Yep, waking up late again. I snoozed through the alarm but instead wake up to the sound of a missed call. Seems my friend Jasu has been trying to give me a call which is a good sign. Civilities will have to wait and I rush into the bathroom and find a big disgusting spider in the bath tub. However, my time in this peaceful buddhist country convinces me to spare the poor critter and I capture it and leave it in a glass to pass on the ethical dilemma to the cleaning lady. My companions pick me up outside the hotel and we prepare for our first day at the Thimphu Tsechu. The tsechu is an annual religious festival held at the dzong. All the big cities have their own festivals, and the dates differ from place to place. Common to all of them is that they are just as popular with the tourists and the locals. The weather is cloudy and a little bit cooler, but still comfortable enough for standing around outside. We were fortunate to have the beautiful sunny weather on the trek in Paro.
People will put on their best Ghos and Kiras and watch the dances as they go on for hours during a number of days. As a bonus, visiting the festival will grant you merit, you don’t even have to utter a single prayer. Of course, people will spin any prayer wheels they come across in the temple yard. I must confess I have a hard time grasping this concept. Anyway, we begin by driving to the nearby Orchard Hotel where we order lunch at the restaurant. We also have time for a stop at the big memorial Chorten in the southern end of town. It looks like other chortens only this is a big one, and unlike the common chorten this is not sealed, you can enter inside and visit three of the floors. On each floor you will find four shrines in the directions of the four winds, each representing a slightly different school of buddhism, focusing on different boddhisatvas and enlightened ones. There are also small balconies from where you can get a glimpse of the city although there are better viewpoints around.
Arriving at the large Trashi Chhoe Dzong, we join a massive crowd outside. There are cars and minibuses parked everywhere in the neighbourhood and a long queue of people in colourful outfits slowly snakes its way toward the entrance. There are hundreds of people in line, waiting to clear several security checkpoints where the police will examine bags and even send you through metal detectors. Once inside the main courtyard the crowding is immense, easily on par with the Jakarta main railway station or Causeway Bay during the lunar new year. The dances have already begun and more and more people enter constantly. There is a section of chairs in the back on a small balcony intended mainly for paying guests but I don’t want to sit this far from the action and ask Tshering to keep searching for a good spot. As with any Pink Floyd concert, the keyword obviously is arrive early. Fortunately we find some room against a temple wall along the path were people exit from the yard. This of course means there will be people constantly passing in front of you, yet the proximity to the performers makes it an acceptable trade off. Fortunately the police officers on crowd control duty are kind enough to leave us in peace, as the pressure from the crowd is manageable. We would not be so lucky the coming days when the crowds were more intensive than today.
Much of the inner courtyard will be occupied by the dancers. People are seated around this big square, one side facing a big temple is reserved for the red robed monks. The performances more or less follow a set pattern with the same dances occurring in a certain order. They typically tell a story with a deeper religious or philosophical message, but they seem to be rather well padded with space. The first performance we get to watch is the Shana Nga Cham, the dance of the black hats with drums, a group of men in exquisite colourful robes and (wait for it…) funky black hats. They are dancing like whirlwinds while beating small handheld drums with funny looking sticks, thereby clearing the festival grounds of malevolent spirits and simultaneously resounding the victory of religion over its enemies.
The tsechu is a bit overwhelming at first, so many colours and designs, all enclosed by a beautiful dzong and the green mountains peeking out from beyond the outer walls. Peoplewatching is easily as interesting as watching the performances. Monks, children, old people, security officers, foreign dignitaries and at regular intervals the big eyed tourists with their telescopic lenses applied to their cameras. Apparently the King himself will sometimes visit the tsechu but no such luck today.
Joining in with the performers of the various dances are the atsaras, the popular clowns. They seem like a disruptive element, wandering about in the middle of the performances and sometimes play pranks with both the audience and the performers. However, the atsaras are typically veterans, and their tasks except providing some light hearted entertainment include assisting and correcting the performers while keeping an eye on the audience. Occasionally they will also venture into the crowd and collect donations, and they will root you out for sure.
The second dance involves a troupe of dancers all wearing animal masks and I must confess I haven’t got the slightest idea what it is about. I did study the program last night but there were a lot of names and similar dances so it just goes round in my head. They are soon joined by the performers enacting the story about the noblemen and the princesses. Basically it boils down to two blokes (princes) in dark blue robes and white face masks standing about in one end of the courtyard, and on the other side the two princesses. As the princes leave to the North to deliver a holy smackdown on some unspecified enemies of the kingdom they leave the princesses in the care of an old couple. Immediately the atsaras get busy mingling with the princesses and a character dressed like a really old ugly barefeet lady is also being harassed, prompting her to constantly give chase with her stick, much to the audience’s amusement. This story seems to go on forever, and fast forwarding a bit we see the two princes return from their successful campaign only to be shocked by the behaviour of the princesses, and they switfly cut off their noses. Well, it obvsiouly seemed a bit hotheaded because a doctor character is summoned who then attaches their noses and everybody is happy again. The last performance before lunch is a more modern dance performed uncostumed by the members of the royal dance troupe.
The tsechu goes on but we decide to do like most of the visitors, taking a break for lunch. A lot of people are seated in the royal grounds having picnic lunches while we head back to the Orchard hotel where a nice buffet lunch is waiting for us. I try to get in touch with Jasu on the number I got last night and get to speak to a man who informs me that she is not there. I then try calling her mobile again to speak to her sister. She believes Jasu will return to Thimphu tomorrow.
Returning to the tsechu in the afternoon the pressure of the crowd is a little bit lighter and we manage to get good places by the same wall again. We have arrived in the beginning phase of the Shawa Shachhi, the dance of the stag and the hounds. Now here is a real moral story. It is the story about a great hunter out with his dogs chasing down a deer. The frightened deer is trying to escape and has a chance encounter with lama Jetsun Milarepa who had come out of his meditation to see what was going on in the forest. He then sings this groovy song that has the deer forget about being hunted and lying down next to him. When the barking dogs show up of course he repeats the trick and the dogs have a seat too. As the hunter catches up and finds this disturbing harmony he becomes furious and attempts to shoot an arrow at the lama, and in amazing special effect one of the dancers runs with the arrow in his hand towards the lama, who has more tricks up his sleeve. The hunters bow is destroyed and the arrow magically turns around and the guy holding it runs back to the source again. Milarepa then pulls out his religious song and converts the hunter as well. Moral of the story; don’t mess with buddhism.
The tsechu ends around four and the people start massing toward the exits. I decide to linger a little in the courtyard, now littered with empty water bottles, wrappers and other garbage. Figures, all the merit earned by visiting the tsechu and spinning the prayer wheels seems lost on the garbage, it all evens out in the end I guess. The yard gets busy as monks swarm out and start to clean up the mess and in the middle of it all I make an interesting observation. All through the day I have noticed people watching the performances from windows in the main temple buliding. These are mainly special guests, high ranking monks and the supreme religious leader, the Je Khenpo, easily recognized in his yellow outift. He’s the only person to carry yellow colour except King Gyanedra. At his side sits a young boy in an orange robe, he is the Desi Tenzing Rabgye, born in 1638. He was the religious leader in 1680-1694 and for a 400-year-old he looks in amazingly good shape. His reincarnation was only recently discovered, apparently he lived out other lifetimes in between walking the Earth unrecognized. As the tsechu is over he suddenly comes out into the courtyard, escorted by senior monks and walks straight by me into another temple building and I am caught completely off guard. Next time I will be ready.
There are still an hour of daylight left, and Tshering takes me to visit the Drubthom Goemba, a monastery on the hill above the dzong, home to the order of the Zilukha nuns. From here we also have a nice view of the city, but we will return to this hill later for some daytime views of the capital. We drive back towards the hotel through the Motithang neighbourhood in the hills above the city centre. Dropped at the hotel I glance at my telephone and notice that I have no less than 25 missed calls from three unknown telephones. That’s what happens when you use a polite ringtone at a festival. I dial one of the unknown numbers and hear from Jasu’s sister again. She tells me that she and some of her friends are on the way to my hotel to welcome me to Thimphu on behalf of my absent friend and before I know it there is a group of five girls at the hotel gates, all friends or related to Jasu. They speak good English and we chat a bit and I am handed a big bag of fruit. After they leave for the evening I spend some time in the reception talking to the guy at the front desk, getting tips for more destinations in the country. I feel sad knowing that I spent most of my time here already, and I will have to go back without having seen so many places. Besides obvious destinations like Punakha and Bhumthang I have found one of those enigmatic and out of the way destinations that I will have to go back to visit, the Gasa dzong in the north of the country, lying in a big valley under some really majestic mountains. As beautiful as the mountains are around Thimphu, they are nothing compared to the real snowy caps of the Himalayas.