Pleasing gods and deities: Age-old bonism practice still lives on

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Though modernization has already made inroads into the country, the age-old pre-Buddhist practices involving worship of nature spirits and animal sacrifices is still prevalent in Haa.

In Bhutan, Bonism is mostly practiced in remote pockets of the country and animals are sacrificed to local deities (Yul Lhas).

As winter chill spreads its icy fingers across the country, people are seen moving from their residences to mountains, caves, ruined houses, streams and giant trees to worship their local deity. Fall attracts people of western Bhutan to make annual offerings to their gods.

At the break of dawn, worshippers haul bags filled with an assortment of grocery items along with rib bones of yaks, oxen, pigs or strands of pork. After reaching their destination, Bon practitioners firstly shape an elaborate offering of dough (torma) and colored butter and put it atop a roof or elevation as treat for the ravens. They then spend a few minutes repeating mantras for the wellbeing of all sentient beings and prayers to offset natural disasters.

According to oral tradition, the spread of Bonism is a pre-Zhabdrung tradition where animals were sacrificed and offered to nature.

Up with the lark, the native residents of Haa are seen on the dormer with males carrying ribs, local alcohol (Chang Phee) followed by recitation of mantras by the elder male in the family. The hymn starts with praises to the local guardian of Haa-Ap Chundu followed by the household deity (Jow Pham) and then the neighboring deities. 

According to an elderly Haa resident, Ap Tobgay, every household in Haa has a Jow Pham who takes care of the wellbeing of the family. The family in return should pay homage to the deity annually. “We offer meat, fruits, food and offerings of dough to the invisible substance.” 

It is also believed that if crows appear during the offering, it is a good sign indicating that the deity is pleased and the family can plan their endeavors peacefully. “Crows are the herald of deity and its presence signifies the triumph of the yearly offering.” 

Ap Sangay, 87, said that in the olden days, there were folklores of people butchering yaks, oxen, calves, pigs and birds to please nature and the deities. However, with the spread of Buddhism, the practice of killing animals is now replaced by offerings of joints and cuts of meat (Sha-Nga).

“We stopped killing yak during Ap Chundu Selkha, however we still offer yak’s meat during the ritual,” added Ap Sangay.

Though many people try to appease nature either because they are sick or the pawo (shaman) recommends it, it is usually family tradition that prompts people to follow Bonism.

Some said that it is compulsory for an individual to proffer Sha-Nga annually to the local deity right from birth since their family members have to consult the deity. “I can’t think of skipping this ritual because if we fail to do it, harm will befall us.”

There are others who deliberately worship the local deities to seek blessings for business, some seek protection while traveling and still others while venturing into new career.

Owner of Chuzakha Lhakhang in Haa said that people pay homage to the nearby surroundings in case of failure of business and to seek luck while importing stock.

Phub Dem from Haa