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Post-Zhabdrung Era Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People in Eastern Bhutan Gyeltshen, Tshering 2006-12

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 Post-Zhabdrung Era Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking
People in Eastern Bhutan *
Tshering Gyeltshen""
Chocha Ngacha dialect, spoken by about 20,000 people, is
closely related to Dzongkha and Chokey. It was Lam Nado
who named it Kurmedkha. Lhuntse and Mongar dzongkhags
have the original settlement areas of Kurmedkha speaking
ancestors. Some families of this vernacular group migrated to
Trashigang and Trashi Yangtse in the post-Zhabdrung era. The
process of family migrations started in the 17th century and
ended in the early part of the 20th century. This paper
attempts to trace the origins of Kurmedkha speaking
population who have settled in these two dzongkhags.
Kurmedkha speakers and their population geography
Bhutanese administrators and historians used the north-
south Pelela mountain ridge as a convenient geographical
reference point to divide the country into eastern and western
regions. Under this broad division, Ngalop came to be
regarded as inhabitants west of Pelela, and those living east of
Pelela are known as Sharchop.1 The terms Sharchop and
Ngalop naturally evolved out of common usage, mostly among
This paper is an outcome of my field visits to Eastern Bhutan in
Senior  Lecturer  in  Environmental  Studies,   Sherubtse  College,
Royal University of Bhutan.
1 From the time of the first Zhabdrung until recent years, people of
Kheng (Zhemgang), Mangdi (Trongsa), Bumthang, Kurtoe (Lhuntse),
Zhongar (Mongar), Trashigang, Trashi Yangtse and Dungsam (Pema
Gatshel and Samdrup Jongkhar) who live in east of Pelela were all
known as Sharchop, meaning the Easterners or Eastern Bhutanese.
However, word has lost its original meaning today. The natives who
speak Tshanglakha or Tsengmikha are now called Sharchop.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
official circles after the 17th century. In the beginning
Sharchop was a coUective name for people Hving in regions
east of Pelela known as Sharchog Khorlo Tsibgye (Eight
Spokes of the Wheel of Eastern Bhutan).2 These regions were
under the administrative jurisdiction of the Trongsa Penlop
with Trongsa Dzong as the provincial headquarter. Today,
Sharchop may mean either the natives who speak
Tshanglakha3 or the population of Eastern dzongkhags
officiaUy represented by Mongar, Lhuntse, Trashi Yangtse,
Trashigang, Pema Gatshel and Samdrup Jongkhar.
Sharchops are a medley of people.4 Out of no less than 19
different dialects in Bhutan, as many as 16 dialects are
spoken in these dzongkhags.
Kurmedkha, Zhakat, Zalakha, Tshanglakha
Khengkha, Kurmedkha, Chalipikha,
Bumthangkha, Gondupikha, Tshanglakha
Khengkha, Tshanglakha , Brahmi, Brokat,
Dakpakha, Kurdmedkha
Trashi Yangtsi
Khengkha, Zalakha, Tshanglakha, Kurmedkha,
Within these major linguistic groups, there are clear and
distinct local variations. Bose put forward a hypothesis for
the evolution of different dialects, customs, beliefs and other
2 1. Mangdi Tshozhi, 2. Khengrig Namsum, 3. Bumthang Dezhi, 4.
Kuri Dozhi, 5. Zhongar Tshogduen, 6. Trashigang Tshogye, 7.
Yangtse Tsho-nga, and 8. Dungsam Dosum.
3 Tshanglakha literally means 'language of the Hindu God Brahma'.
It is a Tibeto-Burman language, which originally had only traces of
links with Dzongkha, Chokey or Khengkha but it now has borrowed
and incorporated many Dzongkha and Chokey vocabularies. It is
spoken in Trashigang, Pema Gatshel, Samdrup Jongkhar, Mongar
and Trashi Yangtse, as well as in Pemakoe and Tawang areas in
Arunachal Pradesh.
4 Michael Aris (1979) Bhutan: The Early History of a Himalayan
Kingdom, Warmister: Aris and Philips.
 Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People
ethnic characteristics among the lull tribes, and writes,
The environment has been largely responsible for the
multiplicity of languages and customs in the hill tribes, which
do not have easy communication with neighbouring areas.
The geography helped to shape and retain distinct local
identity in each valley and area, and lack of transport and
communication facilities have kept the hill tribes separate
from each other for many centuries.5
According to Aris,6 "linguistic variations of the same mother
tongue from vaUey to valley in the Himalayas" derived
ultimately from geographic fragmentation. In Bhutan,
geographic fragmentation was mainly caused by large rivers
and high mountains that acted as communication barriers
between different communities settled in different valleys. The
two views of scholars mentioned above provide partial
explanation about the evolution of culture in the trans-
Himalayas and evolution of linguistic variations among a
medley of people living east of Pelela.
After the unification, Bhutan was administratively divided
into three provinces. Eastern Province east of Pelela,
including Kheng and Dungsam, was ruled by Trongsa Penlop,
Western Province was under Paro Penlop while Southern
Province was looked after by Daga Penlop. Bhutan's
theocratic poHcies and practices of dividing the country into
three administrative provinces and fiUing the posts of
provincial governors had practicaUy disappeared with the
advent of modernization. However, the old zoning concept still
continues, and serves official purpose albeit in a different
Eastern Bhutan is comprised of a medley of people where
communities speak many dialects, which are unintelHgible to
one   another   in   many   cases.   Because   of   ethnic   groups
5 Bose, M. L. (1979) British Policy in the North-East Frontier Agency,
New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company.
6 Aris, Michael (1979).
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
belonging to diverse origins, Eastern Bhutanese have drawn
the attention of a few native and foreign Hnguists and cultural
anthropologists. However, this study is about the migration of
a distinct ethnic group of Eastern Bhutanese who speak
Medpa7 or Kurmedkha.8 The study also provides a sketch and
brief references to other Eastern Bhutanese people in so far
as it is related to this study by ethnicity, origin, geography
and culture as weU as in terms of migration routes followed in
the past.
Today, there are Kurmedkha speaking communities in
Lhuntse, Mongar, Trashigang and Trashi Yangtse. No
definitive studies had been conducted to estabHsh their
origins. Can they be regarded as one of Bhutan's mainstream
prehistoric migrants? The physical evidences gleaned from
their settlement patterns indicate that the Kurichhu valley is
undoubtedly the original homelands of Kurmedkha speaking
population. These people are found on both sides of the lower
Kurichhu vaUey. Their homelands start from Menbi and
Minjey gewogs in Kurtoe9 and stretch to gewogs of Tsamang,
Tsakaling, Thridangbi and Saleng in Mongar. No Medpas
settlements are found in the upper Kurichhu valley beyond
The archaic name for Kurtoe, as the writings of Terton
PemaHngpa  suggest,   is   KurUung.   After   the   unification   of
7 Medpa literally means inhabitants of the lower valley. In Kurtoe,
the inhabitants who have settled in the lower Kurichhu valley are
called Medpas. The inhabitants who have settled in the upper
Kurichu valley are called Todpas. Medpas speak Kurmedkha while
Todpas speak dialects of Zhakat and Zalakha which are closer to
Khengkha and Bumthangkha. Dakpakha is said to be a sister dialect
of Zalakha/Khomapikha.
8 Kurmedkha is the dialect spoken by inhabitants of the lower
Kurichu valley. Sometimes it is called as Tsamangkha or Chocha
Ngacha. It is a sister dialect of Dzongkha and Chokey.
9 Kurtoe and Lhuntse are interchangeably used.
 Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People
Bhutan, Lhuntse district was officially known as Kuridozhi.10
It was divided into four, and sometimes, five major subdivisions called Dungwog:11 Tangmachu, Khoma, Lingjey
(Minjey), KiHng (Gangzur), and Kurtoe. Before modernization,
Tangmachu comprised of Menbi, Medtsho and Jarey gewogs.
Tsenkhar was under Lingjey Dungwog. Each dungwog was
under a dungpa (sub-divisional officer).
There are two distinct linguistic groups in the Kurichhu vaUey
in Lhuntse. Todpa, inhabitants of the upper Kurichhu,
consists of two major linguistic groups. The groups that have
settled in Kurtoe and Gangzur gewogs speak Zhakat, while
the group that had settled in Khoma valley speaks Zalakha or
Sharpakha. Both these dialects have a close Hnguistic affinity
with Khengkha and Bumthangkha. The inhabitants of the
lower Kurichhu valley known as Medpa are found in Menbi,
Minjey, Medtsho, Jarey and Tsenkhar gewogs. They speak
Kurmedkha, a dialect sirmlar to Dzongkha, Chokey and
The Kurichhu originates in Tibet and enters Bhutan from its
northeast border. It then flows down and dissects Lhuntse
into two unequal parts, merges with the Drangmechhu and
finaUy drains into the Manas.
Majority of the Kurmedkha speaking population is found in
the middle Kurichhu vaUey of both Lhuntse and Mongar.
Their settlement niches in Kurtoe originate at Menbi and
continue through Medtsho and Jarey gewogs, and ends with
Tsamang, Thridangbi and Saleng in Mongar on the western
side. On eastern side of the Kurichhu, the settlement
boundary of this linguistic group starts from Minjey and
Tsenkhar gewogs in Lhuntse, and ends in Tsakaling and
Tormashong in Mongar.
10 The four sub-divisions  of the Kurichhu valley or Kurtoe each
administered by a sub-divisional officer, dungpa.
11 The sub-division of a dzongkhag administered by dungpas.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Kurmedkha speakers are further found in Trashigang and
Trashi Yangtse, but in isolated enclaves (see Table II). In
Trashigang, they are found in gewogs of Bartsham, Shongphu
and Bidung; Tomiyangtse, Khamdang, BumdeHng and
Yangtse gewogs in Trashi Yangtse; viUages of Tsamang,
Banjar, Ganglapong, Saling, Thridangbi, Tormashong and
Tsakaling in Mongar. In Bartsham Gewog, out of 15
settlements, people of Zongthung, Ngalung, Muktangkhar and
Majong speak Kurmedkha. The rest (ThumHng, Mentsang,
Trashang, Pangthang, Nangkhar, Yangkhar, Jamung,
Yingom, Pumung, Kephung and Bainangkhar) speak
Tshanglakha. The settlers in Majong migrated from Tsamang.
However, most migrated from Minjey in Lhuntse about four or
five generations ago.
In Tongphu Zhangtshen Gewog, 100 percent of the
population in 13 out of 16 settlements speaks Kurmedkha.
They are at Tsangmadung, Thrichu Gonpa, Marzhing,
Taphug, Tsangadung, Gorazhing, Tokaphu, Kunzangling,
Kemo, Bagla, Shagpa, Rongkazhing and Menchu, while only
settlers at Pang, Lhaozhing and Memung have mixed
populations of Khengkha and Kurmedkha speakers. People of
Wachan, Rabti and Gangkha in Yangtse Gewog have a mix of
Kurmedkha and Dakpakha speakers. In Lychen areas,
settlements in Shadi, Dalmung, Dretenmo and Zongkey speak
Zalakha. Also in this same area, people in Tongseng,
Sisengang and Sisengkakpa speak Dakpakha, while
Kurmedkha is spoken in Wanglo, Lychen and Shashing near
Dongla. People in Wanglo trace their ancestry to Wambur.
The rest of the settlements like Phurdung, Bimkha, Gezang,
Baney and Baleng speak Zalakha except at Disa where
Tsengmikha is spoken. There are also a few Kurmedkha
speaking famines in Bumdeling Gewog like Omanang
(migrated from Tsamang) and at Yangtse proper. In
Khamdang Gewog, people of Kencholing, Sasarpangpa,
Shagshrngma and Shagshing Gonpa speak 100 percent
Kurmedkha, whUe Khamdang, Shali and Zangpozor have a
mix of Tshanglakha and Kurmedkha speakers; Karma Zom
 Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People
and Jangphu have a mixed population of Tshanglakha,
Kurmedkha or Dakpakha speakers. Lengkhar and Dimbu
have a population of 100 percent Dakpakha speakers. The
settlements at Pam, Sharzam, Nangkhar, Dragtsa, Seb,
Badeb, Tsengkharla and Zangpozor are all Tshanglakha
In brief, it is widely believed that ancestors of Kurmedkha
speakers in Trashigang and Trashi Yangtse migrated from
Kurtoe. People interviewed from Kencholing and Bartsham
said their ancestors had migrated from Kurtoe to these areas
about four or five generations ago. Some famiHes in Yangtse
Gewog had migrated from Kurtoe Wambur. At least one famUy
in Yangtse Omanang had migrated from Jarey Gewog.12 Most
people including those at GaHng and KenchoHng claim their
origins from Kurtoe Minjey. Therefore, it may be rnaintarned
that most Kurmedkha speaking groups now found in
Trashigang and Trashi Yangtse can be regarded as
descendants of post- 17th century migrants, although most of
them are ignorant of their historical origins. There are
possibiHties that these processes of migration on a small or
large scale had begun dating back to the medieval age, if not
Pre-historic migration in Eastern Bhutan
The Eastern Himalayas provided sanctuaries for political
refugees and others who were persecuted at home for reasons
of caste, creed and dogma, and for margrnaHzed people who
were socially, culturally, economically and poHtically
displaced from their far away homes, mainly from the north,
south, east and southeast during pre-historic times.
Bhutan received its share of successive waves of pre-historic
and medieval migrants. Changes in global cHmatic systems,
physical and socio-cultural environments as weU as perceived
economic opportunities in other lands prompted cross-border
12 This seems to be a recent one.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
migrations. Bhutan's fertile vaUeys, forests, congenial climate
and sheer physical isolation had always attracted its share of
migrants from outside.
The physical environments typified by sandy deserts and
extreme cold climates of a large part of Central Asia had
proved hostile to human habitation. During the last Great Ice
Age, with glacial advances from the north, it was possible that
human survivors mainly from the peripheries of Central Asia
had migrated south. Some had settled in the Himalayas
where climates and physical environments were tolerable for
human habitation.
George Van Driem13 put forth a hypothesis that "some of
Bhutan's languages were already spoken in the country long
before" the Old English entered the British Isles (before 3rd to
4th century A.D.) According to him "languages teU story of
our past... about the saga of great migrations of mankind in
and around the greater Himalayan region in prehistoric
times".14 Such an assumption indicates the existence of at
least three major languages in Bhutan right from the dawn of
the first miUennium: Khengkha, Bumthangkha, some Bodkat
vernacular groups and Tshanglakha, and each had
estabHshed its distinctive root in the Bhutanese cultural soU.
Zhakat and Zalakha dialects are close to Khengkha and
Bumthangkha vernacular groups spoken in central Bhutan.
The first is exclusively spoken in Kurtoe, and the second in
Khoma in Kurtoe and Bomdeling in Trashi Yangtse. Among
the Eastern Bhutanese, the dialects somewhat close to
Dzongkha and Chokey15 are Brokat and Kurmedkha. The first
is spoken in Merak and Sakteng, and the second in Lhuntse,
Mongar, Trashigang and Trashi Yangtse.
13 Kuensel, Vol.VIII, No.38, September 27, 2003.
14 Ibid.
15 This is a classical version of Dzongkha. Everything was written in
Chokey in Bhutan until the 1960s.
 Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People
Tshanglakha has no sub-linguistic groups within Bhutan.
Dzongkha Development Authority (DDA) has classified this
dialect as an independent vernacular. It is spoken in Pema
Gatshel (100 percent), Samdrup Jongkhar, Trashigang,
Trashi Yangtse and Mongar. There are Tshangla or Tsengmi
communities settled in Gangzur and Bangtsho areas in
Kurtoe. These people are descendents of migrants from
Dungsam and Mongar.
Until recently, there is no written record on dialects spoken
by people in different parts of Bhutan. A few British who
visited Bhutan, however, left some notes on Toktop16 and
Lhopa17 in Western Bhutan. Most literate Bhutanese came to
know about 20 dialects only recently from DDA's linguistic
survey. There are fewer than 1000 people who speak some of
these dialects.
With modernization and pressure from dominant groups,
where emphasis is on the preservation of a few weU-known
aspects of culture and language, this rare Hnguistic heritage,
like Monkha and Lhokha, is barely kept aHve by a few
speakers. They lack government patronage and support. For
thousands of years it was community isolation and noninterference by outside groups that had helped minority
groups to preserve their own distinct identity and language.18
Therefore, without sustained intervention and non-partisan
government efforts to preserve the past heritage, minority of
ancient native languages and cultural practices could
disappear in a few decades.
Considering settlement size, proximity of locations, territorial
extents and language affinity, it can be discerned that the
ancestors of Zhakat speaking groups most probably migrated
from Bumthang to KurUung. The same argument may be
sounded for people of Khoma Gewog, who speak Zalakha, and
16 Ethnic group living in Chukha.
17 The Lhopa are tribes found in Dorokha areas in Samtse.
18 George van Driem, Kuensel, 2003
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
for Tshanglakha speaking people. The migration routes of
people of Khoma can be traced back to Kholongtod in Trashi
Yangtse. Tshangla community in Mongar had migrated from
east or southeast Bhutan. Tshangla speaking populations
had originally settled in Samdrup Jongkhar, Pema Gatshel,
Trashigang, Trashi Yangtse and Mongar. Outside of Bhutan,
small populations of Tshangla settlers are reported in
Pemakoe region in Arunachal Pradesh and ShiUong in
Meghalaya. They are believed to have migrated from Bhutan.
Although some Tshanglakha speakers are found outside of
Bhutan, some scholars beHeve Bhutan to be the original
homeland of Tshanglakha speaking linguistic group.
East of Pelela, there are two other predominant vernacular
groups: Tshanglakha and Khengkha. These two communities
stand out prominently in terms of settlement niches, with
about 35 percent of country's human settlement, having
approximately 17 percent of the total population. No doubt,
their settlements in Bhutan date back to prehistoric times.
If we base our hypothesis on the size of settlement niches in
Eastern Bhutan occupied by Kurmedkha and Zalakha
speaking linguistic groups today, they probably represented
later waves of pre-historic migration. The clues read from
migration and settlement patterns suggest that the first
vernacular group to settle in the Kurichhu vaUey was
Kurmedkha ethnic groups. The original settlement niches of
Kurmedkha speaking population comprised of warmer belt of
the middle and lower Kurichhu vaUey. Of the other linguistic
groups, Zhakat speakers, or Todpa as they are caUed, had all
settled to the west of upper Kurichhu, while Zalakha speakers
had all settled in Khoma Gewog along the the upper and
north-eastern side of the Kurichhu.
Ecological evidence further points to the events of pre-historic
migration. Prehistoric settlements in Bhutan occurred one
after another within a short time gap. It prompted
competition   for   space   and   colonization   of virgin   forested
 Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People
lands, which were cleared for agriculture and human
habitation. The different vernacular groups occupied the
valleys in Eastern Bhutan at different points of time in
history. The earlier groups closely foUowed the later groups,
but from different directions. However, none of the groups
had sufficient time gap to monopoHze colonization and
occupation of the whole of the territory of Eastern Bhutan. As
in most parts of the Himalayas, and as the geography of
settlement patterns indicate, it can be Hkewise argued that
pre-historic migration events in Bhutan did not favour only
one particular group.
For ecological reasons cited above, the expansion of Tshangla
settlement had not crossed Tormashong in Mongar and
Khamdang in Trashi Yangtse, and beyond Kurichhu.
Migrants from Bumthang, Zhemgang and Kholongtod (Trashi
Yangtse) had arrived in the upper Kurichhu probably after
Kurmedkha groups had settled in the middle and lower
Kurichhu valley. This argument is supported by the fact that
as of today, other linguistic groups have enclosed the
homeland of Kurmedkha population in the middle and lower
Kurichhu vaUeys. These theories have been put forward to fiU
and explain the knowledge gaps in settlement history.
Kurmedkha shares a close linguistic affinity with Dzongkha,
Chokat, Tibetan and Brokat. Interestingly, some studies today
point out that dialects spoken by all or few people of the
districts of Lahul, Spiti, Kinnaur and Kullu in Himachal
Pradhesh in India are said to be close relatives of Kurmedkha
and Dzongkha.19 Such close similarities in languages spoken
by people now scattered in the Himalayas, therefore, point to
a distant common ancestry of a shared ethnicity and perhaps
indicate similar tribal origins in the distant past.
Chokat, Kurmedkha and Dzongkha are closely related.
Kurmedkha is even closer to Chokey than Dzongkha. Does
19 Kuensel, July 5, 2003.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
this mean that looking at the same basic and sub-stratum of
these three sister languages shared by people from parts of
Central Asia down to the borders of the northern reaches of
the Himalayas, these areas were once, in the distant past,
before Tibet emerged as a distinct country, had been
inhabited and settled by people who spoke the same dialect,
possibly one of these three? Does this mean that people who
speak Kurmedkha and Dzongkha in Bhutan and other people
of the Himalayas were generations who remained outside the
direct influence of cultural integration of the Tibetan Empire
founded towards the start of the medieval age (3rd to 4th
century A.D.)?
The close similarities of these sister Himalayan dialects open
up many soul searching questions for further investigation. If
no speakers of Dzongkha and Kurmedkha are found outside
Bhutan, then it can be argued that these two languages can
be regarded as the past relics of a distant common language
once widely spoken in some pockets of the lower parts of
Central Asia down to northern reaches of the Himalaya before
Tibet started to emerge as a country beginning with 3rd
century A.D. from the time of King Lhathothori.20
Study Design to Determine Origin of Kurmedkha Migrants
This study attempt to trace the origins of Kurmedkha
speaking famiHes and communities settled in Trashigang and
Trashi Yangtse. It attempts to provide the missing information
mainly through access to field data and primary sources by
visiting places, ruin sites and settlements in Kurtoe from
where whole famiHes had migrated to Trashigang and Trashi
Yangtse. I have interviewed a few elderly people from both the
places of origin and places where the whole famiHes had
migrated before the 20th century, and by accounting for
sirmlarities and variations in terms of dialect, customs, belief
systems, and social and cultural practices.
20 The first of five ancestors of Songtsan Gampo, who ruled Tibet in
the 4th century A.D. Buddhism first came to Tibet during his reign.
 Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People
The main research question took account of similarities and
differences in dialects spoken by populations from both sides.
It paid a close attention to details of certain key words with
same accents, phonetics, orthography, and structures in
dialects spoken in the places of origin and where people had
The study is primarUy based two main assumptions: (a)
dialects are characterized by local variations and are unique
to certain localities; (b) not more than two centuries had
lapsed since many famUies from Kurtoe had migrated to
Trashigang and Trashi Yangtse. The assumptions, however,
rested on the hope of arriving at clues to locate places of
origin of these migrants by identifying maximum talHes in
selected keywords in the dialects spoken on both sides.
Further, it was hoped that the results of comparative study of
local beliefs, customs, farming details and socio-cultural
practices would supplement this field of enquiry. In fact, the
study design and plan incorporated both these strategies.
Reasons for Migration
Migration is defined as a movement from one place to another
that results in a permanent change of residence. Migration
may be a symptom of change. Migratory movements are a
product of social, cultural, economic, poHtical and physical
circumstances individual and societies find themselves. The
causes of migration are varied and complementary, and
involve push and pull factors both at origin and destination of
Migration may be voluntary or involuntary. Human migration
always involves efforts, planning and expense, and motives
include physical, economic, social and poHtical factors. WhUe
most modern rural to urban migration could be explained
through perceived economic opportunities such as better
employment prospects, there is a growing evidence to suggest
that ancient population migration across the globe occurred
through multipHcity of factors: property eviction, poverty and
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
landlessness, demoHtion of dwelHng space by invaders, wars,
famines, epidemic, prosecutions, tax burdens, poHtical and
social upheavals, advent of ice age and climate change, etc.
MobiHty of such nature and long distance movement of people
can be conceived as a form of human adaptation in response
to stress or changes in the environment.
In Eastern Bhutan, many famiHes migrated between the 17th
and early 20th century. Migration occurred in all directions.
Tshangla communities who have settled in Thimnyung (Menbi
Gewog), Ongar (Medtsho Gewog), Rodpa, Myimshong, Lingabi,
Somshing, Magar, Samling and TongHng (Gangzur Gewog) in
Lhuntse had migrated mostly from Pema Gatshel and a few
from Chaskhar and Ngatshang in Mongar.
Tshangla people who have settled in Ongar in Medtsho Gewog
had fled from fear ofthe Duar Wars of 1864-6521 and possible
invasions of the country's hinterlands by the British India
during Jigme Namgyel's time. The panic-stricken famUies fled
from as far as from Dungsam and Zhongar areas. They heard
of a hidden land (beyul) called Pagsamlung somewhere near
the northern border, and wanted to enter and settle there but
it could not be located. However, they settled in Ongar in
Kurtoe and did not return home. The news of outbreaks of
the Duar Wars compeUed a multitude of famiHes in Eastern
Bhutan to cross the border and flee to Tibet. Some of these
famiHes permanently had settled in Phagri, Shar Bomdila and
Local people stUl recount such poignant narratives of many
famiHes and sometimes of whole vUlages and communities
from Kurtoe who had migrated to Trashigang and Trashi
Yangtse in the post-Zhabdrung era. Here efforts were made to
21 The duars are a continuous strip of plains stretching from Assam
to West Bengal. There were 18 such duars. These duars were
annexed by the British Government in India from Bhutan and it is
now a part of the Indian Sub-continent.
 Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People
find reasons for a large-scale family migration from Kurtoe to
these two districts.
Migration had occurred from specific locaHties. FamiHes Hving
in remote places away from internal trade routes from areas
Hke Gangzur and Khoma probably did not migrate, except for
KelHng in Kurtoe where it is difficult to attribute reasons for
emigration to taxation. The ruins of settlements in other parts
of Kurtoe clearly provide the best physical evidence of
migration of people. Tachubrakpa and Langkharpa in
Medtsho Gewog, and Kupineysa and Wambur in Minjey
Gewog in Lhuntse can be cited as examples.
Settlement ruins are sighted in Minjey, Medtsho and Jarey
gewogs. In Minjey (formerly Lingjey) areas, ruins of settlement
are located at Wangzhing, Langkharpokpa, Khardung Barwa
in Kupineysa and Wambur Barwa. These ancient monuments
that stiU stand of course remind us of a bygone era and
provide insights into past historical events, particularly about
whole famUies, who had later migrated to Trashigang and
Tashi Yangtse.
Interestingly, today there are a few descendants who are able
to make vague historical connections from where their
forefathers had migrated. Dasho Tenzin Dorji of Galing,
Trashigang, is one of them. He traces his ancestral homeland
to a wealthy farmly in Langkharpokpa in Kurtoe. The ruin at
Langkharpokpa at Kupineysa under Minjey Gewog is
strategically located on a small hUlock, facing the Kurichhu.
It is located by the side of the ancient trade route, locaUy
called zhunglam or dolam, in Kurtoe leading to Rondungla.
There is another settlement ruins in Medtsho Gewog known
as Langkhar, and below it is the ruins of Tachubrak
settlement strategically located at the side of Tachubrak
River. The ancient vUlage of Langkhar is also located at the
side of the same trade route Unking Bumthang via Rondungla
pass. Thus one most widely used ancient trade route in
Kurtoe    stretched   from   Tsenkhar   and   Wambur,    passed
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Langkharpokpa, Minjey vUlage, Tangmachu, Langkhar and
Ongar in Medtsho to Rodungla. Also one trade route from
Yangtse through nine Dongla mountains passed through
Minjey and merged at Tangmachu leading to Langkhar in
Medtsho Gewog, Lhuntse and Rondungla.
Interviews with old people suggested that these settlements
lying in ruins are once homelands of famiHes who migrated to
Trashigang and Trashi Yangtse. Their migration was caused
by burden of heavy taxation mostly on threpa, 'tax bearing
famiHes and households'. Migration of this type motivated by
taxation, of course, had not occurred in other parts of
Eastern Bhutan. In pre-modern Bhutan, from the time of the
first Zhabdrung until 1960, threpas were regarded as pUlars
ofthe country's agrarian economy.22
Since complaints of heavy taxes that forced famUies to
migrate had not been documented from other parts of Eastern
Bhutan, attempts are made in the following to put bits and
pieces of information and shreds of evidence together to arrive
at answers which can be regarded as plausible and
academicaUy satisfying. From 17th century onwards, famUies
and households in Eastern Bhutan were categorized based on
the system of taxation introduced by desi and regional
governors. Those who owned lands were called threpa and
zurpa.23 Some zurpa famiHes shared tax burdens with threpa
households in exchange for lands with permanent ownership
or titles given to them. Most zurpa households were probably
offshoots of threpa famUies. Some famines earned their
Hvelihood as servants of nobilities or worked on lands owned
by the state. They were caUed drapa2*1 and were generaUy
22 Threpas were the main sources of revenue to the government in
pre-modern Bhutan. Most of the cultivable lands in Bhutan were
concentrated in their hands.
23 Zurpa families were offshoots of threpa families. Sometimes they
were called threpa zurpas.
24 Drapas formed a section of the pre-modern Bhutanese society.
They were workers attached to priestly nobility and monasteries or
 Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People
exempted from taxes. Suma or sumapa25 were landless
famiHes, who worked on the lands owned by wealthy famUies
with the system of shared harvests. BasicaUy sumapa
provided labour input to the land capital owned by rich
peasants at that time. The following accounts confirm the
prevalence of these social stratifications and taxation system
in Bhutan in the post-Zhabdrung era:
Bhutanese society was divided into three classes: priests,
government officers and servants, people who worked on the
land, landholders and husbandmen. Officers received no
salaries and lived on the proceeds of presents and patronage.
Taxes [this refers to western Bhutan] were very moderate,
each family being rated according to their means and paying
in kind.26
Lopen Pemala writes:
From the beginning some families of the Bhutanese public
called 'zurpas' were exempted from payment of taxes. They
possessed tax exemption certificates of the Government. In
some villages, the entire 'threpa' families had died out. The
burden of payment of taxes of these extinct 'threpa' families
had to be borne by the entire village community, generation
after generation, for several decades. The second King who
observed this discriminatory tax anomaly had put an end to
this practice. Those 'zurpas' who for many decades and
centuries did not support the government in terms of
contributions of state taxes were put in the place of extinct
'threpa' families as 'threpa substitute'. The taxes in general
including local fodder and timber tax were considerably
reduced. The second King's far-reaching tax reforms had also
put an end to the mandatory tradition of owners having to
contribute to the government every young male horse born.
Instead, the King granted a horse to all small families with no
worked on the land estates owned by the government.
25 Sumapa were landless peasants, who worked on the lands owned
by rich families. In return they had to give a part of the harvests to
their landlords.
26 Bogle, quoted in Peter Collister (1987) Bhutan and the British.
London: Serindia Publications.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
or fewer members so that they were relieved of the burden of
labour tax, which included transporting loads which belonged
to the government.27
It appears there was no uniformity in taxation in the country.
From the previous accounts we get glimpses of regional and
local variations in taxes. In the 1950s there were four threpas
in Thridangbi, and six in Saleng. The cattle taxes levied
comprised of butter. A farmly paid annuaUy one sang of
butter per cattle head regardless of whether they were cows,
buUs, bullocks or calves. Even for a day-old calf the farmly
had to pay one sang of butter so that for 100 cattle heads a
family had to pay 100 sang of butter annuaUy to the state.
Besides, people of Zhongar valley had to weave and contribute
textiles as the state tax.
In Minjey, threpa and zurpa households were taxed in the
ratio of 2:1. Taxes were generaUy and mostly levied in kind:
agricultural and horticultural produces (red rice, sugarcane),
seven pieces of textiles - zongcha boob,28 cattle in the form of
bulls, diary products (butter), and even dyes. For example,
each threpa in Kupineysa and Wambur in Minjey paid 10
loads of sugarcane, one cattle each shared by three threpa
households, one tegpa29 (about 2% kg) of butter for every 100
kg of butter produced annuaUy. Threpas also paid currency
revenues in the forms of betang and tikchung30 to the state as
27 Lopen Nado (1986) The White Dragon: A Political and Religious
History of Bhutan, Bumthang: Tharpaling Monastery.
28 Textiles formed a part of the government tax. A family in Kurtoe
had to weave and supply textiles enough for seven men's gho or kira
called boobs.
29 A tegpa of butter is about four to five sangs equivalent to 2% kg of
butter. For small quantities for items like meat and butter, they were
weighed using sang and jama. Cereals were measured with phuta
and dre. These old weighing equipments are now replaced by
modern equipment.
30 Betang and tikchung were old coins that replaced barter trade in
Bhutan. But due to shortage of coins people heavily depended on
barter trade until recent times.
 Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People
annual tax. It was also an accepted practice for each threpa
household to take turns in providing food and lodging to
garpas31 visiting vUlages.
Some of the wealth taxes coUected from aU parts of Eastern
Bhutan finally reached Bhutan's summer capital, Punakha.
In particular, sugarcane and currencies were needed for
celebration of the state festival, Lhamoi Dromchoe32 in
Punakha. Taxes levied in kind seem to have been based on
what wealth threpa and zurpa households earned in a year,
and what wealth they were supposed to generate on a per
annum basis out of the amount of land and number of cattle
heads they owned. Land and cattle were by far the heavily
taxed items. They formed the main sources of revenue to the
government. The state economy and revenues in those days
were solely supported with contributions mostly in kind from
the farming communities. No government servants in pre-
modern Bhutan received monetised salaries, but only in the
form of rations. FamiHes were taxed in proportion to lands
and cattle they owned. For famUies who had no manpower to
cultivate lands and when taxation was based on extent of the
land acreage owned, the tax load by today's standard
sometimes proved beyond their capacity to endure.
Added to wealth tax was a corvee or labour contribution.
Threpa and zurpa famUies carried and reached their own
family tax loads at least up to their communal or district
borderlands. For example, in Zhongar vaUey, people of
Thridangbi carried official loads from Mongar to Saleng. It
was then people of Saleng's turn to drop loads at Sengor.
From there Sengor people transported luggage up to Ura in
Bumthang. The system of practice that prevailed was for the
viUagers to reach the state tax loads up to next viUages and
community boundaries. Labour contribution to the state was
31 Garpas were lay government servants forming the lowest cadre of
the government workforce recruited in the post-Zhabdrung era.
32 This is a government festival still annually performed by monks in
Punakha and is dedicated to Palden Lhamo.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
mandatory and a common requirement. AU threpa, zurpa and
suma households, except most drapa communities, were
required to contribute labour to the state whenever required.
People of Kurtoe deUvered official luggage including annual
tax goods accumulated and deUvered from other parts of
Eastern Bhutan up to Bumthang. In kind taxes coUected from
Dungsam, Zhongar, Trashigang and Trashi Yangtse got
annually accumulated at Kurtoe, waiting to be transported to
Bumthang mostly via Rondungla. Obviously the burden of
carrying and delivering these state taxed goods deUvered from
other parts of Eastern Bhutan squarely fell on shoulders of
people of Kurtoe, particularly on families and households
settled along the principal internal trade routes caUed dolam
or zhunglam.33
Some of the principal overnight halting places along the
domestic trade routes or zhunglam in Eastern Bhutan are:
1. Trashi Yangtse to Bumthang via Kurtoe
Old Yangtse Dzong <-> Leksipang <-> Dongla <-> Pimi <-> Minjey/Khoma
<-> Tangmachu <-> Ongar <-> Pimi (via Rondungla) <-> Bumthang.
2. Dungsam/Trashigang/ Mongar to Bumthang via Kurtoe
Tsakaling<->Tsenkhar<-> Wambur/ Kupineysa/ Minjey<->Tangmachu<->0
ngar <-> Pimi (via Rondungla) <-> Bumthang.
33 Dolam or zhunglam were trade routes. In Eastern Bhutan it
stretched from Gudama or Darranga in Assam near Samdrup
Jongkhar border to Kurtoe and Bumthang via Pimi and Rodungla.
The most important commodity required by Bhutanese was table
salt; otherwise they were self-sufficient. Most people near the
northern border brought rock salt from Tibet. But when the border
was sealed off in the north, all Eastern Bhutanese traveled once a
year to Gudama (Samdrup Jongkhar) to get salt. The coming of the
motor road, however, brought table salt and other imports to the
doorsteps in almost every village. By 1980s, villagers in Eastern
Bhutan stopped going to Darranga, Assam to procure salt.
 Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People
3. Dungsam/Mongar to Bumthang via Ganglapong and Kharchung (Kurtoe)
(Jarey Gewog ) <-> Pimi <-> Bumthang.
4. Dungsam/Zhongar to Bumthang via Sengor
Kengkhar/Mongar <-> Thridangbi/Zhongar <-> Saleng <-> Sengor <->
Unable to bear the tax obligation prevailing in Kurtoe, and
perhaps not so much present to that extreme extent in other
parts of Bhutan, famUies, and in a few cases whole viUages,
deserted their ancestral homelands in Kurtoe and migrated to
Trashigang and Trashi Yangtse after the 17th century. The
settlements in ruins abandoned by famiHes and whole vUlages
mostly lie along these ancient domestic trade routes.
Minjey vUlage had four such settlements in ruins. At least
three settlements He in ruins in Kupineysa, and a few in
Wambur. The ruins are today found at Langkharpokpa and
Khar dung in Kupineysa, and in Wambur. Some settlement
ruins at Wambur have been demolished. Local people
removed stones from the ruins to buUd Wambur primary
school. In the case of Kupineysa, Budur and Wambur the
whole settlements had been deserted.
The ruins of deserted settlements are also found at
Tachubrak and Langkhar in Medtsho Gewog. Nyakapa and
Tshangdrakpa famUies from Kharchung in Jarey Gewog had
migrated to Trashigang or Trashi Yangtse during the same
period. These settlement ruins are found along the domestic
trade route from Mongar via Tsamang.
Physical evidence of settlements and geography of settlement
areas support the fact that communities and vUlagers lying
along trade routes in Kurtoe always faced pressure of carrying
tax loads delivered from other districts in Eastern Bhutan;
whereas their feUow citizens in other districts living far from
the trade routes were generally spared of this burden.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
The analyses from this study point to two assumptions. One,
it can be supposed that a large scale migration of famUies
from Kurtoe was not so much caused by reasons of wealth
taxes. This form of taxation prevailed throughout the country.
Two, it was the demand for a heavy labour tax not imposed
uniformly on people of other districts that forced famUies from
Kurtoe regions to desert their homelands and settle in other
regions. During the rule of desi the labour tax was levied on a
household regardless of famUy size and the most people in
Eastern Bhutan preferred to stay together as joint famUies in
the same house.
A question may be raised further whether there were other
circumstances, which caused people to migrate to other
districts. Reference had already been made how people from
Dungsam region had fled from the Duar Wars of 1864-65.
Another cause of migration worth mentioning here is the
frequent occurrences of smaUpox epidemic locaUy known as
miney.34 A settlement in ruins at Chakhazur, which lies below
Ganglapong and above Rindibichu, a tributary that joins the
Kurichhu near Autsho, was attributed to smallpox.
In this natural tragedy, only a few farmly members were
spared. The entire Chakhazur famUies were decimated by an
outbreak of smallpox. Today there are houses in ruins
covered by vegetation. Carbon dating of tree rings here may
help to estabUsh the period during which small pox visited
the area. The epidemic probably reached these areas
sometime in the later part of 19th or early 20th century.
In Wambur, there are skeletons and bones mostly of chUdren
stiU lying piled up in a cave near the Wambur primary school.
People interviewed for finding the reasons said that there
34 Smallpox and plague epidemics were called miney. There is
enough oral information on the frequent visits of smallpox in the
country, but nothing is heard about plague in Bhutan, which
devastated medieval Europe and Central Asia.
 Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People
were no local priests to perform funeral rites and monks had
to be invited from Lhuntse Dzong to cremate the dead. Most
famUies, however, found it difficult to bear expenses to
cremate so many dead bodies. So, people started a practice of
leaving dead bodies to rot in caves. Wambur and Kupineysa
are on the Mongar-Kurtoe trade route. Did repeated visits of
smaUpox cause Wambur residents to flee to the safety of
Yangtse area and settle there?
Whether the cause of migration is attributed to smallpox,
heavy taxation or others, people who fled from Wambur alos
included wealthy famUies. One wealthy famUy in Wanglo,
Yangtse, claims its roots at Wambur.
When smallpox appeared, vUlagers generally fled to the safety
of forests in the nearby high mountains. VUlagers knew a few
preventive methods of avoiding the disease. One was total
isolation including not touching the articles that belonged to
infected persons. The second was to flee to safety in the
nearby forests. The third was to flee in the opposite direction
of the wind. GeneraUy people stayed and waited in the forests
for the smaUpox to subside.
A man in Thridangbi said generally people returned to their
houses after epidemics had subsided. The small pox attacked
only humans and not domestic animals. The age-old custom,
however, is not to cremate but to bury dead bodies of those
who had died of smallpox and leprosy, including children.
People who died of these two diseases were supposed to be
generally earth buried along with their used articles and
belongings mainly for fear of inheriting diseases by their heirs
and property users.
Physical evidence of human skeletal remains that lay pUed up
in Wambur today, indicated frequent occurrences and
outbreaks of smaUpox in Kurtoe. Some famiHes probably fled
from Kurtoe for fear of contracting smaUpox. This perhaps
provided a good pretext for people to flee to other lands and
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
escape the inherited burdens of taxation. Most people,
however, only temporarily fled to safety of the mountains and
generaUy returned to their homes once the epidemic
subsided. In the case of Wambur, the epidemic was probably
so devastating and shocking that even the remnants of
viUagers, it appears, permanently deserted their settlement,
never to return home.
Smallpox raged across Mongolia, China and Tibet in 1757. In
China, the epidemic was reported in the provinces along the
western border. Everyone who contracted this disease died
without exception. In 1853, native demographers reported
more than 10,000 deaths from one area alone in China.35
SmaUpox was reported in Nepal in 1737 and Lhasa in 1631,
1774, 1793, 1882 and 1900.36
The frequent occurrences of smallpox were reported in
Bhutan beginning 17th to 1950s and are documented by
British officials and native scholars. The chronological reports
of small pox in Bhutan were in 1685, 1694, 1696, 1788,
1789, 1842, 1850, 1851 and 1861,37 and tUl as late as 1906
in Eastern Bhutan as reported by John Claude White.38 There
are also reports in 1917 and as late as Babu Karchung and
Babu Tashi's time in Zhongar valleys in the 1950s. The
epidemic was finaUy brought under control in Bhutan
through a nation-wide BCG vaccination campaign.
Bhutan was not spared from the scourge and devastating
effect of this dreaded disease throughout the medieval periods
during which the epidemics were reported globally. Certainly
35 McNeill,   William   H.   (1976)   Plagues   and   Peoples,   New  York:
Doubleday, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group.
36 Sarat Chandra Das (1902) Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet,
New Delhi: Manjusri Publishing House.
37 Pemala, 1984, Nado, 1987, Collister, 1987
38 Collister, Peter (1987) Bhutan and the British, London: Serindia
 Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People
this epidemic could have been one contributing factor,
however minor, that forced people to abandon their old
settlements along trade routes frequented by traders and
travelers which brought along with them diseases such as
smaUpox and plague, forcing local people to migrate to areas
less frequented by travelers.
In brief, it was difficult to trace circumstances and causes
that spurred families from Kurtoe to migrate to Trashigang
and Trashi Yangtse. But migrants had never returned to their
homelands, as depicted by Langkhar viUage in Medtsho and
Langkharpokpa settlement which are now in ruins.
The older generations interviewed in Kurtoe said that the
whole of Kupineysa and Budur areas in Minjey once remained
deserted, without human habitation for a long time. When
resettlement programmes started in the beginning of the 20th
century, there were only forests everywhere. After people had
migrated, the abandoned farmlands in these areas were
registered as property of the Lhuntse Dratshang. In the early
part of the 20th century, the government redistributed these
lands to landless famiHes of Wambur and Tsenkhar. Only
four generations had passed since Kupineysa was resettled.
Some farmlands in and around KeUing in Gangzur Geog have
been registered as property of the local state monk body. The
government redistributed these farmlands in the last century
to landless Tshangla settlers from Dungsam and Mongar, who
had migrated to Kurtoe during the time of Trongsa Penlop
Kuzhu Tshokey Dorji and Jigme Namgyel.
The Origin of Migrants
There were no better approaches and study designs to trace
the origins of famUies who had migrated from Kurtoe to
Trashigang and Trashi Yangtse after the 17th century than to
resort to comparative study of Unguistic variations and
simUarities of the same dialect spoken, that is, Kurmedkha.
On closer analysis, local variations are observed even among
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Kurmedkha speaking groups and communities. SUght
Kurmedkha local variations are observed in Minjey, Menbi,
Medtsho, Jarey, Tsamang, Banjar etc. Table III highlights
these slight linguistic variations of Kurmedkha. To find out
from which parts of Kurtoe famiHes had migrated to
Trashigang and Trashi Yangtse, some cross sections of older
generations were interviewed. Concurrent views of most
people suggested that migration occurred mostly from areas
of Minjey. Table IV shows information provided by one old
man in Minjey about earUer migration of people from Minjey
and their probable settlement destinations in other districts.
I have atttempted to verify the origins of Kurtoep descendants
in Trashigang and Trashi Yangtse through comparative
Unguistic studies. Kurmedkha words Usted in Table III were
crosschecked with the descendants to find out whether
accents and phonetics and language structures were identical
or different The sample results are as indicated below.
Table I: Results showing identical language accents
Yangtse Wanglo
Elder sister
Wife/ woman
Younger sister*
Maternal aunt
sings ang
 Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People
These sample exercises yielded informative and interesting
Unguistic study results. The outliers (designated by * in the
following tables) probably indicated that language is dynamic,
as it can undergo further changes and progressive evolution if
people are placed in a different physical and cultural
environment and mixed ethnic setting (see Table V).
It is beHeved that many Kurmedkha speaking famiHes who
settled in Shagshing Gonpa (Yangtse) migrated from Kurtoe
Nyalamdung. This latter viUage is very close to Minjey.
Kurmedkha spoken by people of Nyalamdung belongs to
Minjeypa group. Today Shagshing Gonpa, Saserpang,
Tsenkharla and Karma Zom have mixed settlements where
Zalakha, Dakpakha, Brahmi, Tshangla and Kurmedkha are
spoken. With such mixed ethnic social settings, gradually
over the course of many centuries or at end of this new
mUlennium a distinct hybrid language may finaUy emerge.
The descendants of Nyalamdung people in Shagshing Gonpa
in Yangtse whose ancestors migrated from Kurtoe about five
generations ago (see Table I and V) clearly show evidences of
language metamorphosis and hybridization.
In the same way Lopon Nado,39 a respected Bhutanese
scholar and an authority on Dzongkha, was of the opinion
that ChaHpikha in Mongar was a hybrid dialect born from
such mixed ethnic settlements. ChaHpikha is believed to be a
cocktail of many languages including Dzongkha, even having
a few words of English and Hindu buUt on the stratum of the
main dialect, Khengkha or Bumthangkha. If this hypothesis
is proved correct, then ChaU is a relatively new settlement,
which emerged in the post-Zhabdrung era, created by people
of diverse language groups who came to settle there from
different directions. ChaHpikha must be the country's newest
39 Nado, Lopen (1986)  The White Dragon: A Political and Religious
History of Bhutan, Bumthang: Tharpaling Monastery.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
It can be thus inferred from such analyses that forces of
prolonged isolation and social contacts, changes in the
physical environment, new discoveries and opportunities
resulting from migration, mixed settlements and
intermarriages among different breeds of people can act as
the main cumulative causes of language evolution and birth
of new dialects of humankind within the broader linguistic
Discussion and conclusion
Some informants are of the view that migration of famUies
from Kurtoe to Trashigang and Trashi Yangtse occurred only
in the beginning of the 20th century. However, judging from
the settlement ruins in Kurtoe, the process of migration
actuaUy began much earUer. It would be closer to the truth to
accept the assumptions that this process of migration, partly
driven by a heavy taxation, began soon after a new social
order came into force in the 17th century. The older social
order in Eastern Bhutan based on "clan organization"40 had
coUapsed, giving way to new forms, which created new and
different layers of institutional structures. This inevitably
called for people to gradually adjust and adapt to changes in
the new systems and environment.
A new concept of society, polity and hierarchy among people
with common goals, objectives and interests, and with some
sense of civic rights, duties, obUgations and responsibiUties
towards fellow citizens and the nation state was introduced
during the rule of desis. The old boundaries got shifted,
dissolved, merged and re-organized.
40 Aris, Michael (1979).
 Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People
Table II: Gewogs in Eastern Bhutan where Kurmedkha is spoken
70 percent approximately
100 percent
100 percent
100 percent
100 percent
100 percent
100 percent
50 percent approximately; Thridangbi 100 percent; Saleng 100
percent; the rest speaks Tshangla , Khengkha, Gongdupikha and
Tashi Yangtse
80 percent Kurmedkha speakers; the rest speaks Khengkha.
50 percent approximately - Shashing/ Shashing Gonpa;
Khamdang; Kencholing; Shali, Mac'an and Jangphu have mix of
Dakpakha and Kurmedkha speakers.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Some Kurmedha speakers in Omanang; the rest speaks Zalakha.
Lajab has 50 percent, Kurmedkha speakers; Jamkhar and
Tagchema has 100 percent, Tshanglakha speakers.
Lyichen, Wanglo, Rabti, Gangkha have some Kurmedkha
speakers; the rest including at Tongsen, and Wachan speak
About 25 percent, Kurmedha speakers in Zongthung and Majong;
Muktangkhar and Ngalung have mix of Tsanglas and Kurmedkha
speakers; in the rest all speak Tshangla kha.
Bidung Gewog
Some Kurmedkha speakers had settled in Galing/Bidung; the rest
are Tshangla speakers.
 Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People
Table III. Linguistic variations in Kurmedkha
Thridangbi &
lama banda
lam banda
lam banda
lam banda
lam banda
Elder sister
Fig tree
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
acho lala
acho lawa
tai ga
 Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People
Table IV: Migration of people from Kurtoe to Trashigang and Trashi Yangtse in post-Zhabdrung era
Ancestral homelands in
Areas to which Kurmedkha speakers from Kurtoe/Mongar
Minjey Barwa/ Minjey
Trashigang-Bidung, Bartsham; Yangtse- Omanang; Wanglo &
Wangzhing/ Minjey
Kencholing (Yangtse)
Jarey Gewog(Ladrong) / Tsamang
Yangtse Omanang
Galing / Bidung
Tachubrak/Langkhar (Medtsho)
Not traced out
Nyalamdung (Menbi)
Shagshing Gonpa, Saserpang, Tsenkharla,
Karma Zom and Tsenkharla (Yangtse)
Yangtse Gewog - Rabti/Lichen/Wanglo
Tsamang (Mongar)
Majong in Bartsham Gewog
Shali (Yangtse)
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
Table V: Linguistic evolution in Kurmedkha in mixed Ethnic Settings
Shagshing Gonpa
*similar to Tsenkhar
ELder sister
*similar to
Younger sister
abu themso*
* new
* new
* similar to Tsenkhar
Maternal aunt
yidley ngadhey
yidley ngadhey
yidley ngadhey
 Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People
From 17th century onwards, Bhutan as a nation state drew
its strength heavUy from the agrarian economy and its
reUgion. The state relied for its strength on the peasant-based
economy, taxes in kind and pubUc services mostly drawn
from rural community. Such instances were not at aU unique
or only pecuUar to Bhutan. In fact, aU societies in the pre-
modern world could not survive without relying on such
essential lifelines of statehood buUt on the strength of an
agrarian-based state economy and peasant famUies.
To summarize the findings of this study, taxes introduced by
desis and borne by different social strata were certainly not
uniform in the country. By today's standards, for some
famines belonging particularly to threpa, taxes proved to be
unbearable. Some threpa famUies owned much land and had
no manpower to farm it. For them there emerged two
solutions to ease the burden of taxation. One was to lease out
their lands to landless famiUes (suma) for cultivation. The
other was to create zurpa households. Households who owned
vast lands and who had no labour ended up bearing the same
burden of tax, which, once fixed, was not changed for a
considerable period of time, perhaps even for a century or
more. However, if an entire famUy had died of an epidemic or
fled, and there were no heirs to succeed, their properties
reverted to the state - rabched duwa.1
Most of the informants attributed to taxation as the cause of
this migration, but none of the people interviewed
categorically could explain what type of taxes forced people to
migrate. The sources of taxes depended on what people
produced locally and what resources they could offer to the
state. In Bhutan, generaUy three forms of taxes were levied.
1 When a family or household became extinct due to causes such as
epidemics, the law of the land required transfer of their properties
including lands to the state. According to one old informant in
Kurtoe, the last member of the extinct family who died used to be
given state funerals. The eighth Desi Druk Rabgay put an end to this
practice in 1707.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
The first was the taxes in kind which included currency
taxes. The second was man-tax, whereby it was mandatory
for a family to offer at least one son to serve the state in his
capacity as civil servant or monk, if required. The third form
of tax was labour contribution.
By far the most taxing of aU was labour tax. In this study, an
attempt has been made to estabUsh cause-effect relationships
that started a process of large-scale migration of famUies from
Kurtoe to Trashigang and Trashi Yangtse. The first two forms
of taxes prevailed somewhat uniformly in the country.
Therefore, people readUy accepted such contribution of taxes
as moral obUgations for the state.
Labour tax, however, varied from district to district in the
post-Zhabdrung era. In the case of people of Kurtoe, it had
become a great burden beyond their capacity to bear. Every
peasant farmly irrespective of its size contributed labour tax.
In general, the bigger the family, more labour tax, and larger
the tax or revenue base in the form of land and cattle
holdings, etc, the higher the tax and revenues to be paid.
For some famUies, who owned more lands but had no
manpower to till lands, regardless of labour strength, such
taxes, once fixed, got perpetuated in some cases for centuries
and lasted tiU the time of tax reforms initiated by the Second
King. From the point of launching tax reforms and reUeving
tax paying households from the misery of age-old taxation
system, the Second King His Majesty Jigme Wangchuck was
truly regarded as The Hero with a Thousand Eyes', whose
name is now immortalized in Karma Ura's famous historical
novel The Hero with a Thousand Eyes.
The biggest labour burden for people of Kurtoe was certainly
carrying tax loads deUvered from other parts of Eastern
Bhutan across their district borders. The people of Minjey and
Medtsho in Kurtoe were perhaps so overburdened and kept
perpetuaUy busy transporting tax loads throughout the year
 Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People
that they finally responded to the crisis situation by migrating
to Trashigang and Tashi Yangtse where people were generally
spared from such tax burdens.
Taxation, as pointed out by most informants, was the main
reason for migration.2 People may have also seized
opportunities for migration. EconomicaUy, sociaUy and
poUticaUy margrnaUzed and deprived people, mostly landless
famiUes and social outcastes3 have also been known
throughout history and centuries, whenever mobiUty was
possible, to have migrated to other lands.
For people to migrate to other distant areas in the country
there must be economic opportunities in the forms of land
and empty space available for settlement. It appears these
two districts provided these resources for migrants from
In brief, the results of this study bear ample evidence and
point to unfair labour taxes borne by some famines in Kurtoe
as the critical factor that had started this process of
migration. Migration began in the 17th Century and lasted tUl
the early part of 20th Century, when the Second King
introduced tax reforms and drasticaUy reduced state taxes.
2 It was Trongsa Penlop, Choeje Minjur Tenpa who first started
collecting taxes from Eastern Bhutan in 1647, but it was the first
Desi Umze Tenzin Drukgay in concert with Kudrung Damchoe Pekar
who officially approved and regularized the collection of wealth taxes
and contribution of labour taxes in Bhutan from 1655. Taxation is
one means through which a state exercises its legitimacy of rule and
sovereignty over its territory as well as reinforces and strengthens its
political unity. The fourth Desi Tenzin Rabgye introduced monk tax
on a regular nationwide basis from 1681.
3 In Bhutan, these included ones, who were dubbed as a) dukjinmi,
'poison servers', b) witches - community members possessed with
shaza or flesh eating spirits and sondrey or live evil spirits, c)
nganpa, black magicians, (d) those who inherited family diseases,
and fe) slaves.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
This study and paper focused on a typical migration process
triggered by a factor not easily understood and traced by local
people today. The information and results documented herein
are based on interviews of some cross sections of
communities from where post-medieval migration of famUies
from Kurtoe occurred, as well as from descendents of
migrants living today beyond the Dongla mountain ranges in
the east.
For those who want to carry out similar ethnographic studies
to trace unknown original homelands of migrants settled in
groups in any parts of the country, but based on linguistic
analysis, the study plan adopted here to find practical
solutions to this research problem could be replicated with
some modifications. Such an approach is likely to be more
useful for this kind of tracer study.
Another way to trace historical relationships between people
of the same Unguistic breeds with a common ancestry, but
Uving in different districts or other lands, is through a
detailed ethnographic study of their customs, belief systems,
farming methods, and other social and cultural practices
current among the descendants. The second approach is
more complex, difficult and time-consuming. Therefore, in
this study, this strategy had not been attempted.
The third solution to such research problem can be partly
resolved through the study of gene pools of the groups. But
again this approach is difficult and time consuming, if not
sensitive and expensive.
In conclusion, I want to stress that time is running out for
recording folk knowledge, which stiU remains largely
undocumented in Bhutan. Only a few of the old generations
are knowledgeable and capable of remembering and
recounting such undocumented oral accounts about the past.
The largely undocumented rural folk knowledge is fated to die
with the older generations. The younger generations, more
 Migration of Kurmedkha Speaking People
than 70 percent of them in schools and urban areas,  are
quite ignorant of ancient folk knowledge and traditions.
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Kingdom, Warmister: Aris and Philips
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