Tibetans and Vegetarianism

In terms of social changes in the Tibetan community, dietary preference is something that is slowly making its mark. Many people feel Tibetans being Buddhist and mostly non-vegetarian is something contradictory. Tibetans have a historical-geographical justification for prefering meat. Anyway, among the attempts made was the transformation of the cafeteria for officials of the Tibetan Government in Dharamsala into Vegetarian for one year in 2007. I wrote about it then and here it is.

Veggie Days at the Tibetan Staff Mess
Bhuchung K. Tsering
Tibetan Review, May 2007

One of my first tasks when I start my work each day is to log on to Dharamsala’s official website http://www.tibet.net to see if there are any new developments. The Tibetan Government-in-Exile’s website is updated regularly providing us with the latest information on the activities of the Tibetan leadership and major pronouncements, etc.

I also notice that the site has resorted to occasionally carrying light stories, may be as a way to attract the increasingly internet savvy young Tibetan audience.  I hope this website continues to provide substantive reports on the Tibetan Administration so that all of us will have a better understanding of its activities.

On April 9, 2007 the website carried a story that caught my particular attention. The headline said, “Tibetan staff mess turns veggie for one year.” Apparently, the cafeteria in the heart of Gangchen Kyishong (the seat of the Central Tibetan Administration) was doing away with the serving of any non-vegetarian meals (or the sale of meat products) for a year from April 11, 2007.”

But before I comment on this, I should say here that any story relating to the “Staff Mess” would trigger a plethora of memories to those people who may have had the chance to pass through its doors, whether as a regular staff member having his meals there or as the occasional visitor.  To some the Mess will remind them of the delicious “Churu” (aged cheese soup) that was occasionally served. In fact this particular dish was said to be the favourite of the late Tsering Wangyal, former editor of Tibetan Review. Many people also looked forward to the “specials” of the day, obviously far better and more expensive than the normal fare that was served. Others may be reminded of the days when the Staff mess was the sole venue of social life in Gangchen Kyishong (The more popular form being Gangkyi), whether it was “disco nite,” Chitrahar night or the Sunday night Hindi movie. I am talking about the pre-cable TV days when owning a personal TV set was a luxury. Also, those were the days quite many of the staff members in Gangkyi were not married and thus were looking for opportunities to while away their private time.  The Staff Mess enjoyed the monopoly for it was the only venue in the area that could provide some sort of social life.

If walls could speak, the walls of the Staff Mess may have many stories of funny incidents, romance, heartaches, politics, intrigues, scuffles, or the sheer joy of continuing to remind everyone of their school days. For, every day lunch or dinner is announced by the ringing of a gong, which is similar to those used by the Central Schools for Tibetans.

Above all, to any person who has spent time in Gangkyi, the Staff Mess will always be a reminder of the larger-than-life figure of the Machen Chenmo (Head Chef).  Not many of us may know his real name but everyone was a witness to his unique managerial system that kept the cafeteria alive. His techniques may not totally fit with modern management theories but somehow they were the ones that were found to be indispensable so much so that at one time, the Machen Chenmo was brought back to serve another stint after he was relieved from the Staff Mess. Thubten Samphel la, current Information Secretary and a writer on his own merit, even wrote about the Staff Mess and some of the characters there in the now-defunct Illustrated Weekly of India at one time.

Anyway, coming back to the story, I admire the spiritual goal of the decision to turn the cafeteria to a vegetarian place given that all the merit that may be gained is dedicated to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. While the meat products that were part of the menu for the staff members amounted to something, having seen the very many legs of muttons that would occupy the freezers of the Staff Mess (that got sold to the families of the people residing around Gangkyi) I can only imagine the number of lives that may be saved by this decision.

What is important, however, is that for this spiritual goal to be really achieved, I believe the motivation of everyone concerned, particularly the people who consume their food in the Staff Mess, needs to remain pure throughout the period. Although the report says that the decision has been taken based on “suggestions put up by a great many of civil servants,” in reality if people feel pressured to become vegetarian and may be doing so somewhat unwillingly, we cannot expect any spiritual benefit. One way to maintain a pure motivation of the consumers is for the management of the Staff Mess to see that they can satisfy the culinary taste even with the vegetarian dishes. This certainly would mean that the quality and variety in the vegetarian dishes that are served will need to be improved. I am sure they may have already thought of giving special training to some of the cooks to provide wholesome vegetarian food.

Even from the purely commercial point of view, knowing human nature, if the vegetarian fares turn out to be bland and insipid it could be that people will turn to the other eateries in and around Gangkyi for their lunches and dinners. Unlike those monopoly days, today the Gangkyi area has at least half a dozen eating places.  This is the challenge that needs to be faced from the beginning itself.

Whatever be the case, I welcome the initiative. Although the cafeteria may be vegetarian only for a year, I hope it will have the long-term impact of provoking more of our people to think vegetarianism on its own merit without really having to do it for some other reason.

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