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Bhutan: Bumthang Tsechu

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Bumthang Tsechu > Bhutan > Asia

[Visited: October 2009]

We were supposed to leave early that day, to make the long drive back to western Bhutan. However, we found out that a tsechu was about to start, and my guide proposed that we should at least spend some time to witness it, even though we would not be able to see the entire three days. So, we decided to postpone our departure, had a relaxed breakfast, and headed to Jakar Dzong. When we arrived in the courtyard of the religious part of the dzong, the festival had already started, but since there were nearly no people yet, I thought we had done pretty well. The sun just started to shine in the far corner of the dzong, and I hoped it would move fast to assure better light conditions over the courtyard. Meanwhile, I noticed how all Bhutanese onlookers were wearing their best dresses. All corners of the courtyard were already full with Bhutanese sitting on the floor, and the multitude of colours, in combination with their beautiful faces, was a sight in itself.

Picture of Bumthang Tsechu (Bhutan): Traditional Bhutanese dance performed by women

The tsechu is the most significant festivity in Bhutanese Buddhism, and are held in honour of the second Buddha, Guru Rinpoche. They are normally organized around the 10th day of the Bhutanese calendar, and take days to finish. Tsechus consist mostly of dances, depicting the life of the Guru in 12 episodes. The dances are performed not only by monks, but also lay people. The dances, or cham, are instructive to onlookers, bring good fortune to them, have a meditative function, and it is believed that attending benefits the visitors. At the same time, a tsechu is a social event, where people come together and interact. After having traveled around Bhutan for more than a week, I could understand how people living in different villages and valleys would want to come together. Tsechus are held all around the country in dzongs and monasteries.

Picture of Bumthang Tsechu (Bhutan): Jakar Dzong is the scene of this tsechu

A horn was blown, and drums were beaten as the first monks wearing black hats entered the courtyard. What followed was a dazzling display of swirling brocade dresses, concentrated monks rhythmically moving with the music, with their black hats with Bhutanese characters on top, a skull, peacock feathers on a half moon, with colourful banners attached. The dancers are dressed up as yogis; the dance performed symbolizes the suppression of demons, and the power to kill and recreate life. During the long dance, more and more Bhutanese arrived, and the floor was filling up with spectators. The balconies on the first floor were full, too, and the atmosphere got more informal. In between the religious dances, lay men and women performed traditional Bhutanese dances. It was especially during these that two clowns, or atsaras, were making fun, adding some lightness to the very serious religious performances. They would take a camera from a visitor, take pictures of themselves, took a wooden phallus out of their pocket and "direct" the female dancers, or just sat among visitors and chatted through their red masks. The deadline we had set had long passed, when the kyecham started: a dance where the monks were wearing yellow dreses and wore masks with various animals. Rhythmic like the Black Hat dance, this dance looked less serious. The dancers were bare-footed, with long, brightly coloured strings of hair that had a hint of reggae. As more and more people were arriving the intimate setting of Jakar tsechu, it was time for us to leave. And that was very difficult.

Picture of Bumthang Tsechu (Bhutan): Black Hat dance: monk concentrated in his dance
Picture of Bumthang Tsechu (Bhutan): Monk in the heat of the dance
Picture of Bumthang Tsechu (Bhutan): Traditionally dressed monks in a ritual performance of music
Picture of Bumthang Tsechu (Bhutan): Black Hat dance: one of the performing monks
Picture of Bumthang Tsechu (Bhutan): The colourful dresses of the monks make the Black Hat dance very vivid
Picture of Bumthang Tsechu (Bhutan): Black hat in the Black Hat dance
Picture of Bumthang Tsechu (Bhutan): Woman taking part in a traditional Bhutanese dance in between religious festivities
Picture of Bumthang Tsechu (Bhutan): Monks with dress dancing inside Jakar Dzong
Picture of Bumthang Tsechu (Bhutan): Kyecham performed by monks with masks and yellow dresses
Picture of Bumthang Tsechu (Bhutan): Dancer of the Black Hat dance seen from behind
Picture of Bumthang Tsechu (Bhutan): Clown of the festival, the atsara makes people laugh - here with a phallus - and keeps order
Picture of Bumthang Tsechu (Bhutan): Brightly painted animal mask used in a mask dance
Picture of Bumthang Tsechu (Bhutan): Monks performing a mask dance

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