The traditional Bhutanese practice of making Ngeshing Jorma Tea using lye in Bhutan is on the verge of vanishing with evolving modern technologies and the scarce availability of the plant, according to a study by foresters.
A derivative of Mistletoe (Viscum L.), a parasitic plant, Ngeshing Jorma is used in making suja or drunk by adding it to water.
The Department of Forests and Park Services (DoPFS) to observe and document the traditional knowledge of Ngeshing Jorma tea making published The Traditional Practice of Ngeshing Jorma Tea Making in Bhutan: A Dying Local Art book last month.
The study was conducted by Dendup Tshering from Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research, and Sonam Peldon from DoPFS.
The Ngeshing Jorma tea is made from the parasitic plant Viscum napalense and other species of Visum available in the local areas.
Viscum is recognised as one of the most important non-wood forest products in Bhutan. Products of Viscum are known to have health benefits such as treating bone fractures, backaches, and rheumatic pains.
According to the study, Ngeshing Jorma is popularly prepared and sold in Resnang, Dechenling, Nganglam in Pemagatshel; Thungshing, Gomdar in Samdrupjongkhar; and Berdungma, Rongthung, and Kangpara in Trashigang.
The study found that the shopkeepers in Narphung in Samdrupjongkhar, a place where tea was available in every shop, observed a decline in the sale of tea.
“They attribute this to the opening of Nganglam-Gyalpoizhing highway whereby commuters take the other route which is shorter and easier,” the study stated.
Yuden, 53, from Narphung, said that many people were not keen on buying the tea today.
“Commuters used to buy it before, but with the opening of the Nganglam-Gyalpoizhing highway, not many visit Narphung,” she said.
Yuden said that the villagers do not bring the tea to sell as before. “I hear that it is difficult to collect the tea today.”
The study also noted that tea suppliers take the product to other places than Narphung.
A farmer, Karchung, from Orong gewog, said that before people used to earn additional income from the sale of tea.
“People after learning its health benefits, overharvested it, and now it is scarce,” he said, adding that in areas where the tea is available, it is protected as community forests.
Although people can get a pass to collect the tea, many are not interested, he added.
The study found that the tea around the settlements had been “almost completely depleted”. One such area is Resnang village in Zobel gewog, Pemagatshel.
It observed that people travel days to collect the tea or occasionally buy from people of Merak and Sakteng.
Moreover, the plant takes time to regenerate and form harvestable clumps again making its availability scarce.
Viscum collected from the wild undergoes a process before labelling it as Ngeshing Jorma tea.
The traditional process consists of drying Viscum; boiling and frying it in lye made from wood ash boiled in water; drying it before packaging.
However, it was found that there were other improved modern alternatives and practices in local tea-making which was phasing out the traditional practice.
The study recognising the importance of Viscum in Bhutanese tradition and livelihood gains made four recommendations such as; a need to conduct a national resource assessment for its distribution and developing a guideline for its sustainable harvesting.
It also recommended conducting a phytochemical to determine its chemical composition and research on developing Viscum propagation technology.
Mistletoe is locally called Ngeshing Jorma because it is said that people in the olden days used to fix the broken pieces of the wooden yoke with the milky sap that oozes from the Viscum plant.
Ngeshing in Tshanglakha means yoke and Jorma means to join or fix.