Friday, 10/20/2017 - Shelmakha: Tsechu Day 2The festival didn't start until 9 a.m. today, so we were able to sleep in a bit. Tshering made us some of her delicious macaroni, chilies, and cheese for breakfast. We also had some organic green tea that Kinley had brought from Bangkok.
Everyone was planning on wearing different traditional outfits today. Tshering asked if I wanted to wear a different kira. That would be fun, but I doubted that she had a toego (jacket) that would fit me. It had been quite a challenge in Paro, and I hadn't had many options at the store. She seemed confident, and she disappeared upstairs.
She returned bearing a gho for Craig to borrow and a half kira and toego for me. She wound the half kira around my waist and tied it. Then I tried on the red silk liner and the black silk jacket. Miraculously, it fit! The silk toego jacket felt quite luxurious compared to my linen one. Tshering had brought her jewelry case down, and we picked out a bold coral colored necklace. I wore my glasses today because the dust in the wind yesterday had irritated my contact lenses.
In the meanwhile, the guys dressed Craig in a striped gho with muted colors. Craig put on his knee socks and black shoes, which looked gray due to yesterday's dust. We joked about it but before we knew it, there was Sonam with a shoeshine brush, and he proceeded to clean Craig's shoes. Our son takes such good care of us!
Now that we were properly dressed, we climbed two sets of stairs up to the 3rd floor altar room. It was extremely colorful. There were niches containing Buddha statues, and thangka tapestries hung beside them. There were silken banners hanging above the altar. Butter lamps sat in front of offerings of food and drink. A beer bottle acted as a vase for silk flowers.
Since the family only comes to the house once or twice a year, Passa the caretaker looks after the altar. He makes sure to keep it stocked on days of religious significance.
Craig and I each lit a butter lamp, and they poured some holy water into our hands. We splashed it on our eyes, throats, and heads.
Gyem Thinley had returned with his wife Lhaden and their sons Kado and Kinley. Lhaden, Kado, and Kinley appeared at the top of the staircase and entered the altar room. Both little boys (without any prompting from Mom) bowed three times toward the altar.
After the morning prayer ritual, we took a walk with Sonam up to the area where we had camped in 2007. There were some muddy spots in the dirt road, so we had to be mindful of our footing. The scenery was gorgeous up here, with farmland in the foreground and mountain silhouettes in the distance. The sky was blue, mottled with white clouds. We saw the waterwheel which had been next to our camping spot. It brought back lovely memories of our first visit.
Wild marijuana plants still lined the road, as they had ten years ago. The climate here allows it to grow without cultivation. Although illegal to use as a drug, it has various other practical uses. It is thrown down the hole of an outhouse as an air freshener. It is also fed to pigs to stimulate their appetites and fatten them up. Sonam said that marijuana is starting to be acknowledged for its medicinal benefits, but is becoming more of a problem recreationally in the cities.
On the walk back back down to the tsechu grounds, we ran into Pema. She was so polite and sweet, bowing slightly and saying, "Good morning Grandma, good morning Grandpa." She introduced us to her adorable 5-year-old cousin Tenzin Dolkar.
We got to the tsechu just as the atsaras were performing a blessing to open the second day of festivities.
Little Kinley who had just arrived (Gyem Thinley's son) was beating a ritual drum. We really enjoyed seeing the younger generations so enthusiastic about carrying on the traditional culture through music, dance, and Buddhist rituals.
The first traditional dance of the day was a welcome dance, with the male and female dancers offering kataks (white Buddhist prayer scarves, which are presented in a sign of respectful greeting).
This dance was performed by Guru Rinpoche to tame the earth spirits (sadag) who were tormenting and afflicting sentient beings. Guru, vanquishing the spirits, rode the spirits' riding stag and went around the world blessing and restoring peace.
We all got a lot of amusement from little Kinley, who had no fear and walked right into the middle of the traditional dance with his balloon on a stick until atsaras would pick him up and deliver him to the seating area.
Sonam's extended family was having a wonderful reunion, and they wanted to make sure to capture their good memories for posterity. They all congregated on the far side of the tsechu grounds and posed for various group photos. I originally headed over as a photographer, but soon they wanted me to pose with them. We had many laughs as people (and atsaras) photobombed one another and tried to squeeze large groups into selfies.
After the photo shoot, I went back to sit with Craig. There was a young atsara learning the role, and everyone enjoyed being photographed with him.
Next was the Pacham (also known as the Heroes or Angel dance). It brings to life 15th century Bhutanese saint Pema Lingpa's vision of Guru Rinpoche's "copper-coloured paradise." As quoted in Sacred Dances of Bhutan by Kezang Namgay, p71:
[Guru Rinpoche] was surrounded by a retinue of male and female deities, dancing with myriad movements...[forming] a splendid cloud, accomplishing the benefit of beings in inconceivable ways.This dance had been a highlight during our 2007 visit. I had managed to capture a gravity-defying photo of a dancer contorted in mid-air.
I had been eagerly awaiting seeing this dance again, especially now that digital video technology has advanced quite a bit during the intervening decade. This time I focussed on shooting HD video footage, to try to best convey the athleticism and hypnotic beauty of the dance.
The male dancers, who represent these heroes/angels/deities, were dressed in colorful costumes with twirling colorful layered skirts, intricately woven shirts and sashes, 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 chiming of hand bells and the beat of the double-sided damaru drums. The choreography is incredibly acrobatic; dancers jump into the air, folding to touch their knees to their foreheads, with their toes and fingers outstretched in front of them.
The dance lasted approximately 25 minutes, and as they filed "offstage", they continued to do the acrobatic moves right up to the end. We could only imagine how exhausting that must be, to dance with such intensity for such a long period of time. Perhaps spiritual inspiration sustains them.
An atsara came over to where we were all sitting and started flirting with Sonam's cousins Tshering and Kezang. They teased him by tweaking the nose of his mask.
Bue was having a great time with the inexpensive toys that he had acquired over the course of the festival, including plastic guns which shot tiny yellow plastic pellets, plastic spinning tops, a small remote control car, and a plastic bow which shot arrows tipped with suction cups.
The atsaras then did an offering/blessing to break the festival for lunch. Once again we returned to the house for lunch. It was a smaller crowd today. Being the last day of the festival, some of the family members were taking this last opportunity to visit other family members' homes for lunch before everyone disperses back to their normal lives in other places.
When we got to the house, Lhaki presented us with a small handheld prayer wheel. Apa served another lovely meal, including red rice, fried cheese, chilies with local cheese, beef sausage, yogurt, and pork with peppers.
Now that we were more familiar with many people in the extended family, Kezang took one of the old family photographs down from the wall. It depicted Apa as a young boy, along with his parents and siblings. She pointed out her late grandmother (Apa's sister) in the photograph as well.
When we returned to the festival grounds, a traditional dance was taking place. This was followed by a masked dance. The dancers wore animal masks, hopping around brandishing swords. Most of the masks had horns of some sort, and the dancers would lean forward, scraping the horns along the flagstone patio. This reminded us of some of the Dogon ceremonial dances we had seen in Mali in 2009. They also demonstrated a lot of leg strength by squatting down and jumping back to standing repeatedly.
Sonam's extended family once again performed a dance. I walked to the other side of the courtyard to get a good angle for photography. I was really enjoying their routine. The atsaras danced with them, one of them holding the wooden phallus up to their mouths like a microphone. When he wasn't getting a good enough rise out of them (they mostly maintained their concentration), he set his sights on me. He came over to me while filming and led me onto the dancefloor. I ran over to Craig just to hand off my camera. The atsara was in hot pursuit, fearing that I was trying to escape.
He led me front and center and I joined the dance. The atsara danced with me and waved the wooden phallus at me. He bowed down in front of me and then started humping me. Much laughter ensued and everyone was entertained. It was hysterical! And we captured the whole thing on video:
Maybe something was lost in translation, but it seemed to be a particularly harsh and misogynistic storyline, which seems at odds with the Buddhist values on display during the tshechu as a whole.
We met Dasho's cousin Dawa and his daughter Yeshey. Like Sonam, she never lived here in the village herself. She studied in Pennsylvania in the U.S.A. and this was her first time visiting the festival of her father's village. It was fun chatting with her.
Pema, Kuenga, and two of their little friends performed a dance in front of everyone. We are so proud of them. Pema had been talking about wanting to dance yesterday, so I was very glad that it happened and that we got to witness their lovely performance!
Men and women then danced with traditional dramyan lutes and flutes. They were miming along to recorded music. This was the finale for the dance troupe who had been hired to perform during the three day tsechu. Dasho paid the dancers, and they bowed and thanked him.
Once this obligation was complete, Dasho told us that he needed to head back to Thimpu. We said our heartfelt farewells to him. It was so nice to reconnect with him in person after 10 years!
Now the village men gathered in a big circle and danced, slapping hands with one another. Then women joined the circle. Kids were playing musical chairs in the center of the circle dance. I had been filming, but I gave the camera to Craig when I was encouraged to join in. I joined the circle and tried to follow the steps of those around me. The movements of traditional Bhutanese dance are very subtle, and I have to consciously try to tone down my more natural inclination for exuberance.
When we got back to the house, most of the family were preparing to leave. It was bittersweet for everyone. They had all taken time out of their busy home lives and jobs to reunite in their ancestral village. Because of their geographical dispersal, they don't always all make it back. This year was special, and we were so humbled to be a part of it! We had made such deep connections with all of these people after only three days. We were all a bit sad to see it come to an end. Lhaki and Phub Pem got teary-eyed when they said goodbye to us.
Pema played with Kado and the two little Kinleys. Tshering made us a mug full of noodles, and then she, Dhendup, and Bue departed. Bue gave us kisses goodbye; he is such a sweetie! We love hearing him say "Grandma" and "Grandpa" with his little trademark squeak!
Even Sonam's mother was leaving, as she was going to spend some time with her side of the family, which also has its roots in Shelmakha. She gave us a small bag of whole walnuts as a gift.
Soon, only a handful of people were left: Craig, myself, Sonam, Apa, "Big Man" Dorji, and Jamtsho.
Sonam and I each fetched our laptops, and we showed one another photos and videos from our various adventures. We showed a short video montage of our wedding 19 years ago. They all found that quite interesting, and they got a chance to see our parents and our home. We enjoyed butter tea and some local wheat moonshine known as ara.
The family has been feeding us so well that we never have a chance to get hungry. We had assumed that the noodles prepared by Tshering had been our dinner. But no, Apa had planned to prepare a full-on dinner for us as well. I had to politely decline, as I just didn't have any more room in my stomach. Craig ate a bit of dinner though, dried beef and hard boiled eggs.
Tomorrow morning, our guide and driver would be picking Craig, Sonam, and myself up and driving us back to Paro. Though we wanted our final night in Shelmakha to last forever, we knew we needed to get some rest before rising early to pack our things in the morning.
By now most of the cars parked in front of the house had departed, and Sonam used his phone as a flashlight to light our way back to our downstairs apartment.
We convinced Sonam to sleep with the sitting room light off tonight. Leaving a small light on in the bathroom was perfectly sufficient for any trips we may require during the overnight hours.
Darchog prayer flags in memory of Kezang, with roses
Craig and Sonam
View from near our old camping spot
Pema and Tenzin Dolkar
Kencho and Kinley
Sonam and Aei
Kuenga presents a silk flower to me
Tshering, Sonam, and Lhaki
Phub Pem, Steph, and Tshering
Bardo Raksha Macham: Dance of the Judgment of the Dead
Sonam, Steph, and Craig (photo courtesy of Sonam Tshering)
Kezang teases the atsara
Lhaki, Phub Pem, Apa, and Sonam eating lunch
Master of ceremonies Jamtsho
Steph Dancing with Dorji
Sonam participating in the farewell dance
Steph and Dasho, farewell dance