Wednesday 10/11/07 - Shelmakha Festival

We woke up at 5:30 am and immediately unzipped the tent to see the mountain vista in the clear morning light. It seemed like the entire trip so far would culminate in this day on which we would witness an authentic Bhutanese festival. We had had a small preview yesterday, and it had only heightened our anticipation. If we had stuck to our original itinerary, we would have even been in Shelmakha yet! We were seeing even more of the festival than we had originally thought!

Yeshey brought a metal bowl of water to the tent, and Craig borrowed Dorji's small mirror to shave. We dressed in the best clothes that we had with us, but it was quite chilly, so we layered with thermal underwear. As the sun came up, it lit up the mountains starting wit their peaks, and made for a very pretty show. The whole setting was so serene and beautiful. It was truly Shangri-La. Because we had a potential breakfast waiting for us at the festival, Dorji told us that Yeshey had prepared a "quick" breakfast. We sat down and were served cornflakes with warm milk, which was quite nice. We should have known better than to think that this was our entire breakfast...this was Bhutan, after all. It was followed by eggs, sausage, toast, and tea. We could hear music coming from the monastery courtyard, and knew that the festivities must be commencing. Dorji put on his best gho, kneesocks, and fancy shiny shoes. My skirt looked a little funny paired with hiking boots, but they were necessary to get through the inches-deep mud.

We made the short walk over to the festival grounds at 7:30, and were immediately greeted by Gem Tshering. We repaid him the money he had lent us for yesterday's offering. He declined, but we insisted. I was still hoping that the offerings would help my health (my "Khumbu cough" was getting worse, my nose was running and I had run out of tissues and was reduced to rationing toilet paper, and my right knee was still quite stiff and painful). A giant colorfiul thongdrel (silk tapestry) depicting Guru Rinpoche was hung on the side of the monastery. It is only displayed once a year, on the first day of the festival. The sun never hits that side of the monastery, so the thongdrel is never exposed to its damaging rays. Below the thongdrel was the altar we had seen inside yesterday, piled high with butter sculptures and offerings of food.

The Lama was seated in an elaborately painted wooden chair facing the thongdrel. Villagers sat lined up on a tarp, drinking tea. Musicians were sitting at the Lama's feet playing long telescoping metal horns called "dung chen" (which are always played in pairs), clashing cymbals, and beating drums with curved metal drumsticks. The entire group was surrounded by dogs. There were a pair of adorable young boys (apparently brothers) wearing cute little ghos with sweatpants underneath. The "millionaire from Thimpu" was there in his light blue gho, as always a commanding presence. Gem Tshering coached us in bowing three times to the Lama and three times to the altar, and then we placed an offering into a plate on the altar.

Dasho Karma Dorjee showed us to a place of honor under one of the tents. We once again laughed at the fact that Craig had joked about us sitting under these tents yesterday, thinking there was no way that would happen. But we were finding out just how hospitable the Bhutanese people really are. We were immediately offered and served milk tea. We were glad that milk tea was an option, as I hadn't been able to stomach the infamously ubiquitous butter tea, and although Craig had drank it yesterday, it was far from his favorite. Next we were served plastic bowls of fried yak cheese. One bowl was pink and one was blue. Dasho, who was sitting with us now, insisted that I take the pink bowl since I was female. Of course the pink bowl was more full, and all of this after our large breakfast! But the cheese was delicious. The yak cheese was cut into small cubes and fried in butter, so that it had a chewy consistency. It had a pleasing texture and was quite tasty. Dasho told us that this was the first time in several years that it had not rained for the festival. It is difficult to proceed in the rain, because the costumes get ruined. He said that he guessed we had brought good weather after all.

Then the dancing commenced. The first dance was the Angel Dance. The male dancers, who represented angels, were dressed in colorful costumes with twirling yellow skirts, intricately woven shirts, and red silk brocade hats with thin black "braids" hanging in their faces. Barefoot, they jumped and twirled around to a hypnotic rhythm, which they punctuated with the clinking of finger cymbals. They did incredibly acrobatic moves, such as jumping into the air and touching their knees to their foreheads, with their toes and fingers outstretched in front of them. I kept snapping photos trying desperately to capture the beauty in their motions.

The monks and musicians seated on the ground at the Lama's feat were also poured tea and served breakfast. People arrived steadily, most dressed in their finest ghos and kiras. The silk kiras shone and shimmered in the sunlight.

Clowns are a big part of the festival. This is the one time of year when it is socially acceptable to gently mock and satirize traditional culture and religion. The atsaras, who serve as jesters or clowns, were wearing masks and had colorful shirts and pants. They delight in making sexual jokes and chasing women and young children, and pretending to kick the myriad of dogs who occasionally wander onto the dancefloor. One clown in a blue mask reminiscent of some sort of bird carried around a string with a wooden phallus on one end and a drum on the other. He would use it as a musical instrument as well as a prop, sometimes setting it up as a machine gun and aiming it at various village women. The Lama was no longer in his fancy wooden chair, and one of the clowns took the opportunity to sit in the chair himself, which appeared to be poking some harmless fun at the Lama.

Next up were the women whom we had seen practicing in the courtyard yesterday in the drizzling rain. Today they were wearing matching kiras. They wore skirts patterned with stripes of red and bright orange. Their jackets were red silk and they had bright yellow sashes over their shoulders. Their movements were very fluid and subtle and they arranged themselves into various formations - lines, circles, etc, weaving in and out of one another. Most of the music that accompanied them was played on a small portable tape player with a microphone next to it on the table, broadcasting the sound tinnily through some speakers, but sometimes the taped music would stop and the women would sing while they danced.

The clowns joined the women and danced along with them. Dasho explained that the clowns know all of the dances as well, and they perform them rather comically. This provides additional entertainment, but it also helps the women if anyone forgets a step. The atsaras also fix any clothing malfunctions that might occur, if someone's sash falls off or if something comes untied. Dasho told us that women performing these kinds of traditional dances are getting rarer, and this particular group of women was afforded the honor of being invited to dance at a national festival. All of Shelmakha is very proud of them.

We were moved to the other fancier tent, and were seated on a couch. Throughout everything, Dasho was a wonderful host, sitting and chatting with us for long periods of time, acting as though we were his personal guests. At one point the Lama was sitting in a chair right next to Craig. Although he didn't speak English (he was of the Hindi-as-a-second-language generation), he'd often gesture and smile, pointing out things he thought would be of particular interest. One of the things he pointed out with a smile was the juxtaposition of an airplane flying overhead during such an age-old traditional ceremony. Anywhere else in the world this might seem more commonplace, but you don't see too many planes from Bhutan.

We were served fresh fruits and we had a never-ending supply of milk tea. Men in colorful animal masks with long horns danced around in long elaborate robes. Then the female dancers in orange and red came back for an additional performance. They were followed by a group of younger women. These young women weren't wearing matching kiras, but everyone was dressed in shades of green, blue, or yellow. They danced traditional steps to more modern music. Dasho explained that they started to do a mix or traditional and modern Bhutanese music so that they are able to keep the younger people interested in traditions as well as expose older people to the more modern cultural influences. Following them were an even younger group of girls, probably around 12 years old, with a boy in the center. One of the songs that they danced to was "Shake Your Body", a contemporary Bhutanese hit from a movie soundtrack. This would not be the last time we would enjoy this quirky yet compelling pop song.

From the modern to the traditional, the Angels came back for another dance. Their yellow skirts flared out as they twirled and jumped, chiming their finger cymbals. It was hypnotic to watch, and the music became almost trance-like. When they were finished, the orange-and-red-clad female dancers performed again. Throughout it all, the atsaras clowned, joked, cajoled, teased, chased, danced, fixed costumes, coached dancers, etc. They are truly the glue that holds the day's events together.

Next was the Sha Na Cham, or Black Hat Dance. This dance commemorates the assassination of King Langdharma of Tibet by Buddhist monk Pelkyi Dorji in 842 AD. Langdharma had banned Buddhism, and made many Tibetan Buddhists into refugees in Bhutan. Pelkyi Dorji concealed a sword in the loose sleeves of his robe and was able to kill the king. In honor of this heroic act, the Black Hat dancers wear orname robes with long, wide, loose sleeves. They wear tall black hats adorned witha peacock feather on the top.

Dorji headed back to camp and told us that lunch would be served at noon. I roamed around the perimeter of the festivities, taking pictures of the dancers and the spectators. I got a lot of good photos of children looking adorable in their best clothes. Kids were very curious about us, but their initial shyness seemed to be wearing off. Just before noon, the entire festival broke for lunch (most of the villagers had picnic food). We were starting to head out to walk back to camp when the millionaire grabbed Craig. He kept saying "One hundred dollars!!" He gestured for us to bow and give an offering. Just then we noticed that there was a professional-looking video camera fixed on us. I put 100 Nu in the offering plate on the altar. The millionaire followed behind me, picked it up, held it up to the camera, and shouted "One hundred dollars!" What had that been all about? We learned that the camera belonged to the Bhutanese Broadcasting Service (BBS) who were working on a story about rural Bhutan. It seemed that the millionaire had wanted footage of tourists contributing to their festival.

Craig and I walked back to camp, where Dorji was doing his laundry in the mountain stream which was flowing out of the prayer wheel. He had rigged up a clothesline between the tents. This seemed like a great opportunity. A bunch of our clothes were damp from the past wet couple of days, and it would be the perfect weather to dry them in the sun. The sun was quite warm, and we stripped away our extra layer of thermals. Once Dorji was done with his laundry, I brought our dirty laundry over to the stream. I was tempted to wash my hair as well, as it had been a few days and I really felt like I needed it. But the water was ice cold and after several numbing minutes of scrubbing, rinsing, and wringing clothes, there was no way that I was going to voluntarily stick my head into that frigid water.

I hung the clothes in the sun and we sat in the dining tent, where Yeshey served lunch. Dorji punctured a large can of pears, and poured the juice into our glasses. After so much tea, fruit juice was an unexpected treat. As we were eating lunch, I noticed three girls from the festival chatting by the prayer wheel, trying to look nonchalant, but obviously very curious about our camp. When I saw them I walked over there with the camera and asked if I could get a photo. They cocked their heads to mean yes, and I took one of them next to the prayer wheel. They were eager to see it, and then stood in different configurations for more photos. I went back into the tent to finish eating and they peeked in through the windows and waved. Yeshey gave them some of the pears we had for dessert.

After lunch, we headed back to the festival grounds. We had been told that there would be an important guest in the afternoon, and that we would have to relinquish our prime seats for the time that he was there. Dasho had been apologetic about this, but we were glad to be able to have seats at all. When we arrived back at the tent, a man was sitting in my seat next to Dasho. We went to the second row of plastic chairs, but Dasho quickly dismissed him and said "Craig, Stephanie, please sit here!" He was so great to us! It turned out that man hadn't been the dignitary they were still expecting, but rather a reporter for the BBS. We chatted with Dasho as the dancing resumed.

The women in the red and orange kiras opened the second act with more traditional dances. Children in the crowd seemed a bit surprised that we had stuck around for the afternoon session as well, and they warmed up to us even more. We would often catch them looking at us and when our eyes met they would give us a big smile. We all noticed a toddler boy who was incredibly energetic. He danced along with the dancers from the sidelines, and continued even when there was no music. He jumped up and down, flailed his arms, shook his bottom..,.it was so cute. Dasho said "He's the next Michael Jackson!" We all got quite a kick out of watching him. When the other children with him noticed this, they would turn him so that he was facing us.

One shy, pretty young girl was always watching us, and always had a big smile. At one point she approached us and pulled two apples out of her kira. She extended both hands, offering me an apple, which I accepted with both hands, as per Bhutanese custom. She then offered an apple to CRaig, which he also accepted in teh traditional way. She was so sweet and seemed so happy that we accepted her gift. She went back to sit with her family and continued to watch us with a smile as we ate the apples. Not knowing her name, we lovingly nicknamed her "Apple."

The atsaras were making quite a stir, hitting people in the heads with their wooden phalluses, chasing young girls who would screem and flee, and coming over to us taunting me to take their picture by chanting "I love you I love you I love you!!" Children would heckle the atsaras, pointing cap guns at them and shooting little yellow plastic pellets at them. If a child was feeling particularly gutsy, he would approach the atsara and kick his padded backside, but would try to run away before the atsara figured out who was to blame.

The elder village women then took center-stage, flanked by other matriarchal women. Dasho explained that this was the "old women's dance." They stood side-by-side, holding hands and swaying to the plaintive tune that they sang. Then dancers in animal masks danced, holding drums on sticks, and hitting them with curved drumsticks. Next was the Skeleton Dance. Dancers in skull masks reminded us of motifs of Day of the Dead in Latin America. Like many of the dancers, the skeletons wore traditional Bhutanese fabric boots, like ones we had seen being made at the Painting School in Thimpu.

"Apple"came back over to our tent and presented us green leaves with a white paste dabbed in the center wrapped around a reddish brown nut. We knew what this was - betelnut, the mild stimulant which is mixed with mineral lime powder, wrapped in a leaf, and chewed. It is very popular in various regions of Asia, and temporarily stains the chewer's teeth a deep blood red, and actually causes problems in developing countries because it promotes tooth decay. People who chew it all the time have permanently red smiles.

We had heard that it was a"acquired" taste. Craig had been curious about it and was anxious to get a chance to try it, but I was more apprehensive. But here was dear Apple, sharing with us out of the goodness of our heart, and I couldn't refuse. We thanked her, and she once again went to sit with her father and continued watching us, smiling the entire time. Craig and I paused while I worked up the courage, and on "3", we popped the leaf into our mouths and chewed. It has a reputation as being very bitter, but it wasn't as bad as I had expected. I was able to chew it for a while. It took a while just to get through the roughage of the leaf. Craig got a picture of me smiling while chewing it, and I look like some kind of vampire caught mid-meal. It is not flattering. I chewed it for a few minutes, but after a while I figured it was best to stop, and I surreptitiously spit the rest out while Apple was otherwise occupied. Craig, however,consumed the entire thing. He didn't mind it at all.

At 3 pm, the Deputy Governor of the Province arrived, and we quickly vacated our seats and sat in the second row. Dasho introduced us to him and we all settled down to watch the dances. At this point, the excitement started to build. The Lama got dressed in an elaborate costume and donned a mask that (like the thongdrel hanging from the building) is only allowed to be viewed once a year. On his chest os the face of a three eyed demon with sharp fangs. A mat is laid on the ground on which is laid an effigy of the Local Deity. The Lama parades around the perimeter iof the performance area, and all attendees get a close look at the sacred mask as he passes by as a blur of colors. He approaches the Local Deity and kneels down in front of it. The atsaras caper in the background, monks burn incense, and the dung chen horns play a monotonous dirge which heightens the anticipation, slowly building in speed. The Lama rings a handbell.

When the intensity reached a fever pitch and the Lama handled a sword, Dasho noticed that I was taking photos and gently informed me that this particular ritual was not allowed to be photographed. I put away my camera and watched in anticipation with the rest of the crowd. For something with such a build-up, the actual deed felt a bit anticlimactic as he finally casually and rather gently sliced the Local Diety with his sword. After this, everyone who was born in the village placed money against their forheads and bowed before the Lama. They placed their offering in a bowl, and the Lama touched their heads with the sword to give them good health for the coming year as a blessing from the Local Deity. We were allowed to participate in this as well, which really made us feel like we were accepted by the village.

After this, the Deputy Governor took his leave. The more serious and formal parts of the festival had taken place, and the mood seemed to be more casual. More dancing took place, with "Michael Jackson" taking a place dancing alongside the younger women. He had boundless energy. After this, everyone gathered around the altar. The food offerings were split up amongst the villagers, and the normally reserved folks became very excited at the free-for-all. Food was being tossed into the air and caught by children and adults alike. I came across one litle girl who had quite a haul of goodies, including an entire pineapple. She proudly showed off her loot for my camera.

Now the official ceremony was complete for the day, and Dasho organized impromptu group dances, and encouraged us to participate. We got into the circle and all of the villagers were very helpful in trying to teach us the steps. The dances involved holding hands, clapping and doing simple footwork combinations while moving in a circle. The movements were all subtle, and all of my movements were large and must have seemed incredibly exaggerated to them. One of the men coached me, "Don't jump, ma'am" as I got a little over-animated by Bhutanese standards.

After everyone had finished dancing, the villagers all sat down and were served dinner. Beer and soda were poured for them. We were offered food as well ,but politely declined as we knew Yeshey was slaving all afternoon cooking our dinner back at camp. Dorji took over with the camera and got some great shots of people eating dinner. The next thing we knew, Dorji came back with a plate of food, saying he had been offered and couldn't refuse, and he chatted with Phuntshoeling (a producer for the BBS) while he ate. Karma Dorjee asked if Craig would like a beer, and brought over a partial bottle that had been poured out to the villagers. We chatted with Tenzing, also from the BBS. It was starting to get colder again and we put on layers that we had taken off in the sun of the afternoon.

Folks started a campfire and children and adults sat around it. I walked around getting some photos and Tenzing bought another beer to share with Craig. It was getting dark and we didn’t have a torch to navigate the muddy path back to camp, so we decided that we should go. Dorji borrowed a torch from a friend, but would have to come back to return it later. He said that tonight was the big party night of the festival, and that folks would be up dancing and drinking until all hours.

We headed back to camp, accompanied by one of Dorji's friends, who told me that I danced very well and "actively." This seems to be their polite way of saying I kind of overdid it. Point taken. When we arrived back at camp and sat down for dinner, I was exhausted. Craig really wanted to go back to the festival after dinner. In theory I wanted to, but I was really tired, I wascoughing a lot, and I was thinking about all the things I wanted to write in my journal about the day's events. But after dinner I got my second wind. Dorji went back to return the torch, thinking he would then come right back to camp and go to sleep. Craig and I grabbed our headlamps and headed back over there.

Dorji seemed to have gotten a second wind as well, and was chatting with Phuntshoeling by the fire. About five people vacated their chairs and offered them to us when we arrived. I was sitting next to the principal of the local school. From what I understood, it seems that the local school is small enough that it isn’t divided into separate classes. Gem Thsering was there,a nd we met his wife Dshomo and their two adorable daughters, Sonam Choden (age 6) and Yeshi Lhano (4 1/2). The girls were adorable and looked like twins in their matching pink jackets and jeans. Dasho was there and was dancing traditional dances with the youth to modern music on the tape player.

A man started talking to us and Dorji translated “He is the sponsor of the festival in this village and he says that he has never seen any visitor dance a dance from their own culture. He would like you to do so.” What, now? I can follow along in their traditional dances, and I can dance at weddings and clubs and stuff, but to demonstrate a dance from my culture? Craig looked even more mortified. “I don’t dance! Do something! You have to do something!” My brain was reeling. What could I even do? Wait…do I remember the Electric Slide? Right two three clap, left two three clap, back two three clap, dip forward…yeah, I could do that. So I told Dorji that I had thought of a dance I could demonstrate.

Any ideas of this being low-key went right out the window as Dorji went over to a group of dancing teenagers and said “Would you like to learn a dance from the United States?” They all got very excited and encircled me. “Yes, ma’am, please, ma’am, teach us, ma’am!” I told them to line up, not the right words to use because they formed a line front-to-back. I positioned them side-to-side behind me and said “This is a dance from the USA called the Electric Slide.” They were very excited. They followed along with me, and a group of older kids started beat-boxing rhythm to our dance. The kids really got into it and clapped and thanked me at the end. The adults seemed to geta big kick out of it as well.

Then the kids started begging Craig to teach them a dance. He managed to get them to agree that it would be ok if the Electric Slide was repeated, but with Craig joining me. We did so, and everyone thought he was a very good sport. Karma Dorjee was playing dj and was doing traditional dances with the kids. They asked us to join in. It was a lot of fun, and soon I was quite warm with all of my layers on. After quite a while dancing, we collapsed into our chairs in front of the fire. Tenzing said that I was a good and "active" dancer. Here we go again!

One of the boys who had participated in the Electric Slide was named Sonam Tshering. He had been an active part of the festival, and we chatted with him a bit. He was extremely friendly and polite, and asked if we could send some photos to him at his school. As people left, several people asked me to take photos of their babies. People were obviously becoming more comfortable with our presence. Eventually it was only us and the BBS folks around the fire, and we decided to call it a night. We walked with Dorji back to the tent, and a friend of his joined us. Dorji hadn’t been able to sleep for the past two nights, and three nights of insomnia would be a very bad omen. He hoped that the presence of someone else in the tent would help him to sleep. The friend was carrying a thick yak hair blanket. As we readied for bed, Craig saw a shooting star. It was the perfect end to the day. We fell into an exhausted and satisfied sleep.

Shelmakha Festival Day 1: Video

Shelmakha Campsite

Shelmakha Campsite

Shelmakha Festival

Shelmakha Festival

Angel Dance Acrobatics

Angel Dance Acrobatics

Monks blowing dung chen horns

Monks Blowing Dung Chen Horns

Pouring tea for the monks

Pouring Tea for the Monks

Atsara (clown) satirizing the lama

Atsara Satirizing the Lama

Atsaras and women doing traditional dances

Atsaras and Women Performing Traditional Dances

Angel Dance

Angel Dance

Craig and the lama are entertained by the dancers

Craig and the Lama are Entertained by the Dancers

Black Hat Dance

Black Hat Dance

Masked dance

Masked Dance



Dasho Karma Dorjee with the atsaras

Dasho Karma Dorjee with the Atsaras



Skeleton Dance

Skeleton Dance



Steph 'actively' dancing

Steph "Actively" Dancing

Craig dancing

Craig Dancing

Gem Tshering, his wife Dshomo, and daughters Sonam Choden and Yeshi Lhano

Gem Tshering, His Wife Dshomo, and Daughters Sonam Choden and Yeshi Lano

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