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Dancing with the spirits

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Sometimes a computer problem can lead to unexpected discoveries. This week, I accidentally lost or destroyed a folder with pictures. Luckily, I had a back-up on an external hard-drive.

On this hard-drive, I also discovered some video scenes I’d shot along with the photographs in 2008 and 2009. But at that time, I didn’t know how to turn these unconnected scenes into one film. Well – I do now.

So this week, I took those old video scenes I’d shot in the secluded Himalayan country of Bhutan and turned them into two little films. Not Oscar material, but I can live with that. One is of the Thimphu tsechu in 2008, the other is of the 2009 Punakha tsechu.

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

Witnessing a tsechu in Bhutan is one of the most memorable things I have ever experienced. A tsechu is a sacred Buddhist festival that lasts four days. It’s the high-point of the year for the Bhutanese people. They come from near and far and meet at their local Dzong or monastery.

During the tsechu, monks wearing fantastic costumes and masks perform a never-changing sequence of dances. These dances tell the spiritual history of Bhutan. And by watching these historic rites every year, the Bhutanese stay firmly connected to their country’s history and spirituality.

Not many tourists get a chance to see these sacred festivals in Bhutan. I was very fortunate so witness two tsechus in 2008 and 2009. And even though I’m not a Buddhist myself, I felt deeply moved – maybe even changed – by these ancient rituals and the spirituality of the festivals.

Written by Thorsten

September 16, 2011 at 8:12 pm

Behind the scenes at the Tsechu

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child monk with ritual mask

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 dzongPunakha 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.

Inside Punakha dzongWhile 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.

Monks in costume for the Tsechu

monks waiting behind a curtain for the next spiritual danceThen 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.

Monks playing traditional Bhutanese instrumentsThe 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.

next to the reincarnation in the dining hall of Punakha dzongFor 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.

monk returning from ritual danceAfter 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.

child monk putting on ritual maskI 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.





Written by Thorsten

March 10, 2009 at 6:05 pm

Buddhist worshippers don’t have to fend off tourists

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National Memorial ChortenIn Bhutan’s capital Thimphu, the locals have the holy sites almost to themselves.

What you see at the city’s National Memorial Chorten, for instance, is devout Buddhists going round and round the holy stupa, but hardly any tourists.

It’s the beginning of the tourist season in Bhutan, but so far the number of foreigners visiting this remote Himalayan country is lower than expected this year.

Usually, Americans make up the highest number of tourists to Bhutan. They come to witness the ancient Buddhist sites, the spectacular Himalayan mountains and the traditional way of life in Bhutan.

But this year, the Bhutanese are afraid that the Americans might not be able to afford the costly trip because of the economic crisis.

Waiting for the tourists to arrive

On these early March days, there are only a few Westerners on the streets of Thimphu. And many of those are aid workers, UN employees or members of NGO’s. The Bhutanese are still waiting for the tour groups from the US, France or Germany to arrive this year.

The low turnout of tourists is especially evident at the city’s major tourist sights. One of them is the National Memorial Chorten, which is one of Thimphu’s most important relgious shrines.

This giant white stupa was built in 1974 to honor the popular third King of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. He died in 1972 and is considered the founder of modern-day Bhutan.

Every morning, large numbers of elderly Bhutanese women and men come here to worship. They walk around the chorten in a clockwise direction immersed in prayer, sit down a while and chat, then go for another round.

Before or after making their rounds, the faithful stop by the entrance to the shrine to whirl the big red prayer wheels, setting of the bells that you can hear throughout the premises.

Written by Thorsten

March 2, 2009 at 3:29 pm

Don’t panic in Paro

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eye to eye with the HimalayasParo Airport in the Himalayan country of Bhutan is “one of the world’s most challenging airports” according to Boeing.

And if it’s challenging for the pilots, it’s anything from an adventure to a nightmare for the passengers.

Only one airline flies into Paro: Bhutan’s national carrier DRUK AIR. In their in-flight magazine, they write that they’ve offered the route to other airlines, but that no other dared to fly into this extremely difficult airport.

Paro airport is at the end of a deep Himalayan valley.

follow that valleyTo land there, the pilot has to follow the meandering valley for  miles and miles, tracing every turn of the river below.

All the while, the pilot  gradually has to bring the aircraft down lower and lower and be careful not to scrape the mountains on either side of the plane.

When we flew into Paro this morning, the first officer even warned the passengers that the descent would be a little rough. He said due to the winter weather, turbulences were likely.

A chance to greet the natives

A chance to greet the natives

So in addition to the Himalayian mountains nearly touching the tips of your wings on both sides, this time our plane also got shaken pretty violently.

Landing at Paro is nothing for the faint hearted – especially at this time of year.

This is the only airport I know where I think it might be justified to applaud the pilot after a successful landing.

Written by Thorsten

February 28, 2009 at 5:23 pm

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Never on a Sunday

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The gho and the kira - traditional dress in Bhutan

The gho and the kira - traditional dress in Bhutan

When visitors first arrive in Bhutan, they are usually fascinated to see that almost everyone here wears the national dress.

The impression you get is that of an exceptional place, rich in tradition and unified through a particular kind of clothing not worn anywhere else in the world.

But there are two sides to the coin.

The Bhutanese don’t wear their national dress totally out of their own free will. If they could, most of them would also put on jeans and t-shirts.

Especially the kids would much prefer to look just like everyone else in this world.

But there are laws in Bhutan stating that the people have to wear the national dress when they are in school or in a shop, on formal occasions and when they are in any kind of government office or institution.

Some government offices will not serve natives who are not properly dressed. And policemen will reprimand or fine Bhutanese who are wearing western clothing in the streets.

The only time these rules seem to be more relaxed is in the evenings, after government offices and public institutions have closed, and on weekends.

When you walk through Bhutan’s capital Thimphu after sunset or on a Sunday, you’ll only see very few men wearing the traditional gho and very few women dressed in the kira.

Instead, the people then prefer exactly the same outfits that people in the rest of the world like to wear: jeans, t-shirts and sneakers.

This is especially true for the young Bhutanese.

I have visited Bhutan three times over the past four years and it’s my impression that the popularity of western clothing is increasing.

I can’t remember seeing this many teenagers in western clothes in the evenings and on weekends before.

I guess this is due to increased exposure to Western culture in the form of movies, tourists and TV. After all, Bhutan didn’t even have television ten years ago.

Who knows how much longer the authorities will be able to uphold the rules promoting the national dress if this is not what the (younger) people want?

Written by Thorsten

October 15, 2008 at 5:32 am

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.

Written by Thorsten

October 14, 2008 at 7:12 am

Window shopping

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Many shops in Bhutan aren’t actually stores you can go into.

They are basically just store windows.

You do your shopping from the outside and tell the shopkeeper inside what you want.

And to make things easier for children or smaller Bhutanese, there is usually a little stepladder in front of the shop window

You’ll often also see people sitting on the top step of these ladders, chatting with the shopkeeper inside the store

Since you can’t go into the one-room shop to browse, the store windows also serve as showcases for what’s on sale.

That’s why they are usually totally overloaded with merchandise: strings of candy, bananas, shoelaces, mints, belts, pineapples, potato chips.

Sometimes these little shop windows display more stuff than the SEARS catalogue.

Written by Thorsten

October 14, 2008 at 5:07 am

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