Travel Photos: Thimpu Tsechu (Bhutan)
Bhutan (the subject of one prior and several future travel postings) has fantastic festivals called "tsechus". The biggest is in April in the second-biggest city, Paro. The second-biggest tsechu is in October in the capital of Thimpu. I've actually been to both as well as a smaller tsechu in central Bhutan. The photos in this posting are mostly from the Thimpu tsechu which Kristen and I went to during our honeymoon.
You can see where Thimpu is on this map.
[Note: there are two video clips at the end of this posting.]
This site has some tsechu information as well as a schedule of tsechus around the country up through January, 2006:
The tsechus are series of dances, each of which has a fascinating history behind it and many of which are stories told through dance. The dancers, all men, are dressed in wildly colorful costumes representing everything from clowns (a very important part of the tsechu) to peasants to hunters to kings to mythical creatures and spirits.
Tsechus are generally two or three days long and are held in the giant Dzongs, which are essentially a combination fortress and monastery, and are true masterpieces of art and architecture.
Here is a picture of the Punakha Dzong, one of the most beautiful in the country:
Some architectural detail from inside the dzong:
Quoting from www.insidersbhutan.com:
"Religious festivals, or Tsechus, are held annually in Dzongs (fortress monasteries) throughout the country. Many outstanding Buddhist saints like Guru Rinpoche in the 8th century, and Pemalingpa, Shabdrung and Dorjilingpa in the 14th to 16th centuries resorted to dances to subdue demons and evil spirits, and to overcome obstacles that were preventing the spread of Buddhism in the high himalayan valleys.
"Rare spellbinding dances and rituals are performed for several days by trained monks in the Dzong’s courtyard and temples. From the roof of the Dzong, monks blow on a pair of long horns, and the sound of cymbals, drums and trumpets fill the air. These dance festivals revive the people spiritually and in many ways refine them culturally because the dances communicate moral lessons, and both the performer and the observer benefit from the exchange. The Bardo dances, the main event of the tsechu festival, serve as a reminder to Bhutanese of their future destiny depending on their past and present deeds. The dance of Noblemen and Ladies tells the story of flirting princesses who are punished for their indiscretions. The dance of the Stag enacts the tale of a hunter who was converted to Buddhism and gave up hunting. The Paro and Wangdi Tsechus end with the unveiling of a huge religious Thangkha or "Thongdrol" (meaning liberation or englightenment on sight), at which the courtyard of the Dzong fills with people well before dawn despite freezing cold. This delicate artwork depicts Guru Rinpoche in his eight manifestations along with two consorts. The giant Thangkha is let down to the ground and is then ceremoniously rolled and folded away before the first rays of the sun can reach it.
"Tsechus are also occasions for seeing people and for being seen. In olden times it provided the most important opportunity for unmarried men and women to find their life partners. People dress in their finest clothes and wear their most precious jewels. Men and women joke and flirt."
As mentioned, the Bhutanese people wear their finest clothing to attend the tsechus. Watching the crowd is just as fascinating as watching the dances or the musicians.
Here's the crowd at the Thimpu tsechu:
And some people in the crowd:
Here is a picture of Dawa and his family. Dawa runs one of the largest tour agencies in Bhutan. If you're looking to plan a trip to Bhutan, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Behind the dancers, the crowd sees the monks from the monastery in their grand building. Often at the top of the building, one can see the leaders of Bhutanese Buddhism in a window and sometimes the King drops by. In the foreground of the building are monks playing the music that the dancers dance to.
As I mentioned before, the clowns are a very important part of the festival. Known as "Atsara", the clowns are often very naughty, carrying around wooden phalluses, making fun of people behind their backs, and sometimes asking the crowd for donations to support the monastery. Here's one clown demonstrating typically naughty behavior:
And here's Kristen showing an Atsara his digital picture:
As part of getting into the local culture, I wore a kho, the traditional clothing for Bhutanese men. Here's my guide, Dorji (a very common Bhutanese name with strong Buddhist relevance meaning "lightning bolt"), helping me with the requisite scarf that goes with the kho:
Because I was wearing the kho, I was allowed into a back area where the dancers prepare for the show. As far as I know, no other westerners were allowed into the area, and in fact few Bhutanese are allowed in. Entrance is guarded by Bhutanese police and military officers.
Here's a picture of me with a couple of dancers about ready to go dance:
Here are a couple other dancers taking a break:
Near where the dancers were preparing was the entrance to the main prayer area of the monastery. I was actually able to go in with a monk, something almost no foreigners or Bhutanese ever get the chance to do at the Thimpu dzong. Even my guide was not allowed in. Here is a young monk standing in the entrance to the prayer hall:
I hope you've enjoyed this visit to one of the world's great cultural events. (I don't think there's anything in its league with the exception of New Guinea's "sing sing" which happens annually at Mt. Hagen in the Central highlands.)
I'll leave you with one last picture, the Black Hat Dance:
For those of you with a fast internet connection and a willingness to look at slightly blurry and shaky video, here are two 30-second digital video clips of tsechu dances. These are big files, so please be patient!
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