When the plane descended through the clouds and down into the Paro Valley, it looked as though the wing would surely brush against the steep, rocky mountainside. As our bird began her carefully calibrated dance with the mountains, Bhutanese flute music piped in over the intercom. I was back!
Bhutan had been tugging at me ever since my visit the previous year. The size of Switzerland, with a population of less than 800,000, Bhutan is nestled between Tibet and India. It originally attracted me because of the natural beauty of its ever-present guardians, the Himalayas. Then I fell in love with its political discourse and its colorful culture. I crafted an itinerary that would include attending Paro’s tsechu, or sacred dance festival honoring Guru Rinpoche, the saint who was pivotal in bringing Buddhism to Bhutan from India. We would also hike in the rhododendron-filled forests during April. But for me, a former professional dancer and dance teacher, the highlight of the journey would be to study Bhutanese folk dance at the Royal Academy of Performing Arts.
The morning after our arrival we headed toward the outdoor grounds beside the Paro Dzong (great fortress/monastery) for the tsechu. We mingled with young kids, old folks—their teeth stained red from chewing betel-nut—grasping prayer wheels, young women carrying babies in woven wraps, men dressed in the traditional gho (a knee-length, colorfully woven belted robe) clutching their cell phones, and red-robed monks.
The tsechus of Bhutan are colorful spectacles melding country fair, family picnic, historical reenactments, monks’ ritual and ceremony, and collective meditation. Their main attractions are the cham, or sacred dances, many of which teach compassion for all sentient beings or reenact stories about saints and deities. Originating as much as 1,300 years ago, cham are performed by masked dancers who wear decorated silk costumes and sometimes carry and play drums, cymbals, or bells. The dancers are accompanied by monk musicians chanting and playing long horns, clarinets, cymbals, drums, and conch shells.
When we arrived at the Paro Tsechu, I was delighted that we would be seeing a famous three-hour dance called Raksha Mangcham (Dance of the Judgment of the Dead). This dramatic work tells of wandering inBardo, a dreamlike, in-between state that Buddhists believe all beings traverse after death before their next rebirth. There they are judged by the Lord of Death to determine whether they will be liberated to higher realms of existence upon their reincarnation. The Bhutanese believe that by viewing this cham, they will know what to expect upon death and won’t be frightened by the deities they will encounter.
The dance unfolds as a courtroom drama presided over by the Raksha, an ox-masked dancer who represents the Minister of Justice. The characters include a scary-looking prosecutor, a white-masked defense attorney, a black-robed criminal, a red-robed righteous man (dressed like a Buddhist monk), a full jury of animal-masked dancers holding symbolic props (a set of scales, a mirror of fate), and an oversize costume-puppet of the Lord of Death with his attendants and angels. One of the more comical moments of the performance occurred when the villain made a run for it and escaped into the audience. All the ministers of the court ran after him and hauled him back onstage to stand trial. He was eventually convicted and dragged off on a long black cloth runner to a “lower realm.”
A wonderful quality of the Bhutanese people is that they do not take themselves too seriously. In the midst of the sacred cham there are always atsaras (jesters) in bright-red masks poking fun at the dancers and audience members alike. In addition to their useful function of fixing loose or crooked costumes on the dancers, they romp around performing slapstick routines, hitting up tourists for donations, and bopping people playfully over the head with large wooden phalluses.
Buddhist values and philosophy are woven into the fabric of life and politics in Bhutan. The pursuit of personal and societal happiness, as a mechanism for liberation from cyclical suffering, has led this modern nation to embrace a governmental-economic policy that they call Gross National Happiness (GNH). GNH provides explicit criteria to guide and measure the country’s growth and development. At its core are four priorities—equitable and sustainable development; protection of the environment; the preservation and promotion of Bhutan’s unique cultural heritage; and provision of good, responsive governance. The tsechus, with their cham, are an example of the intangible cultural heritage that GNH seeks to nurture and protect.
Buddhism was introduced into Bhutan in the seventh century when the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo built 108 Buddhist temples across the Himalayan region, including two in what is now Bhutan. A century later Padmasambhava, better known as Guru Rinpoche, was invited to Tibet and Bhutan. The Bhutanese believe he traveled throughout the region subduing opposing deities by performing cham and converting them to eternal protectors of Buddhism.
Guru Rinpoche was a practitioner of a new school of Buddhism called Vajrayana or Tantra (the diamond path or thunderbolt path). Tantric Buddhism employs skillful means to accelerate progress toward enlightenment, rather than suffering through eons of endless rebirths. It developed a meditation system with complex visual, vocal, physical, and ritual supports for the practitioner.
Tantric cham, passed down for generations, are rituals through which Buddhist saints are believed to have transformed themselves into deities to overcome evil forces. Some are performed, according to tradition, just as Guru Rinpoche first demonstrated them 1,300 years ago. Before performing these rituals, the monks undertake deep meditation transforming themselves into an embodiment of the deity they will represent to the public. By wearing the costume, carrying the prescribed instruments in their hands, performing mudras(sacred hand gestures), reciting mantras (sacred syllables), and by developing focused concentration, the dancers channel the deity and remain undistracted by extraneous thoughts or occurrences.
Other cham, called Revealed Treasure Dances, are considered to have been discovered from texts that Guru Rinpoche intentionally hid all over the landscape of the Himalayas or in the minds of his disciples, in anticipation of the people’s spiritual needs in later times. Various saints and lamas have long been revered for having discovered these concealed texts, sometimes through visions or dreams. One of the most beloved and influential treasure revealers was Pema Lingpa (1450–1521), who is credited with transmitting chammasterpieces from his visions. He taught these dances to monk dancers, and also innovated the performance of cham by laypeople.
Still other cham reflect sacred biographies. An example is the Dance of the Stag and Hounds (Shawa Shakhi Cham), a dance-drama about how the master yogi Milarepa (c. 1052–c. 1135) converted a non-Buddhist hunter into a religious man. Although the tantric dances are performed by monks, laypeople traditionally perform Revealed Treasure Dances and biography-based dances. All are deemed equally sacred in terms of generating merit for the performer and viewer. The mere viewing of these dances offers the potential for transcendence.
One of the tantric visual aids for meditative practice is the mandala, which means “circle.” In Buddhism it is a device for leading the initiate deeper into the realization of the nature of existence through a series of concentric circles or arcs surrounding a deity. In Invoking Happiness, a colorful guide to the tsechus, Khenpo Tashi, director of the National Museum of Bhutan, says that “to be effective, and meaningful, the dance must be seen as a mandala.”
The structure of tantric cham echoes the formal structure of a painted mandala. The dancers enter the ground of the performing arena and circumambulate clockwise, creating the form of a sacred mandala, sealing the boundaries to keep out hostile forces and empowering the circumscribed space. The positioning of the dancers in the performance space replicates the deities’ positions in a mandala diagram. And just as in the conclusion of a sand mandala ritual, in which the mandala is dismantled and the sand grains are poured into the river as a reminder of the impermanence of all things, the cham mandala dissolves. The dancers position themselves in a final mandalic floor design before exiting with a purposeful movement phrase, one by one or two by two, across the sacred space—until it is again empty.
My guide, Younten Jamtsho, took me to the Royal Academy of Performing Arts (RAPA) headquarters in the capital city of Thimphu to meet the assistant principal, Tshering, and begin the private lessons that had been arranged for me. The academy was created in 1954 by King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1928–1972) to provide formal training for the lay masked dances. With its mandate to preserve the traditional songs and dances of Bhutan, folk dance was added to the curriculum in 1970. The king was also responsible for the current practice of alternating folk songs with sacred dances within the tsechu programs, creating a more dynamic and entertaining atmosphere.
My dance sessions were with Tshering Dorji, the nation’s folk dance choreographer. He always arrived formally attired in his gho, knee socks, and fine dress shoes. We were joined by two musician accompanists and the assistant principal. Each session was an intense four hours during which Tshering Dorji taught me the dances while singing the folk songs, the musicians played, and the assistant principal translated and made clarifications.
I asked to learn a sampling from the three categories of folk songs that can be danced—zhungdra, boedra, and zhey. We danced a lovely zhungdra (classical dance) about the black-necked crane, a rare and endangered bird that features in much Bhutanese folklore. The dance is simple (only three steps repeated many times) and the tune almost hypnotic (as the melody has no rhythm).
The zhey are regional expressions of praise and spiritualism identified with the coming of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a Tibetan reincarnated lama who came to Bhutan in 1616 and is credited with unifying the country while defeating Tibetan invaders. Long songs that alternate slow and fast rhythms, they are sung and danced by men in regional costumes during their local festivals. A presentation of zhey was featured at the recent royal wedding of the popular young king. Because Bhutan is a culture that reveres and ennobles those who perform the dances, the honored bridegroom also learned a zhey to perform before the public.
After watching Tshering Dorji demonstrate the four main zhey (each from a different region of the country), I chose to tackle Nob Zhey, which originated in the town of Trongsa. I loved how the dance starts as a slow, stately processional and then gradually transitions into a turning, jumping, twirling, and clapping tour de force.
The boedras feature continuously flowing arm and hand gestures with precise finger placement. I was determined to show up for my lessons at the academy with each previous day’s material under my belt. So I practiced using a video recording along with my detailed notes. As I viewed the videos, I perceived a difference between the way my instructor held his fingers and my own attempts.
During our travels, while stopped at a highway roadblock, we got out of our van to stretch, and I practiced the boedra I had just learned. All of a sudden our middle-aged driver, Dawa, came running over to adjust my finger placement. His intervention pinpointed the discrepancy and corrected it. Who knew our driver was such an expert? But I eventually realized that everyone in Bhutan is a dancer—from Guru Rinpoche, to Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the brilliant military leader; from the young king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel, to our driver, Dawa.
I saw this again when we visited a middle school. The entire country was eagerly preparing for the king’s birthday celebration, which is a national holiday. Groups of students were rehearsing all over the campus. Boys belted out folk songs as they energetically performed dances; girls were practicing to recorded music; coed groups went through their paces in a fun yet purposeful manner—all unsupervised.
The next day we attended the national celebration of the king’s birthday in the stadium in Thimphu. Student dancers from the country’s high schools performed for government officials, the assembled spectators, and (via television) the entire nation. The final presentation ended with the dancers forming the letters GNH in the center of the stadium. Afterward, they invited the audience onto the field to participate in the concluding ceremonial dance, Tashi Leybey. The stadium was flooded with participants—old and young, officials and regular folk. They danced together and sang, soliciting divine blessings for long life, prosperity, and happiness.
Karen Greenspan, a dance researcher and writer in New York City, visited Bhutan on a custom trip crafted by GeoEx, including a series of lessons and discussions with artists of the Royal Academy of Performing Arts (RAPA). This article was originally published in Natural History Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.
Photo by Karen Greenspan