Zhemgang (Kheng)

In 1963, the ancient region of Kheng (the historical Khengri Namsum) was divided into the districts of Mongar and Zhemgang.

Zhemgang is a land of steep, forest-covered mountains except for plateaus such as Buli where rice is cultivated. The rivers cut deep gorges and valleys are rare. The people speak Khengkha, a language which is a dialect of Bumthangkha, and they are highly regarded for their knowledge of forest plants.

Descending in steps from 1,900 metres (6,235 feet) to 200 metres (655 feet), most of the district is covered by a semi-tropical forest that harbours rare orchids and carnivorous plants. This is where most of Bhutan’s production of bamboo, cane and rattan ware takes place. Many plants which still grow wild form an important part of the people’s diet: bananas, oranges, mangoes, yams, bamboo shoots, young ferns, certain orchids and a very rare plant which tastes like potatoes when it is boiled, and even, in hard times, certain poisonous roots of fern or poisonous beans which, once they have been boiled or left to soak, become edible.

The ancient region of Kheng, which stretched east to Mongar and south practically to Gelephu, was divided into a multitude of petty kingdoms until the 17th century. The most important of these were Buli and Nyakhar. After the Drukpa conquest in the middle of the 17th century, the kings lost whatever importance they may have had but their descendants still call themselves “king”, as a purely honorific title. Here the ties with the Bumthang valleys went beyond simple language affiliation. The nobility of Bumthang owned land in the Kheng region and their herds of animals migrated there from Bumthang for the winter. It is also from Kheng that Bumthang’s weavers got their supplies of raw material for making vegetable dyes.

Zhemgang small villages hosts a number of Buddhist and non-Buddhists festivals and several sacred sites associated with Guru Rinpoche as well as the famous Duemang Hot spring, and the lush Manas National Park which has tigers and elephants.

Though Zhemgang may be lacking in spectacular historical sites, it is very diverse, rural and is a paradise for botanists and bird watchers. A bird watching festival has now been instituted in November and October to March is the best season to visit the region, take hikes or raft on the Manas (Drangme Chhu) river.

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