The Laya in the North | Yak, the Source of Life

Yak, the Source of Life

The Laya are mainly dedicated to yak breeding, because a large portion of the highland area can at best be used as pasture. They live as semi-nomads and only spend a small part of the year in houses. In the summer, most of the Laya travel with their herds to higher mountain regions and return to their home regions not before the beginning of winter. During the warm periods of the year, tents made out of woven yak hair serve as shelters.


In the north of Bhutan, the yaks provide the source of life for these highland inhabitants. Their hair serves not only as material for their tents, but is also woven into clothing, their meat is eaten, their milk is made into butter and hard cheese, and their dung is used as burning material. In addition, the yaks are used as beasts of burden and are hitched in front of the plow to till the few existing fields.



However, not all Laya are owners of their yak herds. Some of them are forced to herd the livestock at a sparse wage for city inhabitants or wealthy farmers from Central Bhutan.

In the early fall, even before the first snow makes the mountain passes impassable, the Laya herders wander back to the valleys of Central Bhutan where they sell the milk products they produced in the summer, as well as yak meat on the markets or trade them for rice, other food, salt, or tools. In recent times, however, the money-based economy has increasingly replaced the traditional barter with material goods. Until 1959, the Laya also maintained an active trade relationship with Tibet. However, since the closing of the borders by China, this has become impossible.

The Laya in the North
.  Yak, the Source of Life
The East of Bhutan
The Sub-Tropical South
West and Central Bhutan

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While on their way, the yak herders sleep out in the open, close to their animals. Blankets with a striped pattern offer minimal protection from the biting cold.
Photograph by Robert Dompnier

The lead yak of the caravan is ready to depart. His jewelry indicates that he is consecrated to one of the local mountain deities.
Photograph by Christian Schicklgruber

Butter; length 48 centimeters, diameter 23 centimeters; on loan from the Museum für Völkerkunde Wien
10 to 15 kilograms butter are sewn into pigskin for storage or for transport. This way, butter can be preserved for a very long time.

Basket, bamboo, leather, height 83 centimeters; diameter 50 centimeters; on loan from the National Museum Paro
In the house or in the mountains, baskets which one can carry, often serve as storage containers for grains.

Yak hair, dyed; length 48 centimeters, diameter 17 centimeters; on loan from the Museum für Völkerkunde Wien
Tufts of hair, dyed red, are woven into mane and tail of one of the animals of the herd, thus marking its consecration to the mountain deity.