Paro Tshechu - Popular Festivals in Bhutan
Paro Tshechu is one of the most popular festivals in Bhutan, held annually since the 17th century when Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the founder of the state of Bhutan, and Ponpo Rigzin Nyingpo initiated the festival together with the consecration of Paro Dzong (fortress) in 1644. Featuring dances performed by trained monks and laymen in amazing masks and costumes, Paro Tshechu (festival) is one of the best ways to experience the ancient living culture of Bhutan. The festival is observed in three specific parts- the pre-festival rituals on the first day, ceremonies are undertaken on the second day inside the Paro Dzong and the main festivities on the festival ground on the remaining three days.
A highlight of Paro Tsechu is the unfurling of the silk Thangkha – so large that it covers the face of an entire building and is considered one of the most sacred blessings in the whole of Bhutan. The ‘Thangkha, known in Bhutan as a ‘thongdroel’ is a religious picture scroll, and is only exhibited for a few hours at daybreak on the final day of the festival enabling the people to obtain its blessing. This holy scroll ‘confers liberation by the mere sight of it’ (the meaning of the word ‘thongdroel’ in Bhutanese).
Paro Tshechu, one of the biggest in terms of participation and audience is also the occasion for social bonding among the people of remote and spread-out villages.
The following is the sequence of dances at Paro Tshechu. Most dances are the same at others Tshechus, but the sequence varies.
Shinje Yab Yum: Dance of the Lord of Death and his Consort
Durdag: Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds
Zshana: Dance of the Black Hats
The Black Hat dancers assume the appearance of yogis who are empowered to make and take life. They subdue those who cannot be led to Buddha’ path through peaceful means. In this they show an external anger that is compassionate in nature because of the ultimate intent. On the inside, they have accomplished, peaceful minds. Bearing the appearance of tantric, the Black Hats expel and kill evil spirits. Faced with their wrath, the five poisonous sins disappear into the sphere of emptiness.
This dance is also referred to as the ‘Gar’ dance, derived from the different traditions of the tantras (texts of Northern Buddhism). The Black Hat Dancers first build a mandala and then shred demons into pieces. In this way they take possession of the earth so that they can protect it. To empress their power on it, they dance the step of the thunderbolt.
To draw the mandala, they use a practice taken from a text called Lamey Gyu or the ‘Tantras without Superior’. These practices are considered so special that the very act of seeing them purifies and clears the mass of mental obscurity accumulated over ages (kalpa). The inner and outer obstacles are thus pacified. Given its importance the Shabdrung himself performed this ritual.
Dramitse Nga Cham: Dance of the Drums from Dramitse
While there, the attendants of Guru Rinpoche took on the form of a hundred peaceful and terrifying deities. Wielding a big drum in one hand and the curved drumstick in the other, they performed a dance that left a lasting impression upon Lama Kunga Gyeltshen.
On his return to Dramitse, the lama established the tradition of the dance he witnessed, to complement other drum dances composed by the ancient Discoverers of Treasures like Sangye Lingpa and Ugyen Lingpa.
In the heaven of Zangtho Pelri where reside beings with accumulated merit, the dancers are decorated with splendid jewels. The mere sight of the dance is enough to vanquish black demons and allow the white gods to reign supreme. Men and Gods are happy and gain Buddhahood, the ultimate objective.
Degye: Dance of the eight kinds of Spirits
This dance is about the eight types of spirits who are the masters of the three worlds: sky, earth and underworld.
The eight comprise the Yaksas, the Mamos, the Shinjes, the Gyelpos, the Tsens, the Dus, the Lus and the Lhas.
The eight spirits are evil deities and constantly torment sentient beings, causing great suffering. Their evil deeds are stemmed when gods such as Yeshy Gompo one of the most powerful in the pantheon of gods, manifest themselves as the chiefs of these eight evil deities. In this guise they are able to subdue the deities and restore peace. The doctrine of the Buddha prevails once more.
Happiness return to the sentient beings and there is great rejoicing. In order that faith and wisdom be born, the dance was performed by the gods who had incarnated themselves into the form of the deities.
Religious Songs (Chhoshey)
Arriving at Tsari, Tsangpa Jarey found his path obstructed by a yak. The yak was actually the frog guardian deity of the lake of turquoises who had taken on the more fearsome form. Three of his colleagues, who also arrived at the place, asked Tsangpa Jarey as to what must be done to clear the way.
Tsangpa Jarey jumped on the frog, performed a dance and said: ‘if anybody wants to compare himself to me, the son of the glorious Drukpa lineage, let him come’.
The frog then took on the form of a rock but was no match for saint who made the imprints of his feet on the rock as if it were soft mud. Subdued thus, the frog offered its life force to Tsangpa Jarey. After reinstating the frog as the guardian deity of the place, Tsangpa Jarey opened the gateway for pilgrimage. All believers undertake a pilgrimage to Tsari even now, and experience perfect happiness upon reaching the spot.
Shinje Yab Yum: Dance of the Lord of Death and his Consort (same as Day one)
Shana Nga Cham: Dance of the Black Hats with Drums
Dance of the three kinds of Ging (Gingsum), with Sticks (Juging), with Swords (Driging), with Drums (Ngaging)
The dance of the Ging was one way of curbing the Jyungpo Nyulema. It was imparted as a blessing to the great Treasure Discoverer, Pema Lingpa at the Zangtho Pelri, the abode of Ugyen Rinpoche.
Even as the Jyungpo Nyulema flee in the corners of the three worlds, the Ging with the sticks have the fore knowledge to find them. They catch them with the hook of compassion, beat them with the stick of wisdom and tie them with the noose of compassion.
The Lords of the Cremation Ground bring the box which contain the mind and body of these demons. The Ging with the swords then purify the air from such deeds as robbery, killing and the separation of self from the tutelary deity. The minds of the trapped Nyulemas are sent to the paradise of pure consciousness while their body is used as a sacrificial offering. After this is done, the Ging with the drums do the victory dance.
The dance with the drums is done to bring good luck and wish happiness to all living beings. These dances are considered as blessings and are connected with all religious ceremonies.
Durdag: Dance of the Lord of Cremation Ground (same as Day one)
Driging: Dance of the three kinds of Ging with Swords (same as Day two)
Ngaging: Dance of the three kinds of Ging with Drums (same as Day two)
Shawa Sachhi: Dance of the Stag and the Hounds (1st part)
This dance is re-enactment of the great saint Milarepa’s (1040-1123) encounter with a hunter. Milarepa was in deep meditation at a hermitage called Nyishangkurta, on border between Nepal and Tibet, when he heard a man shouting and a dog barking. Going out to investigate, he came upon a profusely panting and sweating red haired stag. The stag was trembling in fear. Overcome with great compassion, Milarepa sang a religious song which soothed the stag and made it forget fear. The stag laid itself on the right of the sage.
Subsequently, a red dog, running at the speed of lightning and full of fiery wrath, came in hot pursuit of the stag. Milarepa also sang a song for the dog, immediately curbing its temper and passion. The dog laid itself on the left side of the sage.
This dance is generally performed like a play in two parts, over two days. The first part has a touch of travesty, contributed by the clowns (atsaras). The servant of the hunter appears and is ridiculed by the clowns. Then comes the hunter, crowned with leaves and armed with a bow and arrows, accompanied by his two dogs. The servant jokes very disrespectfully with the master who performs good luck rituals before embarking upon the hunt. A priest performs the rituals in ways contrary to Buddhist tradition, while the atsaras and the servant continue their banter.
The second part is more serious and bears religious connotations.
Milarepa appears, wearing a long white dress, white hat and holding a pilgrim’s staff. Cupping his right ear with one hand, he sings in soft and plaintive voice. The two dogs, the stag and the hunter, one after other, arrive at the spot and are instantly won over by the songs. Their conversion is symbolized by a stretched rope over which the dogs and the hunter jump. This part exhibits some fine acrobatics.
Dance of the Lords of Cremation Grounds (Durdag) (Same as day one)
Dance of the Terrifying Deities (Tungam)
First, the dancers representing the Gods circle the bad spirits and ensnare them in a box. Then the main God, who holds the phurba (the ritual dagger), kills them. He thus saves the world from them and at the same time delivers them into salvation. This is the only way by which the men and the asuras (half-gods) who become enemies of Buddhism, can be converted.
Hence, Ugyen Rinpoche, who is the emanation of all the Buddhas, took the form of Dorje Dragpa, ‘Fierce Thunderbolt’ to liberate such bad spirits and usher them into the superior sphere of bliss. This incredible feat brought happiness o the human world and helped increase faith in non-illusionary acts.
Dance of the Heroes with six kinds of Ornaments (Guan Drug Pawos)
Kyecham: Dance of the Noblemen and Ladies (Phole Mole)
According to King Norzang’s biography, the son of a hunter in his kingdom was once granted a wish for saving the life fore of a serpent deity. He borrowed the magic noose which could capture anything and ensnared Yidrogma, the most beautiful woman around. He offered Yidrogma as a gift to King Norzang.
King Norzang already have five hundred Queens but became so besotted with Queen Yidrogma that he began to neglect the other queens. The queens, unable to bear the King’s indifference, sought the services of Hari, through black magic, caused King Norzang’s father to see a prophetic dream.
The prophecy said that enemies, savage men from the north, were trying to destroy the Kingdom. If the Kingdom was to be saved, they must be defeated at once. The father commanded King Norzang to set out immediately for the north. As King Norzang prepared to leave, Queen Yidrogma begged him to take her on excursion. The King explained to her that he could not take her to war although he was sad at having to part from her. Queen Yidrogma gave to her beloved as souvenirs her ring, a set of her clothes and the white silk scarf with which she covered her head.
King Norzang set out for the north and conquered the foreign enemies. He then returned to his country and defeated all opponents within. Queen Yidrogma who had, using magical powers, fled to her father for fear of being killed, was welcomed back and lived happily with King Norzang.
In the dance, the essence remains the same although portrayed differently. The players are two Royal couples, an old couple and the atsaras. The two princes are about to embark for war and leave the princesses in the care of the old couple. No sooner have they departed when the clowns corrupt the old woman and try to take advantage of the princesses.
On their return, the princes are scandalized by the behavior of the princesses and cut off their noses as punishment. The old woman also met the same punishment. Relenting later, a physician is called, and the noses fixed back. When it comes to the turn of the old woman, the physician refuses to come near her because of the stink and instead fixes the nose with a stick.
In the end, the princes wed with princesses.
Shawa Shachhi - Lencham: Dance of the Stag and the Hounds (IInd part)
When Gonpo Dorji arrives at the spot where Milarepa has his dogs and the stag seated peacefully on either side, he thinks the sage has cast a spell on the animals. Gonpo Dorji, who is fierce, strong and frightening in appearance, is enraged at the sight. Saying, ‘you protect the stag and the dog, let us see if you can protect yourself from this arrow’, he lets fly a poisonous arrow.
In the next instant, Gonpo Dorji’s bow shatters, the bow string snaps, and the arrow turns towards himself. Gonpo Dorji cannot believe what he sees until Milarepa tells him: ‘Gonpo Dorji, your arrow is returned, now listen to my song’.
As the song wafts through the forest, Gonpo Dorji is filled with deep remorse for his past actions and confesses his bad deeds. He promises never to sin again and becomes a practitioner of the religion. In time he attained full realism.
Dance of the Lord of Death and his Consort (Shinje Yab Yum) (same as Day one)
Dance of the four Stags (Sha Tsam)
It tells of a time when the Wind God used his power to bring about suffering and misery in the world. Guru Rinpoche subdued the wind God and restored peace and happiness to the world. As a show of his victory, Guru Rinpoche rode the stag mount of the Wind God.
The stag dance came into existence after the first incarnation of Nam Nying (Namkhe Nyingpo) found the caurved head of the stag. During this dance, the gratitude of pious people is demonstrated as all agitators of the world have been overcome and happiness and peace reigns supreme.
Dance of the Judgement of the Dead (Raksha Mangcham)
When all beings die, they wander in the Bardo (intermediate state), waiting to be led by the love of the Buddhas into the pure fields where no suffering exists. However, when the Buddhas, who assume both their peaceful and terrifying forms, appear to greet them, those who had no fervent adoration for the Buddhist doctrine in their lifetime, do not recognize the Buddhas and are frightened. They think the Buddhas are enemies and cannot, therefore, be led to paradise. The Buddhas, however, persist through different good deeds until the cycle of rebirth of the beings are complete.
Shinje Chghogyel, Lord of Death, estimates the value of good and bad deeds during the judgement. Also present are the White God and Black demons who live with every being from birth, and all the Shinje’s helpers (Rakshas) who emanate under numerous forms. These are: the ox-headed justice minister; the wild hog-headed helper who maintains account of the black and white deeds; the khyung-headed bird (the khyung is a mythical bird) who holds a small sword which cuts the root of the three poisonous-ignorance, envy, anger-and a big hammer which demolishes the rocky mountains of the sins; the lion-headed helper who holds a lasso which represents love and an iron chain representing compassion; the fierce bear-headed helper who holds the magical noose which ties the means and wisdom together and a saw which cuts selfishness; the serpent-headed helper whose mirror reflects all actions; the monkey headed helper who weighs them on a scale.
The Rakshas separate with equanimity the black from the white actions of all beings, just as in the case of the sinner Nyelwabum and the virtuous Chimdapelkye. The frightening court of justice cannot be avoided by condemned beings, but after enduring certain sufferings, their sins are washed away. Progressively, they are led to the pure fields and paradise. Unfortunately, some beings do not understand that everything is the result of their mind, whether it is pure or impure. The dance shows that if they devote themselves to virtuous actions, they will be immediately move to paradise. Regarding the different forms of Shinje’s helpers, those beings who are born into the human world where the doctrine of Buddha has been propagated, recognize them as incarnations of Buddha. They are thus delivered from the frightening Bardo the paradises. The origin of this dance is to be found not only in Sutras and Tantras, but also in the books discovered by Karma Linga.
The dance can be described as more of a play than a dance and lasts approximately two hours. Firstly, there is the long dance of all the Rakshas during the judgement. Then Shinje himself appears, symbolized by a huge puppet which holds a mirror. The White God and the Black Demon enter the courtyard with him. Then the judgement begins. First the Black Demon and the main helpers perform a dance. Then the sinner who is dressed in black and wearing a hat arrives. He is very frightened and tries to escape but is recaptured each time by the helpers. From his basket, a freshly severed cow’s head is taken, implying that the sinner was responsible for killing it. The judge then weighs his actions. Afterwards the White God sings of the merits of the man, followed by the Black Demon who expounds the sins of the man. Finally, a black strip of cloth symbolizing the road to hell, is spread and the sinner sentenced there.
This is followed by a general dance after which everyone assumes their former seating positions. Another man arrives. He is clad in white and holds a prayer flag and a ceremonial scarf, indicating his virtues. The same scene as above is re-enacted and at the conclusion a white strip of cloth, symbolizing the road to heaven, is spread out. Fairies elaborately dressed in brocade and bone ornaments come to fetch him. At the last moment, the Black Demon, furious at having lost a being, tries to grasp the virtuous man but the White God protects him.
Dance of the Drums from Dramitse (Dramitse Nga Cham) (Same as Day one)
The Great Paro Thongdroel is unfurled early in the morning on last day of the festival and a Shugdrel ceremony performed.
The history and significance of the Paro Thongdrogl (Thangkha)
There, people have only to think, to touch, to taste, to smell, to listen and to see the body supports of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. This is called liberation by mind, by touch, by knowledge, by taste, by smell, by listening and by sight.
The people who know virtuous and unvirtuous deeds, because of their devotion and faith in the support of Body, Speech and Mind of the Buddha, have created the thangkha, the mere sight of which liberates. Nowhere in this mundane world can be found a more superior treasure.
In order to help all the sentient beings who are nowadays impure, the Buddhas of the ten directions consulted each other and united their virtues of compassion resulting in the arrival of Ugyen Rinpoche on earth.
During a previous life, he was born to a woman poultry farmer. At that time, while erecting the great chorten of Jarunghashor (Bodhanath in Nepal), Ugyen Rinpoche vowed to have compassion for sentient beings, particularly those of Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim.
This is why our accomplished forefathers made the great thangkha which represents Ugyen Rinpoche and his eight manifestations, the sight of which liberates. They also established the code of veneration and offerings to it. Both in this life and the next, it is hoped that those who have a great desire to be delivered from trans-migratory existence develop and protect this excellent ancient custom.
Shugdrel Ceremony (blessing and Offering Ceremony performed by the Monk Body in front of the Thangkha). Regardless of the size and importance of any auspicious occasion, the Shugdrel Ceremony is done to show the main achievement of the Glorious Drukpa. For this Shugdrel Ceremony, there are five accomplished elements as follows:
It is here in the Kingdom of Bhutan, the Valley of Medicinal Herbs where the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, Shakya Thubpa (the historical Buddha) Ugyen Rinpoche (the saint who leads people away from the five impurities) and the powerful Drukpa shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, have diffused the Tantras.
He is Ugyen Pemajyune who incorporates within himself all the Buddhas. His image can be seen on the great Thangkha which liberates all from bad reincarnations.
The holy clergy and even the devout people who wear rich clothes and ornaments are in the middle of the assembly like a gathering of celestial stars.
This is when religious practices continuously flourish, ranging from reciting Mani and Baza Guru up to the practice of the Tantric path.
All kinds of offerings are combined, good food and fruits, prayer flags, nectar like alcohol, tea and sweet-smelling incense.
Like cheerful minded Gods in a small grove of trees, a number of men and Gods are seated in rows (literal meaning of Shugdrel) and are making these offerings. This good custom is called the Shugdrel Ceremony.
Dance of the Heroes (Pacham)
The great ‘Treasure-Discover’ Pema Lingpa arrived in the presence of Ugyen Rinpoche, at the summit of the Zangtho Pelri, in the middle of a marvelous palace of lotus beams which reflected the wisdom large and deep as the sky, without obstacles. There he saw Ugyen Rinpoche, the Lord who leads the beings of the three worlds, sitting among his assistants in the centre of a limitless mandala which was made of lines of rainbow beams. In the mandala, the assembly of the sages, of the tutelary deities, of the heroes (Pawos) and the heroines (Kandom Pamo) were dancing in the forms of various emanations of the peaceful and terrifying deities. All sorts of dances were performed and all sorts of harmonious melodies which are the sounds of the religion of the Great Path (Northern branch of Buddhism) were sung. Among this congregation, the assembly of the peaceful heroes and heroines is the most important. They are as numerous as the moving clouds in order to celebrate the deep and large religion and their function is to lead the believers who die into the presence of Ugyen Rinpoche.
Dance of the Ging and Tsholing
The dance depicts the paradise of Ugyen Rinpoche from where all the incarnations of Ugyen Rinpoche, essence of all the Buddhas, are sent to the Three Worlds. In the middle of a great palace is seated Ugyen Rinpoche. On his right the holy men from Tibet and India are seated in a row and on his left the learned men (Pandits) from Tibet and India. In all the intermediate zones are the 108 ‘Treasure Discoverers’ (terton) who are his incarnations, and also his twenty-five disciples, including the King of Tibet Trisongdetsen.
In the centre of a rainbow, the assembly of tutelary deities (Yidam), heroes (pawos) and fairies (Kandoms), peaceful and terrifying, as if by magic, sing, dance and spread from the clouds three kinds of offerings. It is these offerings that grant both the ordinary and extraordinary realization.
All the protectors of the religion, male and female, in their fierce form, are guarding the four outer doors while the four Guardian Kings of the directions command an army of eight classes of spirits. They subdue all the demons who create obstacles to the Doctrine of Buddha. All these wonders have been personally observed by the ‘Treasure Discoverer’ Pema Linga.
Besides, a long time ago in Tibet, in order to introduce Buddhism, King Trisongdetsen built a large monastery in Samye. Ugyen Rinpoche, by showing his magical powers through incarnations, subdued all the demons who were preventing its construction. Thus, he fulfilled a religious commitment to the King.
These incarnations are manifested in the Ging and Tsholing Dance: the inner dance called the Ging Dance is performed by the assembly of heroes (Pawos), tutelary deities (Yidams) and fairies (Hansoms) as well as the various terrifying deities. The outer dance called Tsholing Dance, is performed by the protectors of the religion with their retinue of eight classes of spirits. This dance, which brings blessings, is performed in order to remove all obstacles to the Doctrine as well as to bring happiness to all sentient beings. When the Ging and Tsholing performed this miraculous and agitated dance, they discourage the external demons and demonstrate clearly their magical powers by which they can overcome the demons.
This dance is clearly a dance of purification before the arrival of Guru Rinpoche. People whistle to chase away the bad spirits and Ging hit everyone on the head with their drumsticks to chase away impurity from the body.
The Tsholing, after having destroyed the evil spirits symbolized by an effigy in a black box, are chased away by the Ging who stay alone and perform a dance of victory by beating their drums.
Dance of the Eight Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche (Guru Tshen Gye)
Ugyen Rinpoche is the second Buddha and the incarnations of Avalokiteshvara (Thugje Chenpo), Lord of Compassion. When he was born in the son of a poultry farmer, he vowed to guide all beings of the world, particularly those of Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet. That was why he came to these regions. When Buddha was about to enter Nirvana, he prophesized to his disciples: ‘Don’t be sad, I will be coming from the West’.Thus he reappeared as Ugyen Rinpoche.
When the 100,000 fairies of wisdom were begging the Buddhas of the 10 directions to send somebody to guide all being, this was discussed at length and then all the virtues of their body, speech and mind were summed up in Ugyen Rinpoche. He came in order to guide the beings who live in the age of impurity.
His activities are beyond description, However, here is how he helped the beings of this continent through his eight manifestations:
The fairy who is standing on the right of Guru Rinpoche is Mandarava, the lady of wisdom. Ugyen Rinpoche made her his own emanation for the benefit of the beings to be converted in the Kingdom of Zahor.
The fairy who is standing at his left is Yeshey Tshogyel. She represents the Goddess of knowledge, mother of all the Buddhas. She helped to establish Buddhism in Tibet for the benefit of all beings.
Dance of the Sixteen Fairies (Rigma Chudrug)
The dance brings total happiness for the people who believe in the manifestations of Ugyen Rinpoche. It is a celebration of the changeless faith in the glorious deeds of Ugyen Rinpoche’s mind, speech and body.
Chhoshey: Religious Songs (same as Day one)