A spice that was once bartered now brings in cash

Agriculture: Whether it is a bowl of fried garlic, emadatshi, ezay or any other dish, the distinctive sting of Sichuan pepper or thingye can be tasted in every meal cooked in the small village of Tshelingkhor.

When it is not added during the preparation of a dish, it is served separately in a bowl during meal time.

When you are in this village, thingye is not only tasted in almost all dishes but it is a common sight see the plant itself growing in front of every household. Seeds too lay scattered all over the ground.

Tshelingkhor chiwog in Zobel gewog is known for its abundant thingye production.

Apart from growing a few vegetables like chilli, potato and maize, thingye has become the village’s main cash crop. It is a practise passed down from generation to generation.

Tshelingkhor with about 30 households is 24km from the Zobel gewog centre in Pemagatshel.

Thingye is cultivated and harvested in the month of July. Each household has at least 30 thingye shrubs in their field. Villagers make more than Nu 50,000 every year from selling the pepper.

Each shrub takes about three years to mature. Each farmer gets about 60kg of dry thingye after harvesting about 100kg of fresh pepper.

They sell the pepper for around Nu 550 a kilogramme, when dried, and about Nu 60 a kilogramme when sold fresh.

Vegetable vendors in Samdrupjongkhar and the neighbouring Indian town of Darranga, are their main customers.

One of the farmers, Wangmo, said that earlier, farmers had to transport the pepper to Samdrupjongkhar and sell the spice directly to the buyers. However, with demand increasing every year, the buyers now come to the village.

This, she said, was an advantage for the farmers because they don’t have to travel to Samdrupjongkhar, which is almost 100km from Pemagatshel.

“This has helped us earn an income since our parents’ time and we’ve managed to send our children to school because of it,” she said. “Vegetables also help us to earn a little extra income,” she added.

Wangmo added that even if they go to Samdrupjongkhar, buyers rush for the spice.

“It may sound unrealistic but now we’ve to hide some thingye for our own consumption otherwise the buyers won’t even leave a kilogramme for us.”

Farmers said that when the vegetables or maize production failed, thingye has always come to the rescue and helped them earn some cash income. This is because once it is planted, it doesn’t require much care. Wildlife also stay away from the plant because of its thorns.

“But since the harvest season is in the monsoon, the rain disrupts the harvest and then its thorns make it difficult while plucking the seed,” Tshering, 34, said. “Sometimes the buyers even rush for the seedlings and offer Nu 10 a kilogramme.”

According to elders, thingye used to be the sole source of income in the past when the barter system was still practised. Farmers then, used to take the pepper to villages in the border areas and barter with flour, cooking oil and other essential goods.

“And now this same pepper fetches us cash,” Gyeltshen, a farmer said. “We used to consume raw pepper because we are used to the taste and smell. We grew up with it all around us.”

The villagers said they do not auction thingye because it fetches them low prices. The price does fluctuate but even low prices are able to bring in a good income for the farmers.

The farmers said they will pass down the practice to their children and continue to survive on thingye.

Yangchen C Rinzin | Pemagatshel