Family with horse, Pazhi, 2002

Family with horse, Pazhi, 2002

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"Why do Laya zam wear the Pema Chorten hats?" I ask Wangchu.

“The Pema Chorten is a stupa. A woman’s body is a symbol of the Lue, an earth spirit. A woman is transformed into a goddess if she wears a Pema Chorten. Her head becomes a temple. This gives the same spiritual benefit as building a stupa. We believe that the Shabdrung sent the women to Laya from Tibet as effigies of the Lue, offered as ransom to placate or please the deities living here.”

“Shabdrung instructed all the people of Bhutan to cut their hair short so they wouldn’t look like the long-haired Tibetans,” adds Zam. “The Tibetans’ long hair tangled in the jungle when they invaded Bhutan and the short-haired Bhutanese easily overcame them. We Layaps live high above the jungle with the yak and long ago, before Shabdrung, Guru Rinpoche gave us our dress and told us to keep our hair long. We only cut our hair once—at twelve years old. That is why Laya zam hair grows very straight and long and beautiful.”

“The older brothers always choose the most attractive girls. These girls also become the younger brothers’ wives. The ugly girls do not get husbands. They have few children. So the most beautiful women have the most daughters,” declares Zam, her ruddy cheeks dimpling as she smiles.

“But sometimes the most beautiful girls never marry,” comments Wangchu as he puts his arm around Zam’s shoulders. “They wait too long for the rich handsome boys and pass marriageable age,” he adds as Zam laughs and spins away.

“Don’t worry, Zam,” teases Wangchu. “I’ll never marry a beautiful girl. They’re unfaithful and cause trouble for their husbands!”

From BHUTAN: Hidden Lands of Happiness, by John Wehrheim (Serindia 2011)

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