There are three prominent tribes in the forest division namely Sherdukpens in the Rupa-Jigaon-Shergaon areas; Kalaktang Monpas in Kalaktang and Khawas or Buguns in Tenga, Singchung and Ramalingam areas.
The Sherdukpen society is divided into two classes: The Thong and Chao. The Thong are the higher castes who are further divided into eight clans. They are the descendants of a Tibetan king, a grandson of Songtsän Gampo and an Ahom / Kachari princess. Marriage between castes is considered taboo and is strongly discouraged. The Chao are the descendants of the king's porters and servants. The Sherdukpens migrate to villages around Charduar and Doimara and stayed on an annual basis during the winter months to do trading and avoid the cold, a tradition with which the tribe maintain the memory of their Assamese ancestry.
The Kalaktang Monpas are believed to be the original inhabitants of the Kalaktang circle, from which they take their name. In the past the Kalaktang Monpa did not possess a script, so their history was handed down in oral stories. Elderly Kalaktang Monpa men recall that their ancestors migrated to their present location from the Bumthang and Thalong areas in eastern Bhutan.
Buguns believe that they are the descendants of the Achinphumphulua.
The Sherdukpen generally practice monogamy and trace their descent patrilineally. Their houses are built on strong stone foundations with their wall and floor made from thick wooden planks. The tribal councils were dominated by aristocratic families who still retain a good deal of power, though they work nowadays through village councils.
The Buddhist lamas perform weddings and funerals and act as mediators between the spirit world and the community. Before a wedding, a suitable bride price is negotiated between the families of the bride and groom, traditionally two sheep, two yaks and a shawl. The most common form of marriage is a negotiated arranged one.
The traditional village council of the Buguns is known as Nimiyang (Council of Elders), headed by a unanimously selected Thap-Bahow (Chief); which decides the manner of utilization of local resourses and resolves all local conflicts. Each family is represented in the Nimiang sessions by its head male member. Women can only witness the proceedings of the sessions and can represent a male in his absence.
The Sherdukpens are agriculturalists, though they are keen traders having traded with the plains in the past. Silverwork is also done. They practice both shifting and permanent farming. They keep livestock like ponies, cows, goats, sheep, fowls and bullocks. They hunt with bows and arrows. They practice fishing by means of nets, angles and traps. Tools like the plough (ganga), felling axe (handu), wooden dibble (chhaki) and scythe (brachok) are used for cultivation. Of late, cultivation of tomatoes giving three crops a year in Rupa has brought a boom in the local economy. Apple, Orange and Kiwi cultivation is also highly prevalent.
All Kalaktang Monpas are traditionally employed in farming or trading.
Buguns practice shifting cultivation, hunting and domestic animals such as cow, horse, pig, sheep, goat, fowl and mithun are also reared.
Sherdukpens wear a bogre cloth over the shoulder which serves as a sort of knapsack. Its central motif is always a right-pointing swastika, around which are a number of subordinate patterns which vary considerably. The colours are red, blue, black and sometimes green and yellow on a white background. Several of these designs were either interpreted as flowers or as shrubs which supply the black juice used for painting beauty-marks on the faces of young girls. The lines projecting from the main design are said to be the thorns of the plant. A Chinese fence design is generally used as the upper border of Sherdukpen bags.
The women dress themselves in loose, collarless and sleeveless shirts, which cover the body from shoulders to knees. Over it they sometimes wear small full-sleeved coats made of mill-cloth. Like men, women also tie a coloured sash, known locally as muhkak, around their waist. Sherdukpens generally go barefoot, but sometimes use Monpa shoes.
At the same time, both men and women of the buguns adorn themselves with silver ornaments; the men wear a very long white garment and a very high hat. The women wear a skull cap, sometimes decorated with beautiful patterns. Purple and checkered jackets are also worn, accompanied by another singlet.
Sherdukpen women are skilful weavers. Their loom is simple, light and portable. The articles woven are mainly attractive coloured bags with geometrical designs and rectangular pieces of cloth called bogre, which are used for carrying things. The yarn is obtained from the plains or is manufactured locally from the bark of plants known as hongchong and hongche. The local yarn prepared from hongche is strong and is used for making fishing nets and bowstrings. The bark of hongchong is poisonous, and as such, women cover their hands with cloth when removing the bark, which is then soaked in boiling water, and washed several times until it decomposes and becomes pulpy. Among Sherdukpens some designs revolve around folk tales. One such tale is about "a girl who falls in love with a snake, who is a handsome youth in disguise. In his snake form, he coils himself in her lap as she weaves; she copies the markings on her lover's body and is soon making the most beautiful cloth that was ever seen." Among other popular designs are stylised peacocks carrying a baby bird on the back, elephants with riders, and flowers that are combined with geometric forms. The textiles depict popular myths and stories of the region and are translated into complex weaving patterns with narrative stories explaining the textiles.
The Kalaktang Monpas have a rich culture. They are ‘skilled in dyeing, weaving, papermaking, carpentry, cane and bamboo work.
Sherdukpens and Kalaktang Monpas confine their water power in pleasantly designed and decorated buildings. Water is used for turning prayer wheels and grinding grain.
A fascinating folk dance, Bardo Chham depicts the victory of good over evil. The folks believe that in one year, twelve different types of animals, representing evil forces, appear each month and get together. The Sherdukpens mask themselves representing the different animals and dance to the accompaniment of drums and cymbals as an act of fighting the evil forces.
Kalaktang Monpas also perform some very popular forms of a mask dance. They have many pantomime dances which are generally performed during the annual festivals, both in the monasteries and in the villages. The Ajilamu and yak dances are very popular.
The Sherdukpen adopted the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism in the 17th century as with their northern neighbours, the Monpa who were also subjected to the evangelical influence of Mera Lama. However, contrary to the Monpas, Sherdukpens are more inclined to their pre-Buddhist animistic traditions, which are shown by the relative absence of any Buddhist Lamas within their tribe. Lamas from the Monpa and refugee Tibetan communities were invited to conduct Buddhist communal ceremonies. The profound animist influence is attributed to the prevalence of their traditional Shamans with which they also employ for certain religious activities, known as "Jiji" in the local tongue. Rituals pertaining to indigenous spirits, human sacrifice and blood are prevalent within Sherdukpen mythology and legends.
All Kalaktang Monpas believe in Tibetan Buddhism. The lama is their priest and his services are required to perform the birth, marriage and death rituals. Simultaneously they practice pre-Buddhistic animism or shamanism. The animistic priest, called phrame, cures diseases and removes evil spirits. They share a common gompha (religious shrine) with the other Buddhist communities. Some of the Kalaktang Monpas sent their children to the gomphas in the different parts of the country to acquire training in Lamaism. They have also established matrimonial and religious links with the other Monpas, Sherdukpens, Tibetans, Khambas and Membas.
Buguns are followers of the Donyi-Polo religion, but through passage of time they have came under Tibetan Buddhist influence from the neighbouring Sherdukpens. However, animism is still followed in profound measures among the buguns.
The Sherdukpen language is part of the Kanauri branch of the Tibeto-Burman family. There are dialect differences between the Sherdukpen spoken in different villages. The dialectspoken by the inhabitants of Rupa village is called Thungjee Ngnok, while the other main dialect is called Sanjee Ngook. The dialect of Sherdukpen has lexical similarity of 49%-60% with Sartang. The dialect is also grouped with Sulung and Bugun and possibly also with Lish and Sartang. People also speak Hindi, Assamese and Tawang Monpa. Kalaktang Monpas speak Tshangla, a language spoken by an overwhelming major ethic group of Eastern Bhutan.
The Sherdukpens observe a number of festivals both Buddhist and non- Buddhist. Their main Buddhist festivals are Lossar and Wang, while Khiksaba is a non- Buddhist festival which is meant to appease the forest deities. The lossar is observed by both Sherdukpens and Kalaktang Monpas. It is celebrated continuously for seven days annually amidst great enthusiasm and with pomp and gaiety by the Monpas and Sherdukpens. Generally, the ‘Losar’ is celebrated during the last part January and in the first part of February. The ‘Losar’ festival begins with the performance of ‘Tongchin’ worship in the village monasteries (Gompas). According to the existing belief, after Tongchin, these two tribes perform ‘Marme’ worship to have a good and beautiful life in the next birth. Next, they perform worship known as ‘Singhe’ and ‘Seje’ which are performed for the welfare of the entire village communities, which is followed by worship of ‘Sojan’ meant to get together after death. Lastly, they perform worship like ‘Sechang’, ‘Semar’ and ‘Dadar’ for longevity.
These various kinds of worships are performed on different days by the Buddhist priest (Lamas) where different holy scriptures are read. With other obligations, the local distilled drink is a must for the Monpas and Sherdukpens. People rise early, take bath, put on new clothes and prepare food and drink for themselves as well as for the guest on the first day of the festival. Then, they start visiting their neighbours and the visitors are entertained with great hospitality.
However, on the last day of the ‘Losar’ festival, right from dawn to dusk, the priest (Lamas) have to remain busy and active both at the monastery and at the village for various functions. The ‘Lamas’ are invited to every house in the village in the wee hours of the morning to usher a very happy and prosperous new year to the respective family members of the house. After prayers, they touch the image the image of Lord Buddha (Sange - Somdonde) to receive blessings from him. Then all the villagers gather in a particular place, which is far away from the village and enjoy a feast there. The young men and women of the village take part in songs and dances and enjoy by sprinkling water on each other.
The Wang is observed by the Sherdukpens for two times in a year in the month of June and July or November in honour of Lord Buddha.
The Khiksaba festival is observed in November or December and this festival ensures that the forest spirits will not attack the people on their long trek through the jungles to reach the plains. Feasting and drinking, sacrifice of goats and fowls and offerings of rice, flowers, fruits etc. are the important events of Khiksaba festival. There are also several other festivals like Rek Lapsang Chhongba (agricultural festival), Photenya (agricultural festival) and Chekor festival which are regularly celebrated by the Sherdukpens.