The rich cultural and religious history of Bhutan comes to fore during the Tsechu festival when traditional dances based on the lives of Padmasambhava and other saints are performed. On our request, a mini Tsechu festival was re-created especially for our group. The festival was complete with traditional wine and snacks typical of the Tsechu.
Main cultural Dances Of Bhutan
- The Dance of the Black Hats (Shanag)
- The Dance of the Drummers from Drametse (DrametseNgacham)
- The Dance of the Eight Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche (Guru TshenGye)
- The Dance of the Fearsome Deities (Tungam)
- The Dance of the Four Stags (Shacham)
- The Dance of the Ging and the Tsholing (Ging dang Tsholing)
- The Dance of the Judgement of the Dead (RakshaMarcham)
- The Dance of the Masters of the Cremation Grounds (Durdag)
- The Dance of the Princes and Princesses (PholeyMoley)
- The Dance of the Stag and the Hunting Dogs (ShawaShachhi)
The Dance of the Black Hats (Shanag)
A spectacular dance in which dancers representing Tantrists with supernatural powers take possession of the dancing area to drive out evil spirits and purify the ground with their footsteps. This dance also tells the story of the assassination of the anti-Buddhist Tibetan king, Langdarma, in the year AD 842 by a monk, PelkyiDorje, who had hidden his bow and arrows in the voluminous sleeves of his garment. Beating drums as they dance, the ‘Black Hat’ dancers proclaim their victory over the evil spirits.
The Dance of the Drummers from Drametse (DrametseNgacham)
This is the best-known dance of all, composed in the 16th century at Drametse Monastery in eastern Bhutan by a saint who had a vision of Guru Rinpoche’s heaven. Twelve men wearing yellow skirts and animal masks beat drums as they dance; they represent Guru Rinpoche’s entourage and they are celebrating the victory of religion. This dance brings ”liberatione to those who see it.
This dance was proclaimed as a ‘Masterpiece of the World Intangible Heritage’ by UNESCO in 2005.
The Dance of the Eight Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche (Guru TshenGye)
The Eight Aspects under which Guru Rinpoche manifested himself on various occasions appear in a procession with the principal aspect of Guru Rinpoche shaded by a parasol. Certain other aspects are accompanied by their retinues and small celestial beings. In order of appearance they are:
- DorjeDroloe, ‘Liberated Diamond-Thunderbolt’, who wears a terrifying dark red mask and a garland of skulls around his body holds a diamond-thunderbolt (dorje) and a ritual dagger (phurpa). He earned this name after vanquishing evil spirits who were creating obstacles to Buddhism at Taktshang in Paro and Singyedzong in Kurtoe. DorjeDroloe is followed by his entourage of fearsome deities.
- TshokyeDorje, ‘Diamond-Thunderbolt Born from a Lake’, who is dressed in blue brocade and wears a peaceful blue mask, carries in his hands a diamondthunderbolt and a small bell. His name derives from his miraculous birth in a blue lotus on Lake Dhanakosha.
- LodenChogse, ‘He Who Wishes to Acquire Supreme Knowledge’, who wears a robe of red brocade and a white mask with a knot of hair and a crown, holds in his hands a little drum and a bowl. He got this name after he had listened to the teachings of the Vajrayana and mastered the sciences inculcated by the Indian masters; tutelary deities then appeared to him.
- Padmasambhava, ‘Born of the Lotus’, clad in a monk’s robe of dark red and yellow, wears a white mask with a pointed red hat, a so-called pundit’s hat. He got his name after he used his supernatural powers to transform the wood-pile (on which the king of Zahor wanted to burn him alive) into a lake.
- Guru Rinpoche, ‘Most Precious Master’, is the chief aspect, yet he is not listed as one of the Eight Aspects. He wears a human mask of gilded copper crowned by his characteristic hat and is attended by two monks while a third shades him with a parasol.
- ShakyaSengye, ‘Lion of the Shakya Family’, clad in a red and yellow monk’s robe, wears a mask resembling Buddha’s face with a hairstyle of tight blue curls, holds a begging bowl in his hands. He was called by this name when, after having renounced his kingdom, he went to meditate and study in the cave of Maratika in Nepal with the master Prabahati.
- PemaGyelpo, ‘Lotus-King’, who wears a robe of red brocade and a pinkishorange mask with a beard, holds in his hands a mirror and a small drum. He got this name when he returned to his native kingdom of Ogyen (Oddhyana); at that moment the chiefs of the country wanted to burn him but could not succeed in doing so. Seeing this as a sign of the spiritual realization of Guru Rinpoche, they converted to Buddhism and offered him the Kingdom.
- NyimaOezer, ‘Sunbeam’, who is dressed in yellow brocade, wears a yellow mask with a beard of blue hair and holds a trident in his hand. He got this name when, as he was preaching in the cremation grounds, he conquered evil spirits and made them promise to protect the Buddhist doctrine ever afterwards.
- SengyeDrathok, ‘He with the Voice of a Lion’, is clad in blue brocade; his blue mask crowned with five skulls is terrifying. He was called by this name after the power of his words vanquished 500 heretical masters who had tried to destroy the doctrine of Buddhism.
The principal aspect of Guru Rinpoche is seated, whereas each of the other aspects, with the exception of Padmasambhava, dances before going to join the principal aspect. Then a public blessing takes place and the fervour of the people is fully demonstrated: the faithful press forward to receive a thread of blessing, not from a monk who represents Guru Rinpoche but from Guru Rinpoche himself, incarnated as a human being. The dance area is transformed into a heaven, and celestial beings adorned with bone ornaments come to dance and sing the praises of Guru Rinpoche. The dance concludes with a final procession and the exit of all the aspects of Guru Rinpoche.
The Dance of the Fearsome Deities (Tungam)
Dancers dressed in brocade and wearing masks of wrathful deities represent the entourage of one aspect of Guru Rinpoche, Guru DorjeDroloe, who leads the dance. Armed with ritual daggers (phurpa), the dancers execute and redeem an evil spirit by liberating its conscious principle from its body.
The Dance of the Four Stags (Shacham)
This dance commemorates the vanquishing of the God of the Wind by Guru Rinpoche who commandeers the god’s stag as his own mount.
The Dance of the Ging and the Tsholing (Ging dang Tsholing)
It is said that this dance was performed for the first time in Samye Monastery in Tibet, in the eighth century, by Guru Rinpoche himself. The Tsholing, terrifying deities who are seen as protectors of the religion, purify the ground of evil influences.
The Ging, who make up Guru Rinpoche’s retinue, then chase away the Tsholing in order to take possession of the area and proclaim victory for the religion by eating drums. With their drumstick, they hit people on the head to drive out impurities, and the public whistles to keep demons far away.
The Dance of the Judgement of the Dead (RakshaMarcham)
This dance is one of the most interesting of the Tshechu and it is extremely didactic. It is divided into two parts.
First comes a long dance by the Rakshas who are aides to the Lord of the Dead. They wear yellow skirts and animal masks. Then the Lord of the Dead—ShinjeChoekyiGyelpo—enters together with his attendants, the white god and the black demon who live with all beings and bear witness to their actions. The Lord of the Dead is a wrathful representation of Avalokiteshvara, the deity of compassion. Next begins the judgement proper. The first to enter is a sinner dressed all in black with a black mask, holding a basket containing a piece of meat that symbolizes his sins. The Lord of the Dead listens to his story, then has his actions weighed on a scale. The good actions are symbolized by white pebbles, the bad ones by black pebbles. The white god tries to save the sinner by emphasising his good actions, whereas the black demon describes the man’s wicked actions in detail. In the end, the sinner is sent to hell to the great joy of the black demon who accompanies him on the road to hell, symbolized by a length of black cloth.
A general dance ensues and then a virtuous man enters. As a sign of his piety, he is dressed in white, with a white face, and he holds a prayer flag. The same judgement scene as before unfolds and the virtuous man is sent to paradise on a road which is symbolized by a length of white cloth. The black demon tries to seize him at the last moment but the white god saves him and he is welcomed by celestial beings.
The Dance of the Masters of the Cremation Grounds (Durdag)
This dance requires some measure of understanding of Tantric symbolism. Skeletons guard the eight cremation grounds which are situated on the edges of the cosmic diagram where Tantric deities dwell. Their mission is to protect the cosmic diagram from harmful influences and spirits.
The Dance of the Princes and Princesses (PholeyMoley)
This is certainly one of the Bhutanese public’s best-loved dances and it is also a little lewd!
The written story of King Norzang concerns the king’s love for his favourite queen, Yidrogma, which provokes the jealousy of the other queens. The latter arrange things so that the king goes off to war, and they then force Yidrogma to flee to her father in fear of her life. But when the king returns from battle he soon understands the stratagems of the other queens and begs Yidrogma to come back and live with him, which she finally consents to do.
The popular version of the original story is quite different: two princes go off to war, leaving their wives in the charge of a couple of old servants. As soon as the princes are out of sight, the princesses and the maidservant start romping with the atsaras. When the princes return they are furious and cut off the noses of their wives as punishment. The old servant also cuts off his wife’s nose. Then the princes allow themselves to weaken and they call for a doctor to sew back the noses. Although the doctor gladly sews back the noses of the beautiful princesses, he is far less enthusiastic about sewing on that of the maidservant, who smells awful. In the end all’s well that ends well and everyone is reconciled.
The Dance of the Stag and the Hunting Dogs (ShawaShachhi)
This dance depicts the conversion to Buddhism of a hunter named GonpoDorje by the great saint Milarepa (1040–1123). More like a theatrical play than any of the other dances, it is very long and is usually performed in two parts, each of which concludes one day of tshechu.
The story goes that while the saint Milarepa was meditating in a cave, he heard shouting and barking. He came out of his retreat and saw a stag covered with sweat and trembling with fear. Milarepa calmed it by singing a religious hymn and took it under his protection. Soon afterwards two dogs appeared which had been chasing the stag, and Milarepa won them over with one of his songs.
The hunter arrived unexpectedly, looking for his dogs, and when he saw them lying down with the stag at Milarepa’s feet, he flew into a rage and shot a poisoned arrow at the saint. The saint used his superhuman powers to snap the hunter’s bow, while the arrow, instead of hitting him, returned to the astonished hunter. Milarepa then intoned a song that succeeded in convincing the hunter to give up hunting and take up Buddhism.
The first part of this dance has a comic tone, starting with the hunter’s servant who jokes with the atsaras. The hunter, crowned with leaves and carrying his bow, then arrives with his two dogs. He performs non-Buddhist rituals aimed at bringing him good luck on the hunt, while his servant and the atsaras clown around him.
The second part is more dignified and religious. Milarepa appears clad all in white except for his characteristic red hat. He holds a pilgrim’s staff in his hand and with his songs he converts first the dogs and then the hunter. The conversion is symbolized by a rope over which the hunter and the dogs must jump.