Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Tamshing Tsechu

The region of Bumthang is known as ‘the cultural heartland’ of Bhutan and in coming weeks we will be able to experience this all over again. During spring we were able to attend a number of local tsechus (religious festivals) and now it is autumn it seems that festival season is again upon us.

Early Sunday morning I was googling to find out about a tsechu we hope to attend this weekend at Thangbi, when I realised that only an hour away, a 3 day festival was underway at Tamshing Goempa – one of the oldest (dating from 1500) and most important Goempas in the country built by Pema Lingpa.

A quick call around the local taxi drivers and Bob arranged transport and an hour later we were on our way!

I’m so pleased we went. We visited Tamshing Goempa the very first day we arrived in Chamkar back in February. The weather then was cold and wintery and the temple was mostly quiet and deserted. At the time we didn’t get to see inside the actual temple complex so our experience was brief.

This time, the weather was warm and sunny in the morning and the grounds of the temple were alive with flowers and hundreds of local people dressed in their finest kiras and ghos. Every tsechu we attend is a feast for all the senses – my eyes jump from person to person admiring the beautiful clothes, we hear the sounds of ritual instruments: horns and drums and cymbals crashing, and we smell the thick smoke of the juniper branches being burned to purify the area.
Tsechus are an occasion for get-togethers and family picnics.



We sat in the hot sun to watch the first series of masked dances, and after some time the clouds rolled in.
Atsaras (jesters) working the crowd. These ones had different costumes to what we usually see.

The crowd watched in fascination as a couple of masked dancers ran along the roof line!

And then dancers ran through the crowd back to the stage area.

In between acts of the masked dancers, ladies come on to perform folk dances.

By lunch time some drizzle was cooling down the crowd and we took shelter in a temporary restaurant set up on the grounds by the monks to serve food to visitors. We had thick and delicious puris with ema-datsi, cheese momos and tea and struck up some small talk with pilgrims at nearby tables.
Xavier was absolutely fascinated by the fairy-floss machine.

Young monks and guns!

After lunch the rain poured down so it was a perfect opportunity to take shelter inside the actual Goempa. In the inner courtyard monks were being dressed for the afternoon's program. It feels quite surprising to see them dressing - and unmasked - but they welcomed our presence. Remy tried on a mask and Xavier played a drum - although all these items are old and sacred, they are not hands off to curious little visitors. 

That's Remy in there!

The inner chapel is surrounded by a dark, stone-paved corridor that we circumambulated three times. From this hallway you can see through windows into the inner chapel, which was brightly lit and decorated with colourful thangkas and rich brocades. Young girls were doing their circumambulations wearing a heavy chain mail shawl over their shoulders, believed to have belonged to Pema Lingpa himself.
Afterwards Bob found a place under the eaves while I was invited into the VIP tent with other tourists as they saw me holding Xavier over my shoulder having a nap! The afternoon monsoon rain poured down as we watched the black-hat dancers enter the courtyard with other monks dressed as skeletons.Thick smoke circled the stage adding theatrical atmosphere to the already eerie dance.

We are still quite unsure about the deep significance of these dances, but I do find them compelling and interesting to watch, as much as I enjoy peoplewatching, the food and the chance to do some ‘window shopping’ at the stalls set up on the perimeter. With at least three more tsechus to enjoy around the Bumthang area in the next couple of months, there is much to keep me interested and keen to visit them all.

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