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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.





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Written by Thorsten

March 10, 2009 at 6:05 pm

Lifestyles of the rich – revisited

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It’s another rainy day on Phuket today, so what can you do but go to the mall? I went back to the shopping center where I’d gotten the facial massage the other day.

Maybe a little pampering would help save the day…

At the mall, I noticed that there was a second day spa right across from Takashi, where I’d gotten my first massage. Surprisingly, they were also from Tokyo, looked almost the same, and had almost the same kind of special offers.

Rivalling cosmetics clans? Feuding families? Estranged lovers gone out to really give it to each other in the business world?

Or is Tokyo just the place for day spas and facial massages?

This spa, HANAKO TOKYO, offered a facial massage at 300 Thai baht – about six Euros. And their offer even included a facial mask and a head and shoulder massage.

Cleansing, creaming and caressing

It’s hard to describe what the nice lady who was in charge of me did to my face. One reason is that I had my eyes closed most of the time. The other reason is that she didn’t explain what she did, she just went ahead and did what she felt necessary.

First, she spread some kind of cream on my face and massaged it in ever so gently. Next came moist, warm towels or washcloths, with which she covered and cleaned my face.

She put moist cotton swabs on my eyes and left them there. Then she took a spatula and applied a facial mask.

It smelled a little like apples and felt like cold Elmer’s glue on my skin.

When she’d covered my whole face, she used a fan to gently help dry the mask. The breeze felt very cool on my face. Every now and then, she then gently tapped her finger to my foreskin to see whether the mask had hardened yet.

It seemed to take longer than anticipated

She left me lying there for what felt like 10 or 15 minutes. Nothing happened and I was afraid I’d fall asleep.

You wouldn’t want to start snoring or drooling in a place like that…

At some point, the lady decided that my facial mask had dried enough and she began to peel it off like Saran wrap off a freshly cut peach.

The feeling was a little unusual but nice. All of a sudden, the skin on my face felt like it could breathe again.

I guess the nice lady then applied more creams, spread more lotions on my skin and gently removed them again with warm moist wash cloths. But I lost track of what she did.

Whatever it was, it was extremely pleasant and relaxing.

When I looked in the mirror after my treatment, I felt like ca. 1998.

Written by Thorsten

October 30, 2008 at 2:30 pm

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

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