Alcohol in Religious Rituals

The distilled spirit ara (ཨ་རག) is used in many religious rituals. From the use of chang or ara in daily rituals in dzongs and temples to its use in seasonal festivities, one can find profuse use of ara in the religious culture of Bhutan. Thus, we find terms such as serkem-chang, tor-chang, tsok-chang, dutsi-chang, sangdzé-chang, jinsek-chang, yang-chang, ngö-chang, tsan-chang, tshe-chang, and khando-chang, all of which has the word chang suffixed to a religious word.

1. Serkem-chang (གསེར་སྐྱེམས་ཆང་)

Serkem-chang is an offering made to the local deities for protection. It is customary that people offer serkem or libation to the deities in the temple, especially when they are about to travel for an important purpose. Such libations are made for purpose of well-being in the present life and also in the next life.


2. Tor-chang (གཏོར་ཆང་)

Tor-chang is the alcohol which is offered while or after making torma or ritual objects from dough and butter sculpture. Tormas are regularly used in the majority of religious rituals in Bhutan. While ara may be mixed with dough to make torma in some cases, tor-chang normally refers to the alcohol offered to the priest who make the torma or to the alcohol which is offered with torma.


3. Tsok-chang (ཚོགས་ཆང་)

Tsok-chang is offered during the tsok-khor, or tantric feast, ceremony. Alcohol is offered alongside tsok offering during such tantric rituals.


4. Dutsi-chang (བདུད་རྩི་ཆང་)

Dutsi refers to the nectar of immortality. In many spiritual practices, the blessings of the Buddha and the ambrosia of immortality is represented by a cup of alcohol. At the end of the ritual, drops of dutsi are distributed to the people present in the ceremony. A skull container is often used for holding the dutsi.


5. Sangdzé-chang (བསང་རྫས་ཆང་)

Bhutanese make offerings of incense and smoke called sang and use a wide range of ingredients for the sang substance. The ingredients are collectively called sangdzé and one of the ingredients is ara.


6. Jinsek-chang (སྦྱིན་སྲེག་ཆང་)

A common ritual performed for wellbeing is a fire ceremony called jinsek. With the visualizing of fire as a deity, various substances are poured into the fire as offering. Among the substances, it is common to find alcohol as an item of offering.


7. Yang-chang (གཡང་ཆང་)

Bhutanese perform rituals for increasing wealth, especially propitiating wealth gods to enhance the essence of wealth or yang. For this purpose specially brewed ara, called yang chang is prepared and served during the ritual.


8. Ngö-chang (བསྔོ་ཆང་)

Ngö-chang is alcohol served during dedication prayers. Prayers are said to dedicate benefits of good deeds for the welfare of sentient beings. A jar of ara is sometimes offered to the lama, who recites ngöwa prayers. The alcohol is then served to the people who are present.


9. Tsan-chang (བཙན་ཆང་)

Tsan, a type of non-human spirit, is believed to dwell in the mountains. It is also believed that every human has a tsan spirit as his/her protecting deity. It is a responsibility of an individual to make offerings to it. Specially prepared alcohol for this purpose is called tsan-chang. It is offered annually or when someone falls ill and the cause may be the displeasure of the tsan spirit.


10. Tshe-chang (ཚེ་ཆང་)

Tshe is life and people pray for long life. In rituals for long life, alcohol called tshe-chang is offered along with other items of offering.


11. Khandro-chang (མཁའ་འགྲོ་ཆང་)

Khando chang is a ritual drink related to an individual horoscope. It is believed that every person is associated with a khandro figure and it is the responsibility of each individual to remember and perform rituals dedicated to the khandro. Alcohol brewed for this purpose is called khandro chang, which is offered during the associated ritual.


12. Tagtu Dewai-chang (རྟག་ཏུ་བདེ་བའི་ཆང་)

It is common during the recitation of the religious texts such as the Buddhist canon to serve alcohol when the priests complete a section or a chapter of the text. The priest claps or makes a noise by tapping the small table placed before him. It is a signal for the host to serve a drink, which is called tagtu dewai-chang.


Compiled by Sonam Chophel and edited by Karma Phuntsho. Sonam Chophel was a researcher at Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research and Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.