Monday, 16 June 2008

Bhutan : Changing Changla with the times

13 June, 2008 - At a rented apartment in Lungtenphu, Tashi Wangmo, a civil servant is scrutinizing a long shopping list written in Dzongkha. Besides meat and doma paney, the list includes beer, maggi (fast food noodles), and raincoats.

As she calculates the cost, her phone rings: “Don’t forget fuel for the power tiller!”

This has been a routine for Tashi Wangmo, who had been helping her parents in Toep Lembjakha in Thinleygang. Every year she takes leave to help her parents during changla (paddy transplantation) and every year she has noticed changes in the list. Taking a closer look, Tashi Wangmo sees a change in the culture of changla at her village.

This year the rain was timely and farmers in Toepbisa, like in many parts of paddy growing regions of Bhutan, are happy that it will be a timely changla. The scorching sun, the sleepless nights from flooding the paddy fields, the toads, leeches and biting insects do not bother farmers because they shall reap in autumn what they sow in spring.

Tashi Wangmo knows it. She has left her two infants in Thimphu with her husband and early on Saturday morning, she is cooking rice in a giant electric rice cooker. A few years ago, Tashi’s mother would be complaining of sore eyes from blowing her lungs out into the wood-fed stove. Now the entire village no longer has such ovens.

With the distant roaring of a power tiller, a line of women are already heading towards the paddy nursery fields - it is 7:30 in the morning. The smell of burning cowdung fills the morning air as it acts as an insect repellent. Looking at her digital Maxima watch, Chimi, one of Tashi’s sisters pulls out her Samsung mobile phone and dials a number. “It’s 7:30, are you coming?” she asks. After a brief pause, she shouts: “Can you call the others, there’s not much balance left in my phone.”

By 8 am a dozen women and men are out in the field. Aum Karma, the family head, had consulted the village astrologer and fixed her changu (start of changla) for Saturday. It is a good date, not just astrologically, because she can have extra hands on her field.

As in many other rice-growing regions, Lembjakha village practises shared labour, but now labourers are getting scarce because many people have migrated to urban areas with their sons, daughters and kinfolk.

“There aren’t many people here in the village now,” said Daw Nob, whose role is restricted to looking after his grandchildren. “Even children are studying in cities with their aunts and uncles,” he said, watching others work in the fields spread before him for miles on end.

Changla is the most labour-intensive and time-consuming of the three work cycles before farmers fill their huge boxes occupying the middle floor of their traditional houses. “Every helping hand at any kind of work is very precious,” said Aum Karma. She is lucky because her daughters work in Paro and Thimphu and are relatively at hand to help her.

Soon it will be the summer break for students and those in Thinleygang are also looking forward to help out their parents. “Everyone’s involved in it, so we also want to take part,” said Thinley Wangchuk, a class five student preparing for his mid-term exams.

Of late, farmers also realized that changla is becoming expensive. It is not the daily wages, but some new changes that farmers face when they cannot send the shopping list to their children in the cities. “Instead of ara (locally brewed alcohol), it’s beer, not tea nowadays but fizzy drinks and no longer simple meals but grand feasts,” said a farmer. Farmers attribute this to the shortage of labourer and blame a few rich farmers who spoil their hired hands. “If we don’t do the same, we won’t be able to hire hands,” she said.

With the mechanization of farming, farmers also feel nostalgic about how a changla is conducted today. Watching the labourers, Ap Daw Nob, 67, recalls how it used to be when he was a young farmer. “It wasn’t only working those days. There was pleasure and excitement during changla,” said Ap Daw. Reputed for his voice and singing the langkoe (a song sung by the man on the plough, directing the bull), Ap Daw laments the disappearing tradition. “Now with deafening power tillers, you can’t even hear the other person. Forget singing,” he said.

Duration of backbreaking work during changla has obviously reduced to a few days from weeks and sometimes even a month butm according to farmers, the charm and excitement has gone too. “I had the best pair of bulls in the village, and all the workers used to pause to look and listen to me when I ploughed my bulls and sang langkoe,” boasts Dorji Gaytshey, another farmer. “Today, even the strongest pair of bulls are grazing in the wild.”

The fun fair, that usually erupts in lewd and earthly jokes, has also disappeared. A strange tradition it may seem, but farmers said that in the past they literally bury, what they call, “feelings of embarrassment” a few days before the changla. “This is because when men make lewd remarks or jokes, family members in the working group do not mind,” said a farmer. “We have reputed people for that. But now, if you try to crack a joke, you’ll be stoned,” he said.

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