Main story: It was about a decade ago when 53-year-old Hochu of Jala village in Wangdue planted five Dew-Yangkas (Pseudosasa Japonica), a species of bamboo that is used to make traditional Bhutanese arrows.
Jala village is known for growing Damo-Yangka-Dew but Hochu and his family initially decided to grow this plant solely for aesthetic purposes. But it has today become a source of income for the family.
The plants grow on at least six decimals of land surrounding Hochu’s house.
Just a few months back, Hochu and her husband harvested the bamboo and sold 30 pairs to arrow makers.
While there were not many buyers initially, with the government’s initiative to revive the use of the traditional bow and arrow, the demand for Damo-Yangka-Dew has increased significantly.
Hochu makes about Nu 300-Nu 400 from each pair of the Damo-Yangka-Dew.
“The income is not much but it’s a good and continuous source of an income as it does not require much effort to grow,” says Hochu. “We sell it at Nu 300 a pair. Business people selling traditional arrows take them and sell it at market prices ranging from Nu 1,000 to Nu 2,500 a pair.”
Hochu explained that the plants provide a double benefit. “The plant can be used to make arrows and with the leaves we feed the cows.”
Damo-Yangka-Dew is also used to make Changdha (arrows used for religious purposes) and Tsedha (arrows for long-life prayers).
“Unlike other cash crops, it doesn’t require any hard work and extra effort. We just have to water it and clean the reeds once in a while,” said Hochu. “If we harvest this season, buds start appearing after about 10 months and within a year the plant would have fully grown.”
Phub Lham is another villager who has been reaping the benefits of this bamboo species. Her father has been selling arrows to people in Wangdue and Thimphu for more than a decade.
“Every year my father manages to sell around 80 to 90 pairs of arrows which fetches around Nu 300 to Nu 400 per pair,” said Phub Lham. The income is enough to buy the basic necessities.
The history of the Yangka-Dew dates back thousands of years. The first pair of the arrows made from Yangka-Dew is preserved in the hat of the local deity called “Dolay” at the village’s temple, said Nim Gyeltshen of Jala.
He said that in the olden days, harvesting bamboo from the forest was considered illegal, let alone growing it around homes, and people were penalised if found to be violating the rule.
However, today, the majority of the 35 households in Jala grow the plant near their houses. Besides the economic values, the plant helps in warding off evil spells and spirits, said Nim Gyeltshen.
In the old days arrows made from Yangka-Dew were considered special. The arrows were also rare. But with the arrival of modern arrows, the use of the traditional arrow dwindled.
According to Nim Gyeltshen, the story of Yangka-Dew can be traced to Jala Tanka-Tsho. It is said that a man from Jala went looking for his Ox and while searching for his Ox he reached the Tanka-Tsho (lake) of Jala. What he saw in the middle of the lake left him amazed – a pair of the Yangka-Dew plant.
The man then forgot to look for his Ox and went on to get the Yangka-Dew. He managed to cut the plants. This made the guardian of the lake furious, who then in the form of thick clouds chased the man until Jala village.
“It is said that the man turned out to be smart enough to change his clothes and saved himself from being harmed by the guardian of the lake,” says Nim Gyeltshen.
The man then made a pair of arrows from that Yangka-Dew plant that he had taken from the lake. When he never missed a shot using the arrows, the story spread beyond Jala village and finally reached the ears of Debs, who then commanded the people of Jala to protect the plant by introducing rules to conserve it.
As that man aged and passed away, the elderly of Jala preserved the arrow as sacred, said Nim Gyeltshen.
He said that during the time of the First King, Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck, two special watchmen were picked from Jala and Shayla villages to guard the Yangkha-Dew plants near the lake. The men were exempt from Woola.
With no roads in those days, the bamboo were packed, sealed and then sent from Jala to Wangdue, then to Ridha and Chendebji to Trongsa where the Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck resided. Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck would personally inspect them and then hand them over to arrow makers.
Earlier the people didn’t know the importance of planting and preserving Yangka-Dew near their homes. It was after the former agriculture minister, Sangay Ngedup’s visit to the village that people started to bring seedlings from the forest to plant near their houses. The former agriculture minister suggested to the people of Jala to plant Yangka-Dew for commercial purposes, said Nim Gyeltshen.
The Dew is harvested in the 10th month of the lunar calendar. It has to be dried in the sun for about two months, after which people use coal and smoke to straighten the arrow. When it is good enough to be turned into an arrow, they cut them into similar sizes and pair it to be sold.
With the revival of the traditional arrow and bow, Yangka-Dew is expected to remain an important source of income for the people of Jala.