Three years back in 2008, I visited Meme Lethro (the eldest Bhutanese citizen) in Jigmechoeling, Sarpang. Since he has witnessed the world from a century ago and has seen all the Druk Gyalpos and also lived their sovereign reigns, I felt I should write and mark his memoirs.
Today, Meme Lethro is 111 year-old. He was recognized and entitled as the Centenary Citizen in 2008 and has received certificate and supports from His Majesty the King.
Mme Lethro lives one-km downhill from the Jigmechoeling’s Gup office. Today there are more than 1,000 households in the valley. All kinds of modern facilities and infrastructures have made their way here (grade-I BHU, mobile network, motor road, farm mechanization, dzong and dratshang).
After crossing numerous rice fields and orange orchards, I reached a cottage built from wooden planks and CGI roof. On its veranda, I spotted Meme Lethro. He was weaving bamboo hat. Hunch-back and toothless, he is pale and wrinkly. He sipped a cup of tea as he wove a hat.
Tandin Wangdi, his 29-year old maternal grandson, looks after the old Meme. Tandin told me, “Meme always wakes up early and loves to have tea. Then, straightaway, he resumes back to his daily chores of weaving bamboo hats and basket,” he said.
I was curious; perhaps I wanted to find out the secret to his longevity. I inquired about his diet. Tandin said that Meme can still chew and relishes rice for lunch and dinner, which has been hi staple diet.
As I sat there watched the centennial man, I couldn't help but see images in my head of everything this man was witness to.
I asked him about Bhutan’s past which stretched back to the late nineteen century. He said the memories are fading, though he remembers his father dying when he was a 15 year-old. Then he lived as a shifting cultivator and as a cowherd in the Kheng valley of Berti. He had never been to school as there were no school in the country except in Bumthang and in Paro.
When he was young, Jigmechoeling and all other parts of Sarpang and Zhemgang were covered with thick forest and wild animals. He said that only four households inhabited the whole valley of Chungshing under Zhemgang and Jigmechoeling.
As a teenager, Lethro had to deliver annual taxes to Lamigoenpa at Jakar with his other three neighbors from Chungshing. The tax imposed upon them was large-size bamboo carpets. Each household had to deliver a carpet each.
“We had to spend four nights to reach Lamigoenpa. The route was very rough and slippery covered with leeches, beers, wild boars, and heavy snowfall,” he recalled slowly.
“I still vividly remember that there were only two huts in Gelephu when I was young boy. Those two huts served as tongba shops for the traders between Bhutan and Assam,” he said. "The Bhutanese bought garments and other necessities like salt and oil from Bongaigoan, Assam."
Meme Lethro said proudly that there was no cardamom and orange plants at that time. “Later on with my grand father, I cultivated orange and cardamom plants all over the valleys of Sarpang and other parts of southern Bhutan.”
Later on, Lethro worked, as woolah, at the construction of the Thimphu-Phuentsholing National Highway for a month. He also contributed his service in the reconstruction of Tashichoedzong in Thimphu for more than three months.
He said Thimphu was a shed. “The capital was covered with thick jungles and wild animals,” he added.
Besides being recognized as the Centenary Citizen of Bhutan in 2008, in his thirties, Meme Lethro was recognized and awarded a Nu 5 Silver Coin Medal by the second Druk Gyalpo for his contributions. At the time he was the man-in-charge for the new settlement at Jigmechoeling valley for nine years, after Lhotsampas immigrated to the valley.
For Meme Lethro, marriage came late, when he was 66. He married Mudhu, a girl from Chungshing who was 20 years younger to him. But after 20 years she died leaving behind no children. Meme is the last survivor from his family of seven siblings.
The secret to his longevity, he said was his,, “faith in Kencho Sum, the peaceful reigns of all the monarchs, and my healthy diet." He said he hardly touched alcohol although it was very much prevalent in Kheng culture.
"I still feel very good," he said. "The centenary medal has inspired me. I hope I can live a little longer to see the sunrises and the sunsets." With that, he went back to weaving his hat and the refilled tea.