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The Layap, Patriarchy or Matriarchy?

Updated: Feb 19, 2019

Be-Yul Hidden Land - Hidden People!

For the longest time the Layap people were unengaged and untouched by the outside world. They themselves refer to their homeland as Be- Yul (The Hidden Land), a name which couldn’t be more apt. The village of Layap, is one of the most remote altitudinous human settlements in the world, and to this day very few have been introduced to these mysterious mountain dwelling people. Today the Layap’s, their customs, dress and cuisine remain largely unchanged. Time spent with the Layap’s for the few who get the chance, is often life changing, and to set foot into the village of Laya, is to set foot into the past.

The village of Laya can be found in the Gasa district of northwest Bhutan, a disputed zone under the control of the People's Republic of China. There are no roads leading to Laya, no such luxury, Laya is not a place you can simply drive to. To reach Laya you must follow one of the centuries old trekking routes and be willing to trek through the wilds of Bhutan for up to 2 days. The trek is well worth it, as what awaits you is a glimpse into a civilisation distinct from any other in the Kingdom of Bhutan or the world.

Laya Gasa Trek

Semi nomadic yak herders, the Layap’s way of life has changed very little throughout the ages. Legend has it that the Layap’s were cast out of Tibet in the 15th century. After a series of droughts and famines, the Layap’s province in Tibet, and the Layap people were deemed to be cursed. Surrounding villages decided the only way to purge themselves of their troubles was to rid themselves of the Layap’s. It is said that on the day they were banished the Layap womenfolk were wearing the very same idiosyncratic garb they do today. The women of Laya, famed for being the most beautiful in the Kingdom, can all be found sporting miniature bamboo conical hats, some of which narrow to a knifelike point, and are held in place by brightly coloured woollen straps. You will not see a Layap women without one, as they believe them to be good luck. All Layap women wrap themselves in something called the ‘Khenja’, a floor length slate coloured robe, peppered with panels of crimson or blue. Beneath their Khenja they wear ankle grazing thick woollen skirts known as ‘Zooms’. Their trinkets are as curious as they are, for western women it is diamonds, but the women of the Layap tribe choose to bedeck themselves in an excess of silver charms, bracelets, and anklets. However, their pièce de résistance has to be their delightful silver spoons! Yes, spoons! A quirky adornment they hang from their ‘Khenja’s’ like baubles on a Christmas tree.

The official religion of Bhutan is Vajrayana Buddhism, but after spending time with the Layap you come to understand they may better be described as animists. The Layap’s are a superstitious people, and their day to day activities are all about the placation of various gods, spirits, and a host of other celestial or demonic beings. The Layap's believe their gods and spirits inhabit the surrounding mountains, bedrock, caverns, lakelets and waterfalls; to which rooster’s, cows, bulls, and pigs must be sacrificed, lest they once again become cursed.

You’ve heard of monogamy of course, one man to one woman, in the west it is the social norm. You've heard of polygamy, one man to multiple women, mainly practised by those from the Muslim community, but have you ever heard of fraternal polyandry? This is an exceedingly rare connubial arrangement born of economic challenges and scarcity of land. In a bid to keep land within the family, a Layap woman may take two or more husbands at the same time, as long as those husbands are brothers! All live under the same roof, and none can ever really be sure of the paternity of any children born. It is supposedly the eldest of the brothers who chooses where the wife sleeps, but after spending time in their company, it becomes apparent it is the Layap women themselves who have the final say.

Layap men are often away for extended periods of time, as they are responsible for the trade and transport of their tribes’ wares. Layap men, when present, appear to be surplus to requirements. Many Layap men suffer with alcoholism and are often found in a jolly but rather inebriated state, shouting the odds in the Layap's little-known dialect Layakha, a rare Tibeto-Burman language. It is the Layap woman that tend the large yak herds, it is they who weave the clothing, and it is they who lift, reap, sow, and gather. The Layap women, as hard pressed as they are, always seem to have upon their faces something of a Mona Lisa smile. They are survivors, and that has sharpened their wits. They are independent, carefree, equal to the men of their tribe ideologically, and it has to be said dominant sexually.

As the modern world slowly encroaches upon this otherworldly, eremitic, yet welcoming tribe, it is of the upmost importance that they, their traditions, and way of life are retained and reinforced. Meaning tourists must travel sustainably, responsibly, and respectfully. As Confucius said, “We must study the past if we wish to define the future.”

For more information on how you can spend time with the Layap people yourself, please call Trouvailles on 020 3877 0670.


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