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Who are they?
The Bhotia or Bhotiya are an occupational caste of shepherds. Numbering around 120,000 people, they live predominantly in the northern states of Sikkim, Tripura, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and West Bengal.
They have Mongolian features and are known as Pahari or hill people. The Bhotia are divided into six sub-groups, the Bhot, Bhotia, Bhutia, Tibbeti (Sikkim & Arunachal) Butt and Buttola. In Northern Sikkim, where the Bhotia are a majority, they are known as the Lachenpas or Lachungpas, meaning inhabitants of Lachen (“big hill” in Tibetan) or Lachung (“small hill” in Tibetan) respectively.
The Bhotia people of Uttarakhand once lived on the border of India and Tibet, formerly called the United Province during British times. They were nomadic pastoralists and traded wool and salt between Tibet and India. Large numbers of caravans of mules, yaks would travel into Tibet with Indian goods when the snow melted and bartered their goods for local Tibetan merchandise to be sold in India. The Indo-Tibetan border was closed in 1962 and the Bhotia moved across into India.
The name Bhotia is derived from the word bhot meaning Buddha. The Bhotia are also called Bhotiya, Butia and Bot.
The Bhotia speak different dialects in the states they reside in. In Uttarakhand they speak Rongba, Boti in Sikkim, and Almora in Kumaon.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Bhotia are shepherds, goat herders and farmers. They card and spin the wool for weavers to make into blankets, shawls and cloth. The women knit jumpers, hats, gloves and socks which they sell locally. Some are involved in selling gems (coral & turquoise) and herbs.
Staple cereals are rice, wheat and maize which is eaten with meat, usually goats, sheep, pork and poultry. Alcohol is forbidden but marijuana and hash is widely used. Marijuana grows wild in the region and is used as a readily available intoxicant. In Hindu mythology, bhang as it is called locally is associated with the god Shiva who uses it to keep the world safe from his anger. Bhang is a mixture of ground marijuana leaves in milk and is distributed to everyone as a religious offering during the Holi and Maha Shivaratri festivals. They also make a drink from fermented barley or millets a butter tea which is served in religious ceremonies and social occasions.
Literacy levels are very low in both urban and rural areas. Most Bhotia cannot afford to send their children to school and require their help at home, with the sheep and goats or in the family business. Medical facilities are unavailable especially in the remote hilly regions of Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh. Where available, they use both modern and indigenous medicines and are quite open to family planning provided at least one son is born in the family.
A traditional Bhotia home is rectangular in shape. The Bhotia have a stone shrine outside the house where they burn incense (made of pine) and scented dried leaves of rhododendron that grow in the region as an offering to the deities.
The Bhotia live in both joint and nuclear families. All the sons inherit the paternal property equally. The eldest son succeeds the late father as the head of the household. The status of Bhotia women is lower than men. The women attend to all housework including, in rural areas, collecting fuel and fodder and fetching water. They card wool, spin yarn, knit and do embroidery or weaving and actively participate in social and religious ceremonies.
Marriages are arranged by negotiation between the parents and other elders of the two families. The bride arrives at the house of her husband where she enters the home after worshipping the household god. Grains of rice, some silver or gold is given to the bride by the bridegroom. She places them in winnowing fan, and presents it to the barber’s wife. This ceremony is known as “karj bharna” – fulfilling a pledge. In some regions a man may have three wives. The first wife is the head wife and is she received by inheritance a share one tenth excess of that given to the other wives. To indicate she is married, a woman uses sindur (vermilion), wears glass bangles, nose stud and a beaded necklace. Divorce is allowed on grounds such as maladjustment, impotency and cruelty, but it is rare. The practice of dowry is prevalent and it is usually given in goods.
The Bhotia have a rich oral tradition of folk songs, dances and tales that they often share with other communities. Chhura is a popular dance which portrays an experienced older man teaching a young shepherd the secrets of his trade. Both men and women participate in this dance. Social control is handled by elders and respected members of the community.
The Bhotia bury young children and those who die of cholera and snakebites; others are cremated. There is no fixed burial-ground and no ceremonies are performed at the time of burial.
What Are Their Beliefs?
Though originally Buddhists from Tibet, many have intermarried with the Hindus over the years. Most of the Bhotia practice a combination of Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism.
The Hindu Bhotia engages Brahmin priests to perform all birth, marriage and death ceremonies. The dead are cremated and the ashes immersed in a river – preferably the Ganges River which is considered holy. Both birth and death pollution for specific periods is observed. Ancestor worship is prevalent.
The Bhotia worship all the major gods and goddesses of Hinduism as well as various regional, village and family deities. Hindu weather gods are worshiped to protect their animals from disease. In Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh Bhawani Devi (Mother of the World) is especially revered. Goats and pigs are sacrificed to her and eaten by the devotees. Vishwakarma is worshipped during the monsoons around August to September as well as at Dussehra which celebrates Rama’s victory over the demon king Ravana, and Diwali (Festival of Lights.) In Himachal Pradesh Shamsher Mahadev, Maha Nag (Great Cobra) and Jigeshwar Mahadev are the local male deities. Women fast and pray for their husbands on Karva Chauth.
The Hindu Bhotia celebrates all major Hindu festivals like Diwali, Holi, Maha Shivaratri and Durga Puja. The dead are cremated and the ashes immersed in a river – preferably the Ganges River which is considered holy. Both birth and death pollution for specific periods is observed. Ancestor worship is prevalent.
The Buddhist Bhotia employs the services of a lama for all their rites and celebrations. Buddhist Bhotia believes that right thinking, ritual sacrifices, and self-denial will enable the soul to reach nirvana (a state of eternal bliss) at death. The cycle can only be broken by achieving nirvana, and only those who follow the Buddhist principles of the “middle way” and the “noble eight-fold path” can achieve that state. The Bhotia are Lamaistic Buddhists who follow the teachings of the Dalai Lama.
In Uttarakhand, the Bhotia have a mix of beliefs including superstition, amulets for good luck, curses, ghosts and witchcraft. They daily live in fear of their gods and constantly strive to appease them with religious chants, rituals, and sacrifices. The Buddhist Bhotia celebrates Losar, a festival when people offer incense to appease the local spirits and deities. This festival takes place during the flowering of the apricot trees in autumn.
What Are Their Needs?
The Bhotia are a hardy community who live and work in remote inaccessible and very cold regions. Their existence is caught up in the daily struggle of making a living in unstable and difficult conditions. Their needs are for better health, literacy, stability and a reliable source of income.