Behind the scenes at the Tsechu
This weekend, we got a chance to look behind the scenes of a Tsechu.
This three-day religious festival includes masked dances performed by Buddhist monks.
It’s held once a year in each disctrict or dzongkhag in Bhutan.
For the Bhutanese, the Tsechu is the highlight of the year. Some of them walk for days from their remote Himalayan villages to be part of it.
A deeply religious festival for the Bhutanese
Not many Westerners have a chance to witness these spiritual gatherings. So we were very lucky to be able to attend the Tsechu in Punakha this weekend.
Punakha is home to one of the most important and most beautiful dzongs in Bhutan.
The dzong is where the religious ceremonies of the Tsechu take place.
It’s the fortress-like religious and administrative center of each district.
The Punakha dzong is made up of many different buildings, courtyards, stairways and walkways.
While the religious dances were taking place in the main courtyard, I sometimes took the chance to stroll around.
I was practically the only tourist in these parts of the dzong.
Most of the other people there were Buddhist monks or Bhutanese visitors to the Tsechu.
On my strolls around the compound, I came across the halls where the monks were getting dressed for their religious dances.
Here, they put on their colorful costumes and elaborate headdresses.
Then the monks made their way to the edge of the main courtyard, where their ritual dance was due to begin.
They waited behind an orange curtain for other monks to give them the sign to go out onto the courtyard.
Meanwhile, on a balcony above, other monks had picked up their instruments to start the musical fanfare.
The inside perspective
Seeing them get ready and play their instruments was something that normal tourists weren’t able to witness from this perspective.
We were lucky that we’d gotten VIP passes allowing us on to the balconies surrounding the courtyard.
Our Buthanese hosts had been kind enough to organise these passes for us.
They could not have guessed how special they made us feel and how fascinating they made this Tsechu for us.
For lunch, our VIP status got us entry into the dining hall reserved for monks, celebrities and the higher clergy. Here, we were treated to wonderful Bhutanese food.
One day, the 69th reincarnation of one of Bhutan’s past senior religious figures, Je Khenpo Gyedun Rinchen, sat next to us during lunch.
He’s about five years old and it was interesting to see how the senior monks who surrounded him treated him with the highest respect. There was hardly anything childlike about him. And even we could tell that he had a very special aura.
After lunch, it was back to the hallways and the courtyards, where some monks were just coming back from their masked dance.
This one is holding his heavy wooden mask as he walks back to the hall where he will change out of his brocade costume.
He is wearing a protective cap because his carved wooden mask is not padded.
The mask would otherwise bruise his face and the strings that are used to fasten the mask to his head would cut into his flesh.
I feel very fortunate that I was able to be a part of this deeply spiritual ceremony.
And being allowed to look behind the scenes, to see the monks with and without their ceremonial masks, was an unforgettable experience.