MERAK AND SAKTENG: TWIN JEWELS OF THE EAST
Travel to the hidden valleys of Merak and Sakteng and discover the exquisite eastern wilderness of Bhutan.The Eastern most villages of Merak and Sakteng under the district of Trashigang present visitors with the unique opportunity to see two of the least known valleys in the kingdom. Take a trek to the sacred mountain of Jomo kuengkhar in Merak (from where it is said the plains of India are visible on a clear day), witness the yak dances unique to the region or catch a performance of the famous nomadic Mask dance ‘Ache-lhamo’. Experience the stark wilderness and the simple generosity of the Brokpa community, learn how their traditional garb is still fashioned from yak skin and listen to timeless tales of the yeti which form an inseparable part of Brokpa lore.
Situated at an altitude over 3,500 meters, the exotic valleys of Merak and Sakten have been home to the Brokpas (Nomadic community) for centuries since their displacement from Tsona in Southern Tibet. The nomadic indigenious group of eastern Bhutan, the Brokpas seasonally move their herds of livestock from the lower valleys in the winter to the higher pastures in the summer. While polygamy is a prevailing practice as well, marriage among Brokpa couples is a convergence of practical consideration and sacred responsibility, with elaborate rituals to seal the union. Like the rest of Bhutan, they are fond of archery and are skilled in games of accuracy. Women are particularly well-known for their singing and they love to perform from their wide repertoire of festive songs dedicated to gods and goddesses,as well as the universal themes of nature, youth and old age.
Brokpas prefer to wear their traditional attire spun yak hair. Traditional wear of men comprise a black hat with five long fringes hanging from the sides. The upper part of their body is covered by a thick jacket with a vest of animal hide tied at the waist by a long belt known as a kera. For the lower part of the body, traditional fashion dictates a knee length pair of shorts called Kongo. Women usually wear their long hair tied up in plaits with colorful ribbons. An apron reaching to their knees is tied at the waist. Woven out of raw silk, the women’s dress is designed with colorful motifs of animals and flowers. Fond of jewelry, they wear long strands of corals,cat’s eyes and necklaces of semi precious stones.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
The diverse rituals and customs of the Brokpa people make Merak and Sakten an interesting place to visit, especially each autumn when they honour their mountain goddess Jomo kuengkhar by observing a two-day festival to seek her blessings for prosperity. The festival is also an occasion to witness the annual naked terchaam dances of the Brokpas and the cultural splendor of the Ache Lhamo dances performed by herders annually to honour another feminine divinity sacred to their people.
There are several interesting temples and monasteries in both valleys: The Borangtse Lhakhang, the Guru Geomba and Labrang lhakhang. At the Gengo Tashicholing temple in Merak, established in the 15th century, it is possible to see the remains of its founder. In the Samtencholing Lhakhang it is possible to view what is purportedly the ancient saddle and the phallus of goddess Jomo’s horse. The Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary is spread over 650 sq. kilometers and the only reserve in the world dedicated to protecting the habitat of the yeti or abominable snowman. The Sanctuary is mountainous and rugged and boasts a diverse variety of flora and fauna. Populations of snow leopard, red panda, Himalayan black bear, barking deer and the Himalayan red fox have been recorded in the region. The park also has rare blue poppies, Bhutan’s national flower. Primulas and gentian that explode in the riot of colors in the spring. The avian population of the park includes hoary-bellied Himalayan squirrel, Assamese macaw, blood pheasant, grey backed shrike, grey-headed woodpecker, the common hoopoe, rufous-vented tit and dark breasted rose finch.