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GREAT FIGURES OF THE MISSIONARY WORK – Bengal and the Kingdom of the Dragon (36)

– Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

Upon our arrival we were indeed intrigued with a small bonfire in the middle of the road that a middle-aged man at times revived with the help of a long stick. It is, as Sangay reports, a ritual of cremation known among peoples of Tibetan origin as “fova.” When some member of these communities dies, part of his personal objects is distributed to the most needy, while the rest is burned as evidence of total detachment from the material things of this world. During their sojourn in the kingdom, the two Portuguese priests must have witnessed ceremonials of the sort, for Estevão Cacela gives us news of this and other similar practices. Concerning the “fova,” for example, he writes: “After the death of a man they divide what they find in him with the most of the people in order that his soul goes well in the other life, and those who were absent at the time of its death bring to the king the main things of the deceased and with them they make their prayers.”

Realizing our curiosity, a relative of the deceased approaches us. Jigme is his name. He is accompanied by a woman who brings with her a plate of “ngaja” (tea with milk), “zao” (rice) and cookies that she readily offers us. The Bhutanese tradition orders that, before any offer of food, a guest must refuse it, uttering the words “meshu, meshu” while covering his mouth with his hands. Only after one or two insistences should one accept. Of course we do not know this bizarre etiquette and we gladly accept what they offer us, even because lunch has long been digested and appetite again tightens. Enjoying a tasty bit of “zao” I question Jigme about the raison d’etre of some nearby ruins – four walls of roofless mortar in the middle of which grow several trees. Jigme claims to be from her ancestor’s house, “fifth reincarnation of a famous mud,” and to be “over four hundred years old.” That is: it is the time that Estevão and Cacela passed by here.

While mentioning “the chief house of this King,” was he referring to one of these quadrangular residences which are commonly seen here and there, or the monastery? As far as I am concerned, this last possibility seems more likely.

Reducing the scrap to almost nothing, thanks to the power of the flames, the “fova” is concluded. Jigme then invites us to visit his house from where comes the sound of continued and whispering prayers. “It is the monks who have not yet finished the ceremony,” reports the friendly Bhutanese. But when we step into the house, the ceremony was already finished and now those officiating, half hidden in the gloom of the home, eat biscuits and drink tea. Since we are in a place that Cacela and Cabral have visited, we think it is appropriate to open one of the bottles of the wine that we bring with us. We inform our hosts of the importance of this good of consumption, always present in the pouch of the priests and in the barrels well tied to the decks of the ships. To honor the memory of the deceased, as well as the success of our enterprise, we make a toast, and the men of the house accompany us, albeit with timid sips. Judging by their semblance they do not seem at all impressed with the drink. For them, perhaps, of unknown flavor, although such they do not want to admit.

If in Tibet, the precious buttered tea is invariably accompanied by tsampa (roasted barley), Bhutan reigns in red rice, the only variety of this cereal capable of thriving at high altitudes. Its texture resembles that of brown rice and the taste reminds us of the nut shell. Buckwheat and corn are also common in the eastern part of the country, accompanied by dry yak, pork or mutton. Soups and meat stews with dried lentils and vegetables are always seasoned with cayenne and cheese. Incidentally, the spice is perhaps the most distinctive feature of local cuisine. The cheese, made from cow’s milk, is never eaten raw, and always integrates the sauces.

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