Tarayana Fair 2016
On a warm May morning in Thimphu, the yearly Tarayana Fair begins with a formal procession as the honored guests arrive. Dancers in full ceremonial attire lead the march, bursting with vibrant color and twirling in graceful turns. Behind them, royals, politicians and monks follow down the carpeted pathway.
The fair is put on by the Tarayana Foundation, the major philanthropic organization aiming to ameliorate poverty in Bhutan. Tarayana creates various initiatives in-country that support members of vulnerable communities to help themselves, such as teaching skills for creating new artisan goods, providing education for children and installing hydroelectric power or water collection systems. The yearly fair celebrates those initiatives as well as providing a platform for assisted communities to sell their indigenous crafts and bolster awareness for their projects.
Several members of the royal family grace the occasion, including Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck (founder of the Tarayana Foundation), His Royal Highness Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, and Her Royal Highness Princess Ashi Sonam Dechan Wangchuck. Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay is present as well, in addition to a group of high-level monks and lamas (Buddhist teachers).
Sangay Tsewang (husband) and Tsering Yangzom (wife) came from the district of Mongar, in the east, for the fair. Craftspeople in their village, Kenkhar, specialize in woodworking and making traditional ara containers. Ara, a homemade distilled wine made from a variety of different grains depending on the region, is celebrated as a part of daily life, especially in the east of Bhutan. This family makes theirs from maize.
Inhabitants of Kenkhar do not grow any cash crops; instead, the village is composed of artisans who farm enough for their basic sustenance and then produce these crafts for a national market. Only fifteen people in the village retain the traditional knowledge needed to create the ara containers, and Kenkhar is the only village in Bhutan that makes this style of container. It takes a week to assemble each one.
The containers, called jandom, are constructed specifically from the wood of the dongtsong tree. In years past, villagers could find the trees right around their homes. These days, they are more difficult to find — jandom creators now walk a full day in each direction to locate suitable wood.
Bands of hammered brass encircle the containers, fashioned with intricate patterns. The designs for these metal bands originate from long ago, when a lama from the village journeyed to Tibet and learned the technique for their creation there.
The glue used for sealing and waterproofing the joints in these containers comes from the sap of the gurtsi tree, a sap that will blister the hands of the unaccustomed with an itchy, swollen reaction. Adepts in the art of jandomcreation, however, have become nearly immune to its effects. “After we make one hundred containers, maybe only then will our hands swell,” declares Sangay with a mischievous smile.
Sangay has been crafting these containers for over forty years. He learned the trade from his father, who practiced it for more than eighty years. Now, Sangay’s son Rinchen is picking up the art. Others among the newest generation, however, aren’t so keen on learning the tradition — forsaking ancient custom for the shiny promise of modern business in the cities, many are leaving home — and as a result, the art is dying out.
Namgay Tsering and his friend Bepo hail from the southern district of Samtse. These outstandingly kind, unpretentious young men descend from the Monpa and Doya, two indigenous Bhutanese groups. Members of these groups have a distinctive appearance, one that reveals their ancient heritage. Namgay, shown on the left in this photo, sports a traditional garment called khasa worn by some of these indigenous citizens — generally, khasa are worn without a shirt underneath, to keep cool in the hot southern climate.
Some years ago, a number of Bhutanese had to relocate to Samtse, where they had some trouble with the less-fertile land there. As a remedial measure for these people as well as the existing locals, the Tarayana Foundation came to teach new craft skills. Additionally, Tarayana helped to establish an eco-friendly brick processing plant there. Tarayana also awarded micro-loans used for purchasing cardamom tree rhizomes, the starting point for a valuable cash crop.
At first, the indigenous groups of this area were mainly hunting and gathering to survive. Later, with assistance, they began to practice agriculture, though the quality of the soil made it difficult to produce surplus crops for sale. After Tarayana’s recent intervention, the locals learned to create products for the market that afforded them some income.
For example, Namgay and Bepo now produce beautiful handmade paper and envelopes, ever since Tarayana agents taught the process about a year ago. These two young men use the wood of the laurel tree, which they call deshing, for pulp.
Other citizens from their area (Namgay lives in a village called Sengteng, while Bepo comes from a nearby settlement known for being one of the few coffee plantations in Bhutan) are also selling their wares today: butter, cheese, popcorn, honey, ginger root, tapioca chips, and tea all cover the table in a fascinating array. Here for sale too is the health-promoting amla fruit, both in dried form and pickled in jars — the process for canning and jarring was introduced recently by Tarayana. There are pickled radishes, daley chilis (supposedly the hottest in the kingdom), and large wooden butter churns often used for making the traditional suja tea (long-boiled, dark black tea churned with milk, butter, and salt). Finally, some villagers sell carved segments of wood used for fashioning archery bows. The wood from the town of Tabaramten is prized as the finest in the country, strong and flexible.
Rinzing Lhamo brings a wealth of dried goods all the way from Pemagatshel, in far southeast Bhutan. She comes from a village famous for its tea, a particular variety that is known to be perfect for salted, buttered suja tea. A large bag of her special tea goes for forty ngultrum, less than $1 USD. Among the other dried items Rinzing and her family have spread out on their table of offerings: edible flowers used in meat curries, mushrooms, local bananas, spinach and turnip greens, peanuts, cheese, honey, and powdered ginger. They’ve even brought medicine, a shredded black bark prepared in the same way as suja, that eases muscle and joint aches and strengthens the body.
A whole group has come here today from Pemagatsel, and they exude joyful excitement and camaraderie. Other members of the group grow their own cotton, spin it into thread, dye it, and then create fantastic rainbows of cloth. Still more weave baskets, some of which are sieved and made from especially thin strips of bamboo, used for straining homemade cheese.
All told, the Tarayana Fair this year is a success. The traditional crafts makers in attendance have a wonderful opportunity to showcase their products. Visitors from the capital city learn about Tarayana’s projects, about the fading arts displayed here and about the communities from which those arts originate. Worlds collide: the modern city with the ancient, indigenous traditions still existent in remote parts of Bhutan.
The representatives at the fair from the communities aided by Tarayana seem joyfully grateful for the assistance, expressing their happiness in wide smiles and words of thanks. These previously underserved members of the kingdom are exceptional people — honest, kind, cooperative, unpretentious, and welcoming. As much as they benefit from the Tarayana Foundation’s activities, they also give back, by their simple presence in a world moving away from the essential values that they keep alive.
Tarayana, through its compassionate and respectful assistance, helps to protect these beautiful, irreplaceable holders of Bhutan’s original indigenous wisdom. Together, the communities and the foundation preserve a precious jewel of utmost significance: heart-centered, earth-honoring, traditional culture in a rapidly modernizing world.
STORY BY HARRISON RAPPAPORT
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MATT DESANTIS