The Egg-Headed Beast to Rescue

By Needrup Zangpo

As the greatly perplexed demon stood before the man muttering to himself ‘this is a fish-bodied, egg-headed pig-like beast’, the man sprang up and thrust his hard penis into its mouth saying, ‘If you don’t know what it is, this is what it is.’ The demon gave a sharp squeal like a pig struck unaware by an arrow and stumbled away with the front teeth smashed in.

A group of travellers had just emptied a pot of suja and a bangchung of zaw. They agreed that the quick snack should serve as dinner.

As the pot and bangchung went back into the cane basket, the sun was going behind the horizon. The small fire fed with dry twigs turned red as the last rays of the sun left the cave.

The travellers talked in hushed voices. One who kept the fire going snapped the twigs gingerly to avoid cracking sound. One took out his rosary and started chanting mani softly. Another spread his bedding in the deepest corner of the cave. One stared vacantly at the disappearing sun.

No sooner did the sun completely disappear behind the mountain than a sprightly man, a cross between a mendicant and a beggar, greeted the travellers with a loud voice. He had long, uncombed hair and wore a pair of huge, round earrings.

‘This is a rocky hillside not ideal for travellers to camp,’ he said as he barged into the cave. The surprised travellers looked at one another with unease and said nothing.

The hillside of Wodod Drak between Phari in Tibet and Shingkarab in Bhutan was turning dark. The high altitude shrubs that dot the hillside looked increasingly like crawling ogres of the Bhutanese folktales.

Still standing, the sprightly man continued to speak in a loud voice about his coming from Tibet and going to Bhutan. The travellers became nervous and anxious. ‘Can I camp here tonight with you?’ the wildly confident man asked them. The travellers once again looked at one another with inquiring expressions. The oldest of them said, ‘Sleep there,’ pointing at the mouth of the cave.

The heavy silence returned to the cave after the new comer settled down. After a long suffocating silence, the oldest traveller said in a deliberate, loud voice before sleeping, ‘May I be protected, Lord Demon of Wodod.’ And all of his friends echoed almost in unison, ‘May I be protected, Lord Demon of Wodod.’ The Tibetan man said in a provocative tone, ‘May I be protected, My Own Thing.’

At around midnight, the demon of Wodod Drak for whom all travellers paid silent obeisance came stomping by, his hair violently cascading behind him. ‘What special thing do you have that you should seek protection from it?’ The demon demanded of the Tibetan man in a guttural growl. This startled the travellers out of their sleep. They all sat up and huddled together in the deepest corner of the cave. They muttered incoherent bits of prayers.

The sprightly man took his time to sit up. He looked the ferocious demon straight in the eye and thrust out his rock hard penis saying, ‘I have this one.’

‘Oho! What a strange beast this is!’ the demon exclaimed. ‘Its head is like an egg, its trunk like a fish, and its root is like a pig.’

The travellers, who were frozen with fear, could not believe what was happening. One wondered what a strange thing it was to do to a ruthless demon. Another thought they were sure to pay with their lives for the Tibetan vagrant’s foolishness. But one among them with a more contemplative nature felt a mysterious power emanating from the Tibetan man’s penis, and it soothed his whole being that was paralysed with fear.

As the greatly perplexed demon stood before the man muttering to himself ‘this is a fish-bodied, egg-headed pig-like beast’, the man sprang up and thrust his hard penis into its mouth saying, ‘If you don’t know what it is, this is what it is.’ The demon gave a sharp squeal like a pig struck unawares by an arrow and stumbled away with the front teeth smashed in.

After a long, pregnant silence, a subdued-looking man walked up to the Tibetan man and knelt before him, eyes downcast. Wodod Demon, in his peaceful manifestation, submitted himself to the Tibetan man and pledged not to harm any life thereafter.

The benumbed travellers, trembling, discovered that the wildly confident man was Lam Drukpa Kunley.

Needrup Zangpo is a journalist living and working in Bhutan. This story is his latest creative non-fiction piece on Lam Drukpa Kunley as it appeared in the current issue of Kuzuzangpo La magazine. 

Needrup is also founder of Druk Loter a a writing, editing, translation and consulting firm.

Traditional Hospitality and Travelling in Bhutan

“The guest of one night is like a god” Bhutanese proverb

By Ulrike Cokl

In the Kingdom of Bhutan hospitality permeates every sphere of social life, whether private or public; it infuses (religious) festivals, rituals, rites of passage from birth to death and all kinds of political and social gatherings. From the sharing of food and drinks, singing and dancing, to the exchange of gifts, goods and services, such all-encompassing traditions of hospitality are fundamental to enriching and fostering relationships, thuenlam, at every level of society. This makes them of great importance in nurturing community vitality, psychological well-being and culture, which are three of the nine domains of Gross National Happiness (GNH) the others being education, health, time use, good governance, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. GNH is, of course the unique Bhutanese development ideology which places as much emphasis upon happiness as it does upon economic well-being. Official hosting events and practices are based on the etiquette of driglam namzhag (‘system of ordered and cultural behaviour’) as formulated by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. This article hopes to provide a tiny glimpse into everyday hospitality and hosting in communities and is based on ethnographic research, mostly confined to Bumthang in central Bhutan and Lhuntse in eastern Bhutan, with some examples from other parts of the country provided.

The Neypo (host) Network

The neypo (host) system, with its network of host and guest relationships, was identified in my ongoing doctoral research as the main way in which bonds between communities in different valleys in Bhutan were sustained. The neypo network once covered the entire country and even beyond its borders. Whenever villagers travelled to another valley they usually stayed with their host families – neypos. Since the early sixties the system has gradually dwindled due to increased socio-economic and infrastructure development. In more remote Eastern Bhutan the neypo system still exists, especially amongst the yak herders who have to descend from their high-elevation pastures to the lowlands every year in order to barter their butter and cheese with the rice, chilli and maize produced in the fields of their hosts. Between families, guest/host bonds were very cordial and relations were maintained over generations. The respective families regarded each other as relatives and in some cases they are still in contact even though the seasonal migrations have long been abandoned. At some point the host families themselves would travel and be hosted reciprocally in the homes of their previous guests. While the Dzongkha (national language) term for host is neypo, the Bumthap refer to it as ‘nadpo’, or ‘naspo’, depending on local accents. People from Pema Gatshel, on the other hand, used to have cross-border hosting connections with Assam, and referred to their hosts using the Assamese term ‘shazi’. However, the term neypo is commonly known and used throughout Bhutan.

Travelling Bhutanese Style

“When we reach the camp we should not make noise. If we make noise then strong wind and hailstorms will come out of nowhere. We should not roast meat and we should not let curry spill over. Nothing should be burned in the fire because this can also cause serious problems like sudden strong winds and hailstorms, which are very frightening.” (A villager in Bumthang)

Seasonal migrations between higher and lower ecological zones were important activities in the rural subsistence economy in Bhutan. One agey (old man) in Lhuntse very graphically described that the neighbouring Bumthap flocked into his valley like a “swarm of bees” to barter, beg, trade and glean!

Some of the main reasons for annual travels between Bumthang and Lhuntse included:

a) Pilgrimage, neykor
b) Barter, jesor, and trade, tshongdrel, as part of transhumance, the movement of cattle and exchange of produce between pastures in higher and lower ecological zones
c) Collecting food/begging, grendo gaisang or gleaning, saktum tum sang (‘going to pick up leftovers’)
d) Soenyum, food collection conducted by monks and lamas and as part of wider religious transactions

The Bumthap also went to the neighbouring district of Trongsa, for sharecropping and barter. Seasonal migrations of Layaps and Lunaps from Gasa to the lowlands of Punakha, thasa, in the west of Bhutan, and of Merak- and Saktengpas to lowland areas of Tashigang dzongkhag in the east, are also examples of similar food gathering and exchange.

In the past footpaths were well maintained through frequent use and some villagers referred to them as traditional ‘highways’, indicating that there was a lot of coming and going! Before embarking on a journey the astrologer, tsip, had to be consulted to identify an auspicious day, zakar, on which to begin the journey. Travellers had to be careful not to neglect beliefs relating to the local cosmologies of the sacred and spiritually inhabited landscapes through which they passed. Engendering good relations with the entire spiritual ‘landowners’, referred to as neydag (spiritual landowners of holy, sacred places) and zhidag (general spiritual landowners of landscapes such as mountain passes) is still important. The idea being that if good relations are encouraged, these local deities and spirits will, in return, not harm travellers or their beasts of burden and may even create favourable conditions for the journey. Maintaining relations with the spirits and deities can be viewed as part of the wider hospitality framework, as there are certain rules and moral obligations governing behaviour when crossing through the territory of spiritual landowners who are regarded as the local hosts, neypos. For instance, when stopping for the night, travellers must obtain the permission of the local deity; usually this is achieved by an offering of sang (incense). Some activities are considered taboo, such as burning ‘unclean’ items over an open fire, including meat and garlic, and nowadays modern pollutants such as the ubiquitous plastic. Doing so creates drib, impurities, which upset the local deities. Milk and curries that boil over and spill into the fire are also considered impure. If precautions against committing these transgressions are ignored or neglected, it is believed that harm can befall the travellers and their beasts of burden. When reaching a pass, a serkyem (an alcohol offering) will be proffered to the local deities who inhabit the area around the pass. At the same time the travellers might drink a cup of ara too, the local moonshine usually made from wheat or maize, followed by a mandatory re-fill called a dron. Thus a cup or two of ara not only appeases the local deities but helps the travellers on their way a little lighter of foot (and head).

Hospitality: Reception, Hosting and Farewell

“When we go to one host’s house then the other hosts would say, ‘Please also come to my house. Why are you not coming to my house?’ And if we go there, then another host would say, ‘Please come to my house also!’ So we have to visit every host. At first we will be offered ara as a welcome. The ara they [the hosts] will give is compulsory. But offering tea is not compulsory; sometimes they will offer tea and sometime they will not. So, first they will offer ara and then we will take rest. Then we will talk. Only after this will we give our chodma [gifts] to the host family. We would eat food and then they would give us lamju [a farewell gift for the journey]. These little lamju increase as we keep on visiting our hosts. Eventually it becomes difficult for us to carry our loads.” (A villager in Bumthang)

When the Bumthap reached their neypo’s house in Lhuntse, they received a cordial welcome as if they were a family member. The hosts helped the travellers unpack their horses and then escorted their guests inside. The sequence of beverages served would differ slightly depending on the region. Mostly ara would be offered first, then tea, ja, – if available butter tea, suja – and nowadays also sweet tea, ngaja, is offered. After snacks, lunch or dinner would be served. In between, the guests would offer their choom, a general gift one brings when visiting someone’s house. As the saying goes in Bumthangkha: ‘yag thongpa minla tsamtek’ (‘Just enough to make me not empty handed’). The term choom implies that the gift is for someone who is considered of equal status. The Bumthap, when travelling to Lhuntse, would usually bring dried turnip leaves, loma, incense collected from the higher alpine regions, sangzey, fresh cheese, phrum or dried cheese, tedpa or tespa, and roasted barley flour, thru. After their extended trips to different villages in Lhuntse they would return to their homes with rice, chhum, maize, asham, chilli, bangala, dried fruits and sometimes yeast, phab. Ideally hosts should exhibit generosity and selflessness towards their guests. Guests of higher status are expected to reciprocate the hospitality received with a soelra (parting gift or tips from someone of higher status to someone who is considered to be of lower status), and then they will again receive a lamju from their hosts; a farewell gift for the journey, often alcohol and some food.

The people from Laya and Lunana still visit the lowland areas in Punakha in the winter, bringing yak products such as butter, cheese and meat, but also ropes and blankets made out of yak fur and wool, and sangzey for bartering for rice, chili and other cereals. Some of these are offered as gifts to their hosts who reciprocate by providing some grain and other produce of the lowlands, which are either offered as a chomlog (return gift among equals) or as lamju when the Layaps and Lunaps return to their home, or both.

In Eastern Bhutan, tshogchang is a traditional welcome used by local communities to receive guests. A member from each household will come with some ara, snacks and eggs and gather where the guests are staying to hold an ‘ara session’ with them. The ara will be heated with egg and butter and then shared. Tshogchang sessions are often accompanied by joking and songs and dances, and often continue well into the night. When the tshogchang is over the guests should give some money as soelra to the members who organized and contributed to the tshogchang. The amount depends on the guests, but should be at least equivalent to the value of the offering.

This is a brief account of traditional hospitality and travelling in Bhutan emphasizing how the neypo system provides a framework for sophisticated exchange. Through the neypo system Bhutanese villagers have become experts in hosting and entertaining guests. These rich traditions have been in place for centuries and although some of these practices are vanishing, many of them have evolved and adapted and continue to be of importance for Bhutanese social relations, thuenlam, and community cohesion. Understanding the importance of establishing and keeping good relations, thuenlam, through these customs in Bhutan is of tremendous benefit in developing sustainable rural tourism. Moreover so as such practices are integrated and rooted within the existing traditions.

Ulrike Čokl is co-founder of Bhutan Homestay and Ph.D candidate at University College London (UCL), U.K., Department of Anthropology. She was affiliated in Bhutan with the College of Natural Resources (CNR) at the Royal University of Bhutan (RUB) from 2012-2015. Ulrike has been living on and off in Bhutan for over 16 years.
Additional language editing: Sally Hunt