To celebrate the annual incense festival the women in Bumthang venture into the forest in search of a particular herb called Lobelia nubigena of Campanulaceae family. The seventh month of the Bhutanese calendar is celebrated as the incense festival day across the country in dedicated to Mazang Phurba the native of Bumthang.
The first important thing women in Bumthang do for the day is venture into the forest with traditional bamboo basket tucked in their back and collect the rare plant to offer to their deity by burning the herb and producing a bulky smoke.
The women in the village will be gone for hours as the herb they are out looking for is not something which is found in the nearby forest. They explore the forest for the festival because Mazang Phurba is an integral part of the festival.
Their task is to get Mazang Phurba from the forest for the incense is found deep in the forest far from their settlement.
The festival they say is never complete without Mazang Phurba. After having gone for hours, they finally emerge from the forest carrying Mazang Phurba by the basket on their back. One after another, they assemble by the village temple and perform a dance, unique to the locality and practiced nowhere else in the country.
As unique as the festival, Mazang Phurba is a unique incense plant found nowhere else in the country but endemic only to Bumthang. Botanists call it by the name Lobelia nubigena of Campanulaceae family but locally the plant is known by the name Mazang Phurba.
The herbarium specimen of the plant was first collected for the London’s Edinburgh Royal Botanic Garden on 2 July 1915 by a plant collector or plant hunter Roland Edgar Cooper from Yotongla ridge.
It is said that in 1913, Cooper returned to the Himalayas to collect plants through Sikkim, Bhutan and the Punjab in India and Cooper in 1907 became the in-charge of the herbarium of garden and travelled to Sikkim, Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan collecting botanical specimens.
Cooper is said to have discovered many new species on his travels. This includes Lobelia nubigena. The plant is described as robust and tall biennial herb with long pendulous bract.
Flora of Bhutan states it has erect stem up to one meter and flowers young. The plant has a lifespan of two years which is why it is called biennial herb. The plant is an alpine turf.
Today, the plant is found in abundance in Bumthang especially within the areas of Thrumshingla National Park. The park officials have recorded the plants in places such as Titdeyla, Yotongla, Singmala and Resangla, all in Bumthang only.
According to the officials, the plant may be abundant but its information is very limited and not much of its ecological status is known. The herb warrant and merits a proper and in-depth study by the botanist or can be a thesis subject for anyone pursuing Masters Degree.
However the plant is also known to grow in other parts of the world such as Burma, China, and Punjab and Sikkim of India.