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Cheers to Bhutan: The Fascinating Role of Alcohol in Bhutanese Culture


Bang Chang Bhutan by Saidpiece
Bang Chang. Image :Sunshine, loveandbarley.com

When it comes to traditional culture, there are few things more central than food and drink. And in Bhutan, a small country nestled in the Himalayas, alcohol plays a particularly fascinating and important role. From welcoming guests to saying goodbye, alcohol is a part of many different social customs and rituals.


The most common form of alcohol in Bhutan is called ara, which is a type of distilled liquor made from grains such as rice, wheat, or barley. Another popular beverage is singchang, which is a beer made from millet. But regardless of the specific type of alcohol, it's clear that these drinks hold great significance in Bhutanese society.


For example, when an important visitor or lama arrives for an event or ritual, the host family or community will often greet them with a special offering of ara called su-chang. This gesture is called suwa, and it's a way of showing respect and hospitality to the guest.

Once the guest is settled in, it's customary to offer them a drink to welcome them. This is called dong-chang, and it's seen as an important sign of courtesy and hospitality. Similarly, when guests bring gifts of food or other items to a family gathering or event, the host will often serve them a drink called log-chang as a sign of gratitude.


Of course, alcohol is also often served in more social contexts. For example, it's common to serve alcohol with meals during festive and ceremonial occasions. This type of drink is called toh-chang and is meant to complement the food. After a cup of tea, guests might be offered a drink called ja-chang, and after a meal, it's customary to serve shel-chang to help "wash down" the food.


But perhaps the most interesting use of alcohol in Bhutanese culture is the way it's used to say goodbye. When high-ranking guests or visitors leave, the host family or community will often see them off at a chosen point. There, both the hosts and guests will drink together for the last time in a ceremony called kel-chang. This is the point at which the guests will usually give a gift of cash to the host, and the host party will wave khadar scarves and sing a melancholic song until the guests are out of sight.


While it's clear that alcohol is an important part of Bhutanese culture, it's worth noting that excessive drinking is frowned upon. In fact, Bhutan is known for its Gross National Happiness index, which is meant to prioritize the well-being and happiness of its citizens over economic growth. As such, the country takes a more holistic approach to alcohol consumption, focusing on the positive social and cultural aspects rather than promoting excessive drinking.


So the next time you're in Bhutan, be sure to raise a glass of ara, singchang or bang chang in honor of the fascinating cultural traditions that these drinks are a part of. Cheers to Bhutan, and cheers to the role of alcohol in bringing people together!

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