We started our journey to the Paro tsechu on the bus after our classes for the day were over, dressed up in our gho and kira, with kabne and rachu easily accessible. When the Bhutanese attend tsechu (religious festivals), they go the whole nine yards. (In this case, an apt phrase, given the incredible amount of fabric that makes up the national dress.) They wear their best, most fashionable clothes in colors so bright and vivid that they almost hurt your eyes, while women show off expensive chunky coral necklaces. The kabne (for men) and rachu (for women) is an extra piece of fabric which is draped over or around the shoulders, and transforms standard gho and kira into formal-wear suitable for entering dzongs, being in the presence of His Majesty or the Jhe Khenpo (head of the monk body), and attending religious festivity such as this. Although tourists are exempt from the strict dress-code of the tsechu, we decided to wear gho and kira anyway. We were some of the only Westerners wearing Bhutanese clothes – so of course, lots of people wanted to take our picture.
When we arrived in Paro, we went straight to the festival site behind the Dzong, where a crowd of people watched the folk dances. While these groups of women swayed with elaborate hand gestures and the men wearing green wreaths danced in a circle, a few men wearing red and devilish-looking masks prowled around the perimeter. These were the “clowns” of the show, and they bantered with the crowd, climbed the buildings, and mimicked the dancing in silly ways. We have since come to know that these clownish dancers are known as Atsaras, a term derived from the Sanskrit word acharya, meaning teacher, and are considered masters of the art form who often correct fellow performers and help them with their costumes.
I sat down in the crowd, but because the ground was dusty and I didn’t have a mat to protect my kira, some people gave me a cardboard box. I sat in it like a chair, and the elderly ladies on either side of me grinned and pinched the cardboard appreciatively. It was a rowdy, but fun bunch. People brought thermoses of tea, snacks, and plenty of doma (betal nut) to share. A few children near me were playing with balloons. Periodically they’d pop them, start wailing, and have to be placated with another balloon to start the cycle all over again. The tsechu was more of a chance for goers to chat and socialize than to pay close attention to the dancing.
My favorite dance (the Drametse Ngacham, or “drum dance from Drametse”) came when a group of men wearing elaborate costumes and animal masks stepped out. They wore layered skirts made from a fabric design I often see displayed in the temples, and carried drums and sticks. Some of the dance moves were elaborate twists and jumps in circular formations. At times it was easy to forget that these were indeed human dancers, and not the animals and demons they represented. The leader of the dance was identifiable by his snow lion mask, and every so often he would give a call that changed the structure of the dance. It lasted for an entire hour.
After this dance ended, the day’s activities were over until the next morning. We drove back through Paro toward Taktshang (Tiger’s Nest) where Dasho, the Director of RTC had extremely generously allowed us to stay the night at his home situated opposite the famous temple to which we had climbed on our second day in Bhutan. We spent the hours before dinner drinking tea, engaging in raucous outdoor activities, and learning new party games. Dinner itself was delicious – momos (cheese dumplings, a group favorite), vegetable pakora, shredded eggplant, ginger-roasted potatoes, rice, ema datsi, chicken, and more.
We had to be on the bus to the tsechu at 3:30 the next morning, and somehow we managed to stumble aboard by 3:40, a little bleary-eyed and maybe with our gho and kira slightly askew, but ready and eager to see the thongdrol. Pronounced tawn-droll, it’s an incredible appliqué tapestry the size of a building which is unfurled in the early morning and rolled back up again before the sun’s rays can strike it. It’s only displayed once a year during the tsechu, and it features Guru Rinpoche surrounded by his eight manifestations, teachers, and consorts. It is said that simply viewing the thongdrol cleanses the beholder of sin. I am not sure if it was the effect of standing in the tight crowds, or the release of my sins, but I felt a bewildering sense of being off-balance for the duration of the morning.
To our slight disappointment, when we arrived back at the Dzong, the thongdrol was already unfurled, but we were excited to see it nonetheless. Hundreds of people stood in lines segregated by sex in order to approach the thongdrol and touch the bottom of it. Unsure what to do, we joined the crowd and mimicked the way the people bowed to touch their foreheads to the bottom of the tapestry. Once we had passed the thongdrol, some of us chose to move into an open area of the dance arena in order to do a series of prostrations, or bows, facing the thongdrol. Several dozen monks occupied the center of the dance arena, chanting, singing, drumming, and leading the worship. Then we sat in the stands and shivered, and watched the sky transition from dim stars to the pale new light of a clear morning. The clouds that had suggested rain, which would have been considered a sign of blessings, had passed on.
As the sun came up, there was a new dance to watch, with a lot of twirling and jumping. The monks all sat in rows in the main square and beat on drums. Someone was burning a pile of incense, which wafted pillars of perfumed smoke in our direction. At about seven in the morning, a few of us walked down to meet the bus, but we were interrupted by a procession of monks playing woodwind instruments, followed by the King, Queen, and their company. It was the first time we had ever seen the King and Queen up close, and they smiled and nodded at us when they went by. Some of the Wheaton students actually got to have a conversation with him. With the royalty, dances, songs, and excited atmosphere of the whole tsechu, it was a supremely exhilarating and memorable experience.
– Carrie Decker and Catherine Perkins