Festival Time In Bhutan

Posted on May 01, 2017

People are streaming Bhutan’s Punakha Dzong, the 4-century old fortified monastery set on the peninsula where the Mother and Father River join to become the Punakha River. Everyone has come to watch the tsechu; a religious festival as old as the dzong, where dancing costumed monks will reenact the battle that took place here when Bhutanese repelled invading Tibetans centuries ago. I’ve visited this dzong many times, though this is my first tsechu here, many say this is the most impressive of tsechus, as it occurs in the most beautiful dzong.

Bhutanese crowds never jostle; in the most crowded of venues there is an orderliness and courteousness to the people. For those who say they feel uncomfortable in crowds, visit Bhutan and let the Bhutanese demonstrate how gentle a throng of people can be. So while the number of people is vast, the flow is relaxed and the feel lively and pleasant. We march up the steep stairs to gain entrance to the dzong, these stairs at one time made access for invaders difficult, now they tax the stamina of some visitors, and I see a few foreigners labor up the steps, Bhutanese of all ages nimbly scamper up the same steep incline. Once inside, the normally near empty courtyard of the dzong is packed with people. It seems no more can fit, a sea of Bhutanese in their finest clothing, elaborate hand made textiles that the women have fashioned into kiras; skirts that begin at the shoulders and end at the ankles, topped with a tunic like blouse, elaborate metal brooches hold the ensemble together. The men wear what appears to be dresses and indeed the knee length ghos bear much resemblance to a dress, with a large pouch like pocket in front, and twin pleats that fall in back, an elaborately folded white shawl drapes over one shoulder. And finally knee socks and leather shoes complete their outfits. Bhutanese are wearing brilliantly colored clothing. Colors you’d not imagine would go well together appear harmonious and complimentary. By comparison, the section chalked off on the courtyard for foreigners, a scant 200 or so appears a zone devoid of color, most wearing jeans or those easy wash khakis, an anemically dressed group compared to the rest of the crowd.

Tsechu is blissfully free of anything that resembles commercialization; no corporate sponsors, no vendors, no program, and no amplified sound. If not for the cell phones that everyone clutches, the scene could be from centuries ago. We wedge ourselves next to a staircase; beside us is a group of students with badges announcing they are police volunteers are the only security. One of them beckons us to a vantage point she is guarding, where we can look towards the ‘foreigner’ section chalked out on the stone floor of the courtyard. We feel slightly smug not having to sit with them, like children granted the right to sit at the adult’s table during holiday time.  I jokingly ask our police woman, who is in high school if she has a gun, she misses the joke and replies, “but sir, you must be knowing that we are a peaceful country,” of course she is correct and I feel a cad for my cynical humor.

Even without dancers the scene is lively. Monks blow slowly into 6-foot trumpets, emitting a low, sonorous, and repetitive sound.  It’s not lyrical; rather it’s mesmerizing and hypnotic. Friends chat, people break out snacks, and speculate about which dance will come next, until from behind a curtain a procession of performers emerge single file. Each one masked and dressed in flowing robes, as colorful as tropical birds.  They arrange themselves in an oval and commence to twirl around, centrifugal force lifting their robes high or not so high, depending on their speed, the spins expertly choreographed. Many of the dances involve anatomy defying back arches, how can a torso bend like this I wonder. The dancing appears effortless and graceful. Most of the dancers are monks, at any other time discernible with their red robes and shaved heads, now their heads are obscured with masks and hats, leaving me to wonder if I’m watching monks or not. Dorji our guide, and all the Bhutanese know which performers are monks, as well as the names of the dances and what it is they commemorate. I am too dazzled by the display to absorb all the descriptions. It seems unnecessary to know the actual name and significance of the dances, and I’m content to let the spectacle wash over me.

We do eventually make our way to the foreigner section, to see if it offers a better vantage point. The disadvantage is that here one must sit on the cold stone floor, comfortable enough for a short time, but my aging western legs do not take well to this position or surface. Bhutanese who have done this much of their lives fare better. After not long, I’ve exhausted all the various positions I can hold, like a fidgety child, I’m unable to keep still. Another disadvantage of sitting here is that we are captive audience for the apsaras, monks dressed as clowns, tasked to keep order at tsechu (not that I’ve ever seen anyone be disorderly). They also entertain the crowd between dances. This they accomplish by wielding foot long wooden phalluses, which they wave around ones face and ask, “Do you like, now give me money?” A small tip is customary. The apsaras are delighted to have so many foreigners to tease, like shooting fish in a barrel. Seven of them descend upon us; their anatomically correct woodcarvings caress men and women alike, until in embarrassment one forks over some cash. If they amount offered is too little for their liking, the harassment continues until the amount is upped. Fortunately it takes only fifty cents to satisfy the apsaras. It’s all very good-natured, (and mildly embarrassing) and the apsaras happily pose for pictures.

I leave the apsaras and foreigners and wander towards the back of the dzong. There are not many people here, and I am thrilled to discover that this is the dressing area for the monks, they change costumes in a chamber, emerge and then continue to primp and prepare, and thus I get to witness the transformation from red robed monk to exotically attired dancer. The monks are all very handsome, as though chosen from central casting, friendly and happy to talk, as they tell me that they practice for these dances for months. With smiles they assent to being photographed, too busy to actually pose, though this makes for even better pictures. Bhutanese monks carry themselves with an air that I assume is only obtained from years of meditation. It’s a combination of humility, tranquility and hipness that the best hipsters cannot pull off. Obviously they are not striving for this last quality, but I suppose the very essence of cool is that one does not try.

Eventually my clients wander to the courtyard where I’m kibitzing with the monks.  They too engage them in conversation and snap photos. Bhutan unfolds with endless surprises, they remark they thought the day could be no better, and now they feel as though they’ve been admitted back stage to a spectacular concert. Better than backstage I think. Our senses are sated. They ask, “what more can we possibly do today”?

“We can eat,” I answer. Tsechu consumed all our attention, but now we realize we’re hungry. We slowly wend our way to the entrance of the dzong and not long after are filling our stomachs, all of our senses today have been dazzled.