Shades of Hospitality

One winter evening I was complaining to my father about a dinner I couldn’t get out of; of how I rather preferred staying at home, than reconnect with the chill of synthetic leather on my car seat. Immediately, he began lamenting how easy life is for us.

“We have trudged barefoot through wilderness, carrying loads on our backs along winding footpaths, treacherous valleys and angry rivers to reach from one destination to the next.” Clearly disapproving my disregard for kind invitation to eat, he continued, “We would have one thing on our mind after a journey like that; a place to rest. We would trail along like a gypsy caravan of sorts; with livestock, rations, children scurrying about, old people, and all converged on reaching our destination. Every member in a family helped during these travels. Little children were made to carry small baskets holding poultry or clay pots, the elders in the family took care of young children, and the livestock were beasts of burden. Families with no beast had to carry the entire load themselves.”

It was prevalent in Bhutan to travel according to the seasons; but people moved from one village to the other to tend to their land, as well. Especially in winter, villages in higher altitudes resembled a ghost town. The pattern of moving to warmer places meant travelers had to carry rations of grains, cheese, meat, salt, and butter in ‘sipa’(sipa are bamboo containers of different shapes, that also stores azay. Azay - originally dried red chilli paste with Szechuan peppers, fermented cheese & salt.)

“Fatigued, grandmothers would lament and wish aloud how they could reach from one place to the other while seated throughout.”

A generation ago, most Bhutanese of the East relied on host families at the foothills of Bhutan. Kumarkata, in Assam was the meeting point of these two different cultures. This place was locally named as “Gudama”, which fell further south of Samdrupjongkhar. Gudama - which literally translates to mean the ‘first beginning’- was where the Bhutanese traders set up tents for months.

Whole communities, before traveling south to Gudama, would begin preparing for months. Families would dry out old woven textiles, weave new ones, carve out dapa (a bowl carved out of wood), weave bamboo baskets, and start storing grains to barter. The excitement buzzed entire communities and was carried on annually, till the early 1970s.

There are stories of generous Assamese host families who willingly provided a roof to these Bhutanese for long months.  The economies of those times played a vital role in this collaboration; Bhutanese bartered textiles, dairy products and agricultural produce in exchange for rice, salt, sugar, raw materials for weaving, etc.

Within Bhutan, travelers took to these treacherous paths to trade among villages or for government work. Trudging along these obscure routes took many days, weeks and, sometimes months.

Explaining generosity, my father continues, “For a traveler, generosity from strangers meant shelter and food at the end of one’s journey. Without such generosity, much would have been left to wilderness.”

This beautiful aspect of providing refuge to strangers was borne from an ingrained consciousness of interdependence among families and communities. When the world was a less sinister place, ‘Nyeb-nya-ni’ was a term on every traveler’s lips. Loosely interpreted, ‘nyeb’ could mean either the host or accommodation, ‘nya-ni’ meant ‘borrow from’ or ‘lend to’. The host lent their homes to strangers.

Hospitality was an act of protection and to turn away a stranger from one’s door was unheard of. When most of the landscape was covered in forest, and the danger of wild animals and bandits were looming over every travelers’ mind, respite came in the form of a warm fire to sit by and a companion to talk to. This custom played a vital role of connecting communities by bringing news of events in other parts of the country. Since villages were far flung, travelers were a source of information from whence they travelled. They played a crucial role in linking different parts of our country.

Location was important, as my father put it, “Bhutan used to consist of villages where houses were scattered far and wide. If a house was at the foot of the hill, the other would be closer to the top. These scatterings of houses were not random; it was specifically planned around the landscape to accommodate traveling necessity of those times. In a time when tax systems were rigorous and harsh, this strategic placement of houses served as rest points.”

Every Bhutanese who travelled from one point to the other, no matter how short a distance, had to provide their services to the government by carrying goods. This was referred to as ‘Dho’.”  ‘Dho’, loosely interpreted is baggage assigned to a household, which must be transported, by members of that household to an allocated location. ‘Dho’ could consist of grains and dairy products, or occasional building materials. The houses along the way provided an interval for rest before starting forward the next part of the journey.

My father reminisces travelling with his father as a little boy. “In winters when the ground was frosted and hard, Apa would make a rawhide pouch, fill it up with leaves for cushion and to warm my feet. Apa himself walked barefoot; his soles were like thick hide that twigs underneath barely bothered him. We would prattle about everything under the sun, rest under tree shades, quench our thirst from small creeks, eat rice with azay and shakam (air dried beef) from our packed pouches. Even if we traveled a great distance, we only stopped between villages, after seeking shelter in some stranger’s home.”

“While the children slept next to the fire, the elders would relax over a cup of ‘ara’  (Ara is a local brew made from fermented grains like wheat, barley, millet, maize, tapioca, etc. depending on availability) and exchange stories. Before departing the next morning, Apa would sometimes gift the family with butter and rice for their kindness.”

To these kind host families and their descendents, my father still holds a feeling of gratitude.  He remarks that “a plate of rice is never a plate of rice.” ‘Toh-pho-chi’ is the term he uses all the time, which means a meal. This gratitude guests bestows on host families must be understood, keeping in mind the rural backdrop of human life then. It was always a matter of life and death.

This strand of old age hospitality has slowly but faded. Hospitality has manifested in many ways, and is barely a shadow of its old glory. The thread that bound communities together, strangers and friends alike, are being replaced by human prejudice and social status. Nowadays, it is unlikely a stranger will go knocking on random doors seeking shelter. And, almost unheard of to allow a stranger in one’s home.

However, we can find similar strands of nyeb-nya-ni in far flung villages, in communities that are still tied by ancestry and history. I remember during my travels to the furthest villages in the east, I was readily offered ara, food and shelter by every villager I met. It was refreshing to see such enthusiastic display of pleasure to play the host. Even when the family didn’t have much, it was endearing to experience a pure form of hospitality. The lack of rest houses and modern amenities presented a kind of dependence I was not very comfortable with- which was rid after taking few swigs of ara. And then, it was an absolute delight to hear local folklores from everyone around the crackling fire.

Five decades of development has brought many social, economical and cultural changes in the country. The economies of hospitality in Bhutan have changed drastically over the past few decades. In the more urban areas, where hospitality is an industry, with restaurants and hotels, most families prefer to use these establishments than deal with social etiquettes of being a guest. At present, the situation may not be as dire, but this may be the beginning of isolation and individualism we witness in the west.

We still have families travelling from villages to urban areas, where their relatives work and live. It is still a given to have one’s home filled with aunts, uncles, cousins and relatives for long months at a time- either for  holiday, work, medical treatment, etc.  It is gratifying to see that anyone can still drop in, without prior notice,  at a friend’s or relative’s place uninvited, and be graciously invited to join a meal; in my case, too many.

With all their belongings, our intrepid predecessors made their way from one place to the other. Yet in the face of challenges, it’s these generosities which have brought about a better life for us. The desire to provide better and live better has ultimately moved and shaped our country.

Perhaps, by checking our own prejudices, we may find obscured in us the true measure of being a Bhutanese. It may most possibly have been a necessity of that time, but we must not negate that these necessities were borne out of recognizing similarities and understanding differences between communities. Bhutanese have known hospitality through human ties and, money a little less. It is this rich underlying fabric of every Bhutanese life we must preserve for our future generations, so they may experience and enjoy being a guest sometimes.


  1. with the alienation of modernity, nyeb-nya-ni is a breath of fresh air. it's great to hear that people in the more rural communities still participate in that tradition.

    there's a lot to be said about sitting around a fire, drinking ara, and getting to know complete strangers that lend you there home after a long journey. that kind of nostalgia is a forgotten narrative, a narrative that is displaced due to the insecurities of our modern times.

    thank you for keeping the narrative alive.


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