WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: One of the first and most common rituals for the construction of a house in Bhutan is salang choga (ས་བླང་ཆོ་ག་) or the ritual for the taking of land. Bhutanese believe that the land is possessed by the terrestrial spirits, the most important of them being Sadag Tochye (ས་བདག་ལྟོ་འཕྱེ་). To maintain harmony with nature, one has to obtain the permission of the landowners or the earth spirits to use the land.
The ritual of salang takes place after the process of evaluating the site of the construction. In addition to studying the landscape and the orientation of the land, small amounts of the soil from the site are taken in order to carry spiritual and geomantic analysis to check if the land is suitable for the person. Rituals to avert the negative consequences are carried out if there are problems.
After the site of the construction is confirmed, the ritual of salang normally takes place on a day, which is auspicious and appropriate for such activities. The astrologer does the calculation to get an auspicious convergence of stars, planets and other astrological factors in relation to the owner of the construction to obtain the land from the earth spirit. On such a day, the Buddhist practice of salang ritual starts with Taking Refuge (སྐྱབས་འགྲོ་) and Cultivation of Bodhicitta (སེམས་བསྐྱེད་) intention. This is often followed by the ritual of lhabsang (ལྷ་བསང་) or incense offering and fumigation and thruesol (ཁྲུས་གསོལ་) or purification through ablution. Through these rituals, one clears the obstacles and invokes the blessings of the deities and spirits. Often a fire from an auspicious house is taken to burn incense in a container of precious metal. The direction in which the smoke rises is used as a sign to read the future and, if the omens are not auspicious, rituals to avert misfortunes are recommended.
However, the main part of the ritual is the stage in which one takes the land from the earth spirit. This spirit, Sadag Tochye, is represented in an iconographical form of a serpent, which resembles a mermaid. Its upper torso is a human body and the lower half that of a fish. It has a hood of snakes and carries a treasure vase on the right hand and the left hand covers the nose. Sometimes it is portrayed with a human body with a bull head, golden right horn and turquoise coloured left horn. The spirit is believed to possess many miraculous powers and appears also in other forms.
The astrologer carries out detailed calculation of the position of the earth and the time of the ritual using standard astrological formulas to find out the exact location of the earth spirit. The precise verification of Sadag Tochye’s position on the land is important as one must know the exact spot to start digging. It is considered inauspicious to take land from any other parts of the spirit’s body, except the belly, which is considered as opening for its boon. With the help of a compass to verify the cardinal direction and a chart with the image of the earth spirit, an astrological calculation is done to pin point the belly of the earth spirit. A young person or persons of noble birth with right stars and no physical defects is then employed with an ornamented digging tool to make the first dig on the belly of the earth spirit.
The soil, which is dug up, is further analysed for its quality and milk or water is poured into the spot after digging to check the soil. If the signs are not positive, rituals for improving the quality of the land and for averting mishaps are recommended. In the final act of the ritual, ritual vases filled with the essence of four elements, minerals, precious metals, cereals, etc. are then buried in the centre and four corners of the site to inject the land with power.
The salang ritual represents the respect Bhutanese have towards the earth and their deep belief in the power of the natural environment, its non-human denizens and the importance of harmony between nature and human life.