Thursday, 10/19/2017 - Shelmakha: Tsechu Day 1Activity started early in the village. All people who have family ties to the village must show up for roll call at 5 a.m. for day 1 of the festival, or they have to pay a 500 ngultrum ($8) fine which benefits the festival. This ensures that people arrive the night before, if they are attending.
From our cozy bed, we could hear the bell of the prayer wheel as people started spinning it at 5 a.m. At around 5:30, we could hear the horns and drums start up.
Shortly afterwards, they unrolled the village thongdrel, an enormous sacred tapestry which is only displayed for several hours per year. Money which had been rolled up inside it when it was packed up the previous year fell out and was gathered by the faithful. Sonam's brother Dendhup gathered a 20 ngultrum note which he later presented to Craig. This money is auspicious, and we were very touched that he gave it to us.
We got up and Apa brought us tea and pre-breakfast in our sitting room: a traditional hot porridge called thub. He also put some incense in our bedroom. We would go over to the tsechu grounds with Sonam in our street clothes to make an offering, and then we would come back to the house, have second breakfast (like a Hobbit!), get changed into our traditional Bhutanese clothing, and then return to the tsechu.
The sun was just starting to crest over the surrounding mountains as we walked to the tsechu grounds. The thongdrel was unfurled in all its glory, a bigger one than they had ten years ago. This one had been donated by the village's patron "millionaire" in honor of his parents. It depicts the 8 manifestations of Guru Rinpoche ("moustache man"), his wives, and Ngawang Namgyal ("beard man") who unified Bhutan in the early 1600's. The colors were so vibrant! The altar was set up in front of the thongdrel, and the lama was seated facing it. Monks and lay monks (including Apa) were seated in two lines in front of the lama, playing drums, dungchen (long bronze horns), and jaling (oboes).
We bowed three times to the Lama then three times to the altar. We took out some local money for an offering, touched the bill to our foreheads, wafted it in the incense smoke, and then placed it on the altar. A man then poured a blessing of water into our palms from a silver teapot with a peacock feather sticking out of the lid. We slurped a sip (it tasted like rosewater) and then rubbed it on our faces as a blessing.
We sat down for a few minutes, observing the chanting and music. We were served butter tea and desi (butter rice with raisins).
Ten years ago, we had been served butter tea at the lhakhang. We had eagerly sipped it, only to find that it tasted absolutely rancid. I had tried to be polite and sip it, but my gag reflex had kicked in and I just wasn't able to drink it. Later that day, we had been told that the tea was spoiled, and that it was certainly not supposed to taste like that.
Having had that bad experience, I was a bit nervous about trying it again. But as we tentatively sipped the tea, it was surprisingly pleasant. It was oily, a texture that we don't usually experience in a beverage. Think of sipping chicken broth, but with the flavor of tea. We enjoyed it, and were so relieved to know that we don't actually dislike this traditional beverage!
Sitting at the Lama's feet, two men pored over the attendance book, and the leader of the chanting flipped cards on which the prayers were written. At times, the singing bordered on throat singing. I had not expected this, but it makes sense, as it has been popularized by nearby Mongolia and Tibet.
Well, after ten years, that day had arrived. Word was apparently spreading that we hads returned; locals were chatting with one another, looking at us, smiling, and pointing to the patio floor.
We went into the butter lamp building with Tshering. The heat from the flames felt comfortable in the chilly morning air. The two-wick butter lamp that we lit yesterday was still burning, as promised. We lit several more small lamps.
We walked back to the house, greeted by Bumchu and Bue on the staircase, calling good morning to us. We ate our second breakfast in the downstairs apartment: bread, jam, and tinned mackerel in tomato sauce that Kinley and Bumchu had brought from Bangkok. They also provided instant noodles, fruit, cookies, etc., but we assured them that the former was plenty. We had already had one breakfast, after all. The amount of food offered to us was nearly overwhelming.
The younger kids (siblings Pema and Kinley, as well as Bue) seemed much more comfortable with us this morning than they had been when they first met us last night. They came in and out of our downstairs apartment as we ate.
Apa brought down a bowl of hot water so that we could wash up.
Then it was time to get dressed. Traditional Bhutanese attire requires much wrapping, pleating, and pinning, so we had no delusions that we would be able to dress ourselves. Tshering dressed me in our room, and Sonam and his brothers dressed Craig in the sitting room.
Tshering is quite tall, so she didn't have very much trouble dressing me. First we put on the half kira. It is wrapped around my waist and cinched with the attached fabric ties around the waist. It must be wrapped in a specific fashion so that a pleat is created on the front right.
Bue came into the room looking for "MAMAAA!" He happily opened and shut the door. Next I put on my toego which consisted of a pink jacket on top of a yellow silk liner. Tshering used safety pins to secure the front, as there were no buttons or ties. She then fixed the liner so that it was visible as a pop of color along the neckline. She turned up the sleeves so that I had bright yellow cuffs. She let me borrow a bold beaded necklace and a lovely pair of earrings.
Meanwhile the guys were putting on Craig's gho: folding, pleating, and cinching it with a belt called a kera to produce the patented large pouch in the front. Bue wandered around, occasionally hugging Craig's leg. White cuffs were pinned into place on the sleeves, and he put on his black knee socks and black shoes.
Once we were dressed, we took some photos with Sonam. He was wearing a gorgeous silk gho that had been gifted to him by his parents. Though everyone wears a gho or kira in everyday life, they all have special ones for festivals, which are often handed down through the generations. Sonam looked incredibly stylish!
We walked back to the tsechu grounds with him and Pema. The rest of the family said that they would get dressed and would meet us over there soon. We were led to seats of honor under the tent, sitting next to Dasho. The sun was now fully out, and everything had an ethereal glow, including the thongdrel.
We were served milk tea with puffed rice, along with butter cookies. Dasho explained that butter tea is not as popular as it once was because of the health implications of its fat content.
The tsechu was about to begin. The information that I will provide about the various characters, dances, and plays is the result of direct observation, conversations with Dasho, Sonam, and family, and additional research including Sacred Dances of Bhutan by Kezang Namgay.
A welcome dance opened the tsechu. This was performed by the atsaras, characters who straddle the line between the sacred and profane, both teacher and jester, bestowing blessings and vulgarity. The word "atsara" is a corruption of "Acharya," the Sanskrit word for holy teacher. The character may have its origin in the dubthops, disciples of Buddha.
According to RAOnline:
Legends say that about 84 dubthops (Mahasiddhas), who had extinguished all defilements and afflictions, roamed the universe to subdue evil thoughts by mocking at worldly things.
According to Dr Karma Phuntsho, as quoted in Keunsel Online:
The Atsara character represents the traditional Bhutanese personality of being open, liberal, jovial and spontaneous. On the festival ground where people come to immerse in sacred enjoyment and forget the woes and worries of everyday life, the Atsara is a reminder for people to drop unnecessary hang-ups and taboos, inhibitions and obsessions and to unleash their free spirit of ease, joy and laughter. His character remotely reflects the liberated spirit of the Buddha, which has transcended the dualistic apprehension of likes and dislikes, pain and pleasure and such other prejudices, biases and fixations. In an age when people are becoming increasingly neurotic, complex, susceptible and stressed, the Atsara is a true teacher to help us let go of our mental and emotional constriction and seek the inner state of openness and ease.
We watched the atsaras skipping across the courtyard, whirling in circles. They serve an integral role as the glue that binds the tsechu together. They are performing in more capacities than just being clowns. They help to straighten and fix dancers' costumes should they suffer a wardrobe malfunction. They oversee the dances and coach the dancers if they have any trouble or forget the choreography. They keep the patio free from obstruction during the dances. They try their best to embarrass members of the crowd, often heckling them with a carved wooden phallus. This is actually a blessing, as the phallus is a symbol of good luck and wards off evil spirits. They tell raunchy jokes and flirt with the ladies, and they blow up condoms to use as balloons. And they make it all look so easy! Their clowning also extends to poking fun at the Lama. Only during this festival can this be done, and only when the atsara is in costume. Though it is irreverent, the Lama seems to love every minute of it, judging from the huge smile on his face.
Sonam's eldest brother Jamtsho acted as emcee on the PA system. The technology was a significant upgrade compared with ten years ago.
Next a group of men and women, standing in lines parallel to one another, performed classical Bhutanese dances. The movements were subtle and fluid, and their costumes, bright ghos and kiras and traditional embroidered boots, looked beautiful in the bright morning sunshine. Though this was an externally contracted dance troupe, one of the women (Wangchuk Pelmo) is actually Apa's cousin and hails from the village. Atsaras danced along, mimicing their movements, interacting with audience members, and shooing dogs and children off the dancefloor.
Next were a trio of masked dances developed by Pema Lingpa in the 15th century. These are known as the treasure dances. The first of these is the Ju Ging (Wand Dance), which consisted of eight dancers in animal masks and flouncy yellow layered skirts carrying wands. They danced to please the local deities, locating Nyulema (evil spirits) with their wands and then subduing them.
Next was the Dri Ging (Sword Dance). Dancers wearing masks of the Mahakali (protective deities) used their swords to separate the evil Nyulema spirits from their overlords and then enlighten them.
Then Sonam's extended family danced the steps that they had practiced late last night. It was so nice to see them all up there dancing in front of everyone! They did an awesome job!
Once this ritual was complete, the atsaras made an offering of rice which signaled that the festival would break for lunch. Those who wanted to were welcome to stay on the tsechu grounds and eat the food which had been prepared in the communal kitchen. But Apa was eager to feed the family at the house, so we walked back for a family lunch.
Like any festival, there were vendors on the grounds selling toys and there were also games of chance. Bumchu had played some games and won some prizes, which she shared with us. She gave me a Buddha necklace and Craig a keychain which she wanted me to put on the bag that Dorji had given us. (I was using it as a purse at the festival since it matched my kira so nicely). She also gave us a small plastic roulette wheel. We were touched that she wanted to give us something. Everyone here is so sweet!
Food was plentiful at the house: red rice, ema datshi (chilies and cheese), sausage, pork with peppers, and dal. Phub Pem's husband Kencho fell asleep after the feast, and they all good-naturedly teased him about it.
Kinley and Bumchu had changed out of their kiras. Living in Bangkok, they don't wear them regularly and don't find them to be especially comfortable. They wouldn't be attending the afternoon portion of the tsechu. They would be returning to Thimpu tonight in order to prepare to return to Bangkok over the weekend.
Bue also changed into more casual clothes. With the wind, it was getting chilly. Instead of his gho, he wore a wool sweater and jeans.
We considered it to be an honor to have the opportunity to wear traditional clothes, and we had no inclination to change into something more familiar to us.
After lunch, we were headed back to the festival grounds with Sonam when we passed Dasho's house. Dasho was outside and asked to get a photo of us standing in front of his house. Then he invited us in for coffee/tea and we met some of his family and enjoyed a nice chat.
We returned to the festival grounds for the afternoon festivities. The thongdrel had been put away, and the offerings of food and drink which had adorned the altar had been distributed to festival attendees. Receiving such food is considered to be a blessing, for both its physical and spiritual nourishment.
By now, the angle of the sun meant we could no longer sit in the front row of seats in the tent. We were blinded, and had to move back a row. There was a cute young cat who came right up to us for petting. She tried to jump up onto my lap (I didn't allow it because I didn't want her to claw my kira). She then realized that the empty chair in front of us was directly in the warm sun, and she decided to lay down there instead.
The first masked dance in the afternoon program was the Durdag, or skeleton dance. Four dancers wore high felt boots, yellow skirts, embroidered sashes, and carved wooden masks. I had admired the skeleton masks up close yesterday, and it was an entrancing dance to watch. The dancers represent ghosts who haunt the cremation grounds, subduing evil spirits. They each held one corner of a piece of cloth, carrying within it an effigy which represents the ego. They hopped around in circles on one foot, and doubled over into backbends. They left the effigy on the flagstones at the conclusion of their dance.
Bue and Dendhup returned to the festival grounds following lunch. Unprompted, Bue pointed to Craig and said in his squeaky little voice "Grandpa!" It was so precious. And I managed to get it on video (see the end of the video below):
Next was the dance of local deity Sa Cha Pen Chi. For this dance, the Lama wears a very special mask which, like the thongdrel, is only displayed once per year. The Lama paraded around the perimeter of the performance area, and all attendees got a close look at the sacred mask as he passed by, waving a sword in front of him. Monks followed him, burning incense. The atsaras capered in the background. Once he had made the rounds, he sat on a chair facing the lhakhang. He was holding a hand bell and a dagger. Spooky music emanated from the kang dung trumpets, which is fitting because they are made of human femurs.
As I was taking photos, Pema and her cousin Kuenga came over to speak to me. Pema handed me a betel leaf, "Small gift for you ma'am". It is popular to chew betelnut here, so I assumed that this was a packet of betel leaf, lime, and areca nut. "Inside the leaf, ma'am! Small gift for you." She prompted. I unwrapped the leaf and found a shiny, blingy pink pendant that she had won at one of the games of chance. Once again, I was humbled by the generosity of the children. I thanked her graciously.
Kuenga then gestured toward the Lama and said, "Ma'am, this is our village god." She then went on to explain how he vanquishes evil from the village. It was great to see that after only a day, the kids were getting a lot more comfortable with us and were losing their shyness.
An attendant picked up the effigy that had been left behind by the skeleton dancers and handed it to the Lama. The Lama then waved it around and disposed of it, thereby ridding the village of evil spirits.
After this, everyone queued up in front of the Lama. They touched monetary offerings against their foreheads and placed the offerings into a bowl. They bowed before the Lama, who touched their heads with the sword to give them good health for the coming year as a blessing from the local deity Sa Cha Pen Chi. We participated in this ritual as well. Everyone told Craig that with his mobility issues, he didn't have to bow. But it was important to him to do so, since he was physically able. After the Lama touched our heads with the sword, we were given blessed strings. We tied these around our necks. I hung the pendant that Pema gave me onto mine.
At this point, we had to move to the opposite side of the tsechu grounds. The sun was blinding us, and the wind direction was blowing dust right into our eyes.
Next was a dramatic play/dance called Shawa Sachi (Dance of the Stag and Hunter). The story begins when a man and his dogs go deer hunting. They come across a Lama who converts the hunting dogs to a life of nonviolence. The hunter is angry that his dogs have been converted, and tries to kill the Lama. None of his methods work, and he finally decides that if you can't beat them, join them. He is converted to Buddhism as well and never hunts again. (This is an historical tale of an 11th century Tibetan Lama Jetsun Milerupa's conversion of hunter Gonpo Dorji).
During the course of the play, the atsaras performed their comedy gold. They had a tray of three ritual cakes shaped like phalluses which they set on a low table. At the end of the performance, they carried these past us. When I took a photo, they posed with them, and told us that they were "Bhutanese chocolate" It was hysterical!
Pema and Kuenga approached us individually and gave us each two Starburst-style fruity candies. These kids are so sweet and generous!
The family broke out a bottle of Takin red wine for us. The takin is a combination goat/antelope. On our prior trip, Dorji Pelzang had told us the story of the takin's origin: The Divine Madman (Lama Drukpa Kinlay, also the man who was responsible for reverence of the phallus) had asked for a goat and a cow. He ate both of them, and stuck their bones together (the head of the goat on the body of the cow). He then re-animated it, and the takin came into being. Sonam, a vegetarian, jokingly asked us how could we drink such a majestic animal. He really has a wonderful sense of humor.
Kinley and Bumchu were leaving for Thimpu to prepare for their trip home to Bangkok over the weekend. The family was noticably sad to see them go. They hadn't been to the festival in 2 years, and they are lovely people who keep everyone smiling. We could certainly sense how much the family had missed them and wished that they had a longer time to spend together.
Sonam's cousin Gyem Thinley also left this evening, but he would be back tomorrow with his wife and two young sons.
By now a large crowd had gathered at the house, including Passa the caretaker, his wife Phub Dem, and their grown daughter Phub Om. They fired up the karaoke machine and started to play music. Lhakhi started to dance and called me up to join her. She is so warm and gracious! We had a good time.
They then announced that everyone would get a chance to sing a song. Sonam sang a lovely song about happiness being best when you give it away. He said that he doesn't usually sing in public, but he did it to encourage me. I'll often sing along to the radio, etc., but I rarely sing with no accompaniment. I suddenly drew a blank and had no idea what to sing. I couldn't seem to remember the lyrics to anything that would be appropriate.
Craig and I both thought that Jon Anderson's "Big Buddha Song" would be perfect thematically; but I could only remember the chorus.
While I wracked my brain trying to figure out what to sing, they moved on to other people. They conducted an interview of Passa which generated many laughs (though it was in Dzonghka, so we couldn't underderstand the nuances). He is 73 years old and has a great sense of humor.
Sonam was able to get a fleeting internet signal, and was able to look up the lyricsfor "Big Buddha Song." I sang my song and felt relieved. I wasn't nervous about singing; I was in fact eager to participate. I had just totally blanked out and couldn't remember any lyrics!
Once again, the love and laughter was infectious. We felt so welcomed and part of this jolly, kind extended family. We had dinner, lovingly prepared by Apa: a delicious omelet, white rice, and greens.
A combination of the heat from the wood-burning camp stove right next to us, the red wine, a full belly, and the day's activities in the fresh air conspired to make me very sleepy. As much as I wanted to stay up and socialize, I was literally dozing off. I didn't want to appear rude, so I excused myself and went downstairs to bed.
Craig was lively when I left, but he soon succumbed as well, joining me about an hour later.
Tsechu grounds at dawn
Craig and I bow before the lama
Musicians, including Apa
Craig lights butter lamps
Bumchu and Bue
Sonam, Steph, and Craig in traditional dress
Sonam, Steph, and Craig in front of the thongdrel
Dhendup and Bue
Pema and Kuenga
Ju Ging (Wand Dance)
Kinley Zangmo, Steph, Sonam, Craig, and Tshering
Chimi, Kezang, Kinley, Steph, Bumchu, Lhaki, and Tshering
Ama, Steph, Sonam, Apa, Craig, Dhendup, and Jamtsho
Lama performs the Black Hat Dance
Chatting with Bumchu at lunchtime (photo courtesy of the family)
With Dasho Karma Dorjee in front of his house
Durdag (Skeleton Dance)
Dance of local deity Sa Cha Pen Chi
Posing with an atsara
Shawa Sachi (Dance of the Stag and Hunter)
Phallus-shaped ritual cakes
Dekhi Pem and niece
Sonam and Kinley
Our handsome son Sonam
Singing Jon Anderson's Big Buddha Song