Old Choeda, the astrologer, Pazhi, 2003

Our yak man Wangye is drunk, and only he knows the way to Lunana. We’re two days out of Laya, climbing the 16,700-foot Gangla Karchung pass in driving snow and it’s not even lunchtime.

I first met Wangye in 1994. My ten-year-old daughter, Maile, and I traveled back to Thimphu with Wangye, along with Chimi Tshering, Chimi’s young grandson Wangchuk and two perfect little donkeys that they planned to present to the King on his birthday. Wangye came along to tend the animals. Now, he no longer works for his uncle because Tshering doesn’t drink and they got into a fist fight over Wangye’s alcoholism.

According to Wangye, Tshering is the youngest of three brothers all married to the same woman. However, the oldest brother left the family for a love marriage and the second brother, old Choeda the faith healer and astrologer of Pazhi, now slowly drinks himself to death with Chinese baijiu. Though the King married four sisters, it is more common for Laya zam to marry several brothers. Fraternal polyandry prevents the fragmentation of a family’s wealth and land, controls population growth, and works well in an economy where the men must spend much of their time away from home trading. But like everywhere else in Bhutan, as Laya modernizes, the marriage custom shifts toward monogamy and land fragmentation, which could spell unlimited levels of population growth for the future.

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