Monday, April 22, 2013

Purification By Fire : Domkhar Tsechu #1

In Bhutan the exact date of Tsechus is not known until the last minute and nor is the timing of events. We found out this week that the Domkhar Tsechu (a village about 7km from here) would start this Friday night and continue over the weekend. We also heard that it would start with some sort of fire event on Friday night, probably around 9pm-10pm.

We arranged a taxi to take us to the event, but the driver rang us to let us know it would all be starting earlier at 8pm. Good for us – heading out into the cold night with two little kids, the earlier the better.

When we arrived at the Lhakang the crowds were gathering. We found a ‘front-row seat’ on the ground with a good view of the courtyard. Having lived here a couple of months now, it was so lovely to greet many familiar faces in the crowd and have a feeling of being one of the locals. A couple of my favourite class 6 students came and sat with us, talking to Remy and Xavier and explaining what was going on, I was so grateful for their excellent English skills.

At first, some elaborately dressed dancers performed around the courtyard – a high-energy dance of spinning, jumping and leaping - as a small fire was lit. Gradually more wood was added to the fire so that it grew higher and higher. A second group of dancers entered, dressed in only tiger-skin printed wraps on their lower half, chests bare – they would have been cold except for the fact that their dancing was energetic and the blazing fire kept them warm and illuminated in the night. The students asked if we were scared – they said they were – but it was not at all scary at this point, just fascinating, and very reassuring that all around us were people we knew.
Dancing around the fire.
Setting the fire up at the Lhakang.
An atsara teasing people in the crowd with his larger-than-life you know what!

The crowd started to cheer and wolf-whistle just like we were at a football game – and I was told this was to encourage the flames to go higher and higher to the height of the temple. The tiger-skin clad dancers were holding a piece of paper attached to wooden poles above the fire and the aim was for this paper to catch alight.

Finally this happened with a bang, and the crowd started to disperse immediately. Again my students explained we needed to leave the Lhakang and walk up the hill to the site of the next ritual.

Hundreds of people walked in the pitch dark up the hill where a large ‘arch’ had been prepared, covered entirely in flammable grasses, sticks and dried foliage. As we waited a teacher from school came to warn me about how dangerous the next event would be, to be careful with the children, and that it was best to run through the fire alone. At this point I didn’t realise what was about to happen and I thought his comments were overly cautious.

The group of elaborately dressed dancers and monks arrived from the Lhakang below bearing torches lit from the fire. They set the arch way alight and in no time it was all aflame – there was not an obvious place to run through – the whole space was on fire!
But quick as a flash the crowd started to run through the middle of the fire! Young and old, male and female, even astonishingly parents with small children strapped on their backs, ran through the middle of the flames! Now the teacher’s words of caution made sense! There is no way known I would run through that fire alone, let alone with one of my children!!!!!
Leaping through the fire - would you be brave enough?
Onlookers gathered to watch the spectacle.

 The fire was blazing and hot!

This photo was perfect for my FMS photo of the day prompt 'fire'.
Monks, dancers and musicians gathered to watch in the glow of the fire.


We stood at a distance where we could see the action but clear of falling flaming debris.

The crowd was loud and cheering – some like us standing by watching, but many filing through again and again through the fire. A part of me wanted to join in, but it just looked too dangerous. We went around to the other side to see the people emerging from the fire - with sparks on their clothes, and smoke coming from their shoes!!! The possibility for disaster was imminent – with glowing bundles of fire overhead threatening to drop on people as they ran through. Of course there was no St. John ambulance personnel waiting nearby, and sure enough it seemed that actually no one caught fire or was hurt in any way.

As the fire died down children joined in, even when I still judged the situation too dangerous for myself. The crowd headed back down the hill to the Lhakang where dancing continued on.

As almost all the fire had burned out, and only embers remained I decided it was my time to run through. Looking through the photos this morning we had a good laugh at how tame my run was. We saw a man nearby who we knew and asked about the significance of the ritual. He said that if you run through two times your sins will be purified. Also you can ensure the year ahead will be blessed with good-luck. I ended up running through three times, and I kid you not that as we walked down the hill I felt a very fresh, clean, pure and light feeling inside – perhaps my slate really had been wiped clean?

We re-entered the Lhakang and watched some more dancing before deciding it was time to call it a night and get the little boys home. They had been fascinated and at times scared by what they saw, but it was definitely something we will never forget!


  1. What a fascinating country Andrea. I look forward to following your journey and reading more of your adventures. BTW, I would have down the same as you did - I'm a scaredy cat when it comes to danger and fire!!!

    1. Thank you for Kirsty for having a look at this forgotten post! It was such a fascinating night for us.

  2. Wow - fascinating. What a great experience. I would say the feeling you felt while walking home was a mixture of excitement, adrenaline, relief, pride in what you'd done, and the high we get from participating in group activities. All very good and useful things! Events like this also create strong memories, change your perspective and give you confidence in what you can do.
    Good on you - I am terrified of fire and am sure I would not have done this; and I would have regretted not doing it later too!

    1. Thanks Jackie! You are right, we felt a lot of those feelings and the unique feelings we had that night remain something we talk about often. We heard that an upcoming festival will also have a fire gate, and perhaps even naked dancing at midnight! Maybe another memorable night!