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Saturday, 11 January 2014

A Homestay in Haa for Lomba (Haap New Year)

Despite its close proximity to Paro and Thimphu, the Haa Valley is one of the least visited valleys by tourists coming to Bhutan which seems odd to me, given its fabulous name, beautifully forested hills and quiet, unspoiled nature.

The beautiful Haa valley in summer
My interest in Haa was first stirred by my colleague and Dzongkha lopen, Thinley Pelden, himself a proud Haap (as people from Haa are known). Thinley told me in detail about the special Haap New Year, called Lomba, which is celebrated on the 29th day of the 10th month of the Bhutanese calendar. After hearing his impassioned descriptions of how his childhood New Years were spent making karma-altering offerings of dough effigies and eating voluminous quantities of hand-crafted buckwheat dumplings, I knew I had to go and experience this unique celebration for myself.

Last year, Lomba fell on the auspicious date of 12/12/12. Not to be outdone, this year Lomba fell on the same date as western New Year’s Eve – a very rare occurrence that was explained to me as being only possible on something akin to a Bhutanese leap year. So on this confluence of Haap and western New Years, it felt only natural that we should be following up our morning’s amazing hike above Cheli La by celebrating Lomba with a local family in Haa.

Our hosts Ugyen and Dolay (photo from their website)
The local family was that of retired yak herder Ugyen and his wife Dolay who have recently opened their home to visitors through a homestay program supported by the Tourism Council of Bhutan. After arriving in the Haa valley, Ugyen’s brother Dodo met our car on the road and guided us up a pot-holed road to their family’s traditional mudbrick and timber house in the tiny village of Dumchoe. There we met Ugyen’s other brother Namgay who is the head teacher at Phajoding Monastery, and Ugyen’s sister Chimi whose nearby house also functions as a homestay. You can find out more about their homestays here.

Ugyen and Dolay's Home (photo from their website)

Breakfast with Ugyen's family: (from left) yours truly, brother Namgay, Ugyen's father, sister Chimi and Ugyen
As Ugyen speaks almost no English, Dodo had done all our pre-arrival negotiations and had organised for us to have hot stone baths in the rustic shed in the front courtyard. After a day’s hiking and almost a year with no hot water system, it was a sublime experience to ease my tired bones into the steaming water and listen to the dramatic hisssss of red hot rocks being dropped into the end of the wooden tub.
Our hot stone baths were followed by the unique experience of learning to make hoentay – the Haap delicacy normally only made at Lomba. Unlike other Bhutanese dumplings, hoentay are made from locally grown buckwheat which gives them a wonderfully wholemeal flavour and texture. The filling is normally fashioned from a delicious combination of dried turnip leaves (lom), local cheese (datsi), Szechuan pepper (thingay), mushrooms, ginger, garlic, onion, chilli and melted butter: an entirely vegetarian affair for an auspicious day like New Year.
Making hoentay
In the warm family kitchen we were invited to sit on the floor where watched in awe as Dolay fashioned her hoentay with the effortless mastery of a true artisan, kneading and moulding the dough into tightly wound little pots which she then adroitly stuffed with filling. We – of course – made sloppy, flaccid versions of her tightly constructed offerings and were laughed at uproariously by Dodo who was refreshingly honest in his assessments of our efforts.
“How about this one, Dodo? It’s okay isn’t it?”
“No! No! Too thick! Try and do it like this.”
“Hey Dodo! What about this one? Too thin?”
“Oh yes! Much too thin. Look there is a hole in it already.”
A Short Photo Essay on The Dumpling Making Process

After rolling the dough into a thick cigar shape,
Dolay would use her index finger to fashion the dough into a small bowl
With a potter's skill, the dough would be ready for stuffing
Full of goodness.
This is a terrible (chilip) example of the pleats used to seal the dumpling
The finished product
As we sat and drank tea, rolling our hoentay dough and discussing Bhutanese and western culture with Namgay and Dodo, I was struck by how wonderful and unique it was to be so seamlessly and effortlessly included in so many aspects of Ugyen’s family’s life. Throughout our stay we drank tea and ate authentic Bhutanese meals with our hosts, met their neighbours who popped by for New Year’s, shared thukpa (rice porridge) on the morning of their annual rimdro (ritual) which happened to fall on the day after Lomba and really had a sense of being a part of a living, breathing Bhutanese household. 

The whole gang
By the time the hoentay had been stuffed, sealed and prepared for cooking, it was time to prepare the other important aspect of the Lomba celebration – a dough effigy to rid us of bad luck for the year. According to Namgay and Thinley’s explanations, Haaps believe that throughout the year an evil spirit follows them around seeking to impart all manner of bad luck and sickness. To eliminate any chance of this happening, each Haap household creates an effigy out of dough that is designed to trick the malevolent spirit into believing that the effigy is in fact the members of that household. The spirit thus follows the effigy, bombarding it with a deluge of horrible happenings and nasty diseases, leaving the actual real life members of the house to live a year of good luck, honest toil and robust, red-cheeked good health.
Ugyen's household effigy
At Ugyen’s, a nephew of the couple had designed the effigy to be sitting astride a sturdy dough horse, all the better for escaping evil spirits and impressing any young female effigies to be seen along the way. In order to keep the effigy travelling far enough to distract the evil spirit, it was loaded up with helpful provisions such as tea, local buckwheat, millet, barley, some cash, a butter lamp and of course, a handful of chillies.
Once the effigy was prepared and blessed by all members of the household, we carried it down to the local stream – hollering and yelping with typical Bhutanese abandon to try and attract the attention of the evil spirit. As head of the household, Ugyen placed the effigy by the river and said a prayer to wish it safe travels. Feeling purged and protected, we headed back to the house where a lavish meal of hundreds of homemade hoentay awaited us. 
  As the meal drew to a close and I found myself leaning back against the kitchen wall, stuffed to the brim with delicious, crispy hoentay, full of heart-warming Haa hospitality and sated by the happy memories of a day spent hiking, cooking, soaking and banishing evil spirits for the rest of the year, I found myself wondering if this weren’t perhaps a fail-proof recipe for all future new years. 
Other great links about Lomba and Haa: 
  • The Bhutanese Prime Minister, Tshering Tobgay, himself a Haap, writes about the significance of Lomba on his blog.
  •  My friend and excellent food blogger Dolro writes about her affection for hoentay in her Bhutanese food blog.
  • Passang Tshering - a well liked blogger in Bhutan - also a Haap - writes about what Lomba means for him.

54 comments:

  1. wonderful Matt! i think i will make myself an effigy every year thanks to our cathartic experience in Haa! :) thankyou for documenting our adventures so eloquently! xx

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