PHOTO ESSAY: The Last Semi-Nomadic Yak Herders of the Himalayas

PHOTO ESSAY: The Last Semi-Nomadic Yak Herders of the Himalayas
Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

What you need to know

The Brokpa, of the remote Monyul area of India's Arunachal Pradesh, maintain a centuries-old yak herding tradition despite the threats of climate change, Chinese control over Tibet, and the growing allure of modern life.

It was sometime in late 1971. A short, stout middle-aged Bhutanese man dressed in a gho, the knee-length traditional Bhutanese robe worn by men, showed up in the study of the late historian Michael Aris, who was then appointed as the private tutor of the children of the royal family of Bhutan in Thimphu.

His name was Dasho Tenzin Dorji, a local historian who had been painstakingly compiling a history of eastern Bhutan. That day, he passed a piece of information on to Aris which would not only play a crucial role in setting adrift the latter's career as a historian of Bhutan, but also lead to the publication of a significant early text in modern Tibetan and Himalayan Studies that unraveled the history of Monyul, believed to be one of the 108 beyuls, or ‘hidden valleys,’ mentioned in Tibetan Buddhist sacred texts.

Dorji told Aris about two 17th century manuscripts that had been gathering dust in eastern Bhutan’s Trashigang Dzong for over three centuries. Compiled in liturgical Tibetan by Lama Ngawang (sometimes referred to by his Sanskrit name, Wagindra) in 1668, these two manuscripts, Gyelrik and Logyu, may be the only surviving written sources that talk in detail about the history of Monyul and its people.

They include, among others, a peculiar group of people called Brokpa – a semi-nomadic herder community.

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Photo Credit: Sumit Das
Brokpa Tsele, 65, whose herd consists of over 150 yaks and yak-cattle hybrids.

Toiling through these manuscripts and digging further in to oral sources with the help of Dorji, Aris finally published “Bhutan: The Early History of a Himalayan Kingdom” in 1979. The book also contains Dorji’s own works on the history of Monyul written in the local Dzongkha language, along with their English translations, in the form of microfiche.

It was largely through this book that the outside world came to know about Monyul.

Going by today’s political map, Monyul spanned the Kuri river valley, Dungsam, Sakteng, Trashigang Dzongkhag in eastern Bhutan (western Monyul), and the adjoining West Kameng and Tawang districts (eastern Monyul) in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which shares borders with China.

“Today Monyul isn’t a political reality though it once was, as a tributary state of Tibet. You won’t find Monyul on any modern political map. Neither in India nor in Bhutan,” explains Lama Tenzin of Phudung Monastery in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh, India. “But people of Buddhist faith here often invoke Monyul in their quotidian conversations about the place. It figures prominently in Tibetan Buddhist sacred geography and is considered a beyul, one of the hidden sacred refuges identified by Guru Padmasambhava.”

“In this part of the world, the Brokpa are a peculiar people,” says Leki Norbu, a lecturer at Bomdila College in West Kameng.

The Brokpa are a semi-nomadic pastoral community who move from pasture to pasture in the higher Himalayas with their yaks and yak-cattle hybrids from May through September and stay the rest of the year in their villages in relatively lower ranges. They live a considerably isolated and reclusive life in their mountain settlements at altitudes ranging from 9,000 to 15,000 feet (2,743 to 4,572 meters) and depend on their yaks for nearly all aspects of survival.

According to Dutch linguist Timotheus A. Bodt, the Brokpa migrated to Monyul from the central Tibetan plateau and speak a central Bodish language called Brokke.

Today, their numbers are dwindling. “Unfortunately, today only about 200 Brokpa yak herder semi-nomad families are left in Arunachal Pradesh,” Leki says. “The rest of them have left yak pastoralism and synthesized with the mainstream sedentary culture.”

Leki, who has been studying the community for several years now, continues: “If Brokpa yak pastoralism vanishes from the face of the earth, Monyul will certainly lose a peculiar part of its identity and history.”

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Photo Credit: Ankita Bora
Tashi Phuntshu sits in front of his house and narrates the history of Monyul.

Monyul: The country of dark, thick forests

Tashi Phuntshu, 55, is a Brokpa and hails from Lubrang. Now the gaonburha (village head) of Rama Camp, a village located in the Dirang valley of West Kameng district, Phuntshu explains the origin of his area’s toponym.

“The Tibetans used to call this place Monyul and its inhabitants Monpa,” he says. “In the Tibetan language, ‘mun’ means darkness. As you can see, the mountains here are covered by dense forests. Probably that’s why they called it Munyul or Monyul – the country of dark thick forests where sunlight hardly penetrates to the ground.”

In Arunachal Pradesh’s West Kameng and Tawang districts – that is, eastern Monyul – there are 16 Brokpa villages, namely: Jangda, Sarhro, Hro, Broksar, Lagam, Mago, Luguthang, Thingbu, Dirme, Senge, Nyukmadung, Wundra, Sumrang, Chander, Thembang and Lubrang.

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Photo Credit: Sumit Das

The road that leads to the Brokpa settlements of Lubrang and Broksarthang in West Kameng. Until a few years ago, the undulating landscape was covered in thick forests. But nowadays, as modern development is making inroads, the forests are being cleared for road construction and other developmental activities. On the hill to the left of the road stands a Buddhist stupa where local Buddhists make offerings to Lord Buddha.

Phuntshu was a semi-nomadic yak herder until his 30s. Like his fellow herdsmen, he used to keep moving with his yaks in the higher altitude summer pastures of Senge, Luguthang and Mago near the China border. During the winter months, he would settle down in Lubrang.

“It was really taxing to move with the yaks in the extremely cold weather. So one day I decided to start something new in life. I sold off the yaks and moved down to this place to start a business,” says Phuntshu.

Over the years, Phuntshu's business has thrived and today he is an affluent man by local standards.

However, he still cherishes the many summers and winters he spent with his yaks in the dense forests, lush green pastures, and snow-clad mountains.

“If you’ve no yak, you’re no Brokpa,” he grins.

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Photo Credit: Ankita Bora
Forest-clad mountain ranges in West Kameng which according to Tibetan Buddhist sacred geography forms a part of eastern Monyul.

Brokpa yak pastoralism: A dying tradition

In the past two decades, the number of Brokpa families practicing transhumant yak rearing – in which herders lead their livestock between mountains in summer and lowland pastures in winter – has plummeted, falling from 800 to around 200 in Arunachal Pradesh.

The Brokpa are facing a multitude of challenges: political boundaries restraining their movement; climate change; degradation of pastures; inbreeding and lack of pure yak germplasm; and the appeal of modern life, which is luring young members of the community away from their harsh traditional lifestyle.

“The biggest threat we are facing is the defection of the younger generation. They don’t want to continue the harsh traditional life of a transhumant Brokpa herder that requires one to move with yaks in higher altitudes in minus temperatures,” rues Norbu, an octogenarian Brokpa yak herder from Chander village in West Kameng.

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‘All my life, I've been moving with the yaks,’ says Brokpa Tsele. ‘I’ll continue to move with the yaks until my health permits me to do so. But who will continue after me? My son has chosen a modern life.’

Tsele, 65, a Brokpa from Chander, speaks in a tone filled with sarcasm and sadness, saying: “My son has become a ‘baccha Brokpa’ (babysitter Brokpa). The chimin (daughter-in-law) works as a housekeeper in the government hospital in Dirang town. So my son is busy looking after their baccha (baby). He’s a babysitter Brokpa, you see! He can’t move with yaks.”

Brokpa Tsele owns a herd comprising more than 150 yaks and yak-cattle hybrids. He hopes his cousins – his son has already moved away to Dirang town in search of a different destiny – will continue the yak-herding tradition once he’s gone.

As such, many think the future of Brokpa transhumant yak pastoralism is bleak. But Brokpa Tsering, the gaonburha of Lubrang village in West Kameng, is holding out optimism. “No one knows what the future holds for the Brokpa semi-nomadic culture and the yaks,” he says. “But let’s be hopeful. Let’s cherish our lifeways as long as it’s there to cherish.”

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Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Brokpa Tsering, the gaonburha of Lubrang Brokpa village in West Kameng, and his wife. Currently they have about 200 yaks and yak-cattle hybrids, and they practice a form of transhumant yak pastoralism. Their summer migration route covers the pasturelands of Naga Jiji, Senge, and Luguthang in West Kameng. For nearly all aspects of survival, they depend on the animals.

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Photo Credit: Sumit Das

Yaks and yak-cattle hybrids called dzomo in a winter grazing ground in Lubrang.

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Photo Credit: Sumit Das

Two dzomos grazing in the winter pasture of Lubrang. The first-generation offspring of yak-cattle crossbreeds are called dzo for male and dzomo for female. The dzo is an infertile but sturdy progeny normally used as a pack animal, whereas the dzomo provides superior quantities of milk with high butterfat content. The most outstanding advantage of the dzo and dzomo is the fact that they thrive at the altitude interval where neither cattle nor purebred yaks do, i.e. between 3,000 and 4,000 meters. “That's why many Brokpa herders now prefer these yak-cattle hybrids to purebred yaks,” says Tashi Phuntshu.

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Photo Credit: Sumit Das

Two lumps of churpi, a traditional butter prepared from yak milk. “The Brokpa pay different kinds of taxes with churpi and other yak products and sheep and cattle,” says Tashi Phuntshu.

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Photo Credit: Sumit Das

Tashi Phuntshu shows a churning device used in making churpi, distributed by the National Research Centre on Yak (NRCY) at Dirang, among local yak farmers.

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Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

R. Norbu belongs to a clan of sedentary agriculturists called Ungpa and owns several pasturelands in the Dirang area. He collects grazing tax from the transhumant Brokpa herders who graze their yaks, cattle, and sheep on the pastures owned by his clan.

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Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

A view of Lubrang Brokpa village. A typical Brokpa village consists of 10 to 12 households. The entitlement of the land on which the Brokpa villages are situated usually remains with the nearby sedentary agriculturists – or the Ungpa – who charge an annual settlement and house tax from the Brokpa herders. The Brokpa pay the tax in kind: in churpi, milk, or sheep.

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Photo Credit: Sumit Das

The fireplace is the center of all activities in a Brokpa household. In the evening, after a hard day’s labor, all gather around the fireplace to chatter and drink and dance.

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Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Brokpa Tsering, dressed in the traditional yak-skin coat and the yak cap worn by a Brokpa yak herder, sits in his hearth.

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Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

In the wee hours of the morning, Brokpa Tsering prepares to journey to the ‘forest pasture’ near a mountain called Naga Jiji on the Indo-Bhutan border where his yaks are grazing in mid-February. A distance of 12 km from Lubrang, it takes Tsering four hours of walking in the mountainous terrain to reach the pasture. He feeds the animals salt – a practice that the Brokpa herders believe prevents the yaks from becoming feral.

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Photo Credit: Sumit Das

A stupa in Lubrang. The Brokpa of Lubrang adhere to the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

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Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Tashi Lamo, wife of Tashi Phuntshu, the gaonburha of Rama Camp, is preparing roxie, a local drink loved by the Brokpa. A material ecology of roxie plays a crucial role in the life of a Brokpa: it keeps the body warm and thus enables the Brokpa to roam with yaks in the extremely cold higher Himalayas.

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Photo Credit: Sumit Das

The Buddhist monastery of Lubrang.

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Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

The Lama in charge of the monastery at Lubrang. He talks about spiritual and spirit worlds of the Brokpa: “Though adherents of Buddhism, they’ve many folk beliefs as well as elements that retain aspects of the older Bon religion. For example, the Brokpa worship a folk deity called Ghepo Namsey, who is considered the god of animals, humans, plants, water, and other natural resources.”

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Photo Credit: Sumit Das

A yak is being readied for slaughter for a feast during the Losar festival in Chander, West Kameng. Losar is the Tibetan New Year celebrated across Monyul by the Tibetan Buddhists, including the Brokpa.

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Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Brokpa Tsele (red coat) is the owner of the yak to be killed for the Losar feast. The man standing to Tsele’s right will kill the animal. They are performing a ritual before the act of slaughter and asking for forgiveness and mercy from the yak. Brokpa Tsele says this ritual ensures that the bond between the yak and his owner – Brokpa Tsele himself – remains intact even after the yak is killed.

The closure of Tibet: A death knell to Brokpa pastoralism

The wild ‘pure breed’ yak population, estimated at no more than 10,000 to 15,000 individuals, is now in China’s Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), where border control is strict and free-crossing of yaks and their herders from the outside has been restricted.

The closure of the ‘pure yak region’ in Tibet has given rise to a serious problem of inbreeding in the yak herds in the rest of the Himalayas.

Yaks outside the ‘pure yak region’ are “thought to be suffering from inbreeding due to the lack of availability of new yak germplasm from the original yak area during the past few decades, and the resultant practice of prolonged use of the same bull within herds,” according to a 2016 report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

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Photo Credit: Ankita Bora
A view of snow-clad mountains near Zela (Sela Pass). Brokpa herders in Chander take their yaks to pastures near Zela, close to the McMahon Line, the boundary line that demarcates India and China.

The problem of inbreeding has also affected the Brokpa yak herds. The Brokpa herders in Arunachal Pradesh today are facing the fate which befell Kyrgyz and Wakhi yak herds in the 1950s after the border between Afghanistan and China in the Wakhan Corridor was closed, leaving no possibility for Wakhi and Kyrgyz herders to get new yak germplasm.

Brokpa Tseng Dorji, a former yak herder and now field staffer at the National Research Centre-Yak (NRCY) in West Kameng, says: “Younger yaks in some herds are weak and smaller in size, and also more disease-prone. This is because they’re using the same old bulls for breeding. After the closure of Tibet, the previously unhindered yak traffic was stopped. In the days of my grandfather, they used to bring pure goleng bulls (Bos taurus) from Tibet. But now there’s virtually no new yak germplasm from the pure yak region.”

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Photo Credit: Sumit Das

Brokpa Tseng Dorji, 42, had been a yak herder for many years before joining the NRCY as a field staffer about 14 years ago. When Dorji was barely 10 years old, his father died and he had to take charge of the family’s yaks. “The yak is the cornerstone of Brokpa identity and culture,” he says. “The happiest moments of my life are those when I get to spend time with my yaks inside the forest.”

The threat of climate change to nomadic pastorialism

The impact of climate change is being felt in the Brokpa village of Lubrang. Brokpa Tsering, the gaonburha of the village, says: “Snowfall has decreased considerably in the last couple years. Two decades ago, at the time of the Losar festival, that is in February, you would find the village covered in at least two-feet deep snow.”

Another cause of concern is a kind of leech which infests the landscape as soon as summer sets in. “There was no trace of these little devils until 10-12 years ago,” says Tsering. “I’ve lived all my life here and had never heard of this before. But suddenly it appeared and spread all over. They mostly harm the yak calves.”

Tsering thinks the appearance of the leech could be because of rising temperatures. And as they are throughout the world, warmer climates threaten the life cycle of herders and their animals.

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Photo Credit: Sumit Das

Brokpa Tsering walks home from the village monastery.

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Photo Credit: Sumit Das

High altitude wetlands (HAW), locally known as jheel, such as this one in Lubrang village, are the water sources for yaks and yak herders moving around mountaintop pastures. Yak herders in Lubrang say with temperatures rising many of these wetlands are drying up.

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Photo Credit: Sumit Das

Ashok Chetry, a local resident of Dirang, says earlier there was a jheel (wetland) in the place where the yaks are seen grazing. But in 2010, after the construction of a road nearby, the jheel dried up.

A research lifeline for Brokpa herders

In 1989, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) established the National Research Centre on Yak (NRCY), a research organization exclusively dedicated to the research and development of Yak (Poephagus grunniens L.), at Dirang in West Kameng. ICAR-NRCY has set up an experimental yak farm at Nyukmadung, a Brokpa settlement 31 km off Dirang, which currently shelters 400-plus yaks.

Dinamani Medhi, a senior scientist at the NRCY, says: “We are dedicated to cutting-edge scientific research on the yak. In fact, ours is the only facility in the country that exclusively researches on the yak. We are at present especially focusing on areas of breeding, rearing, fodder, and disease prevention.”

The research center, Medhi says, endeavors to improve the life and the livelihood practices of the yak-dependent Brokpa.

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Photo Credit: Sumit Das

The National Research Centre on Yak (NRCY) at Dirang, in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh.

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Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Yaks inside Nyukmadung Yak Farm, which is run by the ICAR-NRCY at Nyukmadung, 31 km off Dirang, West Kameng district, Arunachal Pradesh.

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Photo Credit: Ankita Bora

Norgyal, India's first test tube yak, who was born on July 15, 2013, at Nyukmadung Yak Farm. In the local language, ‘Norgyal’ means ratnaraj meaning ‘king of precious gems.’

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Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

Pranab Jyoti Das, formerly a senior scientist with ICAR-NRCY. He led a study (2014-16) at NRCY that found the yaks of Arunachal Pradesh to be a distinct breed. India’s National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources in January 2018 registered the Brokpa yak of West Kameng and Tawang districts as distinct from other yaks. Das says, “The acceptance of the Arunachali Yak as a distinct breed will help in taking up conservation initiatives for this peculiar breed in a more focused manner.”

Memories: Friendship and war

Tucked away in a strategic location in the cradle of the Himalayas, Monyul is a site of varied memories: of friendships and neighborliness; of animosities and war. Exchange of ideas, capital, and material cultures was, and remains, the order of the day.

Monyul is also, as Lama Ngawang wrote in the 17th century, “the meeting place of India and Tibet.” Religion and culture are two spheres where this is most evident. While Monyul is an ancient sacred place of Tibetan Buddhism, an offshoot of a religion founded in the fifth century BC by Buddha in India, today its popular culture is hugely influenced by Bollywood and other aspects of Indian culture such as Indian cuisine and the Hindi language.

In 1959, when China overran Tibet, the Dalai Lama and his retinue took flight through Monyul to reach the plains of India. Many Tibetans have since found a second home in Monyul. There are dozens of Tibetan refugee settlements in West Kameng and Tawang districts.

In 1962, Monyul became the theater of the Indo-Chinese fallout. The Indian administration was forced to withdraw from Tawang and West Kameng, and Chinese troops occupied Bomdila, the headquarters of West Kameng. Later, however, in a unilateral move, China withdrew from the region.

Norbu, the octogenarian Brokpa herder, witnessed all these developments.

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Photo Credit: Ankita Bora
Norbu, sitting next to R. Norbu, recounts the old days. He talks of how, as a teenager, he journeyed to Tibet in the early 1950s; about the days of the Indo-Chinese war; and the Dalai Lama’s escape to India through Monyul.

He recalls his childhood: “When I was a young boy, we’d bring salt from China and Tibet. Tibet is 15 days walk from my village, Chander. In those days we hardly ate rice. We used to eat buckwheat, millet, churpi, ghee, and yak meat.”

“Then came the days of war,” he says. “In 1959, when the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan refugees fleeing Tibet came here, a pall of gloom descended in our village. One day near Zela (Sela Pass), I saw a line of Tibetans strolling past my yaks.”

Norbu continues: “In 1962, when the war broke out I was near Mago, close to the McMahon Line. After a week or so, I met several small groups of retreating Indian army personnel. They were wounded and hungry. We provided them with food and water. We also met advancing Chinese troops. They didn’t harm us, but asked for routes and directions and about movements of Indian troops.”

In the recent decades, in West Kameng and Tawang, many places that were previously known by their local Monpa/Tibetan names have been renamed with Hindi/Indian names.

On the act of erasing local place names, Norbu says: “The names by which earlier we used to know the places have now disappeared. With this, we also lose the histories and memories associated with these names. For instance, the place Zela is now known as Sela Pass. They say Sela was a local girl who fell in love with an Indian soldier who was martyred in the Indo-China war of 1962. In reality, the name of the place is Zela, named after an eponymous mountain god revered by the people of Monyul. But now no one seems to know about this.”

Swargajyoti Gohain, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur, India, writes that this results from the politics of toponymic attempts to inscribe the geo-body of Monyul with Indian cultural markers and thus replaces older local histories of the place with a national (Indian) version.

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Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

A photo from Neeru Nanda's book “The Land of Mon,” published in 1982. The photograph, dating back to 1974, shows a chowriewallah a Brokpa semi-nomad with his yaks. Neeru Nanda was an Indian administrator who served the Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh in the early 1970s. A trekking enthusiast, Nanda spent considerable time trekking in the higher Himalayas with the Brokpa semi-nomads. Her book chronicled fascinating vignettes from the Brokpa lifeworld of the 1970s.

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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