Great Figures of the Missionary Work – Bengal and the Kingdom of the Dragon (33)

– Joaquim Magalhães de Castro


As the vehicle struggled over the uphill zigzag path that came from the main road, we are able to see several houses in ruins, proving the ancestrality of the place. We had witnessed nothing of the sort in the previous villages. I am slowly reconciled with the country, now that the houses with half-timbered walls – windows, doorways and richly decorated parapets – show their authenticity. Protected by the eaves, the wood-burning sauces are used to warm the fireplaces in the long winter. Houses almost intact in their original layout, undone only by the substitute zinc ceilings of the schist slabs and the stem. Between the roof and the base there is an open loft where all kinds of implements and the hay for the cattle are stored. The intense brown of the woods contrasts with the white of the lime that covers substantial parts of the walls made of mud. In the surrounding fields potatoes and all kinds of vegetables are grown. There are no synthetic fertilizers around here, and what you put on the table is one hundred percent organic. It reminds me of Georgia, where the fruits tastes like true fruits, a rarity in our days.

A woman sitting on a porch whom we ask for directions – before answering – expels with a powerful and well masculine spit part of the betel that she chews and stains her mouth and teeth. Here, over the course of several generations coal-colored teeth and red gums were considered signs of feminine beauty. In Japan, this ancestral practice (also adopted by the men) was called ohaguro. In that way both sexes exhibited and courted themselves, giving vent to vanity and self-love while taking advantage of the stimulating and psychotropic effects of the plant. The ohaguro would be banished by the authorities in 1870. Today, the blackening of teeth continues to be present in the Indian subcontinent (Himalayan regions included), among numerous minority groups in China and Southeast Asia and in the Pacific Islands. Now, and almost exclusively, practiced by the elderly. Betel is a Portuguese corruption of “vetila”, the Malaysian term for “leaf”. Three main ingredients are used in the preparation: areca nuts, betel leaves (pepper family) and a paste of red lime made from crushed limestone or sea shells, a potent digestive that causes strong burning in the mouth.

Curious figures lurk behind the closed windows, and children from school come to see what kind of people we are. Two of them, wearing beautiful kiras – the traditional long dress to the ankles, accompanied by an outer jacket known as tego, with checkered or striped pattern, feminine clothing par excellence – exemplify well the ethnic groups that make up the social fabric of the country: Mongolian, largely majority, constituted by multiple tribes – from Sherpa to Tibetan; from Lepcha to Limbu and Naglop – and the Lothshampas, of Nepalese origin, known as the “people of the south.” Not long ago, notoriously discriminated against and even deprived of their citizenship, many sought refuge in neighboring Nepal.

The girls show me the drawings they made this morning. They portray, as is fitting, the royal family, whose status is similar to that of the Thai counterpart. That is, they are only one step below the gods. They can do all and they rule over all.