Thimphu Tshechu - Popular Festivals in Bhutan
This festival held in capital city Thimphu, was initiated by the 4th Temporal Ruler of Bhutan, Gyalse Tenzin Rabgay, in 1867. The festival underwent a change in the 1950s, when the third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, introduced several Boed Chhams (mask dances performed by monks). The addition also added colour without compromising the spiritual significance.
This three-day Tshechu begins on 10th day of 8th month of lunar calendar and consists of twenty-four folk songs and twenty-five sacred dances.
From the years of its establishment in 1687, Thimphu Tshechu was being performed inside Trashichhoedzong courtyard until 2007. However, because of the steady increase in attendees, the inner courtyard became too congested to properly perform the rites. Therefore, to accommodate a growing number of viewers, a new Tshechu stadium was constructed and named Tendrel Thang, meaning ‘Auspicious Ground’.
During festival, rare masked dances and other ritual ceremonies are performed and the origin of most of these sacred dances can be traced beyond the middle ages. Each sequence of dance has its own significance and is performed by monks in bright traditional costumes. The festival apart from its enduring religious significance also provides an occasion for the locals to get together, to renew old friendships and to forge new alliances all against the backdrop of a colourful religious ceremony.
Following is the sequences of dances at Thimphu festival:
The Dance of the Four Stag (Shacham)
Dance of the Three Kinds of Ging (Pelage Gingsum)
The Lords of the cremation grounds bring a box that contains the mind and the body of these demons. Then the Ging with the swords purify the atmosphere from evil deeds that are caused by the demons. After the demons have been vanquished, the Ging with the drums dance with happiness. For the dance with the sticks the Ging wear animal masks, and for the dance with the swords and the drums, they wear terrifying masks.
Dance of the Heroes (Pacham)
Dance of the Stag and the Hounds (Shawo Shachi)
Dance with Guitar (Dranyeo Cham)
Black Hat Dance (Shana)
Because of its importance, the Shabdrung himself used to perform this ritual. This is a ground purification rite, also performed for the construction of dzongs, temples and chortens. Its aim is to conciliate the malevolent beings of the ground in order to take possession of the site from them.
Dance of the 21 Black Hats with Drums (Shaa Nga Cham)
Dance of the Noblemen and the Ladies (Pholeg Moleg)
The actors are two princesses, an old couple and the clowns. The prince goes to war and leave the princesses in the care of the old couple. As soon as they depart, the clowns frolic with the princesses and corrupt the old woman who is also misbehaving. When the princes return, they are scandalized by the behavior and cut off the noses of the princesses and the old lady as punishment. Then a doctor is called to put the nose back, but the old woman smells so much that the doctor has to use a stick because he does not want to approach her. Finally, the princes marry the princesses, and everybody is reconciled.
Dance of the Drums from Dramitse (Dramitse Nga Cham)
Dance of the Stag and the Hounds (Shawo Shachi)
Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds (Durdag)
Dance of the Terrifying Deities (Tungam)
Dance of the Rakshas and 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 Buddha into the pure fields where no suffering exists. However, the Buddhas assume both peaceful and terrifying forms. Those who didn’t adore the Buddhist doctrine do not recognize the Buddhism in their terrifying form and are frightened and can not be led into the paradises.
Shinje Chhogyel, Lord of Death, estimates the value of the white and black deeds during the judgement. Also present are the White God and Black Demon who live with every being from birth, and all the helpers who emanate under numerous forms. These include; the ox-headed justice minister, the wild hog-headed helper who takes account of the black and white deeds, the Khyung-headed bird who holds a small sword to cut the root of the three poisons (ignorance, envy, anger) and a big hammer to destroy the rocky mountains of sins, a lion-headed helper holds a lasso representing love and an iron chain representing compassion, the fierce bear-headed helper holds the magical noose binding the means and wisdom together and a saw to cut selfishness, a serpent-headed helper holds a mirror reflecting all actions, and the monkey-headed helper weighs them on a scale.
All these helpers are called rakshas and they separate the black actions from the white actions of all beings. The frightening Court of Justice cannot be avoided by the damned beings. But after enduring certain sufferings, their sins are washed away, and they are purified. This dance shows everyone that if they devote themselves to virtuous actions, they will be sent immediately to the pure fields and paradises. Then after life, when they have to cross the Bardo and meet the helpers and the assembly of peaceful and terrifying deities, they recognize them as incarnations of Buddha and are delivered from the frightening Bardo
The dance is like a play and lasts over two hours. First is the long dance of all the rakshas, the helpers of Shinje. Then Shinje himself appears, symbolised by a huge puppet holding a mirror. The White God and the Black Demon enter with them. The judgement begins. The Black Demon and his helpers perform a dance. The sinner, dressed in black and wearing a red hat, is frightened and tries to escape but is recaptured each time. From his basket a freshly severed cow’s head is taken, implying that the sinner was responsible for killing it. As the judge weighs his actions, the White God sings of the merits of the man and the Black Demon expounds the sins. Finally, a black strip of cloth symbolizing the road to hell is spread and the sinner is sent to hell.
After a general dance everyone sits again. Another man arrives, clad in white and holding a prayer flag and a ceremonial scarf. The same scene is re-enacted and at the conclusion a white strip of cloth, symbolizing the road to heaven, is deployed. 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.