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Beer in Art #14: The Tibetan Barley Beer Song

I’ve been trying to present a mix of old master and contemporary art featuring beer. If art is a reflection of real life, then beer should — and is — as much a part of art as any other aspect of our lives. That beer is also an art and craft all its own I think magnifies its importance, because it then becomes art reflecting art. Today’s painting is by a Tibetan artist by the name of Zhungde. The painting is titled “Barley Beer Song,” and depicts three women engaged it what appears to be some sort of ritual.


The painting was completed in 2001 and is 100 x 100 cm (or about 40 x 40 in.), making it not too large. That’s really all I know about it.

As for beer in Tibet, it’s traditionally an unhopped barley beer known as Chhaang, or more often simply Chang.

From Wikipedia:

Barley, millet (finger-millet) or rice is used to brew the drink. Semi-fermented seeds of millet are served, stuffed in a barrel of bamboo called the Dhungro. Then boiling water is poured and sipped through a narrow bore bamboo pipe called the Pipsing.

When the boiled barley has gone cold, some yeast or dried barm is added and it is left to stand for 2 or 3 days when fermentation begins when it is called glum. The barm consists of flour and, in Balti, at least, often has ginger and aconite added to it. After fermentation is complete, some water is added to it and is then ready for use.

“If proper care is taken (and the people of Ü and Ladakh generally do so), the pale beer, thus obtained, is not amiss, and sparkles a good deal, but not being hopped it does not keep long.”

In Lahaul and some other places the glum is pressed out by hand instead of by filtering, making quite a cloudy drink. The residue of malt can be pressed through a strainer and then mixed with water or milk and used instead of barm in baking bread or cakes.

Near Mt. Everest chaang is made by passing hot water through the fermenting barley, and is then served in a big pot and drunk through a wooden straw.

In Nepal, it is called tongba by the Limbus. There is another term called jand which refers to the turbid liquor obtained by leaching out the extract with water from the fermented mash. Unlike chhang or tongba, it is liberally served in large mugs. These alcoholic beverages are prepared by using traditional starter called murcha. Murcha is prepared by using yeast and mold flora of wild herbs in cereal flours.

The brew tastes like ale. Alcohol content is quite low, but it produces an intense feeling of heat and well-being, ideal for enduring the temperatures which go well below freezing in winter.

Most accounts say that’s it’s aromatic, sweet and low in alcohol. Singing and drinking seems to figure quite prominently in Tibetan culture and is a fixture in virtually all holidays and celebrations.

Here are the lyrics to just one of their folk songs sung in celebrations.

May you have long life,
may the house be filled with grain,
May you have the good fortune
to make use of this abundance.

The China Tibet Tourism Board adds an interesting tidbit about drinking customs in Tibet:

As a guest, one should use the third finger of the right hand to dip into beer or wine three times and flick it up to the sky to show the respect to heaven, the earth and the older generations. When the host serves the wine or beer, after the three dips, drink a little, the host will fill up your glass and do like this three times, the fourth time is bottoms up if you are able.

So it seems clear that Zhungde is reflecting an important aspect of Tibetan life, and how beer figures into it. Knowing now about Chang, one assumes that the three women are singing in celebration and enjoying the barley beer as a part of that celebration.

From Zhungde’s biography at Gendun Choephel Artists’ Guild:

In my childhood, there were some odd pictures always emerging in my dreams, I do not remember the concrete contents of the dream, but visible or invisible appearance of these forms always entwine with my soul together, often making me fidgety. Later one day I unintentionally drew a few sketches and my heart started to feel calm, and had an indescribable pleasant feeling, then I took the paintbrushes and another world was discovered.

I do not understand what is art, and do not want to understand, and I feel only to paint, and this lets me feel happy, and I paint to pursue a simple, innocent life. Emphasizing this kind of emotion, I paint in fact to examine my own heart, pacify my uneasy emotion. I and the canvas rightly meet each other in the process of seeing one’s soul. If I can’t paint, life seems to be pale and meaningless, because painting has already constituted my life and it has become indispensably part of myself.

Regardless of any circumstances, I would continue to paint for ever.

There’s precious little additional information about Zhungde and only one more painting at his Artist’s Main Page, called Sisters and Peaceful Wind gallery has a third Zhungde painting, Crowded Train.


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