Alcohol in Bhutanese Culture


It seems unreal that a place like the Tiger’s nest / Takhshang exists.

Tiger’s nest ( which should be called tigress’ nest) is a majestic Buddhist temple and monastery half an hour from the city of Paro in Bhutan. A steep three hour climb ( two hours, if you’re quick ) up a hill brings you to some of the most unbelievable views, that looks nothing less than a painting.

Guru Padmasambhava’s history is preserved here. The place has very few food options, and on reaching to the top I was a given a handful of halwa. I couldn’t wait to gorge on as much as I recieved, but the halwa like dry fruit dish was concentrated with alcohol (rum or wine can’t say).

We asked the monk whether it contains alchohol. And he very happily said ‘yes’. He explained that it was offered to the statues of the Guru, other Bhutanese dieties, and even the Buddha. I understand that reading Buddhist scriptures is different than what the monks there do. Their practise is in a cultural sense, that is different from the scriptures alone; for them it’s tradition due to historical reasons. But to me it was difficult to digest that a Buddhist temple could have alcohol.

Alchohol just like other mind altering substances is an intoxicant. The Buddha clearly spoke of the importance of refraining from such indulgences. So why do Bhutanese Buddhist temples have alcohol as an offering?

My enthusiastic guide Ranga, and esteemed Dr. Chetri of the GNH centre explained¬†that there is so much produce that it became a part of their daily lives. For him and rest of the Bhutanese people Ara, a local alcohol is a central part of tradition and custom. It does not mean to step away from Buddhist ideologies. But the mass production of the local wine has made its way in every home. It is funny how mass production could even do something great for this population. Ara’s production is completely local, and bought by people of all communities in Bhutan.

Ranga added by saying that in India you welcome someone with tea, whereas in Bhutan you welcome your guest with local alcohol. To which I thought, ‘Was I not a guest enough, that I wasn’t offered any’. However, there are many people that refrain from alcohol in Bhutan, but (as preconceived) monks may not necessarily be one of them.

A ceremony called Marchang¬†glorifies it even more. Vajrayana/Tantric Buddhism has a folklore that when the earth was created the oceans churned such that a holy water spurted. Gods and Goddesses then went to drink this holy water, which was also called ‘elixir of the spirits’. This amongst other reasons makes alcohol an offering to the guest.

During Marchang (pictured above) there are various ceremonial significances and traditions that must be followed to serve a hint of the wine to the highest guest present. The one holding the ladle upon completing a certain set of prayers holds up the ladle before the highest guest. Then touching the bottom of the ladle, and tasting the Ara by hand, is a symbol of drinking it and accepting it. The same goes for other guests who are offered the ladle.

This is merely to symbolise the drinking of the elixir. It calls for us to understand that this culture looks at alcohol as a substance that can be consumed mindfully. However, alcohol playing a key traditional role is increasing the number of consumers.

Bhutan today has the highest per capita consumption, and does not even have an age limit. With time the country’s local consumption maybe effected by modern laws, but the tradition shows that alcohol may represent something greater than a mere intoxicant.

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