Spinning Tales of Dancing Deities: Thimphu Tsechu and the Royal Wedding
It’s almost three months since we arrived in Bhutan, and Thimphu has been abuzz with the yearly Tshechu festival and the most exciting event in town since the coronation of the fifth king—the royal wedding. The Tsechu, which happened in late September in Thimphu, is an annual festival that each Dzongkhag (district) holds at their respective dzongs (fortresses.) During the festival the lamas (monks) perform masked dances that are meant to purify the people watching them of their defilements. The dances retell the stories of Guru Rimpoche, Drukpa Kinley (the divine madman), and other important Bhutanese Buddhist figures. The lamas dress as saints and deities and dance to Kadrukpa music (the music perfomed by only monastics.) We were fortunate to be able to see a Tshechu performance in Bumthang (about 12 hours’ drive from Thimphu) the previous weekend. When we returned I went with my friends to the final day of Tsechu in Thimphu. The town was incredibly busy and there was so little traffic coming to RTC that we walked two miles down the hill (I was in fancy dress and a pair of not-hiking friendly high heels…ouch!) to catch a taxi.
The Dzong’s large courtyard was completely packed with the most colorful audience I have ever seen. Bright silk tops and woven kira that take can take years to make and brilliantly colored fancy gho covered by the white sashes—kabne—worn by men on formal occasions and brightly embroidered ratchu (scarves worn by women for formal events) made the auditorium look beautifully decorated by the people themselves. On the upper balcony sat the Je Khempo—head of the monastic body—wearing sunglasses and a bright yellow kabne. The lamas came out dressed in elaborate costumes, some wearing the terrifying masks of the demons. They spun in circles at the center of the courtyard, each twirl revealing another layer of bright fabric underneath their skirts. My friend offered to take me to receive a blessing from the lamas, so I went with her to venture in to the rainbow crowd. It took us one hour to get to the line to be blessed, the entire time being relentlessly pushed by the crowds eager to be blessed. Finally we reached a lama sitting on a chair with an umbrella over him wearing a golden Guru Rinpoche mask and holding a golden rod with a tassel on the end. We were quickly pushed through the line of lamas and bending down and covering our mouths with our ratchus to keep from breathing on the lamas, we were tapped on the head with the tassel and pushed through the line of lamas to receive blessed cords to tie on our necks and a tiny little seed that I was supposed to eat. I couldn’t find an explanation of what it was from anyone except that it was blessed. After standing outside for a number of hours we made our way back in to town where the colorful audience had begun to disperse and paint the streets of Thimphu.
A couple of weeks later was the royal wedding of King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck to Ashi Jetsun Pema. Thimphu eagerly prepared for the wedding—covering every building in the main town with long strands of bright lights, every main road entry with painted archways with illustrations of mystical creatures and dieties, and huge posters of the King and Queen wishing them tashi delek—good luck! Everyone donned pins with pictures of the royal couple and stores offered discounts to celebrate the wedding. In the main clock tower square a stage and stalls were set up selling food and handicrafts. Children and teenagers ran to the game stalls to play carnival games and families, lamas, and tourists flocked to the steps in front of the stage to watch the groups of dancers perform to well-loved Dzongkha songs. The lyrics varied from romantic: “in my garden your heart is the only flower”, “beautiful girl, beautiful girl, who is that girl?” to nationalistic: “protect the beautiful environment of Bhutan, the land blessed by mountains and the glorious Wangchuck dynasty.”
The royal couple was married in a relatively intimate and elaborate ceremony in Punakha (the gates of the city were closed to any who did not have tickets for the wedding) and the next day the King and newly crowned Queen began the journey to Thimphu and stopped all along the way to walk and greet their subjects. Driving into town that day crammed in to the back of one of the last taxis in the city, I was in awe to see the entire express highway leading all the way to the town lined with people wanting to see the newlyweds and offer their best wishes. Some had been waiting for five hours outside and when we came by in the taxi many stood up eagerly waving their flags the sat down again once they saw we were not the royal caravan approaching. Most shops were closed down and everyone was outside in the streets waiting for the king to arrive. Since there was little ability to move in the city, I sat down and waited for two hours. By the time I had to leave to meet my friend at her uncle’s weaving shop, the royal couple had not yet arrived. I had to pay triple for a taxi to take me to the weaving center, the driver even walking me part of the way because most roads were completely shut down in anticipation of the King and Queen’s arrival. Celebrations continued on to the next day and by the end of the weekend a slight sloth and torpor seemed to settle over the city as everyone settled back and began to practice the stories they would tell about the royal wedding through the upcoming winter and for years to come.
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(Top photo: with two deaf students from Drak Tsho. Thimphu Tsechu)
Thimphu Tsechu masked dances.
Tshechu dance of the wild boar deity. Bumthang.