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Of monks and masks

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Witnessing a tsechu in Bhutan is an experience that is hard to describe and impossible to forget.

A tsechu is a three or four day religious festival and the highlight of the Buddhist year. It consists mainly of sacred dances, performed by monks in fantastic costumes and masks.

For non-Buddhists, the stories told in the dances and their full spiritual meaning are hard to comprehend.

What strikes the Western visitor are the dancers’ colorful costumes, their fantastic masks and the rhythmic, trancelike music. The music mostly consists of cymbals and drums playing the same rhythms over and over again for hours on end.

It’s not a show for tourists

What amazed me at this festival is that it is not put on for tourists. The tsechu is deeply rooted in the traditions of Bhutan and in the spirituality of its people.

On every day of the tsechu, the venue where it was held was absolutely packed. The grounds were laid out for 25 000 visitors, but I am sure that many more must have squeezed in.

That’s a lot in a city of only 70 000.

Of all the visitors to the tsechu, I think about 90 percent were Bhutanese. They didn’t come so much for the spectacle, but because they believe that witness these religious dances cleanses them of their sins and prepares them for the afterlife.

The clowns

One aspect of these dances that I found especially interesting was the clowns. This group of six or seven monks in clowns’ masks fulfils many functions in the rituals.

Their first function, of course, as with any clown, is to entertain the people. Every day, before the dances began, they spread out into the gathering crowd of spectators and made them laugh.

But as the dances got under way, the clowns also poked fun at the dancers, interacting with them in ways that sometimes obviously annoyed them. They would mock their movements, get in their way or play with the masks and costumes of the dancers.

On the other hand, the clowns also served as helpers to the dancers. Whenever a mask came loose during one of the dances, a clown would quickly come over to help fix it. Whenever one of the dancers lost one of his props, a clown would promptly pick it up and return it to him.

No matter what happened, the dancers were not allowed to stop their ritual dance until it was finished. So the clowns were often their only rescue if masks came undone or other unforeseen things occurred.

The clowns were also required to know all the dances in the festival. Each monk would only know the dance or dances he participated in, but the clowns had to know every choreography. This way, they could coach the dancing monks if necessary, tell them to hurry, to go slower or to wrap it up and get out of the arena.

Finally, the clowns also collected donations from the audience. Every now and then, a clown would come up to the spectators and ask for money. And since they knew that foreign tourists were comparatively wealthy, guess whom they always seemed to target? Oh well, who cares, as long as it will benefit me in the afterlife…

Preparing for the afterlife

As someone who grew up in culture shaped by Christianity, I was surprised to find some elements in the tsechu dances that seemed familiar.

There’s the concept of judgment day, for instance.

One of the most important dances of the tsechu showed how the soul of a deceased human meets different incarnations of the Buddha, who judge the dead for their merits in life.

This dance is called Raksha Mangcham. The way this is described in „The Origin and Description of Bhutanese Mask Dances“ by Dasho Sithel Dorji reminded me very much of Christian conceptions of a heavenly judgment over virtuous and sinful lives:

This is a deeply spiritual dance, which has bearings on the observers after they pass away from this life. After death, the departed soul is in the intermediate state called ‘bardo’ between death and rebirth. Buddhas in the form of both peaceful and wrathful deities appear to liberate the departed soul to perfect lands…. One can easily understand by watching the dance that the virtuous and religious people get better treatment after they die. The dance is performed to promote this understanding among the viewers. … The dance is puclicly performed so that human beings possessing the ability to distinguish between good and evil may … recognize the deities as manifestations of the Buddhas when they die and land in the ‘bardo’.

In the dance, the different manifestations of Buddha, are represented by monks wearing different masks. There is one that resembles an Ox, for instance. This mask represents

…the Minister of Justice who strictly abides by the general principle of cause-effect relationship of the good and evil deed. Phag Gochen (Wild-hog-headed) maintains the records of sinful and meritorious deeds of all beings. Chung Gochen (Garuda-headed) clutches a hammer in one hand, representing destruction of evil …Druglyi Gochen (Snake-headed) holds a mirror of Fate in his hand in which images of all deeds, both sinful and virtuous are reflected. Trel Gochen (Monkey-headed) balances scales to weigh sins against virtues. Besides these, many other spirits are represented in this dance.

As a Westerner, I didn’t really see and comprehend much of this as the dance was going on.

But even without understanding all the religious intricacies of the dances, being able to see this tsechu was one of the most fascinating things I have yet experienced.

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Written by Thorsten

October 14, 2008 at 7:12 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] This weekend, we got a chance to look behind the scenes of a Tsechu. […]

  2. […] What’s a tsechu? These films can give you a first impression. Or continue reading below or here. […]


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