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Visualizing Central Asia: "Bhutan" (Brian Young)

Brian Young is a student in the socio-cultural anthropology PhD program. Prior to coming to UCLA he did ethnographic research in Bhutan. He wrote two theses for master’s programs at Dartmouth College and the University of Oxford. His work focuses on Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH), GNH development policy, and its impact on the Brokpa nomadic yak herders in the eastern part of Bhutan. Thematically, he concentrates on issues of citizenship, identity, migration, and nationalism. He is working on an app based on his research in Bhutan and was invited to present the app in Geneva at a UN-funded summit conference. He hopes to use this app to understand how the Bhutanese and especially the Brokpa are approaching and being impacted by modernization. Brian uses critical, visual ethnography to engage with experiences, relationships, and context, often revealing rich knowledge that other approaches to data such as writing may not adequately capture.

A small landlocked country in the Himalaya, Bhutan has only begun to engage in global politics in the last several decades. Before that, it was quite isolated. The country became much more engaged in global affairs and concerned with development and politics in 1959, after the Tibetan uprising and the subsequent Chinese intervention, In political terms, by 2008, the country had fully transformed from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy. While the royal family continues to play a ceremonial role in the country, the government is now controlled by a prime minister and a parliament, the king having relinquished his traditional powers. In economic terms, the country has developed the overarching approach of Gross National Happiness to emphasize development that is linked to the preservation of culture.

My research explores the national development policy of Bhutan, Gross National Happiness (GNH), in relation to the Brokpa nomadic yak-herding group. I argue that GNH policy is used to limit the nomads’ migration as a way of pressuring them to conform to national development goals. I discuss the different expectations the national government has for the nomads, and I explore the subsequent tensions that emerge when the nomads pursue a traditional lifestyle that no longer fits into accepted models of citizenship. Citizenship revolves around people fitting into the national development goals (GNH policy).

The Brokpa group is significant as a representation of the changes with regard to agrarian communities in the country. My research thus indicates that the traditions and livelihood of the Brokpa are in jeopardy. The government’s preference is for nomadic groups to move to sedentary dairy farming, and the government has also promoted industrialization by allowing the forest industry to chop down trees, which the herders also use to feed their herds. Both policies are leading to changes in Brokpa lifestyle, as the herders are unable to feed their herds. In the past the herders bartered their cheese and butter for the use of privately-owned pastureland. Now the government allocates the land to herders based on the number of animals in their herd. The herders pay the state for the use of the land. The state has claimed sole ownership of the forest and declares it will “develop” the land for the good of the state. The topic is relevant for discussions on nationalism because of the insight it provides on majority-group norms appearing as national representations. The topic also provides insight into dynamics of internal migration in a setting where there is a strong emphasis toward sedentarization. 

I have spent several months in Bhutan and concentrated my work in the eastern part of Bhutan living with the Bropka doing ethnographic field work. On my first day with the Brokpa, I slowly trudged up and down the steep wet trails through the mountains as the rain came down and soaked my body and my heavy back-pack. I finally arrived at the hut of the nomadic yak herder Brokpa family with whom I would be living for the bulk of my field research. I was told that it rains when foreigners come to the pastureland. They said the rain came because the gods were crying due to not liking strangers coming to the land. When I arrived at the hut, my body wet and cold, I leaned toward the fire in the middle of the hut. I was told that when I leaned closer to the fire, I broke some kind of invisible barrier around the fire pit and that I should not do this because the fire deity would be angry.

That same evening we all sat together in the hut around the fire and I started whistling to myself. Once again, I was reprimanded: I was told not to whistle because the demons outside would hear and come into the hut. I thought to myself that this was my first day and I had already transgressed many of the community’s unwritten codes, and I wondered how I would make it through the rest of my visit with the family. But I quickly grasped the rules and eventually became a part of the everyday activities as an adopted member of the family.

What these stories demonstrate is the complex relationship that the Brokpa have with the land. While the area serves as their traditional pastureland, it is also imbued with meaning in many other ways. For them, issues of belief and ritual are intimately tied to the land, and their relationship to the land serves as a source of stability in an otherwise unsettled life. For the Brokpa, the land serves as a source of physical nourishment, and it also serves a spiritual purpose. Many of their rituals are tied to the land. As part of my documentation, I attempted to understand not only this traditional living, but also the many ways in which it is changing. The government’s ambitious development program has dismantled many of the country’s long-standing practices, with a marginal group like the Brokpa at the center of these changes. Among various other restrictions, their access to movement is now becoming limited, a theme that I expound upon in my research.

The videos show a typical day for the Brokpa climbing trees to cut down fodder to feed their herd, which they provide due to a lack of grass. Next, the video shows Ama weaving a yak hair blanket. The Brokpa use this naturally water-proof yak hair blanket to cover their belongings, which are piled on the backs of the yaks when they are migrating.  The next section shows Ama making cheese from yak’s milk for livelihood. The cheese produced from the yak’s milk is weighed and sold by the kilogram in a nearby village. Later in the video there is a traditional cham (Buddhist dance), at the Jakar teschu religious dance festival in Bumthang. The festival takes place at the Dzong (old fortress now used for government administration and a monastery), and the festival and the dances embody the national Buddhist identity. 

The dance at the festival is the Driging dance, or sword dance. This dance shows the dancers conquering the evil spirit Damsri. Even though such festivals purport to embody tradition, the Brokpa are a minority presence. Most people at the festival wear the national dress of a Gho or a Kira and speak Dzongkha, the national language. The Brokpa have their own traditional dress, rituals, and language. Even their beliefs are different: while the festival celebrates Buddhism, the Brokpa believe in Buddhist values combined with Bon beliefs. In a sense, the performativity of culture through dominant national tropes serves to homogenize the country’s various traditions into a single identity, one conducive to GNH development. 

Finally, there is a scene with youth dancing to hip hop music, showing the influence of pop culture from outside of Bhutan. The young men in the second dance are at a religious dance festival in the east in Youngphula, in the Tashigang district. The Brokpa attend this festival. Like the young men dancing at the festival, the son, daughter, and daughter in-law of the family I lived with are also influenced by pop music and dance from South Korea. The son had the latest Korean hair style and wears jeans and a designer yellow plastic belt imitating the clothing fashions and hair styles of the pop stars. He and his wife dream of a life outside of yak herding, indicating the kinds of changes in lifestyle slowly happening among the Brokpa.

The eldest daughter in the Brokpa family I lived with lived mostly with her aunt and grandparents and unlike the rest of her family attended school. She had the financial and emotional support from her family to pursue her interests in education to become a teacher. Her family invested in her and expects her to help raise her sister and brother’s children and making sure they also attend school. While family sees education as a means for an easier life, many Brokpa never had a formal education, and the life and skills of the herder is all they know, now threatened by the country’s new development plans.

About “Visualizing Central Asia”

During the summer of 2020, the UCLA Program on Central Asia invited students to create short videos about the Central Asian region. These projects explore the students’ connections with the area, drawing on relevant courses, study abroad, research, and/or issues of personal concern. The videos cover a range of topics including politics, society, language, food, architecture, and gender. Together, they offer a portrait of Central Asia from a variety of perspectives, contributing to our understanding of a region that is often overlooked.