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Helpers prepare the vegetables for the lochoe
Helpers prepare the vegetables for the lochoe

When Lochoe turns vegetarian

It is Aum Dorji Dem’s annual lochoe tomorrow. The family had gathered at their paternal house in Rithang-wog village in Dangchu. Some had travelled from Thimphu. It is late evening.

Surprisingly, apart from relatives chattering on updates in their lives and the snow at Dochula, the evening is not busy. The monks and the cooks have not arrived.

Usually, by this time, everyone would be busy preparing for the big day. The monks would be kneading dough and readying ritual cakes. The head cook, usually the village cook, and his helpers would be chopping meat and bones and cooking them.

Bago, the cook shows up around 8:30pm. He is not bothered. There is no meat to chop or Phangu (pig head) to be roasted, or juma (sausages) to be made.  After a cup of tea, he gets to work. Bago and three helpers finish slicing two plastic bags of mushroom in an hour.

There is a big change in the annual lochoe, a ritual held in every household to ward off misfortune and rejuvenate good karma in the family. There is no meat on the menu, not at all.

That includes the morning thuep (porridge). Mushroom curry and ezay (chili paste) replaced chim curry (liver) for breakfast. More vegetable curries follow for lunch. There is broccoli, fried and steamed, long and slender beans mixed in cheese, dried chili in cheese cooked in butter. The spring onion leaves almost disappearing in the generous dose of cheese.

Cook Bago appears again. “What curry should we serve for lunch and dinner tomorrow? And what about the next day?” Bago asks the head of the family with a wry smile.

There are options. The family has spinach, radish, carrots, more mushroom, cauliflowers, eggs and even lentil. They can stir fry, fry, boil, mix with cheese or egg. But Bago is least interested. “If it is pork, I am the man,” he says.

Except for the tshogsha (meat for offering), there is no sight of meat at the lochoe. It is the biggest change from last year. The family of nine in the room gets into a debate. “It is a god initiative. Eating meat for two days is not good,” says Passang who had travelled from Thimphu where she lives and work.

Head of the family Aum Dorji Dem is not impressed. “People everywhere eat meat everyday. Why not on lochoe,” she says. “It is embarrassing. Nobody would enjoy the lochoe.”

Sha Dangchu in Wanguephodrang is the latest village to ban serving meat.  While the decision to ban was implemented in many villages across the country, Dangchu gewog, in consultation with the people decided to ban serving meat and alcohol during the annual ritual.

The gewog tshogdu passed a resolution. It comes with a penalty of Nu 5,000. Everybody is vigilant. The tshogdu also decided that villagers would not offer more than Nu 500 as gyep (monetary offering).

Dangchu Gup Pemba said the decision was made with the consensus of the people. It has been about a decade that His Holiness the Je Khenpo issued a Kasho banning meat during lochoe.

“We tried to implement the initiative earlier but we couldn’t. This year, we shared the Kasho with the people and with their consensus, the gewog decided to ban meat,” Pemba said. “People are convinced that animals are slaughtered for meat and it didn’t go well with the religious rituals.”

In the past, villagers reared pigs to be slaughtered for the lochoe. The two-day lochoe would need almost a whole pig’s meat. Besides feeding guests and neighbours, villagers pack enormous lunches, enough for three to four people, for the monks on the third day of the lochoe when the monks leave for the monastery and their homes.

The gup said people were not sure what to cook. “They thought lochoe without meat was boring. But they can make a variety of dishes from vegetables,” he said. This spread after a few households conducted theirs without meat.

Vegetable is not a problem in Dangchu. At this time of the year, the gewog produces radish, spinach and turnip. Pemba said that the initiative also gave people an opportunity to explore ways to prepare the available vegetables in many ways, not just with datsi. “While some may not be happy about the initiative, many gave positive feedback.”

Almost all the 21 households in the village were done with their lochoe. “The initiative was positively taken and implemented in all five chiwogs in the gewog and it went well,” Pemba said.

But there are still some who are getting used to the change.  A villager, Tawchu said that while the ban is good, lochoe doesn’t feel like one without meat and alcohol. “Maybe it’s because we are not used to the practice.”

Meat and alcohol were an important part of lochoe, said Tshewang, an elderly villager in his late 70s. When he was a kid, he said it was only during lochoe and losar that villagers got to eat meat and drink ara (locally brewed alcohol) the whole day. “People look forward to such event.”

Days leading to the lochoe are busier. Another villager, Sangdha said that women would be busy roasting rice, beating maize and brewing ara. “It was a lot of work but we enjoyed it,” she said. Over the years, things have changed. Tshewang said that people stopped raising pigs, roasting rice and beating maize. “You can buy everything from the market.”

Going vegetarian is not as cheap as many thought. Sangdha said they thought banning meat and alcohol would reduce the expense. “But, if we calculate it, it costs almost the same if not more.” “The vegetable curry is not like the one we would usually have at home. We have to buy a variety of vegetables and require more hands to ready the dishes.”

But Sangdha has found an opportunity in the change. “I am planning to grow more vegetables in my green house from next year,” she said.

Another change is the merry making during lochoe.  “On the last day of the lochoe, relatives and neighbors, both young and old would come together to feast, drink all night and dance until dawn,” said Tshewang.

If it has to do with serving meat or alcohol, nobody knows.

Dechen Tshomo  | Wangdue

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