Tibetan Butter Tea and Pink Gin: Life in Old Darjeeling

Ann Tashi Slater

[O]n November 30, 2004, the Himalayan moon setting over Darjeeling town and the snowy peaks of the Kanchenjunga range, my Tibetan grandmother died. According to the Western calendar, she was four months short of her 100th birthday but in the Tibetan way of calculating you’re one year old at birth, so she made it to 100. At home in Tokyo, I’d dreamed about her all night and was devastated but not surprised when my relatives called early in the morning to tell me she was gone.

I left that day for India. Usually I passed the long hours in flight by reading but, unable to concentrate, I watched TV. A cooking show was on, which seemed fitting since food had meant so much to my grandmother. Her story and the story of the era in which she lived can be understood through the food that she desired, prepared, and consumed; that even surfaced in dreams. At the heart of Tibetan life from birth to death—and rebirth—food was an important part of what defined her as a good daughter, wife, and mother. In many of the tales she told, it made an appearance in one way or another, from Tibetan butter tea and tsampa roasted barley to British scones and finger sandwiches to Anglo-Indian mulligatawny soup and masala chicken curry. This eclecticism reflected her world, a sphere that included East and West, old Tibet and British India; where she could take tea with the 13th Dalai Lama at his summer palace in Lhasa as well as enjoy a pink gin before gliding out onto the dance floor at Firpo’s, a Calcutta Raj-era hotspot.


[D]arjeeling is celebrated for its tea gardens and spectacular views of 28,000-foot Mt. Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain. The town spreads along and down a ridge almost one and a half miles above sea level, close to the Indo-Tibet border; steep lanes wind between old villas and shops and, in the surrounding hills, orchids and rhododendrons flourish. During the days of the Raj, or British Crown rule of the Indian subcontinent, Darjeeling became known as the Queen of the Hill Stations. It was a remote settlement of a few scattered villages when the British took over in the mid-1800s. By establishing a sanitorium, introducing the tea industry, building schools, and constructing a railway line, they created a thriving town that provided a refreshing escape from the heat of the plains, with a vibrant population of Europeans, Anglo-Indians, Tibetans, Nepalis, Sikkimese, Bhutanese, and Bengalis.
My Tibetan ancestors first came to the area in the 18th century, when it belonged to the Kingdom of Sikkim. Sometime in the 1890s, my great-grandparents fell in love and married. They had three children, all boys; my great-grandfather prayed to the Buddha for a girl and his prayers were answered. My grandmother told me:

“I was born on the 23rd of March, nineteen hundred and five, in the evening. My father, Ajo, used to say that in my previous life I was a princess. In our Tibetan belief, because of my previous good life, I’d taken another good life. And Ajo always felt very blessed because just before I arrived he dreamt that a big cup full of butter tea was being served to him and he started drinking and I was born.”

Known for his political and diplomatic skills, my great-grandfather, S.W. Laden La, was deeply involved in the affairs of British India, Tibet, and Darjeeling. The British appointed him liaison officer when the 13th Dalai Lama fled his country in 1910 and took refuge in Darjeeling, and my great-grandfather would play a key role in establishing relations between British India and Tibet. He also became Chief of Police, served on the managing committees of many monasteries, and took an active part in Darjeeling politics, advocating for the rights of the local people. After his wife died in 1911, he looked to his young daughter, my grandmother, to help him entertain the official visitors who streamed to his door.

“As I was growing up, the senior officer and his ADC junior officer, or the governor’s sons and daughters, wanted to come to our house, so Ajo would receive them with tea. He always told me: ‘They’ve arrived at the drawing room, get tea and all that ready properly.’ Since I was the only daughter, he depended a lot on me. Mind you, I was a little girl, but from that time I got the natural training. Not taught by anybody—self-learned! I controlled all the house servants and saw that they prepared the silver tea service with starched napkins. The bearer wore a white jacket with buttons of brass, and a black Gurkha hat. On the Wedgwood china, they gave scones and butterfly cakes, tomato finger sandwiches, bhuja spiced lentil and nuts, and of course Darjeeling tea, the Champagne of the East.”

In the early 1920s Ajo spent a year in Tibet, having been asked to establish the country’s first police force through an agreement between Lhasa, New Delhi, and London. The Dalai Lama, a strong advocate of modernization, appointed him Chief of Police in a ceremony at the summer palace. Ajo wrote to my grandmother and gave her the choice of sitting her Senior Cambridge exam or joining him in Lhasa; she decided to go to Tibet “for experience.”

“In the Wood Mouse Year or a little earlier, I rode up from Darjeeling onto the great plateau of Tibet to meet my father. I was with my brothers and stepmother and there were twelve sturdy dandy wallahs to carry two palanquins for my little stepsisters. I rode my favorite racing pony, Graylock, who ambled so nicely.

Crossing the plateau, we met a lot of traders coming by mule pack, with black on their face not to get sunburned and the wind not to peel their skin. They had tsampa roasted barley, Tibet’s staple food, in leather pouches at their waist. In the pouch the tsampa was kneaded together with butter tea and yak cheese, and with that they traveled for days! The muleteers offered us a yak’s body, or a whole sheep’s body, all straddling on the mule’s back and put into salt to keep. They sliced off raw meat and ate it. Red meat, you know? Without washing it! But Tibet has no germs because of the cold, so people never got sick.

After 21 days of long ride, we reached Lhasa. Ajo was there waiting and first thing, we went to see the Dalai Lama at his Norbulingka summer palace, where there were a lot of lovely flowers and peacocks. His Holiness was very dignified-looking, powerful, with the big moustache and seated on the high throne. We were given butter tea and khapse deep-fried bread was served, which was a great honor as it’s usually provided on special occasions like Losar New Year and weddings.

We lived in the former residence of the Chinese amban, who had been the Tibet ambassador from Beijing. There was a large storeroom, and I remember seeing eggs from the ground to the ceiling, tsampa from the ground to the ceiling. That storeroom was very rich, it always must have lots and lots of food! Must never be empty. Butter, meat, potatoes, everything was plentiful. For breakfast, they gave us a little tsampa in a bowl and we were expected to have that and butter tea. But that tea is salty and heavy, so later on we asked for the English-style tea we were accustomed to.

When the weather was warm we went for picnics in the park. We ate a lot of lovely food, like ting momo steamed buns with mutton and beef curry, shapale yak meat pies, and chang millet beer. On one side we had an orchestra, out in the open, and young girls dancing and singing and playing the Tibetan banjo.”

Ann Slater

After returning to Darjeeling, my grandmother received many proposals but planned never to marry so she could devote herself to taking care of her father. She followed his wishes, though, and became engaged to the tall, handsome son of a prominent local Tibetan trader. On July 12, 1930, the Darjeeling Times reported on my grandparents’ wedding, noting the gorgeous clothing, the fine weather, and the Tibetan inclination to “make merry when occasion offers.” After the ceremony, “the wedding cake was cut in the presence of a large number of assembled guests and the health of the bride and bridegroom drunk with much enthusiasm.”

“On our wedding day, Pala and I had a big procession through town, both of us on horseback. Our horoscopes had been sent up to Tibet to the Dalai Lama’s astrologer and when word came down that we could get married, as everything suited, the wedding date and time were set. We had the biggest Tibetan wedding in Darjeeling!

A big wedding in our house, big wedding in Pala’s house, and a very big English reception up by the cinema because we had so many British friends. Champagne and many layers of wedding cake were given. Thirteen cooks, chopping up for one week, provided all the eats. Thirteen cooks because the Marwaris, Biharis, Nepalese, Tibetans, Bengalis, British, all had to be entertained, with their different kinds of food. Five hundred guests we had, from far and near, from Bhutan and Sikkim, bringing khada white silk blessing scarves, presents, and money.

It didn’t scare me going off with Pala on our wedding day, though it was like two strangers meeting. On the night of the wedding, I don’t think I spoke to him. The house was so rowdy, with so many people. All I said was, ‘It has been a very busy day, hasn’t it?’ And he said, ‘Oh, yes. This is our wedding.’”

My grandmother enjoyed a great social life. At the Gymkhana Club, that Raj institution and the hub of Darjeeling society, there was tennis, badminton, roller skating, parties, and delicious refreshment.

“We danced the old foxtrot and the Tibetan Charleston. Not this twisting, all that business. When the Merry Widow Waltz was played everyone used to clap for Pala and me to get up and dance! They all said there’s never been a dancer like Pala and I was always very proud to be on his arm. When we got tired of dancing, we sat with our friends and ate pakora vegetable fritters and spicy singara Bengali samosas, and I always had one drop of Bristol Cream sherry.”

My grandparents loved to go down to glamorous, cosmopolitan Calcutta. They always stopped in at Nahoum’s, a bakery founded in 1902 by a Jew from Baghdad, and never missed an opportunity to dine at world-renowned Firpo’s on Chowringhee Road.

“Pala and I used to take a delight in going to Calcutta. There were beautiful parks, not so many people and cars. Fountains and all that. It was a glorious place! At New Market, when we finished shopping we went to Nahoum’s for Turkish delight and halva.

At Firpo’s, owned by an Italian, dinner was well-known. In British times. Now they’ve closed it and made shops and all. Lovely dinner they gave. So everybody made it a point to go—princes and princesses, rajas and ranis, colonels and generals, doctors and ambassadors. They served mulligatawny soup, roast lamb and masala chicken curry, angels on horseback, plum cake and Italian ice cream. For drinks we had pink gin, Tom Collinses, Kalyani Black Label and Lion beer, Pimm’s. And there was a live band with saxophones and trumpets. Pala, me, our very good friends, we all danced till the wee hours.”

Determined to be a model wife, my grandmother threw herself into her duties on the domestic front. Her stepmother had only been interested in teaching her own daughters how to cook, so my grandmother figured things out by herself.

“After I got married, I learned to cook from the cooker’s book. No one taught me. I practiced, I practiced, I practiced. What interest I took! First thing I did was learn how to cook rice. There’s an art to it. Some people wash the rice, then cook it in cold water. But we boil the water first, then wash the rice and put it in, with one thumb of water above.

I made sweet-and-sour pomfret when fish wasn’t off the market, when it was coming up from the plains. And that bitter gourd called karela. Bitter, but you take the bitterness out by soaking it in water with salt and then saute it with a little chicken. I also liked to fry ladies’ fingers, that’s okra, with garlic and spices. And every Tibetan wife must know how to make steamed momo dumplings, rolling the dough to just the right thickness, then putting the pork or dri cheese filling.

When Pala was commissioner, he’d have meetings in the house and suddenly call to me, ‘Darling, we’ve got nine or ten people for dinner.’ With the help of one servant, I’d make a feast in just a few hours’ time. After, our guests would say: ‘Madame I must congratulate you, this is the best food we’ve eaten in the whole of India!’”

My grandmother compiled a cookbook, written out in a foolscap quarto notebook in her small, neat hand. It had recipes for everything from aloo dhum potato curry to hot ale punch to American fudge, and included meal plans and guest lists. Once she’d mastered a recipe, she’d try to teach it to her cook, Gaurey, a good-natured man with the habit of repeating whatever you said to him, so you couldn’t be sure if he understood or was just echoing your words. His Tibetan, Indian, and Nepali food was divine but some other things less so.

“I taught Gaurey how to make pastries and we served them to guests at tea. But I was compelled to scold him: ‘Those sweets you made, we gave to friends and what happened? “Very salty,” they said. Don’t let me hear again you’re mixing up the sugar and the salt.’”

My grandparents had five children. With her first child, my grandmother was in labor for six days and then started hemorrhaging. She fell unconscious and news spread that she’d died in childbirth, but the doctor came rushing over and saved her with an injection.

“My grandmother and all stayed at the house after the children were born. First thing in the morning they made me eat one bowl of tsamthuk, which meant first they put a big pat of butter, and one fried egg. They put the roasted tsampa and boiling water over it, and turned it, making like a gruel. Then at ten o’clock, they made me eat one plate of rice with one chicken soup, with butter. Then two o’clock again I was given rich food to eat. At night, after the bath, another plate of rice with chicken soup. They fed you too much. And everything full of butter! If you refused, they had to argue, saying you must heal up and get strong. It was because of the childbirth I could digest all of that. They fed me, and one month I had to stay in bed. But I didn’t feel bored because the little one was there. At the end of the month, I got up like a baby elephant.”

Motherhood came naturally to my grandmother and she loved every moment of it. She devoted herself to her children, taking them on long daily excursions, teaching them the traditional Tibetan prayers, visiting their school every week to talk with the teachers.

“I used to rise with my children at five. Give them the feed. Eggs, toast, porridge. Once a week, a spoonful of Morton’s Castor Oil from the blue bottle. For school, I made tiffin tins of cheese sandwiches with the sweet lime drink, everything ready by seven, and the servant carried all those, accompanying the children to school. Those days they used to walk back and forth, more than three kilometers each way! Because there were no cars and all the roads were open, none of these houses all jumble-tumble down the hillside.

When the children came home, that was tea time and the table was full of food. Fruit cake, ham and cucumber sandwiches, and we made pancakes, too. Sometimes we bought rasgullas, the curd cheese balls in syrup, and fried flour jalebis from the Indian sweetmaker Narayan Das, who had his shop in the market square.

After tea, the children played in the compound, running about. Then by six, I gave them supper. They liked Indian curry and dal lentils with rice, Tibetan phing glass noodle soup with the jelly ear mushroom. Sometimes the boys had momo eating contests. One of them set the family record at 8 years old by eating 18 momos! I told him that when he grew up, he’d be a regular Sandow, that German bodybuilder. The boys also had a contest eating the traditional gyathuk noodle soup with beef and green onion. That ended in a draw at 11 bowls each. I remember how the boys moaned and groaned, holding their stomachs.”

As my grandparents’ children came of age, they left Darjeeling for adventure and study abroad, eventually making their homes in England, the U.S., Canada, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. My mother took off to New York at 19 to attend medical school, fell madly in love with and married one of her classmates, had four children, and settled in California. My grandparents felt proud of their children but wished one or two of them had stayed.

“We lost your mother when she went to become a doctor at that Columbia University. The plan was for her to come back here and work, but nothing doing, she would run off with that wretched ‘merican fellow. Pala nearly collapsed when he read the tellygram. ‘What?!’ he said. ‘I didn’t send her there to get married.’

We missed your mother much amidst us over the years but always we prayed for her welfare. Every New Year, we offered khada blessing scarves in front of her photograph, and kept dresil sweet raisin rice and the khapse bread for her on the altar room table where she used to sit and recite her prayers.”

My grandmother always said she was a “psyche.” When she was young, an American family friend who’d become a Buddhist and student of the paranormal wanted to take her to New York to develop her powers but she refused because she didn’t want to leave her father. Seventy years later, she dreamed one night of her husband’s death and everything came to pass just as she’d foreseen.

“We were in Calcutta and Pala had terrible shoulder pain. We’d been called out to dinner that evening by these people, and they showed a whole row of bottles, said it was French wine and whiskey. All imported. I told Pala, ‘Remember what the doctor said: “He’s got blood pressure. He must have only one chota peg, one very tiny drop of whiskey.”’ Pala usually could limit but down there he overdrank. The sadness about the children overcame him in his old age. I kept on shouting over the table, ‘For god’s sake, don’t drink!’ But he wouldn’t listen.

Soon as he got that shoulder pain, I brought him back to Darjeeling. I told Gaurey, ‘Don’t make anything, make very light clear chicken soup for Pala.’ Soup, everything was ready, but my darling husband didn’t eat. Just lay there for four days with the different medicines. I tried to give him pithu rice gruel but he had no appetite. I talked, but he would talk very little.

The last day, we were looking at the wedding anniversary albums. Pictures from the celebration of our sixtieth in London, when all the children and grandchildren came and we saw The King and I. Suddenly Pala coughed twice and his head was on my hand, on my arm. He passed away on my arm. Just like that, he was gone. It was night, very cold and quiet, except for the lamas blowing the horn at the monastery.

For me there was never anyone else. And same for Pala. We never went alone anywhere, we were always together. We saw good days and bad days. We went through everything, side by side.”

[T]he first time I traveled the winding road from the plains up to Darjeeling, I was a small girl. On a winter afternoon over forty years later, I set off on the same road, making the sad journey into the mountains for my grandmother’s funeral. When I reached Darjeeling it was dusk. Shoppers thronged the market stalls and the towering peaks of Kanchenjunga were evanescing into the blue like great ships setting sail.

As the driver made the hairpin turn into my grandmother’s lane, I felt afraid. For the first time in my life, she wouldn’t be waiting at the door of her old wooden house in a long silk chuba dress, her two shaggy Apsos at her side. But calm overtook me when I saw her body in the altar room, her peaceful face in the glow of the butter lamps as the red-robed lamas guided her through the bardo state between death and rebirth with the prayers from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I laid a khada blessing scarf over her tiny figure, then lit a stick of incense and placed it before the statues of Buddha and Guru Rinpoche on the altar. I ate some of the tsok ritual substances—oranges, bananas, apples, candy, and English biscuits—blessed by the lamas as an offering to the deities.

Food, naturally, played an important role in the two days of ceremonies leading up to the funeral. To sustain my grandmother as she traveled in bardo, a tray with a bit of whatever had been cooked for the family was brought to the altar room and placed next to her body. Some of this food was taken out to the veranda and mixed with tsampa, three white things (butter, curd, and milk), and three sweet things (molasses, sugar, and honey), then spread on hot coals as my grandmother’s name was called to make sure no other spirit consumed the subtle essences in the smoke.

The funeral took place at a Darjeeling monastery on a cloudless morning, Kanchenjunga’s snowy summit dazzling in the dragon blue sky. A light wind carried the mantras inscribed on the monastery’s prayer flags out into the world for the benefit of all sentient beings. It was the kind of day Tibetans consider very auspicious, a sign of a good rebirth. As ancient women sang sacred songs, my grandmother’s coffin was set on the pyre and the family members lit the wood with a flaming stick. It took a long time for the body to burn; we stood and watched, talking quietly and drinking sweet, milky tea. Afterward, my grandmother’s bones were crushed and mixed with tsampa, then thrown into the river for the fish to eat, turning and returning in the cycle of life.

In loving memory of my grandmother, Phurpa Lhamu Tenduf La, and my uncle, Sherab Wangfel Tenduf La.

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Ann Tashi Slater

Author's Bio

Ann Tashi Slater is working on both a memoir and a novel based on the family story in “Tibetan Butter Tea and Pink Gin.” She’s been published by The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Huffington Post, as well as Shenandoah, New World Writing, and Asia Literary Review, among others. Her work appears in Women in Clothes (Penguin) and the YA anthologies American Dragons (HarperCollins) and Tomo (Stone Bridge). Her translation of a novella by Reinaldo Arenas was published in Old Rosa (Grove). A longtime resident of Tokyo, she teaches at a Japanese university. Visit her at www.anntashislater.com and her HuffPost blog: www.huffingtonpost.com/ann-tashi-slater/.