Alcohol (ཆང་) is an important part of Bhutanese culture, especially in the eastern districts. Alcoholic drinks such as ara and singchang were used profusely in traditional Bhutanese communities. They were served as a gesture of showing respect, honour and hospitality. Alcohol is served in a number of forms including welcome drink, farewell drink, drink with food, drink after tea, see off drink, sleep drink, wake-up drink, drink, drink for the road, drink for good health, etc. They are described briefly below.
1. Su-chang (བསུ་ཆང་)
When an important visitor or lama, who is invited, arrives for an event or for performing a ritual, the host family or community courteously receive the guest at some distance from the venue. This gesture of receiving a guest is called suwa (བསུ་བ་) and the reception is usually accompanied by an offering of ara drinks. Ara taken for this purpose is the su-chang.
2. Dong-chang (གདོང་ཆང་)
The dong-chang can be rendered as welcome drink. Soon after the arrival of guests, it is customary for the host to offer drink to welcome the guests. If the household fails to do so, the host will be criticized for lacking courtesy and not being hospitable.
3. Log-chang (ལོག་ཆང་)
During festivals, religious events, funerary ceremonies, family celebrations or other events when people in a community gather to visit a family, they bring ara, grains, vegetables and other items which is useful for the event or occasion. Closer relatives bring more quantity and they usually come earlier than other people. These items are presented to the host with words of introduction indicating who has brought what item. During funerals and sad occasions, the guests will also add their words of condolences. In reciprocation, the host shows his or her modesty by saying that it is not necessary to bring so much. After the things are received and taken away, the host serves a round a drink. This drink is called logchang or drink in return or reciprocation. The drink would be normally served from the stock which the host has or could be one of the drinks which the guests brought with them.
4. Toh-chang (ལྟོ་ཆང་)
Ara is also served with meals, especially during festive and ceremonial occasions. This is toh-chang where toh refers to food. The alcoholic drinks with food is served either before, during or after the time of eating the main course.
5. Ja-chang (ཇ་ཆང་)
Like toh-chang alcohol is also served after tea, especially during festive and ceremonial occasions. It is called ja-chang where ja refers to tea. Alcohol is served after the tea.
6. Shel-chang (བཤལ་ཆང་)
The shel-chang is served after the meal. The term shel refers to washing away or rinsing and the drink is served to washing down the food or rinse the mouth after eating.
7. Zim-chang (གཟིམ་ཆང་)
When important guests stay the night in a house, the host offers a drink to help the guest sleep called zim chang. The alcohol is often heated and served just before the person goes to bed.
8. Zheng-chang (བཞེངས་ཆང་)
A drink is offered in the morning as soon as the guest is awake. This is called zheng chang or wake-up drink but most of the time the guest do not drink although the host offers it as customary act of courtesy.
9. Kel-chang (བསྐྱེལ་ཆང་)
When high ranking guests or visitors leave, it is customary for the host family or community to see them off at some distance. At a chosen point of farewell, the guests are requested to sit for a while and both the hosts and guests drink together for the last time. Such drinking session is called kel-chang. It is at this point that the guests usually give a gift of cash to the host. As the guests depart from this point, the host would wish farewell through a melancholic song. The host party which sees off also waves khadar scarves while singing and crying “awu awu” until the guests are out of sight.
10. Lam-chang (ལམ་ཆང་)
The host arranges some jars of ara for the guests to carry with them to drink on the road especially if they have to walk a long distance. This is called lam-chang or drink for the road.
11. Tshog-chang (ཚོགས་ཆང་)
Tshog chang is a traditional offering of alcohol by a community when an important guest is in the area. People bring alcohol and food items to a meeting point to greet the visitor. In such context, tshogchang is drink offered in a gathering. It can also refer to the drink served with tshog or dinner. During a tantric religious ceremony, tshog-chang alcohol is also served to accompany the tshog religious feast.
12. Cham-chang (འཆམ་ཆང་)
In some villages, the mask dancers are served alcohol after each session of performing cham dances. The alcohol served to refresh the dancers is called cham-chang. In another context, cham-chang is the alcohol served during a reconciliation party. If people in a community quarrel or have a conflict, the villagers led by the village elders often mediate and help the parties in conflict reach a reconciliation or chamkha (འཆམ་ཁ་). Alcohol served after reaching such reconciliation is also known as cham-chang or conciliation drink.
13. Mar-chang (མར་ཆང་)
Alcohol plays a ubiquitous role in Bhutanese religious and cultural life. Most formal ceremonies in Bhutan start with the offering of mar-chang or alcohol with butter. It is a special ritual of offering libation to the deities and spirits before starting an important project by serving alcohol in a cast iron vessel decorated with butter and using a decorated ladle. The offering is made with religious chantings.
14. Serkem (གསེར་སྐྱེམས་)
Like mar-chang, serkem is a libation which is commonly made as part of a larger ritual or on its own. People make serkem offering in temples and family homes and also on the passes when they travel. A small amount of alcohol considered as the best portion of the alcohol (ཆང་ཕུད་) is thrown to the sky or a shrine after chanting the words for serkem offering.
15. Men-chang (སྨན་ཆང་)
Menchang is alcohol offered to people when a relative or friend visits someone who is ill. People often take some food items when they visit someone ill at home or in the hospital. Although the ill person may not drink, alcohol is often a drink which people take for the ill person.
16. Drol-chang (གྲོལ་ཆང་)
Ara, which is heated, is often served to the priests when they conclude a day long religious ceremony. The drink is accompanied with a salad known as changpa (ཆང་པགས་).
17. Nyen-chang Lek-chang (སྙན་ཆང་ལེགས་ཆང་)
During festive events, people perform dances and the host or the sponsor of the event must offer alcohol every now and then as a token of recognition of the melody of the voice and beauty of the dance.
18. Maag-chang (དམག་ཆང་)
The maag-chang is alcohol served after the completion of a battle or maag. The battle in this context are not real battles but rituals of exorcism or demonstrations of valour which are conducted during festivals.
Written by Karma Phuntsho with Sonam Chophel’s notes. Sonam Chophel was a researcher at Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research and Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.