Sitting on the bamboo floored verandah of his 2 storied traditional house in Kheng Zurphel, Ap Doekha makes containers, baskets and ropes from the tall perennial evergreen bamboo found in plenty around his house.
A pioneer in the making of what in Khengkha is called ‘zom’ (a cylindrical milk container), when Kuensel met him, the 61-year-old was stitching a broad hollow bamboo container, measuring about 40 cm in diameter and a meter high, with the capacity to contain the milk of five cows.
He makes zoms of different sizes, varying from the small (one cow’s milk capacity) to the huge (30 cow’s milk capacity). The whole process of making a zom, which is commonly found in all Bhutanese village homes, takes about a week, according to Ap Doekha. First, fresh bamboo is cut. Then the outer skin is peeled off and the pulp kept under water for 3 days. “Water softens it,” says Ap Doekha.
On the fourth day, the pulp is cut into various sizes, in accordance with demand, and warmed over fire to bend it into a ‘wow’. “I make enough wow so that I can stitch a zom whenever there’s an order,” he said. The wow is kept under water overnight before a zom is finally made.
He takes about two days to stitch a zom. “I have to add wooden slabs at the bottom and on top of the zom.”
Holding the material together with a clamp tightly, he threads thin cane rope through holes he has made with an awl. “Stitching is the most difficult part of the process,” he said, showing the blisters on his hand.
The father of 6 told Kuensel that it was really difficult to make zooms out of hard wows. On asking why he could not soften it by keeping it under water longer, the zom expert said that wows would turn blue if kept under water beyond the required time. “The wows will rot,” he said.
Ap Doekha finds inspiration in the midst of work, when he is entirely on his own. “I find it easier when I’m totally into my work,” he said.
Today, Ap Doekha’s work, reflecting Kheng tradition, is popular in Trongsa, Gelephu and Bumthang, where modern churners are still not used by many. “People continue to prefer my traditional churner because butter does not stick on bamboo containers,” he said.
Though unable to justify how, he feels that bamboo containers produce more butter.
Ap Doekha told Kuensel that he learnt the art as a 13-year-old from his father, who was a royal cattle herder. “I had a passion to do all this ever since I was herding cattle,” he said, without losing concentration on his work.
He settled in Zurphel at the age of 35 with his wife, who accompanies him and renders help in all his work.
Each year 50 – 60 such zoms are sold to the buyers at a subsidized rate of Nu 250 to Nu 1000. This year, he has sold 53 churning containers. He also has a few bamboo baskets and hats to sell.
Wearing a faded black track pant and an olive-green sweater, the grandfather of 15 said his only worry was the depletion of resources.
“Every year resources get less but I plant bamboos on my own land,” he said.
Ap Doekha said he would love to impart his skills to his grandchildren, but none have evinced any interest. Only some men from the village came to learn.