In the remote village of Kurtoe, a woman ate alone, slept alone and lived a lonely and dejected life. Villagers were afraid to be her friends, afraid to eat and drink from her hand lest they die. Nobody wanted her legs to be eaten from invisible worms from inside because of consumption of drinks from her hand; nobody wanted his stomach to be swollen because of her food. Her name was Tashi Wangmo and she was accused to be poison giver. However, life for aging woman changed after visit of His Majesty, the fifth Druk Gyalpo. His Majesty drank two cups of wine from her hand proving that she was not as dangerous as villagers made her to be. Recently, I heard that few people have started eating from her hand. Of course there are some who are still cynical. They believed that she is still dangerous. ‘His Majesty was person who had accumulated merits for last three eons and a poison get harm His Person’ was what my mother-in-law told me. She also said if three people eat at same time from Poison Giver, only one would be infected; the one who is less meritorious, ill-fated and who has astrologically considered bad day.
In my village, people always used to say, ‘be a friend with black magician and be an enemy with poison giver.’ The logic was simple. Black magicians always destroy you through his/her sorcery from distance while Poison Giver always harms you from close through drinks or food. As child, once I asked my mother what should I do if the husband is black magician and wife is poison giver? Because right next to our village, there was couple (husband and wife) whom few people accused of being such. I ate from her generous hands secretly but I didn’t get any poison. I still do whenever I visit my village. If they are not home, I steal ripe tomatoes from their plant. I didn’t even get wrath of his sorcery. Some of villagers believed that lady is not an extreme poison giver. But my analysis is they are more afraid of him than her. Else why would they let him preside over annual kansey leaving more accomplished people out? Why would they be friends with them?
My first education on such existence was when I was around eight years old. It was on 21st day of my grandfather’s last rites. Many villagers from different communities had arrived to console our family as tradition dictated since 21st day is last major rite Bhutan observed for benefits of dead soul. As a child I wasn’t given any responsibilities. I was just playing around in temporary Store Room walled by green leaves and roofed by polyethylene sheets. The Guest Keeper of the occasion told two of his receptionist cum waitresses in hushed word that a Poison Giver from another community has just arrived. They were told not to mix what she brought with what others brought. Once the gifts were in the store, the kharang she bought was safely deposed into latrine pit and wine she brought was deposed in an empty area. I was so curious to see her that I stealthily followed those waitressing ladies while they were returning guests’ Torey and Palang back. I imagined her to be like a witch in tales my sister used to narrate before dozing off. She would be frail woman walking with a help of stick, her hair would dragged from ground and she would be have long yellow fangs protruding out of her mouth. When I saw her I was shocked. She was in forties, plumb with short hair and gentle with ever ready smile. All people near her were sitting seemingly oblivious to fact though I noticed that throughout the night while chanting Mani, nobody was eating Aezy from her hand while they offered theirs to her. She also ate aazey herself without attempting to share with others.
My second tryst with so-called Poison Giver was during my junior years in Pemagatshel. My sister has shifted to Pema Gatshel. I followed her after a year. There was this nice lady from nearby village. We used to buy fruits and vegetables from her every weekend. Sometimes, we used to help her and his grandson in their field. Villagers used to whisper into our ears about danger lurking which we ignored. One day, my sister suffered stomach ache and cramps after eating from her house. My sister firmly believed that she gave her the poison. She stopped even talking to this lady which I felt sorry. After two years, her grandson also left her accusing her of being poison giver. She was left alone. I found out later that she stopped selling vegetables and fruits altogether.
Nobody I asked really knew about origin of Poison Givingand how it came to Bhutan. Some believed that it might have been brought from Tibet by Bhutanese traders. The assumption was based on notion that Traders would be have met dying lonely lady who was trying to pass on something or they might have bought some clothes from powerful poison giver who was trying to get rid of menace. The deity would have secretly followed the trader especially female one.
It is believed that deity would persuade woman to give poison to guests. The poison giver would try hard to ignore the persuasion because she wouldn’t want to kill just like any other normal human being. But the mental torture she underwent would make her submit to sinful act. There was a story of how poison giver gave poison to her son whom she loved so much. She didn’t want to kill him but as no other people came to her house, the torture of persuasion was beyond she could bear. So she decided to feed her son the poison. She fried eggs on butter, and then warmed the strongest of wine. The bowl was smoothen with butter and oil to make it slippery hoping that bowl would slipped away from his hand before he drank. As she wanted, bowl slipped away from his son’s hand spilling the whole poisoned wine. It was said that from spilt wine emerged worms that were found in latrine.
It is said there would be certain characteristics associated with poison giver. Most poison givers would be women. There were hardly any instances where men are accused. The poison giver ladies would be exceptionally kind and would love to share edibles like no other women. The middle age poison giver would be widowed. It is believed that they had kill husband by giving poison though nobody knew for sure. Call it coincidence or what, I found out that the accused poison giver that came to my grandfather’s rite was widowed. So was accused poison giver in pemagatshel. Likewise, there was an accused in Mongar who was widowed too. Those poison givers seem to be victims themselves. Some village elders say that in most cases those women would not know to whom they have given the poison. Sometimes they might give it to their parents, husbands and children.
In many villages in eastern Bhutan, officials on tour would be warned not to eat from certain households by gewog officials. If you are unofficial visitors to the village, people of the village would warn against eating in those suspected households. I remember an incidence in remote part Pemagatshel that my host gave us wine as aperitifs. I was doing temporary jobs on vacation. When I told hostess ‘I don’t drink,’ she told me she didn’t have poison. Then she cautioned us against drinking from one lonely lady of the village.
One of my elders in village always advised me not to drink or eat from strangers especially women. If it is unavoidable, he told me I should glance inconspicuously thrice at ceiling. ‘And if you can afford, please carry Zabche phorb,’ he had advised. Zab is a rare knot of tree which is considered gem. Through I have never known why I should look at ceiling, I was told that if you unknowingly received wine in Zabche cup, the poison would form foam and overflowed.
He told me that passing of poison from mother to daughter or any other could be prevented. When dying poison giver tried to pass poison, one shouldn’t receive with hand but one should let mother’s hand touch the partially burned wood or fringes of belt. Then, the objects should be cast away. But this would be an insult to dying mom, so one of daughter sacrificed her own life to inherit such menacing magic though receiver wouldn’t know how to give poison. The poison giver can also cast away the poison according to him but he had never heard of any concrete ways. ‘Some said it should be elaborate ritual like offering him (probably spirit of poison) various items and foods. The poison should be identified with some object of valued things. Then it should be left in water or some pathways. The poison giver shouldn’t have attachment to the thing or belief. The poison giver shouldn’t look back. Otherwise the poison will follow. I heard one woman discarded poison like that,” he concluded.
However, the danger is if passerby picked up that castaway object, the poison would pass onto him/her. Probably, that is why there was no instance of casting away the poison. May be poison giver selflessly preferred to suffer stigma herself rather than passing something horrible onto some innocent travelers.
In conclusion, I would state that it would be interesting to study scientifically whether this is myth or reality. However, in the village, it is a sensitive issue. The villagers would never directly confront the poison giver for suspected poisoning. If it is true, what we could do to avoid transmission of poison is not to pick valuable objects lying openly on the ways. We could protect ourselves from being victimized by carrying Zabchi Phorb or looking thrice at the ceiling without knowledge of hostess otherwise if they are not giver, they would be insulted. If it is not true, the demystification should be done. Just like my sister never talked again to that suspected poison giver, after her death, her daughter is slowly being ostracized. Whether poison giver is mere belief or reality, one could only imagine how much physical and mental torture accused undergoes in their lifetimes. Even the punishment by imprisonment is only cutting of communication whereas the suspected poison givers suffer worst from non-communication by community as well as incomprehensible guilt and stigma that would remain even after death.