Tenth Day – Tsechu Festival in Bhutan

The plaza outside the "dzong" in Thimphu with tsechu crowds.
The plaza outside the “dzong” in Thimphu with tsechu crowds.

Dzong… dzong… dzong. That’s the deep basal reverberating sound that the Bhutanese alpine horns make during the “tsechu” in the “dzong” which is the building where the festival takes place.

One year later, from a completely different mountain range (Bogota and Thimphu are at the same altitude) on the other side of the world, I remember the tsechu I saw when I went to Bhutan. “Tsechu” is the word for the “tenth day” in Bhutan.

Boys wearing formal wear.
Boys wearing formal wear including the kabney scarf.

In Bhutan, the second largest “tsechu” festival of the year takes place in April in the town of Paro. The biggest festival is held in the fall in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. The tsechu festival is extremely complex which is evident from this sample itinerary:

“We can continue attending the Thimphu tsechu day 2 where you will get to witness Chamms (religious associated dances) like The Black Hat Dance (Shana), Dance of the 21 black hats with drums (Sha nga ngacham), Dance of the Noblemen and the Ladies (Pholeg Moleg), Dance of the Drums from Dramitse (Dramitse Ngacham), Dance of the Noblemen and the Ladies (Pholeg Moleg) and Dance of the Stag and Hounds (Shawa Shachi). Not all dances will be performed in the morning but we will be able witness at least two.”

Bhutanese women covering their hair from hot sun while watching the tsechu.
Bhutanese women covering their hair from hot sun while watching the tsechu.

Although I didn’t understand most of the stories being told, I enjoyed the colors and costumes. For the Bhutanese, the very act of watching the dances is good for their souls. It’s also educational. The monks who perform the roles of the gods and demons must be in excellent shape as the dance is a marathon. Also, of note, is that the costumes are never washed because washing them would wash away the spirits. After being used, the costumes are immediately packed down until the next time they are needed. No airing out allowed…

A Black Hat dancer.
A Black Hat dancer.

A popular dance is the Black Hat Dance which tells the legend of how the wrathful gods (good guys) draw out the demons by inviting them to a dance. Then during the dance, while the demons (bad guys) watch, the Black Hats take the bows and arrows from their large sleeves and kill the demons.

Everything, from dates, numbers, directions, hand motions, shawl knots, etc. have Buddhist significance in Bhutan.

Another thing that I found interesting about the festival, and Himalayan Buddhism, is that embarrassment is a tool used to  open up the spirit to enlightenment. This was evident at the tsechu with the lively antics of the jester. The jester wandered around making lewd overtures and gestures, including climbing on to the laps of foreigners. I’m sure that his antics made for many a Facebook photo.

And speaking of embarrassment leading to enlightenment, my friend and I had our own enlightenment experience. My male friend and I both bought the cream colored large sash called a “kabney” that the men wear as part of the their formal attire with their gho (see photo). Then we went out in public wearing our kabneys as scarves. This caused embarrassment and my friend was “talked to” by some Bhutanese men. They were embarrassed on his behalf that he was wearing the sash without the proper traditional clothes under it. As a woman, no one said anything to me because it was clear that I was a clueless foreigner… after all no Bhutanese woman would ever wear this piece of male attire! We quickly packed them away, to be worn outside of Bhutan.

Happy tsechu to my Bhutanese friends!

The jester with phallus in hand and phallus hat.
The jester with “enlightenment” tool in hand and matching mask.

Yearning for Bhutan

For the past six months, memories of a small kingdom, high on the roof of the world, keeps slipping into my mind. Oh, Bhutan, Land of the Thunder Dragon, how my imagination is painting you in colors of the sun! One of the wonders of a selective memory is the rose colored tint on everything. This is not completely the case with Bhutan. There were things I loved about Bhutan and things that I found less delightful (my apologies to my Bhutanese friends although they are too polite to object). I imagine that Bhutan is a bit like Tibet of yore (or Hollywood’s Tibet). Despite it being the land of Gross National Happiness (the king tells you that you are happy so you will be), it’s not all happiness and light (okay, there is is a lot of light).

Stones at the entrance to the museum.
Stones at the entrance to the museum.

With April just around the corner,  when I think back to the gho-clad men, strong women, crisp air, and quiet spiritualism, my thoughts turn to the spring festival, or “tsechu,” in Paro. The tsechu is a multi-day religious festival and a dream for a photographer (and for those of us who like to take photos). More about the tsechu in a later blog post.

My framed Bhutanese boy's gho.
My framed Bhutanese boy’s gho.

I had so many things from Bhutan framed that my framer asked me if I was Bhutanese. No, but thanks for the compliment.

The Kingdom of Bhutan, Land of Gross National Happiness

The Paro valley and red chiles drying on a rooftop.
The Paro valley and red chiles drying on a rooftop.

Bhutan. Land of Happiness. Land of Gross National Happiness. Land of the Thunder Dragon. The Hermit kingdom. Whatever the name, it is unlike any other place in the world.

As a non-Indian, Nepalese, or Bangladeshi, getting to Bhutan must be done through a tour company. The company takes care of your ticket, visa, hotel, and itinerary. We used a fledgling company called Bhutan HappyLand Tours. While some of the kinks need to be ironed out, overall, I’m glad that we went. Indeed, I feel myself yearning to go back. Our guide was unflagging in energy and answered every single one of my vast array of questions, from early in the morning till late at night.

When working, the men must wear the national costume.
When working, the men must wear the national costume.

They filmed Seven Years in Tibet — in Bhutan —  and you might want to stay that long. If you can afford it. It is not cheap to visit at $250 per night, $450 for the ticket from Dhaka, and $40 visa. But beyond that, the only other money you will need is for souvenirs and to tip your guide. Everything is best paid in U.S. dollars (100 bills are best). Druk Air, Royal Bhutan Airlines, is the national carrier of Bhutan and there are only two flights per week from Dhaka to Paro.

Prayer wheels spinning in this Buddhist country.
Prayer wheels spinning in this Buddhist country.

There are many itineraries to choose from but we chose the three night tour of Bhutan. We saw archery, graphic wall art, butter churning, monks praying, and much happiness.

Since the country is shrouded in mystery, there are many things that set Bhutan apart from other countries. More in a future blog posting…