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Royal Highland Festival: mirth on the mountains

The vagaries of weather did not stop spectators comprising over 1,500 men, women and children from celebrating the rich nomadic culture and lifestyle during the Royal Highland Festival on October 23-24 in Laya.

His Majesty The king graced the occasion, escorting the entourage to the Langothang terrain, an open-air natural stadium 4,000m above the sea level, in a picturesque chipdrel, and was welcomed by the highland communities, visitors from other parts of the country, tourists and trekkers. Langothang, the venue of celebration, which remains sparsely populated other times was filled with laughter and the sounds of festivities after people including the Layaps gathered, all dressed up in their traditional attire, at once unique and distinct.

Women looked extraordinarily beautiful in their dresses; the black woolen jackets, reaching right down to the ankles, embellishments of silver jewelry and beads, and perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Layap women, the conical hat made of darkened bamboo strips added an out worldly charm. The unpredictable weather did little to deter the gathering from taking part in the revelry.

The wide land was dotted with black tents (jaa) as people from Merak-Sakteng in Trashigang, Trashiyangtse, Paro, Lhuentse, Haa and Sephu in Wangduephodrang poured in to showcase their nomadic culture. By 11am on the first day, the winner of the Laya run crossed the finish line, covering the exhausting 25-km of rugged mountain terrain in 1 hour, 59 minutes. Soldier (chuma) Sangay of Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) bagged the first prize, chuma Gawa Zangpo of Royal Bodyguards (RBG) came second and Gopa Pema Jamtsho of RBA stood third.

Meanwhile, the crowd cheered the female runners with great excitement. Choki, 24, from Pazhi chiwog came first completing the run in 2 hours, 41 minutes; Yangzom from Neylu chiwog stood second and Karma Yangdon of Lungo chiwog came third.  A total of 88 participants took part in this year’s Laya run.  One of the interesting programs during the festival was the senior Layap relay which was organized for men and women above 60 years from five chiwogs. A freezing afternoon with heavy rain also did not stop the highland favorite, the horse race.

Sangay Tenzin from Laya outran four other horsemen in the final race. Other sporting events were an inter-chiwog women’s tug-of-war. The cultural program included a yak dance and songs and dances. Some of the interesting events were Bay & Tsip Khenye (wool and rope weaving competition), Keshey (wrestling) competition, horse race, Ngagoe (strongman) competition and relay race among the senior citizens of Layaps.

Stan, a 68-year old from Czech Republic, said except for the weather everything was perfect and he enjoyed the festival. However, Pasang Lham, originally from Lunana but settled in Laya after her marriage said, “Compared to last year, this year was not much fun and with many tents empty, there was a smaller audience. Even the weather was not favorable.”

Cheki, 63, from Pazhi chiwog said the highlanders eagerly waited for this day to arrive so that they could gather with friends and family. “We are so used to the unpredictable weather that it was not an issue. I enjoyed keshey and tug of war between the women. This is one event that allows us to showcase our culture and our village to the outsiders.” Day two was even more mirthful with pleasant weather even as mountain peaks glistened with fresh snow. Toward evening, people gathered at a bonfire where they were served alcohol. Dance performances, jokes and singing of songs were part of the happy evening.

Dignitaries attending the festival included the ambassador of India to Bhutan, Jaideep Sarkar, UNDP Deputy resident representative Niamh Collier Smith and expatriates.

Chencho Dema from Laya

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