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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.

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Written by Thorsten

March 2, 2009 at 3:29 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

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

Miss Bhutan 2008

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The Miss Bhutan 2008 Beauty Pageant this weekend was the first beauty pageant I’ve attended. And it was probably the last.

The evening didn’t get off to a good start, so maybe that’s partly to blame for my dissatisfaction with the whole event.

The contest was due to begin at six p.m. But as we entered the venue shortly before six, things were far from ready.

Stage hands were still rushing around, the lighting didn’t seem to work yet and neither did the sound system.

In the end, we had to wait a whole hour for the show to begin. But of course there was no announcement to explain about the delay or asking the audience for just a little more patience.

Interestingly, no one in the hall seemed to mind.

Maybe the Bhutanese are used to things not starting punctually. Maybe it’s a Western thing to get impatient when people make you wait?

Unfortunately, things didn’t get better once the show got going.

The two presenters were somewhat uncoordinated and clearly suffered from the fact that the event hadn’t been properly rehearsed.

An insider of the beauty pageant told me beforehand that the contestants (“the divas,” as she put it) had preferred to go for a manicure, rather than attending the show’s dress rehearsal.

One of the MC’s then made us fear for the worst when he announced that the contestants would be given ample opportunity to show their personalities in interviews, and not just their pretty faces.

The first round of the contest would have three sub-rounds, he explained. I looked at my watch and knew that this event wouldn’t be over in two hours, as promised.

The interviews of the first sub-round then went something like this:

MC: Hi

Contestant 1 – 15: Hi

MC: How are you?

Contestant 1 – 15: Fine but nervous.

MC: That’s good, I’m also nervous. Could you please introduce yourself to the people?

Contestant 1 – 15: My name is (insert name here), I’m from (add name of a Bhutanese province here) and I love music, dancing and reading.

MC: What would you like to share with the audience?

Contestant 1 – 10: I’d like to talk about my mom / parents

Contestant 11 – 13: I’d like to talk about my love of nature

Contestant 14: I’d like to talk about an inspirational book

Contestant 15: I’d like to talk about the inspiration our King has been for my life.

Out of the 15 contestants, only one had some sort of stage presence (Tsokye Tsomo Karchung, one of the three “Miss Thimphus” in the race).

The other 14 girls were pretty sad to watch, stumbling through the lines they had unsuccessfully tried to learn by heart and standing in awkward poses that someone must have told them would look good.

After this first sub-round, three things were immediately clear for us

a. we had already picked our winner: the Miss Thimphu with the stage presence.

b. this show would go on and on and on, and

c. the idea of a nice dinner and a beer suddenly looked better than all the 15 contestants combined.

So we made a run for it.

Afterthoughts

Okay – this was the very first Miss Bhutan beauty pageant the country has ever put on. So let’s give them credit for that.

Most of the contestants had never been on a stage before and came from the remote rural provinces of the country. Two of them had even given up their jobs for the chance of becoming Miss Bhutan. So regardless of whether that was a clever decision, it at least shows dedication.

And finally, Asian and Western ideals of female beauty and demeanour may differ. We found it excruciating that most of the contestants spoke so softly that the microphone could hardly pick up what they said. And their shyness on stage made them seem unprofessional and uninteresting to us.

Tshokey Tshomo Karchung, Miss Bhutan 2008

Tsokey Tsomo Karchung, Miss Bhutan 2008

Asians may have seen their shyness and delicacy as typically feminine and appealing.

The day after the contest, we learned that the show lasted a whopping six hours.

In the end, our favourite contestant, 24 year old Tsokey Tsomo Karchung, was crowned Miss Bhutan 2008.

Written by Thorsten

October 13, 2008 at 11:09 am

When will the officer turn green?

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Thimphu is the world’s only capital city without a single stop light.

Downtown traffic in Thimphu usually isn’t too bad. But in recent years, the number of new cars has increased. So you’re liable to see a rush-hour traffic jam even here.

Nevertheless, the 70 000 citizens of this Himalayan capital don’t want any traffic lights on their streets.

Traffic is regulated by traffic signs and by a police officer at the town’s busiest intersection.

A few years ago, the traffic police officers were given other tasks and a stop light was installed in their place.

Modern times had finally arrived in Thimphu!

But, alas, the people of Thimphu couldn’t get used to the idea of red and green lights telling them when to stop and when to go.

They missed their traffic police officer.

Even the country’s king intervened when dissatisfaction with the impersonal stop light spread.

And soon, the traffic policemen were back in their little gazebo on Thimphu’s busiest intersection.

To this day, you’ll find them here, directing traffic in moves so elegant you’d think they were solo dancers of a ballet.

No wonder the people of Thimphu considered this unique institution part of their cultural heritage worth preserving.

Written by Thorsten

October 13, 2008 at 4:54 am

Where monks go shopping

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This week, you can see even more Buddhist monks on the streets of Thimphu than usual. The city is bathed in the saffron red color of their robes.

The Buddhist monks and nuns have come to town for the Tshechu, a four-day religious festival. It’s the highlight of the social year and always takes place in early October.

For the Thimphu shopkeepers, the Tsechu means good business. Many of them have put on special sales because of the festival.

I guess you could compare that to Christmas or Thanksgiving Day sales elsewhere – although the Thimphu shopping complexes can’t quite compare to Florida’s Sawgrass Mills Mall…

Special shops for special needs

Buddhist monk fashion doll

Buddhist monk fashion doll

The nice thing about shopping in Thimphu, however, is that there are no chain stores, only a lot of specialty shops.

Anything from places selling Bhutanese handicrafts to fabric stores specialising in the cloth the national costumes are made of.

And what’s even nicer is that there are even shops catering to the large community of Buddhist monks. So they, too, can join the holiday shopping frenzy.

The shop of Gasep Sangay Wangdi Tshongkhang, for instance, specialises in “readymade garments for monks”.

Inside the small shop, all you see is the saffron red of the monks’ robes. The shelves are piled high with monks’ shirts and undergarments.

Other shelves are stacked with the rectangular pieces of cloth the monks drape around their shoulders.

Gasep Sangay offers these pieces of fabric that are roughly the size of a beach towel in all shades of red – anything from the darkest burgundy to a pale tomato red.

If the fashion-conscious monk isn’t sure about which shade of maroon will suit him best, the two shopgirls will gladly help him pick out just the right color and cloth quality.

But hopefully they won’t jeopardize the monks’ vows of celibacy when they help them in and out of their robes.

Written by Thorsten

October 11, 2008 at 2:48 pm

The Divine Madman’s phallus

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WARNING: If you feel offended by the folkloristic depiction of male genitalia, do not continue reading this article and do not look at the pictures.


Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the significance of the phallus in Bhutanese folklore and legend.

Among the many weird and wonderful things that the visitor to Bhutan will encounter, there is one that stands out (no pun intended). It is the frequent depiction of phalluses on the walls of Bhutanese houses.

You can see very realistic depictions of male genitalia painted on the outside walls of people’s houses all over the country – even in the capital Thimphu, which is the closest thing Bhutan has to a cosmopolitan city.

It's not that kind of a place

This is just a regular restaurant

Apart from painted phalluses, you’ll often see life-sized phalluses carved of wood above the doorway of a house or hanging from the four corners of the roof.

This is supposed to ward off evil spirits.

It’s not pornographic

For the people of Bhutan, the phalluses are neither pornographic nor erotic symbols. And they aren’t painted on the houses as fertility symbols, either.

Wall decoration in downtown Thimphu

Wall decoration in Thimphu

The phalluses are a reference to one of Bhutan’s most popular saints, Lama Drukpa Kunley, who lived at the turn of the 15th into the 16th centuries.

Lama Drukpa Kunley is also known as the Divine Madman in Bhutan.

According to the Lonely Planet Travel Guide,

…he felt that the stiffness of the clergy and social convention were keeping people from learning the true teachings of Buddha. His outrageous, often obscene, actions and sexual antics were a deliberate method of provoking people to discard their preconceptions.

The Bhutanese tell countless stories about his sexual adventures, and you can’t help think that they immensely enjoy hearing these folktales again and again.

One of them recounts how the Lama once tamed a female demon in the mountains with his powerful thunderbolt of wisdom.

So the painted phalluses in Bhutan are more a reference to the antics of the Divine Madman than erotic or fertility symbols.

A temple of hope for childless women

The people of Bhutan love the Divine Madman so much that they’ve even dedicated a temple to him. It’s located in a little village near Punakha, about two and a half hours drive from the capital Thimphu.

Childless women make pilgrimages to this temple of Chimi Lhakhang to pray (as do tourists, who want to see what all the fuss is about).

Inside the shrine, there are three effigies that the infertile women have to carry around the temple: one is a small stone that strongly resembles a phallus, another is a bone in the shape of the male reproductive organ that the third is a piece of bamboo that also looks just like it, too.

Our Bhutanese guide was convinced that the blessing from the Divine Madman worked wonders. He explained about a western tourist who made the pilgrimage and promptly got pregnant in the year after her visit to Chimi Lhakhang.

Regardless of whether you believe in the power of the Divine Madman’s blessing or not, Chimi Lhakhang is definitely a serene and beautiful place to visit.

The temple sits on a small hill in the middle of rice paddies. All you can hear from here are the birds singing, the wind softly blowing and the constant chime of the prayer wheel’s bell.

As we visited, the prayer wheel was kept going by a woman who looked at least a hundred years old.

I just hope the Divine Madman will not be mad enough to bless her, but rather her granddaughter or great-granddaughter.

Written by Thorsten

October 7, 2008 at 10:12 am

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