The Last Layap Hat Makers

Legend has it that the people of Laya and Merak started copying the dresses on the religious effigies dropped off by Guru Rinpoche in these places (female effigy in Laya and the male effigy in Merak) after an effigy ritual he preformed for the Tibetan King, Trisong Deutsen in Tibet.

 
A Layap girl wearing the belo conical hat

A Layap girl wearing the belo conical hat

The belo is a conical hat worn by all women of Laya village; one of the highest settlements in the world. The belo is the most noticeable feature of the Layaps unique attire. Is is woven out of the bark of the nearby birch tree and has survived hundreds of years of the village’s proud identity. However, the culture of weaving and wearing the belo may be on the brink being erased in the remote highland community.

This dying art of hat weaving can be attributed to modernization as well as a local belief that taking up this art brings bad luck to the weaver. The lucrative business of cordyceps collection has also contributed largely to this downfall, with very few interested in taking up the hat making practice.

Tenzin is one of the last three conical hat makers

Tenzin is one of the last three conical hat makers

 

Only three hat makers remain in the whole of Laya. One of them is a 59 year old man, Dodo, and the other two are Tenzin and his wife. The dedicated few who have vowed to uphold this unique culture and pass on the knowledge of hat making to the younger generation; teaching the art to the local school. Tenzin and his wife can produce two hats per day and sell each for 100 Ngultrum. They survive the art through another belief that local deities will be upset if the Layaps stop wearing the hat; which is a contradiction to the belief that it brings ill luck.

 
Hand-making the belo hat

Hand-making the belo hat

Tenzin makes the hats in his house

Tenzin makes the hats in his house

It is said that in olden days if a Layap man loved a woman, he wove a beautiful hat and gifted it to the woman. The belo symbolizes the warmth that has been shared within the Layap community for centuries. Dodo, Tenzin and his wife are a living testament to this continued love for the Layap culture.

The final product of the traditional hat, belo

The final product of the traditional hat, belo

STORY BY KARMA YONTEN

PHOTOGRAPHY BY MATTHEW DESANTIS

 
StoryKarma Yonten