A Visit to a Glacier Goddess

view of Mount Jomolhari, a high peak in the Himalayas of Bhutan
View of Mount Jomolhari from village shop (source: Ben Orlove)

During my recent visit to Bhutan, a shopkeeper in a mountain village mentioned to me that there was a temple located high up in a valley on Mount Jomolhari.  It contained an image of the local deity, he added, the goddess of the mountain.  These facts, mentioned quite casually, stirred my curiosity and made me eager to visit it.  What would the image of the deity look like, and what could I learn from it about what the local people, most of them yak-herders, thought about the mountain and its shrinking glaciers? The shopkeeper was uncertain of the distance to the temple and of its elevation, but he did recall that there were several large streams to cross.

Several members of my party wanted to remain at lower elevations to advance their research on trees, but the horseman, Rinzin Dorji, was interested in coming—a fortunate addition, since he was familiar with the region. Kinga Thinley, one of the foresters working with us, wanted to join us as well. His English was better than Rinzin’s, so he could serve as an interpreter. The shopkeeper encouraged us to go, but warned us that we might not be able to enter the temple. It was usually locked, except for festivals, or when an itinerant monk might happen to stop by. Jomolhari Temple did have a caretaker who keeps a key; however, since the caretaker was a yak-herder who often traveled to high pastures or to market towns, we might not be able to find him.

Chorten on the path to the temple at Jomolhari source: Ben Orlove)
Chorten on the path to Jomolhari Temple (source: Ben Orlove)

We set off up the main valley early the next morning. After an hour or so, we came to a chorten, surrounded by prayer-flags, which marked a spot that had been visited by Guru Rinpoche, the Tibetan master who introduced Buddhism into Bhutan in the 8th century. Rinzin stopped to light a butter-lamp in a niche in the chorten, and then we began our ascent of the valley’s flank. A series of switchbacks led us up through pastures and forests to a flat meadow with several large boulders. Rinzin showed us a number of cracks and bumps in the boulders which were traces of events long in the past. Guru Rinpoche’s carrying basket and his horse’s saddle were visible. He also pointed out a flat space on one boulder, and a set of closely-spaced parallel lines.

Renzin, pointing out the impression of the book on a boulder to Kinga source: Ben Orlove)
Rinzin, pointing out the impression of the book on a boulder to Kinga source: Ben Orlove)

Thanks to Kinga’s help as an interpreter, I could understand the story that Rinzin was telling. The flat space was the impression that had been made by a sacred book, which had flown to this area from Dagala far to the southeast. The parallel lines were marks made by flutes that had rested there; these were the flutes that had been played by the monks as they walked from the temple—the same one that we were going to visit—to receive this book and carry it back to the temple. Rinzin indicated a low spot in the hills ahead of us, and said that there was another one just beyond it. They had contained lakes which had flown to Dagala. These lakes were the gifts of Jomolhari to another spirit, also named Jomo, and the book was a kind of return gift. There is a third Jomo in eastern Bhutan, near Sakteng in the province of Trashigang; Rinzin did not know much about her, though the caretaker would be able to tell us more. He did know that the three Jomos were sisters, and that Jomolhari was the oldest.

We continued along the trail, ascended a small rise, and entered a high valley that led directly to Jomolhari. The mountain’s immense mass was now visible in front of us. Rinzin mentioned other sacred sites to us. Kinga quickly found a meditation hut high up on a cliff, but I had to look carefully to see the small building and the line of prayer-flags to one side. A monk from the town of Lingzhi, a day’s walk away, comes for several months every spring, before returning to Lingzhi and continuing to other meditation huts in central Bhutan.  The local residents bring him food during his stay each year.

Tshering Wangchuk, the son of the temple's caretaker (source: Ben Orlove)
Tshering Wangchuk, the son of the temple’s caretaker (source: Ben Orlove)

On the trail, we met two men who were gathering plants to make incense. They directed us to the caretaker’s hut. The caretaker’s children told us that their father had gone to a market town, and their mother was visiting a nearby village; the son, Tshering, mentioned that he had the key to the temple, and would be glad to show it to us.

We continued on the same trail, which began to ascend more steeply. The others walked quickly, but I was slower, less accustomed than they were at picking a way over the rough ground, and less confident as well, since a drizzle was making the trail muddy. The exposed rocks that served as stepping-stones across creeks were a bit slippery as well. I was relieved to find bridges over the larger creeks. Rinzin pointed out a feature on a cliff that looked like an image of Buddha, and told us a story about the temple. A large flood had come down from the mountain, and nearly destroyed the entire temple. Only two objects remained unharmed, the sacred book that had flown over from Dagala, and one cup from the set of seven on the main altar, the ones that had been filled with fresh water every morning. The temple had been rebuilt, and has remained intact.

Two buildings came into view when we rounded a curve in the trail. The temple itself, surrounded by prayer-flags, was set right against enormous boulders at the base of a cliff. Tshering explained that the newer building, close by, served as a guest-house during festivals. He showed us some monk’s cells built up against the cliff; a dark space marked the entrance to a cave, which Guru Rinpoche had visited.

Jomolhari Temple, below cliff (sorce: Ben Orlove)
Jomolhari Temple, below cliff (source: Ben Orlove)

Tshering took out the key, and opened the door to the temple, a single room, square in shape. Rinzin, Kinga and I made the customary prostrations, first to the lama’s seat—throne-like in its dimensions and style—under the window on the wall to the left, then to the large altar, with a number of images behind it, to the right. Tshering, filling in the role of a monk, brought a ewer and poured a little water into our cupped hands, once for us to sip and a second time for us to dab on our hair and foreheads.

These acts completed, we sat on the floor to rest a moment. Light was streaming through the window behind the lama’s seat, illuminating the table in front of it and the brightly colored cloths which reached partway down from the ceiling. The rain had stopped after we had entered the temple, and the clouds had lifted. As Kinga later mentioned, this was a good sign; had we displeased the spirits, they might have sent heavier rain, or hail. Tshering explained some details of the temple’s history, which I wrote in my notebook. And then something heavy suddenly hit the top of my head. Rinzin had picked up the book, the one that had flown from Dagala and survived the flood, and was tapping each of us with it in turn. This gesture would bring us good fortune, he explained

We looked more carefully around the temple, examining the murals of deities and demons that decorated the walls. Tshering showed me the tall figures, several meters high, behind the altar: three Buddhas, the middle one the largest, with Guru Rinpoche next to them on the right, and Gyalwa Lorepa, the founder of the temple, to the left.  He then brought me to a table against the far wall, which held a painted box a bit under a meter high. Inside the box was the image of Aum Jomo, Mother Jomolhari. Kinga explained further: she is the local deity, the powerful spirit that governs the region. So here, at last, was the glacier goddess.

Renzin sitting to one side of lama's seat, with sacred book in front source: Ben Orlove
Rinzin sitting to one side of lama’s seat, with sacred book in front (source: Ben Orlove)

I would not get to see her full image, since the box was opened only three times a year, for the festivals that celebrate her. Tshering conferred with the others about the dates, and then Tshering brought out a calendar that showed both the Western and Bhutanese months.  The three festivals are all on dates marked as national holidays: the day of Buddha’s first sermon to his five disciples; the day when Buddha, having reached heaven, descended back to earth to continue teaching; the anniversary of the death of Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal, the Tibetan lama who unified Bhutan and founded the monarchy in the 17th century. Large groups gathered for all of these, Tshering told us, some of them coming from a day’s walk away, or further. As Kinga explained, these festivals were opportunities to renew one’s ties to the goddess, and encourage her to bring health and good fortune. Illness and bad luck could come to those who incurred her displeasure or anger, or to their animals.

The box containing the image of Am Jomo, on right side of table (source: Ben Orlove)
The box containing the image of Aum Jomo, on right side of table (source: Ben Orlove)

I was able to get a glimpse of  part of the image, though, through a small window on the front of the box. She has remarkably long earlobes, and a calm smile. A garland of five flowers was strung across her hair. Her robe, her entire body, were hidden in shadow. I would not get to see them unless I returned for one of her festivals.

Kinga and Rinzin were standing, ready to head back down the valley. I took a last look around the temple. Tshering waited for us to leave, and then locked the door behind us. He led us into the cave, where we found a spring. Kinga and Rinzin filled plastic bottles with this water, infused with the power of Guru Rinpoche.

As we walked back, I tried to put my thoughts together. Aum Jomo, Buddha, Guru Rinpoche: how did they fit together in this temple at the foot of the mountain, the temple which bore her name? Buddha is a universal being, Aum Jomo a local spirit. The main images at the altar were of the Buddhist figures, with the goddess, a smaller figure, off to the side in a box. The main festivals celebrated her, but they took place on dates associated with Buddhism. The most important ritual object in the temple was not an object from the mountain, but a Buddhist book that came from another region. But the book was there because of Aum Jomo, whose initial gift of two lakes to her younger sister brought it to the valley.

Burning incense as an offering in village below Jomolhari Temple source: Ben Orlove_
Burning incense as an offering in a village below Jomolhari Temple (source: Ben Orlove)

I tried to formulate questions on these points of religion to ask Kinga. We have words for these things, he said, but they are hard to translate; if only we could talk to the caretaker, he is the one who really knows about this. Kinga did manage to convey that Buddha was wholly benevolent, and the local deities were capable of doing harm as well as good; the presence of Buddha and Guru Rinpoche would direct the goddess to work in a positive fashion, and would prevent her from expressing her dark side.

I looked back at the mountain, its summit gleaming white in the sunshine, and thought for a moment how dangerous a sudden snowstorm on our trail could be. And Aum Jomo’s influence extended much further down the mountain, to villages whose residents came to pay her respect. They knew her great power, and, in the words and acts, had conveyed something of that great power to me.

An Abundance of Yaks

yaks in a stream in Jomolhari, Bhutan
Yaks in a wetland near Mt. Jomolhari (source: Ben Orlove)

A trip with two colleagues to the Jomolhari area of northwestern Bhutan in October gave me hope that yak-herding remains an active part of the regional economy. We hiked for two weeks through villages and high pastures and up near the mountain’s glaciers, both along major trails and in less-traveled sections. I met some herders at a two-day festival early in my visit, and then was able to visit them in their villages later during the trip, while my colleagues studied the forests at the treeline.

This abundance of yaks around Jomolhari seems to be an exception to a general pattern throughout much of highland Asia. Yak-herding is reported to be declining there, as shown by studies in recent decades from China, India, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia, as well as in parts of Bhutan to the southwest and the east of Jomolhari. In those cases, young people find the caring of the animals at high elevation to be overly rigorous; they prefer to seek employment in towns, a shift which has been supported by the growth of market economies, education and road networks. If this decline continues, it may become irreversible, as younger generations lose the knowledge and skills of herding. The Jomolhari area might be different, due to some combination of local pride in yak-herding, complementary economic activities that support yak-herding families, and the efforts of the Bhutanese government to support yak-herders with traveling veterinarians and with programs that offer compensation for losses from predator attacks.

Two yak bulls fighting source Ben Orlove
Two yak bulls fighting (source: Ben Orlove)

I traveled there at a good time of year to observe the animals, since they had recently moved down from their high summer pastures above 5000 meters, when they were dispersed in small groups, cared for by the herders who lived in tents and other temporary shelters. By October, the herds had returned to the winter areas, between 3500 and 4500 meters, where the pastures would be supplemented with hay and other fodder, cultivated over the summer; the herders had returned to the small stone houses, sturdier than the summer residences. The location of these houses on paths made it easier to see both yaks and herders. Though I did not conduct a census of humans and animals, I was able to see that the houses were all inhabited, and a number were new, unlike other yak-herding areas, which have experienced significant outmigration. Conversations with local mayors and school officials indicated that the ratio of children to adults in the local villages also indicates that populations are stable.

A depression made by a yak bull that rolled in the dry earth source
A depression made by a yak bull that rolled in the dry earth (source: Ben Orlove)

The behavior of the animals in this season made them easier to find. October is towards the end of the mating season. The females go into estrus at that time and bear the calves eight or nine months later. This timing—the production of natural selection among wild yaks and human breeding practices assures that the nursing females will have access to the abundant summer pastures, while the newborn calves will have little risk of exposure to frost. The rut leads bulls to be more aggressive and more visible. Threatening each other with lowered heads or fighting with their horns, they become easier to notice than animals that graze quietly, as they do other times of year. They also leave visual signs of their presence at this time by wallowing in dry soil.

Impressions of yak hooves at the edge of a creek
Impressions of yak hooves at the edge of a creek (source: Ben Orlove)

Once I became aware of the yaks, I could notice them at greater distance, and detect other evidence. Their dung has a different shape than cattle’s. Their tracks are quite distinctive, since their hooves are small for such large, heavy creatures. And I learned that the homes of herders could be recognized by the fodder that had been harvested and was hanging from the eaves to dry.

Recently-gathered fodder, suspended from eaves and laid out on a wall to dry
Recently-gathered fodder, suspended from eaves and laid out on a wall to dry (source: Ben Orlove)

I had the opportunity to spend a full day and night with a yak-herding family, since they were relatives of Renzin Dorji, the local villager who provided the horses to carry tents and other belongings for my colleagues and me. The husband and wife had built a home for themselves soon after their marriage, eager to establish a claim to an area of rich pasture along a creek that carried water from Jomolhari’s glaciers. They own 54 yaks (40 cows and 14 bulls) and 8 horses.

a yak peers into an open doorway in Bhutan
A yak, looking into the herders’ house (source: Ben Orlove)

I was particularly struck by the strong attachment to the area and to herding itself on the part of their children, a daughter Pema Lham, who was 21, and a son, Tshering Wangchuk, who was 17. Tshering had studied English for seven years in school, and spoke it quite well. The work of herding, which I had been told was burdensome, seemed to pass easily for them. They kept a close eye on the animals, each of whom they recognized as individuals and knew by name. Tshering did not need much time to complete the evening round-up of the younger animals, and he seemed to watch with interest as each one entered a large paddock near their house. Pema milked the cows efficiently in the morning and made cheese, by curdling and boiling the milk, separating the curds and hanging them in a cloth to dry, and then pressing them under a heavy rock. The dried yak cheese can be stored for a long time, and, as Tshering told me, sells for a good price. I had heard, before we set off on the trip, that the cheese from this area is particularly prized, since the yaks are reported to graze on medicinal plants as well as on grasses.

a young woman milks a yak in Bhutan
Pema Lham milking a yak (source: Ben Orlove)

Tshering had a number of stories of interesting events during his recent stay at the summer pasture, and was looking forward to meeting up again with friends of his who were also returning from these pastures. He gave me a quick positive answer when I asked him if he planned to remain in the area when he grew up, as if he had never seriously considered an alternative. And Renzin later told me that Pema, an attractive, cheerful and hard-working young woman, was likely to marry in the coming years; as is the local custom, her future husband would move into her home, as Tshering would move to the home of his future wife. There was a good chance, I realized, that Pema would remain for her whole life in the house where she was born.

a young woman in Bhutan is separating curds and whey as part of the process of making yak cheese
Pema Lham, preparing curds for cheese-making (source: Ben Orlove)

I recognize that it could have been easy for me to idealize this family during a short visit. But I  did notice their attentiveness to their animals a number of times, and I believe it showed a genuine affection: Tshering standing patiently to wait for the slowest of the animals to walk back at night, a bull whose front foreleg had broken when he slipped on boulders in a heavy rain; Pema turning to hold a bowl of whey for a cow to lap up (giving me a chance to stare, close-up, at the cow’s dark blue tongue); the two of them, laughing as Pema scooped up the family  cat—the mouser who protected the food stores at home—who was sniffing at a plate of butter. And they seemed comfortable in their family home. Pema showed me the large battery, run off solar panels on their roof, that powered the lamps in the house and the flashlights they took out at night, and allowed them to charge cell phones. In a way the battery complemented a cement bridge, built by the provincial government a few years ago, that Tshering had pointed out to me earlier that afternoon, when we went out for a walk and came to a sizable creek. Both the battery and the bridge are signs of progress that suggest that the high pasturelands are not being left behind as Bhutan’s towns and cities develop.

As I walked back down to the main valley after the visit, I had the strong impression that these two young herders were likely to build lives for themselves in the high country, rather than leaving for town. I was pleased that they, at least, might be an exception to the more general pattern of decline that has been found throughout highland Asia and that I had expected to find in Jomolhari as well.

A Walk Up Jomolhari

A trip to Bhutan last month provided me with an opportunity to visit one of the glaciers in the country along the crest of the Himalayas. I had hoped for such a trip since I first visited Bhutan in 2011, since I was curious to learn what local people thought about glacier retreat, but I had not previously had the chance to travel above the middle-elevation regions. In October, though, my colleagues Ed Cook, Paul Krusic and I had received permits to enter the high country. We arranged for horses to carry our gear, and hiked in for two days to Jigme Dorji National Park. We set up our tent in the village of Soe, where we attended a mountain festival and met with local officials and residents. Ed and Paul spent several days to take samples in the old-growth forests close to the tree line; they drilled cores in the trees, which they would later analyze to reconstruct the climate history of the region.

I realized that this was an opportunity for me to take a day on my own and hike up to the glaciers. I kept an eye on the weather, since clouds had been building up every afternoon, sometimes bringing rain, and I did not want to be trapped in a storm high on a mountain. The national park officials warned me to be careful if I left the main trails; they had had difficulties in rescuing foreign tourists who had gotten lost, or who had slipped. They reminded me that Bhutan, unlike Nepal, did not have helicopters that could fly in to remote areas if an accident occurred.

A view of Jomolhari from above Jangothang. (source: Ben Orlove)
A view of Jomolhari from the trail. (source: Ben Orlove)

On the morning of Friday 9 October, the skies were a clear blue, offering the promise of good conditions for at least several hours. Moreover, I had an excellent guide. Renzin Dorji, the man whose horses we had chartered for two weeks and who had led us up the trail, had grown up in Soe. He had herded yaks as a boy and knew the countryside well.  At the age of 37, he was old enough to recall the mountain when the glaciers had been larger.

We set off from Soe and came to the valley that led up to Jomolhari. Its summit, 7326 meters in elevation, rose high up into the sky. We set off on the north side of the creek that flowed through the valley, ascending slowly on a trail that led through meadows. Seeing the dense groves of junipers and birches, I thought of Ed and Paul. Renzin and I slowly ascended to the first moraine—a line of boulders across the valley, which had been pushed downslope by the glaciers in earlier, colder periods when the ice masses on the mountain had advanced to lower elevations.

Yaks in a wetland at Haluphu below Jomolhari source: Ben Orlove
Yaks in a wetland at Haluphu below Jomolhari (source: Ben Orlove)

When we came over the lip of the moraine, we saw Haluphu, a broad flat area across which the creek meandered in broad curves. Sixty or seventy yaks were grazing on the pastures or standing the creek. Renzin explained that the herders had recently brought their animals down from the high summer pastures to these lower elevations (between 4000 and 4500 meters) where they would spend the winter. In a month or so, temperatures would fall below freezing, and the snows would arrive. But in early October, the temperatures, which seemed about 15 or 18° C, were so warm for the yaks, with their thick dark wool, that they would enter the creek to cool off.

The massive peak of Jomolhari loomed in front of us beyond the grass-covered slopes. I looked up at the mountain and asked Renzin about it. He recalled that the ice had reached much lower down when he was a boy. The warm summers of recent years were the reason for the shrinkage of the glaciers, he said; much more water came rushing off the glaciers than in the past. It would be very serious when all the ice was gone, he thought. In fact, life might end altogether in the area. But that would be far in the future, since there was still a great deal of ice left. And the streams were still full, the pastures still abundant. Local people cared about the mountain, he added. Every household sends at least one person to the large festivals to honor Jomolhari that are held at a temple in another valley that came off the mountain. A monk came from Lingzhi, a village a day’s walk away, to lead these festivals. Renzin seemed to suggest that the mountain did not feel neglected.

An abandoned firepit used by Cordyceps collectors. source: Ben Orlove
An abandoned hearth used by Cordyceps collectors. (source: Ben Orlove)

We walked down from the moraine to the side of the creek in Haluphu. Renzin pointed out signs of new economic activities. He indicated a crude fireplace, a sign that people had come in the late spring or early summer to collect a medicinal fungus, called Cordyceps, which they sell for very high prices, either in government auctions in Bhutan or to buyers a day’s walk away across the border in China. He also showed me a large pit where local people had come to dig sand which they would mix with cement for the construction of government buildings, shops and houses in Soe and other villages. Earlier in the last century, stone buildings, sometimes chinked with mud, had replaced the yak-hair tents of the more nomadic pastoralists, and now cement was becoming common. The Cordyceps and sand-collecting were linked: flush with income from sales of fungus, local residents were constructing larger houses than they had had before. Renzin pointed out a new risk as well: there were large rocks on the flat areas along the creek. Rockfalls from the sides of the valley, especially in summer months, are more common than they had been in the past—possibly a sign of melting permafrost at high elevation, I thought. Renzin mentioned that yak-herders remained in higher pastures during the period of rockfalls, though others, eager to obtain products that they could sell at high prices, came then to collect Cordyceps and sand.

Sandpit at Haluphu, below Jomolhari source: Ben Orlove
Sandpit at Haluphu, below Jomolhari (source: Ben Orlove)

There were a number of animal trails that led up beyond Haluphu. Renzin led us on one which took us to a second moraine, composed of larger boulders than the first. Beyond that was a lake, named Haluphu Tsho, with strings of prayer-flags stretched across the point at its base where the creek emerged. The waters of the lake were a pale green, filled with fine glacier sediment. We saw a few yaks here as well, fewer than below.

Exposed rock and dark ice on lower slopes of Jomolhari. Moraine in foreground. source: Ben Orlove
Exposed rock and dark ice on lower slopes of Jomolhari. Moraine in foreground. (source: Ben Orlove)

The trail continued on above the lake to a third moraine. Here, at an elevation of about 4750 meters, the boulders were larger still, and had sharper edges. We stopped to look closely at Jomolhari, its immense mass filling the broad space at the head of the valley. The upper sections of the mountain were white with snow, but lower down the last winter’s snows had melted, revealing ice that was quite dark, almost slate gray in color. Was this local dust, or soot that had blown in from the diesel vehicles and wood fires of India? It would be possible to trace the history of this dark ice by taking cores, and seeing what particles were contained in the older ice, below the surfaces. Perhaps I would return some day with a glaciologist for such work, I thought. I recalled as well the warnings of the national park officials. The climbing had become difficult, and I did not want to risk a fall if I clambered over these large boulders to try to reach the ice. Moreover, this ice was further from the moraine than it had once been, since the glacier’s edge had moved upslope, revealing bare rock. The growing cloud masses on the summit removed any impulse to continue further: I did not wish to risk being caught in a storm higher on the mountain.

Renzin Dorji, with Jomolhari in the background source: Ben Orlove
Renzin Dorji, with Jomolhari in the background (source: Ben Orlove)

We sat in silence, staring at the mountain. After a while, I reached into my backpack and retrieved some snacks—Power Bars, a favorite of Ed’s and Paul’s, which we had both taken a liking to. We shared them, and then started our walk back. I reflected on the mountain and on the changes that Renzin had seen in the decades since he herded yaks in Haluphu as a boy. Renzin himself was taking part, in a small way, in the growth of tourism, by renting his horses to trekkers. The sale of medicinal fungi and of sand, the possibilities of trade (nearly all clandestine) with the growing towns just over the border in China: these new sources of income for local villagers were growing, perhaps as fast or faster than the glaciers were retreating. The final demise of the glaciers lay far in the future, while the trajectory of the new economy was uncertain. In the meantime, some features of earlier decades remained. Renzin’s wife and son cared for their yaks during the months when he accompanied foreign visitors, and their family sent a member to the festivals at the temple.

Blue sheep and yaks above Jangothang. source: Ben Orlove
Blue sheep and yaks above Jangothang. (source: Ben Orlove)

As we crossed the pastures below the first moraine, Renzin signaled to me to stop. He pointed out, just below us, a herd of blue sheep—a wild species, quite shy and rarely seen close up. Several yaks were grazing in their midst. I was pleased by this unexpected mix of the wild and the domesticated, at a spot not far from the villages in the main valley below Jomolhari. The presence of these animals gave me hope that the mix of old and new forms of human life high in the mountains might continue well into the future.

A Mountain Festival in Bhutan Draws Locals and Visitors

Guest of honor Chencho Norbu arriving at festival source: Karma Tenzin)
Guest of honor Chencho Norbu arriving at festival (source: Karma Tenzin)

Hundreds of people, ranging from yak-herders to government officials to foreign tourists, gathered in a remote village of Bhutan earlier this month to attend a two-day mountain festival, designed to celebrate local cultures and promote conservation. The sponsoring organizations and communities presented a wide array of activities, with broad participation by the diverse set of people who attended.

The sponsors of this festival included the local communities themselves and Jigme Dorji National Park, the park in whose lands the host village of Dangochjang is located. They received support from the Bhutan Foundation and the Snow Leopard Conservancy, an international environmental NGO. The  Tourism Council of Bhutan also played a crucial role in granting recognition in promoting it.

Dancers from Soe village source: Ben Orlove)
Dancers from Soe village source: Ben Orlove)

As Lhendup Tharchen, the field director of the national park, explained, these organizations share the common goals of protecting the landscape and biodiversity of the high mountain ecosystem and of promoting the community-based conservation approach. They hoped that the festival would promote closer relations between the national park and the communities, and at the same time stimulate tourism and bring more government services to the isolated setting, located at 4000 meters at a two days’ walk from the end of a narrow, bumpy unpaved road. In addition, they hoped that the festival, by bringing attention to mountain cultures and instilling pride in them, might help slow down the flow of migrants from these high areas of Bhutan’s towns and cities.

Mount Jomolhari (source: Karma Tenzin)
Mount Jomolhari (source: Karma Tenzin)

The festival opened on the morning of 7 October with a marchang—a ritual offering of fermented grain and butter—followed by a series of short speeches, including one by the guest of honor, Chencho Norbu, the Director General of Forests and Parks.  It soon shifted to a presentation by members of the local communities of Soe and Yaksa, who wore national dress and performed a set of circle dances similar to those found at the middle-elevation agricultural regions of the country. They differed from the high-elevation communities of central and eastern Bhutan, whose dances and customary dress are strikingly distinct from the national majority populations. (The long history of incorporation of this western mountain area into Bhutanese national society and its proximity to national capital of Thimphu may account for this difference from other regions.) The children at the local school also performed dances, which were greeted with enthusiastic interest by the local villages, the government officials in attendance, and the tourists in the audience as well. The latter formed a small group, about two dozen, some of whom were passing through on treks (Dangochang is located on a popular hiking route which leads to the major glacier-covered peak of Jomolhari) and others of whom had taken a layover day at a tourist site, Jangothang, several kilometers away.

Horsemen waiting for the race to begin. source:
Horsemen waiting for the race to begin. (source: Ben Orlove)

Later in the day, local men took part in a horse race, followed by athletic competitions. The assembled crowd watched avidly as young men took part in pundo, a kind of shot-put competition for which two large round rocks had been carried up from the river. Participants took turns picking up a rock, lifting it to their shoulder, and pushing it as far as they could. They did not seem disturbed by the fact that the rocks were not quite the same size or shape.

Man preparing to throw rock in local game  sour
Man preparing to throw rock in local form of shot-put (source: Ben Orlove)

The crowd also enjoyed watching a group of young women play musical chairs (a bit of a challenge, since they were wearing close-fitting ankle-length kiras or traditional skirts). Over one hundred villagers stopped by a public health booth, where their blood pressure and other vital signs were measured, and where they were evaluated for diabetes and other medical conditions.

Visitors watching a sport event at the festival. (source: Ben Orlove)
Villagers watching a sport event at the festival. (source: Ben Orlove)

Later that evening, a large bonfire was lit in the festival grounds, and visitors and participants alike gathered for hours, taking part in some spontaneous dances, while Sirius, Orion and the Milky Way shone high in the sky. The festival had been set for the 25th and 26th days of the lunar month. These dates in the local calendar were chosen because local villagers recognize them as auspicious, but they have the added advantage of providing moonless skies with bright stars.)

Prayer-flags placed over stream connecting two sacred lakes (source: Ben Orlove)
Prayer-flags placed over stream connecting two sacred lakes (source: Ben Orlove)

On the morning of the second day, groups set off on half-day hikes to different spots. One group of visitors followed a trail up a steep slope to two high lakes, sacred places in the local cosmology, and placed a prayer-flag over the stream that connected the lakes–an act which promoted harmony at the festival. Others hiked up to glaciers and went to visit the cameras that had recorded snow leopards. The groups reassembled on the afternoon of the second day, in time to see more dances by the communities of the region, the awarding of prizes to the participants in the athletic events and a distribution of certificates to the local villagers, and to hear speeches by officials to close the festival.  A bonfire on the second evening drew a large group as well.

Visitor at festival having blood pressure checked by national health worker (source: Ben Orlove)
Visitor at festival having blood pressure checked by national health worker (source: Ben Orlove)

The festival met at least some of the goals of the organizers. Most simply, the festival succeeded in providing entertainment and information in a challenging, remote setting. It brought local villagers in closer contact with the national park and with representatives of other government agencies, and also provided them with government support in the form of free health check-ups and medical information.

Students from village school performing a dance (source: Ben Orlove)
Students from village school performing a dance (source: Ben Orlove)

The contributions to tourism were on a smaller scale, though the international tourists and government officials brought some additional economic activity to the village—a local shopkeeper said that she sold much more beer in two days than she usually sells in several weeks, and the yak-herders who brought cheese for sale quickly disposed of their stocks. But the engagement of the participants was genuine, and the villagers and government officials seem likely to carry through on their statements of planning to return for the festival next year.

For other stories on Bhutan, look here and here. For other stories of festivals near glaciers, look here and here.