A Travellerspoint blog

Thimphu Tsechu Day 1

By Becky

sunny 80 °F

We arrived about ½ hour early at the Tashichoe Dzong (the local Thimphu dzong, residence of the King, and seat of government), joining the throngs in their best clothes, jewelry and ceremonial scarves. A few years ago a new courtyard/amphitheater was built at the north end of the dzong, the interior courtyard becoming much too crowded as population of the city grew. Some front row center seats were still open and we grabbed them.

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About 15 minutes later, clowns came out to shoo the dogs out of the courtyard. They fooled around for a bit, popping the balloons on each other’s heads. Then they lined up in the middle and began to bow and prostrate as a procession of monks crossed the arena.

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The first dancers came out in two neat lines. They were performers from the Royal Academy of Performing Arts, doing a folk dance, more of a song really, with graceful hand gestures and swaying body movements. I’m told many of the folk dances/songs are religious, and I imagine the rest to be romances; it seems appropriate for a non-violent people and many Bhutanese films are either romances or have a theme about duty to one’s family or monastery.

For the first of the true tsechu dances, a monk in wide flowing blue robes and a tall, broad brimmed black hat comes spinning out of one corner. He is eventually followed by twenty more black hat dancers, in different color robes, spinning and bowing, headdresses sometimes sweeping the ground, until they form a huge circle taking up the entire performance area. They represent Tantric yogis whose stamping drives out evil spirits as they take possession of the dancing ground. A red-robed monk with a long white scarf over his mouth and trailing down his back walks in and sprinkles water inside the circle of dancers to purify the area. The dance is repetitious, hypnotic, and meditative. The young dancer nearest me appears to be in a trance, mindful only of his every precise movement. Towards the end of their dance they spin in to a tight spiral, then out again into a still, straight line. One by one, each dancer solos himself out of the arena.

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Between tsechu dances, the folk dancers perform, in a different costume each time. Meanwhile, the clowns mock their movements, or joke with people in the crowd. When a puppy wanders into the arena, one chases him out with exaggerated movements.

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The second tsechu dance is a masked dance, each yellow-skirted, bare-chested dancer representing a different animal. The movements and patterns are quite similar to the first dance, but more energetic. Each dancer has a knife with which to execute evil spirits.

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Our front row seats turn out not to have been the best choice, as people come and go all morning, passing in front of us.

For the third tsechu dance, the black hat dancers return, each with a large blue drum in one hand and a curved red drum stick in the other. Drums typically celebrate the victory of Buddhism.

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We stay for one more dance, the Dance of the Princes and Princesses, obviously a favorite of the crowd. Two princes in large masks come out, accompanied by an old man. The clowns play a big role in this dance. First they mock the movements of the princes as they perform a short, formal dance. Then the two princesses enter with their chaperone, an old woman.

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Now the clowns really move into action, taunting the princesses, chasing the old woman and trying to steal her scarf. She retaliates by chasing them with a large switch and the old man comes to her aid. The princes and princesses exchange formal dances (I think one represents a wedding), while the real action goes on around them, the old woman chasing the clowns into the crowd and the old man slapping people on the back with a small wooden sword.

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When the princes leave for war, and the clowns begin frolicking with the princesses, carrying them off to a “house” represented by a cloth spread on the ground. Though the clowns carry the princesses back before the princes return from war, they are armed and suspicious and cut off the princesses noses. The princes have a change of heart and a doctor is called to sew the noses back on. Eventually, everyone is reconciled and the play ends happily.

As we leave, we notice a field of tents set up across the river and streams of people crossing the bridge. We decide to follow the crowd and find ourselves in a makeshift sea of food stalls and crude carnival games. Before we head home, Mike buys some deep fried hot peppers and I get some momos. We all pass on the dry-looking yak sausages.

For more pictures, see: http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/rsherry/

Posted by rsherry 04:14 Archived in Bhutan Tagged events Comments (1)

Holiday Season in Thimphu

By Becky

sunny 72 °F

A holiday season for both Buddhists and Hindus in Thimphu began on Thursday September 17 with a “puja” for cars. A “puja” is a religious offering, prayer, or action. One taxi driver told me it was the day of the god of vehicles and mechanical devices. I interpret it as a day to ask a blessing for your car or vehicle. Things began the day before when small shops put out gaudy displays of colorful garlands of paper and plastic, shiny foil and faux flowers, along with large, bright Hindu-style pictures of a god. The next day, cars, trucks, tractors and motorcycles were all cleaned and decorated.

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Most of the decorations were gone the next day but some remained for weeks.

Friday was a puja of water. Large trucks full of shouting men collected holy water from mountain springs and used it to bless places in the city.

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Over the following weekend, many guests and visitors came and went from our landlady’s home, some with dishes of food. Sunday, we awoke to the occasional bleating of a goat. Our Buddhist landlady had bought fourteen goats from a butcher to save them from being slaughtered by the “Nepalis” for their upcoming holidays. These goats weren’t petting zoo animals, but neither were they afraid of humans or dogs. Here’s Noah trying to sneak up on them: I don’t think he ever managed to pet them.

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The goats marauded through the compound for about a week, eating weeds, grass, bamboo, and rose bushes. They had just started on the hibiscus when they were loaded on a truck to be released in the mountains. They never touched all the potted fuschias.

Tuesday September 22 was the first official holiday when schools and government offices were closed. Noah’s school took its fall break at this time, closing from September 21st through Oct. 4 to avoid all the holiday closings. That Tuesday was the “Blessed Rainy Day,” celebrating the end of the rainy season. I’ve read that many years there is no rain after this day, but not this year. The monsoons are starting later, being very sparse until August, never reaching their old intensity, but lasting longer into the fall. On this day people dress up and visit their temple or dzong. Shopkeepers also began to hold sales, putting goods on display on the sidewalks, causing major pedestrian congestion, as people generally get a set of new clothes and toys for children during this season. This day also marked the beginning of a butter shortage. Butter and sugar are used make tormas, figures offered at shrines and temples and later thrown into rivers or fed to birds. I’m told the shortage also has to do with the Indian festival of Diwali, coming up in about a month, when thousands of butter lamps brighten the night. On Wednesday, a folk craft fair began in clocktower square that lasted a week with vendors selling native crafts, fabric, jewelry and traditional foods.

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Thursday September 24th was the next official national holiday, Dasain. This Nepali festival is both a harvest festival and a celebration of the victory of Lord Rama over the demon king, Ravanna. Much meat is slaughtered and consumed, and elders bless eeach member of the family by pasting uncooked rice on their forehead with curds. In Nepal, I’ve read this holiday lasts for 10 days, much of the festivities being held at home. In celebration in Bhutan, all Hindus took Monday September 28th, off from work, and the devout also visited their temple.

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September 28th also marked the beginning of the Thimphu Tsechu, or festival. Each of the 20 districts of Bhutan has its own tsechu, all staggered at different times of the times of the year, so that none overlap. All the Tsechus last 3 –10 days and honor Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century (although I learned at the National Museum that there was a nun teaching Buddhism here about 100 years earlier). People dress in their best clothes and jewelry and take a picnic lunch to the local dzong to watch ritual dances. All the dances are old, some said to have been created by Guru Rinpoche himself, all carefully record in ancient texts, and recreated step-by-step, in exactly the same manner, for over a millennium.

Tsechu details in my next post!

Posted by rsherry 23:12 Archived in Bhutan Tagged events Comments (2)

Return to Paro

By Becky

semi-overcast 65 °F

There is so much to see and do in Paro (the small town about 1.5 hrs from Thimphu where the airport is) that we had to return. We were hoping The National Museum of Bhutan might have some history books for sale, so that was our first stop. The museum is high up on a hillside overlooking the town and its dzong. In fact, the museum is in an old watchtower of the dzong (fort). It was built in 1656 and extensively renovated in 1968, when it became the museum. It is a circular building with seven stories (ground floor through sixth floor).

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You enter on the first floor where there is a small exhibit of stone tools found in Bhutan and dating from 2,000 BCE. Then you’re directed up to the fourth through sixth floors, seeing the rest of the exhibits from the top down, and always circling in a clockwise direction. If done right, the exhibits are in chronological order. The exhibits feature bronze and copper urns and cooking pots; cane, bamboo and wooden containers; arms and armor; Buddhist ritual objects, jewelry, ancient teapots, wine containers, coins, and stamps. The 2.5 meter thick walls are perfect for inserting diplay cases. A large gallery features thangkas (traditional paintings mounted on banners) of all of Bhutan’s important historical and religious figures; some of the thangkas are as much as 800 years old. There are two chapels in the museum. One is to the god of wealth with walls lined with nooks housing different representations of the god through the centuries from all over the country. The other houses a huge clay sculpture assembly, a three dimensional mandala representing the four schools of Mahayana Buddhism, their founders and lineage holders, and major deities facing the four directions.

After the museum and lunch, we drove to the north end of the valley, until the paved road became a donkey track, to see the ruins of the Drukgyel Dzong, constructed in 1649 to commemorate a military victory over the Tibetans, as well as to watch over the road to Tibet (which still gets some use to this day). In the 1950’s, a fire started by butter lamps destroyed it. The ruins are in a grove of tall cedars and have a mysterious air. Without its coat of white paint, it reminds me of a ruined castle. To keep it from completely disintegrating and to make it safe for visitors, roofs were set up over the gate, gate house, and central tower, and parts were propped up with new beams.

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From the road, we can see the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, high up on a cliff on the opposite side of the valley. We have to save that for another visit, after the rainy season ends and the rocky path is not slick.

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Finally, we make a quick visit to the Paro Dzong, still a monastery and center of the district government (and the setting for parts of the movies “Little Buddha”), before heading home. As usual, we can only take pictures of the outside of the dzong and its courtyards’; cameras are forbidden in the temples.

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See my photo gallery for all the pictures from this day: http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/rsherry/

Posted by rsherry 13:14 Archived in Bhutan Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

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