Pleasing Gods And Deities: Practice Of Bonism Still Lives On In Remote Parts Of Bhutan


In Bhutan, Bonism is still practised in remote pockets of the country.

A local priest makes offerings to the deity at the Pholha Dzong. (Source: Bhutan Cultural Atlas)


By Phub Dem Business Bhutan

Though modernisation has already made inroads into the country, age-old pre-Buddhism practices involving the worship of nature, spirits and animal sacrifices are still prevalent.

In Bhutan, Bonism is still practised in remote pockets of the country. According to oral tradition, the spread of Bonism is a pre-Zhabdrung tradition where animals were sacrificed and offered to nature.

As the winter chill spreads its icy fingers throughout the Kingdom, some people can be seen moving from their residences to mountains, caves, ruined houses, streams and even giant trees to worship their local deity.

The procedures followed by the Bon practitioners

At the break of dawn, worshippers haul bags filled with an assortment of groceries along with the rib bones of yaks, oxen, pigs and strands of pork.


Photo: Map of Bhutan


The native residents of Haa, specifically the men, will carry the ribs and local alcohol (Chang Phee).

Upon reaching their destination, the Bon practitioners will start shaping an elaborate offering of dough (torma) and coloured butter which they will put atop a roof or elevation as a treat for the ravens.

Regarded as sacred, killing a raven is considered as great a sin as slaughtering a thousand monks.



Bhutan's fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck (right) crowns his son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck as the fifth King of Bhutan, in the Throne room of the Tashichhodzong Palace during the coronation ceremony in Thimphu, Bhutan on November 6, 2008. With medieval tradition and Buddhist spirituality, a 28-year-old with an Oxford education assumed the 'Raven Crown' of Bhutan. 

Photo: Royal Government of Bhutan


They then spend a few minutes chanting mantras for the well-being of all sentient beings and prayers to offset natural disasters. The elder male in the family will then recite more mantras.

The hymn starts with praises to the local guardian of Haa-Ap Chundu, followed by the household deity (Jow Pham) and finally the neighbouring deities. 

According to an elderly Haa resident, Ap Tobgay, every household in Haa has a Jow Pham who takes care of the well-being 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.” 

The presence of crows is regarded as a good sign

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 endeavours peacefully.

“A crow is the herald of a 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.


 Offerings made to appease the local deity. 

Photo: Bhutan Cultural Atlas


However, with the spread of Buddhism, the practice of killing animals is now replaced by the offerings of joints and cuts of meat (Sha-Nga).

“We have stopped killing yaks during Ap Chundu Selkha, however we still offer yak meat during the rituals,” added Ap Sangay.

Reasons for practising Bonism

Although many people try to appease nature either because they are sick or as recommended by the pawo (shaman), it is usually the obligation to fulfil family  traditions that prompts people to practise Bonism.


Norbu Lhamo, a pawo performing a ritual

in Bephu Village for a sick lady.

Photo: Bhutan Cultural Atlas


The owner of the Chuzakha Lhakhang in Haa said that people pay homage to the nearby surroundings to avoid business failures and to gain luck while importing stock.

Others would worship the local deities to seek blessings as they embark on new careers or for protection while travelling.

Some believed that it is compulsory for an individual to offer Sha-Nga annually to the local deity right from the time of his or her birth.

“I can’t think of skipping this ritual because if we fail to do it, harm will befall us.”


This article first appeared in Business Bhutan and has been edited for the Daily Bhutan.


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