The Tibetan Ja-Chang, or Tea-Alcohol ceremony

Ja-Chang is a wonderful Tibetan tradition for welcoming a traveler from afar or bidding farewell to anyone setting out for some far-off destination.

Ja-Chang literally translates to Tea-Alcohol (Chang being Tibetan home-brewed wine).

In the past, Tibetan families usually took tea and alcohol to welcome their neighbor or family friend who had come from afar. Growing up in exile in the early 1990s, I recall many of the Amalas (the mothers of the various households) planning these Ja-Chang ceremonies with much gusto. It made sense for them to plan these visits together as it served the additional purpose of a gathering of friends, allowing them to catch up on the latest news and events in the settlement and for the more intelligent-few, on the latest political developments in the Tibetan community.

Ahead of the planned time of day of the said Ja-Chang ceremony, my Amala would buy one dozen eggs, half a kilo of Draen-ngoe (or puffed rice) and one Pai (or barrel of bamboo) full of Chang (usually made of millet). Finally, an hour before leaving, she would make sweet milk tea or salty butter tea (BhoeJa) — this was also usually planned in advance between the Amalas, something on the lines of: “You make sweet tea, I’ll make BhodJa so there’ll be a variety.”

Eggs on drae-ngoe or puffed rice

Eggs on drae-ngoe or puffed rice

Eggs and drae-ngoe/puffed rice in a Loma

Eggs and drae-ngoe/puffed rice in a Loma

After making a flask-full of tea, Amala would empty the puffed rice into a Loma, a traditional container for snacks made of cane. The puffed rice would then be topped with the dozen eggs (see picture), all of which would be wrapped in a large scarf.

With all these items in tow, Amala would then set off with her friends to whoever’s house had a visitor they all knew — a son who had come home from the army for a two-month-long holiday, a mother who was back from a month-long pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya, or a daughter who had come from Ari (short for America) on a month-long holiday.

Items for the Ja-Chang ceremony: A flask-full of tea, Loma with puffed rice topped (usually) with a dozen eggs, and (the latest accompaniment) a two-liter bottle of Pepsi

Items for the Ja-Chang ceremony: A flask-full of tea, Loma with puffed rice topped (usually) with a dozen eggs, and (the latest accompaniment) a two-liter bottle of Pepsi

With time, the contents of these Ja-Chang ceremonies have also evolved. The Chang has slowly been replaced with a two-liter Pepsi or Coke bottle and the puffed rice with readymade-store-bought snacks. The flask-full of tea is the only constant. The dozen eggs are also a ready accompaniment, the only change being that they no longer have to be placed on puffed rice; they are now placed in the regular egg trays.

Still, depending on the proximity of the relationship between the two families, the receiver and the giver, the contents may increase further to include a packet or two of Tibetan flat noodles, five to ten packets of Phing, or a kilo or two of meat.

Following the Ja-Chang, the family who had a visitor would return the cane containers with some gift or the other. Earlier, based on the family’s generosity and/or wealth, the cane containers would come back with either a bar or two of soap, or a shampoo. These days, however, the return gifts are more expensive — they range from bags to umbrellas to tea cup sets to casseroles.

All the Amalas of these different families would go back and forth to each other’s places.

My Amala told me that Ja-Changs were extremely popular back in the day. Back then, we had a Nepali help called Je-dra. A day before Je-dra was due to return to his home in Nepal, he kept sipping his Chang and looking anxiously at the gate, until finally he admitted in much frustration towards the end of that day, “The Ja-Chang Amalas haven’t arrived even now.” My parents had to gently break it to him that Ja-Changs were usually reserved only for family members.

When my Amala told me Je-dra’s story recently, I couldn’t help wishing some of the Amalas from our settlements had humored him by doing the Ja-Chang ceremony for him too.

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