In the remote eastern village of Jalang under Minjay gewog in Lhuentse, a dark shroud of mystery covers 48-year-old Tsheringmo who has been labeled a poison giver, popularly known as dug-bekhan.
A sickly mother of four children whose husband works as a farmer, she is ostracized by the villagers who believe that eating or drinking anything from her hands will result in sickness and even death.
Tsheringmo’s late mother had been an outcast as well, tagged as a poison giver, and the daughter has now inherited the cursed tag. People hesitate to eat from her; they refuse to help her with farm work while they talk behind her back.
In fact, life became so unbearable that when His Majesty The King visited Takila in 2016, Tsheringmo boldly approached Him to share her suffering.
The King in turn drank ara (local brew) from her hand and declared that she was not a poison giver. While her situation improved slightly after that, the village rumor mill continued to work against her, and she remains ostracized.
“Though I am not free of the tag, I am happy that The King himself took ara from my hands. Many witnessed this. My conscience is clear,” she says.
Tsheringmo explained that everything started with rumors. Villagers somehow started gossiping about her being a poison giver, and it all snowballed until life became totally miserable.
“The villagers ignore me as if I am invisible.”
Tsheringmo said she has done everything possible to eradicate the stigma, from visiting religious sites to performing holy rituals time and again but all in vain.
When she finally could not take it anymore, she confronted the villagers but everyone responded saying they had heard the rumor from another source.
“It was a blame game which made it impossible to trace the original source and I did not have any evidence to fight with. I feel so helpless and the trauma has often led me to contemplate ending my life but again, I have to think of my children,” she says, her voice quavering.
Tsheringmo’s greatest fear is the thought of her children being stigmatized like her.
Vacillating between anger and sorrow, she said nobody has died after eating from her hands. Interestingly, when villagers need help or things to borrow, they approach her. No wonder, she is baffled and feels used. “Here, if a woman is beautiful or wealthy, people spread rumors to defame her character. I feel I am neither yet the allegations persist.”
The experience has devastated Tsheringmo so much that she wants to leave the village and settle somewhere else far from her present community.
“If His Majesty visits Lhuentse again, I want to request Him for resettlement and live a peaceful life with my family,” she says.
Tsheringmo has never been to school but some of her children are studying. While the eldest daughter is married and settled in Paro, one of the younger daughters had to drop out of school after class X to look after her and give her company considering her poor health. She has three daughters and a son.
She prays daily that her children will not be labeled like her.
“It is too painful an experience,” she said adding that she firmly believes the gods will do her justice one day.
Talking to Business Bhutan Minjay Gup Tashi Norbu said that he was well aware of the issue but there is little the gewog authorities could do for Tsheringmo and her family.
“Tsheringmo herself has not lodged any complaints therefore we are helpless. But personally, I have been telling villagers not to spread rumors about her,” said Tashi Norbu.
The Gup also said that if she approaches him with a complaint, he is willing to help but the catch is it will be difficult to find evidence against the villagers.
But he did brush off the rumors as baseless.
“I have eaten from her a couple of times and nothing has happened. If she had been a poison giver, by now I should be dead,” he laughs adding that there are no records of deaths or illness in the village due to poison givers.
Meanwhile, Tashi Wangmo, in her mid-60s from Yongpaling Gonpa, in Metsho gewog in Lhuentse shared a similar story. Back in 2009, Tashi Wangmo, had approached the King for help when she was branded a poison giver and treated like a pariah by the villagers. She poured out her grief to His Majesty who drank ara served by her in public vicinity.
The only difference between the two so-called poison givers’ tales is that while Tsheringmo continues to battle stigma, Tashi Wangmo has been accepted by family and former foes.
Metsho Gup Gembo said that after His Majesty drank ara from Tashi Wangmo, people have started to mingle with her and eat from her without fear. “Now she is not ignored and she attends public gatherings without hesitation,” he said.
Gembo does not believe in poison givers. “It is a myth and about time people should stop believing in such things.”
Founder and President of the Loden Foundation Dr. Karma Phuntsho said the origin of poison givers is ambiguous.
“I suspect the culture is pre-Buddhist and rooted in the Himalayan concept of wangthang and lungta, and the extraction of these qualities by a person from another person who possesses it.”
He said in certain communities in the Himalayas it is believed that if some people are given poison, the giver can extract the prosperity and power of the recipient.
“Whether one considers it a superstition or a myth is totally dependent on one’s belief system. All our ideas and opinions are beliefs and they work for some but not for all.”
According to Dr. Karma Phuntsho, there is no clue of surveys or studies on poison givers in Bhutan. However, An Italian researcher has studied poison givers in southeastern Tibet and “it is probably prevalent in the eastern parts of Bhutan because of it.”
“The inhabitants of adjacent Tibetan regions of Kongpo and Dvagpo in southeastern Tibet also believe in poison givers,” he added.
However, those who have consumed edibles from poison givers testified that they did not fall sick or hurt in any way.
Tshewang Samdrup, a 30-year-old based in Trashigang, said that he ate and drank from two different poison givers despite being warned against it.
“I never believed in the myth and just to prove to my friends that it was hogwash, I ate from a woman, a so-called poison giver, a shopkeeper in Sakteng. Nothing happened to me,” he shared.
During a recent visit to Jalang village in Lhuentse, Tshewang drank three cups of suja (butter tea) from the famed poison giver but in his own words: “I am alive and healthy. It is really sad that mostly women are victimized and the whole family suffers!”
A recent graduate from Sherubtse College in Kanglung, Trashigang, Pema Dechen, also drank tea from a “poison giver” in a village in Lhuentse. Today she is very much alive and preparing for the civil service preliminary examinations.
Member of National Council from Lhuentse constituency Tempa Dorji said such vulnerable women should not be discriminated against.
“I have visited a couple of women known as poison givers and eaten from their hands but nothing happened.”
He believes that advocacy through mass media such as movies can make a difference in rural pockets where the myth still holds.
Lhuentse comprises the eight gewogs of Kurtoe, Minjay, Jarey, Khoma, Menbi, Tshenkhar, Metsho and Gangzur. From these, Kurtoe is most famous for poison givers.
Chencho Dema from Lhuentse
(This story is written with support from the JAB rural reporting grant)