased Ama Ngaden, my host. The hair on my back rose when she added casually that what I’d witnessed was merely a tamer version of the ceremony they actually inflicted on most other guests.
“We don’t care whether you’re a Dasho or a King, we’ll come and sit on you!” she said, laughing.
The first of many pours at the welcome drinking ceremony. © Pema Wangchuk
PS: It’s good form to bring some token gifts of cash or kind to tip the servers and hosts after the wine-drinking ceremony.
Highlight: Watching the fascinating story of the Brokpa people unfold before me on those incredible temple walls.
Disappointment: Jomo Doksa also has an ancient statue of Ama Jomo that’s protected under dense folds of silk khadhar scarves. When I asked to see it, Caretaker Chhunku said, somewhat cryptically: “We don’t allow women [to see the statue],” and they ushered me out as my male team members prepared to catch a glimpse.
Inside scoop: the two large trees outside the temple are said to be imbued by the spirits of Ama Jomo and Lam Jaropa.
The ancient Jomo Doksa Temple with the two large trees outside that are believed to be embodiments of the community's founding male and female elders. © Pema Wangchuk