“Khegpa”-The Head Hunter
Bhutan has come a long way in terms of infrastructural development, and it has seen the state-of-the-art buildings mushrooming for the last few decades. It has, with no doubt, raised the living standard of the generally primitive people of the nation long been isolated high up in the Himalayas. Flipping through the pages of Bhutanese history books, one will come to realize that Bhutan has indeed seen the institution of decentralized government, introduction of modern education, and linking with the outside world with the first ever motor-able road built from broader town of Phuntsholing to the capital city Thimphu, not very long ago.
In fact, the outside world view Bhutan as the heaven on earth known for its peace and tranquility, and commonly known as ‘land of happiness’. Every news channel and documentary films have something in common to describe about Bhutan: “The Dragon Kingdom”, “The only capital city in the world without traffic lights”, “The land of GNH-Gross National Happiness”, et al. As much as people from the outside world are willing to pay the hefty sum of USD 250 per head per day to visit Bhutan to see its well preserved cultures and its thriving ecosystems, the people of Bhutan didn’t want to become the live antiques of the living museum. So the modern facilities continue to be seen as inevitable.
Accordingly, the ancient fortresses or dzongs were renovated and some newly built to the state-of-the-art buildings at the various strategic locations, and the modern high-tech bridges-the lifeline of the citizens living in the scattered villages-were beneficially constructed much to their relief; thereby not requiring them to cross the deep gorges and rivers which were commuted with the help of ropes risking their lives for ages.
However, its citizens were highly apprehensive of the development activities taking place in the nation, despite knowing the great benefit it would bring in the long run to the nation as well as to their livelihoods. Not that they wanted to live in that poor condition for ever, nor for their love to remain as the human museum for the outside fast-developing world either. It was due to the heavy labor contributions that they were required to make for each such development activity. It was not the only reason behind being apprehensive, though. They were actually heavily tormented by the fear of losing their heads to the mysterious head hunter called ‘Khegpa’. While the leaders of the family had to be gone for the execution of those development activities elsewhere based on government directives leaving behind their family members at home sometimes under the care of their immediate neighbors, those family members at home remained under constant threat of encountering that mysterious ‘khegpa’ at any time.
According to some die-hard believers of that mysterious ‘khegpa’, the ‘khegpa’ is believed to be a designated person, adorned with a black attire, equipped with a sharp knife and leather sack to stuff in with the ‘heads’ of the victims, and wore gum-boots with its sole resembling to that of army-shoes. They were always at the losing end because the ‘khegpas’ are considered to be ‘Licensed’ by the government, meaning they couldn’t sue even if they ever succeed in catching some ‘stupid’ khegpas. It is popularly believed that those mysterious hunters roam around the villages, and whoever falls into their trap would be slashed off of their heads and taken to the construction sites, where it will be buried under the foundation as a gesture of pleasing those deities believed to be residing at that location; thereby promising a smooth progress without any disruptions that would otherwise hamper the construction!
It is very surprising that even to these present days, such ‘legendary rumors’ are widely spread, and worse ‘believed’ by the so called modernized citizens of the twenty first century Bhutan. As a matter of fact, very recently it even caught the attention of the social media, and stories of various versions hit the newsstands across the nation, prompting an intervention from the concerned authority. The media which had previously popularized the story of mysterious ‘khegpa’ nationwide, again at the later dates published a rather harsh announcement from the government ‘warning’ the general public to not openly talk about ‘khegpa’ and that whoever caught talking would be hand-cuffed and put behind the bar! I would say the government intervention was timely, and necessary as people were getting overly tortured by that ‘rumors’ and the students of the far flung villages who have to travel to their schools taking hours of time were the worse hit by that mysterious force of ‘khegpa’ rumors . Moreover, the announcement made the highly tensed citizens who have been told by their ancestors about the existent of ‘khegpa’ for generations, to ‘forcefully’ accept that such ‘khegpa’ never existed in reality.
But such powerful attempt by government to ‘demystify’ the notion of ‘khegpa’ just seemed to play a role of a radio-controller trying to lower the volume, as it was still widely conversed among a wide section of people who have believed for generations and couldn’t forget the nuisance caused by ‘khegpa’, only difference this time was that it was talked rather ‘cautiously’ and ‘silently’ fearing the repercussions from the government. Now actually to the common village folks, it was just an added worry as the policemen played yet another form of ‘khegpa’, should I say ‘modernized’ khegpa? This time though, they are in hunt of those who wildfires the rumors, and again this time they will not just take the ‘head’ but the whole body not to be buried under the foundation, but to be put behind bars!
Every time I called my parents back at home, they would be sounding totally terrified by the khepga story, and would caution me to ‘not travel by myself alone!” My attempts to demystify and deny the whole concept about ‘khegpa’ would not only fall in the deaf ears, but it would ultimately meet a stiff resistance. Then, seeing no hope of influencing them, I would give in and assure them that I am always mindful of the ‘US khegpas’ and they should not be worried of me at all.
So now due to modernization, it is only reasonable to 'wrongly' convince the believers of ‘khegpa’ that while the notion of ‘khegpa’ cannot be eradicated from their memories, it will be only to their benefit that they be mindful of the khegpa’s modus operandi which might have become so sophisticated with the invention of mobile phones, motor roads, and fastest guns. Unless someone succeeds in providing us with a convincing reason behind such rumors, we can only speculate over this mysterious issue.
Such was the scenario some over six decades or so ago when Memey Khandu Tshewang was a jolly little boy living in a village covered by thick forest. I even doubt if the electricity was at all invented then, so people, unlike now, had to heavily depend on fire from the oven to light the rooms, and cook food. While parents collect fire-woods from the nearby jungle, little Khandu like any other children would be taking charge of younger ones, and do some basic household chores. Since people during that time were mostly sustained working on their farmlands which was very labor intensive job, without modern farming machineries which we see now, so to make them forget the body and joint pains, and to get a sound sleep, they would be consuming the locally brewed alcohol-‘Ara’ in huge quantity. It was (is still in some remote villages) their routine job for older members of the family to go in group to fetch the fire-woods everyday leaving behind those small kids at home.
It was during such routine job that little Khandu had to take care of his ‘head’ as well as the house all alone. Once his mother had mounted the complete three-layer set of pots (a cylindrical bigger outer one, an inner most small pot for collecting droplets of ‘Ara’, and a bowl placed on top to hold water which needs to be replaced once water becomes hot to regulate the temperature and give the cooling effect to alcoholic vapor, thus turning it to droplets of Ara!), on the oven, and instructed him to feed it with constant ‘flow’ of fire (heat), and replace the water on time. The process of replacing water has to be repeated thrice normally, and even more depending on the taste and strength of the alcohol that one prefers. Although he needed no further instructions from his mother for he was already good at handling the art of making ‘ara’, his mother made it sure everything went well, and off she left to the jungle with neighbors. He didn’t worry much about handling the assigned task, but moment his parents left for jungle, he was haunted by the thought of the mysterious ‘khegpa’. Thus he made every effort to seal off his house’s windows, and doors securely from inside, and stationed himself in front of the oven lit with a big flame and a well-sharpened knife dangling from his waist-ever readied to strike the ‘khegpa’ if ever appeared. Despite the fact that he was ‘well’ equipped to confront any danger, the fear of ‘khegpa’ never disappeared from his immature mind, and as he became more reminded of the possibility of appearing ‘khegpa’ from the wide-opened ceiling, he cautiously dragged himself closer and closer to the fire-the only companion left with him at that moment!
The combined effect of the heat from the fire, and endless thoughts of ‘khegpa’ brought him streams of sweats all over his tiny body. In the midst of such tiring moments triggered by the torturous thoughts, he dosed off heavily into a deep slumber lying along the oven. For some unknown period of time, little Khandu was in a paradise of his dream, totally free of ‘khegpas’. As the troubled mind would always do, his sleep was constantly being disrupted by mysterious day dreams, yet his tired body wouldn’t be able to respond well and easily surrender to the forceful sleep. That was until he suddenly saw a huge black figure standing right in front of him as he sleepily tried to clear his blurred vision in quest of figuring who it was. To his dreadful surprise, it was that mysterious ‘khegpa’ making a quiet yet well calculated move and seemingly trying to aim the knife at his neck! A horrified Khandu then kicked forcefully as the ‘helpless’ khegpa collapsed with a loud ‘hissing’ noises. He felt so drenched into a pool of warm blood supposedly oozed out of the ‘dead’ khegpa, and noticed the fire being extinguished! The over dramatic smoke which engulfed the entire room drove away his sleep, and as he tried regaining his sense from the ‘epic’ brawl with the khegpa, he jumped up and down victoriously!
He couldn’t imagine he had ‘actually’ brought down the supposedly ‘strong and well built’ khegpas, and he felt really excited to share with his parent during the dinner time when everybody settles down for a chat over heavy dosage of ‘Ara’. The very moment he thought about the drinks, he remembered about his ‘ara’ that he was made an in-charge of by his mother. By then, he came to see the previously systematically mounted containers of his mom scattered all over the places, the entire house powdered by the ashes, and the fire extinguished by ‘Ara’. On careful examination, he found the cylindrical ‘khegpa’ container lying in a senseless mode wearing a deformed shape!