GASA DZONG

10

District

Not to be confused with Gasa Dzong or Gasa, Bhutan Gasa District or Gasa Dzongkhag (Dzongkha, Wylie: Mgar-sar dzong-khag) is one of the 20 dzongkhags (districts) comprising Bhutan. The northern part of Gasa District is a disputed zone under the control of the People`s Republic of China. The capital of Gasa District is Gasa Dzong near Gasa. It is located in the far north of the county and spans the Middle and High regions of the Tibetan Himalayas. The dominant language of the district is Dzongkha, which is the national language. Related languages, Layakha and Lunanakha, are spoken by semi-nomadic communities in the north of the district.

Gasa has an area of 3,117.74 km2 (1,203.77 sq mi) as of 2010, formerly 4,409.30 km2 (1,702.44 sq mi) as of 2002.[2] It had a population of 3,116 as of the 2005 census, making it the largest, least populated, and thus least densely populated of all the dzongkhags; it is also the least developed.

History

Gasa was formerly a drungkhag (sub-district) of the Punakha dzongkhag (district). It became a separate dzongkhag in 1992, the start of 7th Five Year Plan.

Geography

Gasa is bordered to the north by Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China and by Thimphu, Punakha, and WangduePhodrangdzongkhags to the south. Gasa is divided into four gewogs

  • KhamaedGewog, formerly known as ⋅Goenkhamae
  • KhatoedGewog, formerly known as Goenkaato
  • LayaGewog
  • LunanaGewog

Economy

Gasa has become a tourist destination because of its pristine forests and the exceptionally scenic location of its Dzong. In 2008 a massive flood on the Mo Chhu (Female River) destroyed a popular hot spring complex, which is under restoration and was to re-open in late 2011. The high altitude makes farming difficult, although government programs seek to establish mustard and summer vegetable planting programs. Residents herd yaks and dzos, and a small number benefit from the nascent tourism industry. A narrow road from Punakha, which is mostly unpaved, reaches up to the Dzong and is now being extended up to Laya. The majority of the known herds of wild Takin occur in Gasa. Electricity is also being supplied to some of the gewogs and all electrification programmes are expected to be complete by 2012.

Gasa is most famous for its Layap people, and for the Snowman Trek, one of the most challenging treks in the Himalayas.

Environment

All of Gasa is an environmentally protected area of Bhutan. Most of the dzongkhag lies within Jigme Dorji National Park (Khamaed, Khatoed, Laya, Lunana Gewogs), although the northeast reaches of Gasa are part of Wangchuck Centennial Park (LunanaGewog). Several of Bhutan’s glaciers are located in Gasa, namely in LunanaGewog, which borders Tibet.

The Layap (Dzongkha are an indigenous people inhabiting the high mountains of northwest Bhutan in the village of Laya, in the Gasa District, at an altitude of 3,850 metres (12,630 ft), just below the Tsendagangpeak. Their population in 2003 stood at 1,100. Ethnically related to the Tibetans, they speak Layakha, a Tibeto-Burman language. Layaps refer to their homeland as Be-yul – “the hidden land.

Dress

The dress of the Layap is similar to the Tibetan costume, except for a few differences. While men wear the Bhutanese costume, which consists of a silk or linen garment that is typically colored saffron and red (cf. gho). The women, on the other hand, wear black woolen jackets, which reach right down to the ankles. A blue pattern band may also be found at the bottom of their long sleeves. They also adorn themselves with silver jewelry and beads.

The most distinctive feature of the Layap women’s dress is their conical hat. Made out of darkened bamboo strips, the conical hat ends with a sharp point to the sky, a cross similar to the Christian cross inverted to an upside down position.

Religion

Owing to Tibetan influence, the Layap practice a mixture of Bon and Tibetan Buddhism. According to legend, Laya village is the spot where NgawangNamgyal, the founder of Bhutan, first entered the country.

Particularly unique among the Layap is the extensive tradition of “living defilements” (Dzongkha: soendrep), whereby a ritually impure person is ostracized from social activities. The Layap shun “living defilements” in order not to anger deities, and to avoid physical maladies and livestock plagues. Among ritually impure acts are birth, divorce, and death, including the death of a horse.

Lifestyle

Located near the Tibetan border, the Layap have traditionally engaged in trade. Nowadays that includes the smuggling of bootleg Chinese blankets and plastic goods which are embargoed by the Bhutanese government, but in much demand by Bhutanese villagers.

Traditionally, the Layap lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle, who rearing yaks and dzos, although in recent times small ponies may also be found in the area. Owing to the cold weather at this altitude, few crops can be planted, except for some grasses.Layaps also traditionally pick cordyceps, valuable traditionally medicinal and magical fungi native to the region. With Bhutan’s increased environmental protection, Layaps and rural farmers face more challenges protecting their livestock from natural predators, particularly leopards. Layap people also participate in the heavy labor to drain Thorthormi, a glacial lake prone to GLOF flooding. Flooding is a particularly serious threat to the Layap way of life, heavily dependent on livestock and sparse water resources.

Until the 1980s, the Layap lived in near-complete isolation from the world, except for occasional visits to Thimphu or Punakha, which was a five day walk. Since the new millennium, Laya has been visited by tourists from all over the world. One can see beautifully painted houses fitted with solar panels, and the construction of new schools for the impoverished children. Most villagers are now able to abandon the village in the winter and return in the springtime. Many Layaps now live in permanent settlements complete with modern amenities – from toilets to mobile phones and televisions – thanks to disposable incomes from business and trade. Increasingly, Layap children are attending Bhutanese schools.

Though somewhat modernized, Layaps and other tribal peoples of Bhutan remain a curiosity to the majority of the native population, many of whom lead much more modernized lives. The government encourages pride among Bhutan’s tribal groups, and cites them as an example of humans successfully living in harmony with nature.

In traditional Layap culture, casual sex is commonplace and accepted among both males and females, unmarried and married. As a consequence, Layap communities face enormous exposure to syphilis, gonorrhoea, and hepatitis B. Although condoms were somewhat available, almost no Layaps reported safer sex practices through 2009, a trend the government hopes to buffet.

Marriage and family

The Layap are known for their tradition of polyandry, practiced to keep families and property together, although the custom now in decline. The Layap also have a tradition of child marriage, with brides as young as 10 years old. Layap women speaking to media anticipate the increase in schooling among their daughters will result in a decline in child marriages. Many Layap women find healthcare difficult to access during pregnancy due to isolated settlements and nomadic lifestyles. Among the foremost concerns for Layap women is prenatal care.