Wangduephodrang Tshechu - Popular Festivals in Bhutan
The annual Wangduephodrang Tshechu was introduced by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal after the completion of the Dzong. It is a three-day festival of mask and folk dances and founded by the 4th Temporal Ruler of Bhutan, Mr. Tenzing Rabgye (1638-1696), to commemorate the birth of Guru Padmasambhava. The Tshechu features dance by monks and laymen and concludes with the unfurling of the Guru Tshengye Thongdroel where people throng to receive blessings. The Tshechu is particularly famous for the Raksha Mangcham or the Dance of the Ox. Wangduephodrang festival is well attended by people from Punakha and Thimphu as well and provides an occasion for merrymaking and revelry.
On 24th June 2012, a tragic fire led to the loss of Wangduephodrang Dzong and its reconstruction is currently underway. Until Dzong construction is complete, Wangdue Tshechu is celebrated at Tencholing Army ground.
Following is the sequence of dances in Wangdue festival:
Dance of the Lord of Death and his Consort (Shinje Yabyum)
The Dance of the Four Stag (Shacham)
As a blessing, the first of the incarnation of Nam Nying (Namkhe Nyingpo) who was Guru’s disciple, found the effigy of the face of a stag and so the dance of the White stag came into being. During this dance, the gratitude of the pious people is demonstrated to all the beings destined to be converted in the future. After all the allegations of the world have been overcome, happiness and peace will reign supreme.
Dance of the 21 Black Hats (Shana)
The Black Hat dancers assume the appearance of yogis who have the power of killing and recreating life. In order to lead to the field of Buddha beings who cannot be led by peaceful means, they subdue these enemies of the doctrine through their external compassionate anger but internally they have an accomplished peaceful mind. They have the appearance of Tantrics who are good to beings through terrifying but really accomplished acts such as killing and expelling bad spirits. By the wisdom of their knowledge, the five poisonous sins disappeared in the sphere of emptiness.
This dance can also be referred to as ‘Gar’ dance. It is derived from the different traditions of the Tantras (texts of Northern buddhism). They say that with the help of gods who have meditated deeply upon the mantras (sacred formulas), the ‘Gar’ which are the gestures of the dancers’ hands are transformed into mudras (sacred mystic gestures) and their feet which pound the earth are forming a mandala (mystic geometric figure).
The Black Hat Dancers who perform the ritual for the earth firstly build a tantric mandala and then cut the demons into pieces. Thus, they take possession of the earth in order to further protect it and they dance the thunderbolt step to impress their power on it (The thunderbolt step is a particular step in the religious dances).
Dance of the 21 Black Hats with Drums (Shana Nga Cham)
Dance of the Three Kinds of Ging (with sticks, with swords, with drums) (Peling Ging Sum)
Thus, although all the demons Nyulema who are creating obstacles to the religion are fleeing anywhere in the Three Worlds, the Ging with sticks can find them, thanks to their knowledge. They catch them with the hook of compassion, beat them with the stick of wisdom and tie them with the noose of compassion.
The Ging with the Swords purify the atmosphere from such bad deeds as robbery, killing or the separation of one’s self from one’s tutelary (Yidam) which are caused by the Nyulemas. The Ging with the swords send their minds in the paradise of pure consciousness, while they use as sacrificial offerings their body of flesh and blood.
After these demons have been vanquished, the Ging with the drums, dance with happiness. They beat the drums of the religion which is thus propagated.
This dance is performed to bring good luck and wish happiness to all living beings. These dances are considered as blessings.
Kyecham (accompaniment dance)
This is the classical explanation of this dance from whence it takes its name. However, there is another explanation which is closely related to the popular explanation of Phole Mole, the following dance. Kyecham and Phole Mole are inter-related.
The son of an old man and a pretty girl got married. They seemed to be a compatible couple, but during a fight he cut off her nose. First their love was so great, that they could not be separated but then they got attracted by somebody else because mind and body are not constant. This is a universal law which says that there is no real substance in the worldly components. Many people behave like this and bring upon themselves suffering in this life and in one to come.
Dance of the nobleman and the Ladies (Phole Mole)
Dance of the Stag and the Hounds (Shawa Shachi)
However, the hunter was extremely annoyed an angry with Milarepa and shot his arrow towards the stag anyway. Without warning, both the bow and arrow were suddenly broken, and in the presence of Milarepa, the dog became relaxed and calm. Eventually the hunter also surrendered to the wisdom of Milarepa and followed the master’s advise for the rest of life. Later people called him Khilarepa instead of Gonpo Dorje. Therefore, this dance drama is performed in hopes of cultivating compassion and love for animals, demonstrating that even the mind of cruel men such as hunter may be turned towards Dharma. This dance signifies the need to cultivate compassion and love for all sentient beings in order to have a successful rebirth and possible enlightenment.
Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds (Durdag)
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 Raksha from the monastery of Dole (Dole Raksha Cham)
For the happiness of the Bhutanese people and in order to prevent the earth and water deities from doing any mischief, one mandala (diagram) dedicated to the Buddha Mitrupa (Akshobya) was placed in the middle of the bridge.
Dance of the Rakshas and the Judgement of the Dead (Raksha Mangcham)
Dance of the Drums from Dramitse (Dramitse Nga Cham)
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.
At dawn, the ‘Thongdroel’, the thangkha which brings liberation by sight is displayed till approximately 8 A.M. A religious ceremony called ‘Shugdel’ is performed by monk body. The Royal Troupe of Masks and Folk Dances performs also in front of the thangkha dance called ‘Religious Dance with Guitar’ (Dranyen Choeshey). Afterwards, the thangkha is rolled and folded and is kept out of sight until the next festival.
The ‘Thongdroel’ is a huge wall-hanging, a thangkha’ which brings liberation ‘Drol’ by seeing it.
The ‘Thongdroel’ of Wangduephodrang is beautifully made and represents the eight manifestation of Guru Rinpoche. It was completed and shown first time in 1984.
The display starts at dawn and the monk-body perform ‘Shugdel’, a blessing and offering ceremony which takes place when five elements are joined together : an accomplished place, i.e., Bhutan, an accomplished master, i.e., Guru Rinpoche, an accomplished retinue, i.e., the monk-body, an accomplished time, i.e., when religion flourishes, accomplished offerings, i.e., fruit, flower, tea, incense, food etc.
All the official and the public go next to the ‘Thongdroel’ and touch it with their head, thus receiving a blessing. Later a dance is performed in front of it by the Royal troupe in the 17th century costumes: the Dance with Guitar.
Dance with Guitar (Dranyen Cham)
He built marvelous temples and palaces and made beautiful chortens, statues and religious books, supports of the faith. He imposed very strict rules upon the newly established monk-body which forms the base of the doctrine and also upon the tantric college which is the essence of doctrine. He supported like the Three Jewels the admirable community of the monks who practice together the moral training; to listen, to think, to explain, to understand and to meditate the basic texts which are contained in the Three baskets (the Buddhist Canon), essence of the Buddha’s doctrine.
The generous donors who give offerings to the Gods and gifts to the people believe in the result of their actions. Because of the power of their generosity, monks and laymen will be happy in this life and the life to come. This dance of the guitar is performed in a cheerful state of mind during the festival.
Dance of the Heroes (Pachem)
Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds (Durdag)
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. These 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 Manifestation of Guru Rinpoche (Gguru Tshen Gye)
Ugyen Rinpoche is the second Buddha and the incarnations of Avalokiteshvara (Thugje Chenpo), Lord of Compassion. When he was born 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. .
(Photo credit: Wangduephodrang Dzongkhag Administration)