Posts Tagged ‘religion’
I was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, last month and strolled around the city’s Chinese and Indian quarters. Even though I’d been to KL before, I’d never been to some of the streets and temples I stumbled upon this time.
I visited the Hindu temple Sri Mahamariamman, for example. Amazingly colorful. A feast for the eye. The Chinese shrines were somewhat more serene. Strong smell of incense.
All of these places of worship, as well as the streets of Chinatown and Little India were amazing. An exotic mix of smells and sounds. Strange and wonderful to the Western eye.
Strolling through these multi-cultural streets of Kuala Lumpur, you understand the truth in Malaysia’s old tourism slogan: Malaysia, truly Asia.
Music: Last Affair & Gita Lulin Maung Ko Ko with his Studio Ensemble featuring Yadana Oou – Zega Wa (UKoKo) (Film Music 1978 “Popa Phuza”)
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.
August 31st is Malaysia’s National Day. It’s supposed to be a day of joy and celebration. But if you read today’s edition of Malaysia’s Star newspaper, you get the strong impression that the country is divided by racial tension and on the verge of breaking apart.
Dozens of articles stress the need for harmony and peaceful coexistence of different ethnicities in Malaysia.
The paper doesn’t report any specific acts of racism. But as a reader, you get the feeling that something is being whitewashed. Because why would there be so much emphasis on unity if there was no worrying discord?
The authorities are making a desperate attempt to conjure up harmony. In speeches and statements, they stress the need for the different races and religions to combine forces for the greater good of the country.
Almost two thirds of the people in Malaysia are Muslim, 20 percent Buddhist and ten percent Christian. About half of the population is ethnic Malay. The rest is fractioned into a variety of ethnic groups, of which the Chinese and Indian communities are the strongest and closest-knit.
The Star newspaper today quotes the country’s Prime Minister Najib Razak as saying that the Malaysian way of life was based on diversity and moderation. And that “society shouldn’t allow it to be undermined by extreme attitudes which manifest themselves through racial and religious issues.”
The large number of articles in Malaysia’s press today about unity in diversity feels like they are really hammering this message in. Conjuring up harmony where it no longer exists.
It feels like being brain-washed.
How sad that would be – not just for Malaysia, but for the world. Another society where Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians lived side-by-side for decades fallen victim to demagogues and disinformation.
People in the Pacific Islands are very religious. Christianity plays a key role in everyday life. There’s a church on every streetcorner and every public function or gathering starts with a prayer.
This morning, the director of the Tonga Braodcasting Commission (TBC) opened the conference I am attending here with a prayer and a benediction. For someone from a very secular European society, that seemed unusual (as a matter of fact, the only time I’ve seen something similar at a gathering of media professionals was in Iran – but there, of course, it was a Muslim prayer, not a Christian one).
In any case, in his prayer, the director of the Tonga Broadcasting Commission asked God to bless the country’s minister of information, who was present at the session.
In what was perhaps a bit of involuntary irony, he then asked God to help the minister of information “…that she may be able to deliver her message.”
Or was he possibly trying to give the minister a very subtle hint?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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’.
…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.
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.