Understanding Lochoe, an annual family ritual and religious ceremony in Bhutan
‘Lochoe literally means an annual religious practice meant to appease the deities.
Held in every household in winter when people have a break from agricultural work, Lochoe is an annual family ritual to make offerings to both the national and regional territorial protector deities.’ The host family also has a festive gathering and feeds the neighbors and people passing by making it a social event for celebration in the respective community.
In the olden days, Lochoe is a major family project. The family prepares for it from the beginning of the year. Each household starts with rearing a pig to be slaughtered for the sole purpose of meat given the rarity. The pig is butchered few days before the lochoe by highlanders who visit the villages in winter for the job. They take the jowl of the pig as payment. Today, meat is no more a rare delicacy and given the vegetarianism movement, the monastic body prohibits serving meat during lochoe. In places with meat on menu, phangu (pig head meat) is a specialty.
The Cook with Phangu Curry
Few weeks before the lochoe, the woman of the house makes ‘ara’ – an alcohol distilled from fermented wheat, ‘Seap’ – pounded maize, ‘zaw’ – roasted rice and ‘Tsog’ – varieties of biscuits. She stores butter in containers to be used not just in tea but also for butter lamps.
One day before the lochoe, ‘torma’ – rice and butter sculptures are made to represent the protector deities that the family worship. The ‘torma’ is kept in the alter and ‘tsog’ is put before it as a form of offering. Thousands of butter lamps are also lit.
Altar with Torma Offering
On the day of the lochoe a lama and a group of monks come to the host family’s house to perform the rituals. Depending on the number of protector deities of the family, sometimes the tantric ritual is started at the crack of dawn and can last late into the evenings. Mantras are chanted for the whole day to make amends for any wrong doing, to offer gratitude for the blessings and to request for enhanced wealth and longevity.
Lama & Monk Performing Lochoe
There is a running joke amongst the villagers. They say that it’s called ‘Lochoe’ because the monks vomit from overeating (literal translation of ‘lo’ shortened for ‘kha lay lo’) and the host becomes crazy from the work of the day (literal translation of ‘choe’). Rightly so, since the host has to serve an array of food as per a list with the food in predefined order. To ensure that the foods arrive in the correct order, one of the monks is assigned the job!
When there were no mobile phones, you would hear households where lochoe was happening call out neighbours asking them to come for drinking porridge as soon as the sun is up. Each person from a house whose lochoe the host family must have attended come with a bottle of ara and bangchung (spherical shaped bamboo plate) of zaw. The ‘Nang gi aum’ (lady of the house) collects the ara and zaw from every guest. She returns the bottle and bangchung after dinner with rice and meat in the bangchung (trust me the size of the meat is checked upon return so they can reciprocate the gesture in the same way!).
The guests and the extended family members sit through the day in the sun sipping suja (butter tea), drinking ara and catching up on gossips in between meals. Post lunch, lochoe specialty like ‘Ja Thup’ (gnocchi pasta with gravy and minced beef), ‘daisee’ (sweetened butter rice), ‘droem’ – (sweetened milk with peas) and ‘Chugo ma ngo’ (cottage cheese in heated butter and melted sugar) are served. The day ends with ‘Yangchang’ – heated ara with egg in it served to everyone over dinner in prayers for the continuity of prosperity. After dinner, a few numbers of traditional dances are performed in front of the lama in alter and then it’s carried on in the living room till the wee hours of the morning. The host family stays awake for an extravagant supply of suja and ara throughout the night. People taking quick naps in corners of the house just to be woken up with pranks are a common sight and joy for the younger lot.
Observed for a day or two depending on households, lochoe is the time that everyone looked forward to for fun and food with family and friends. However, with rural urban migration, not many people are there in the villages. As such, lochoe has become more of a private family matter, and the few people in neighboring houses are just treated to a lunch or dinner. It’s still a culture carried on both in countryside and urban areas, and if you are in Bhutan you’d hear many inviting you to their lochoe.