Once there lived a boy, who had enormous faith in the gods because he spent most of his time praying. Another part of his daily routine was to sit beside his father, a painter. The boy watched his father jabbing the paint brush into his mouth every now and then, while painting different forms of art that resembles the mask dances that we see at different Tshechu (a festival of mask dances). However, the boy died a premature death in few years. There is a Bhutanese vernacular, “tshe ma zou lay metshe zo”, which means unfortunate death without completing his destined life. His spirit wandered in Bardo (according to Buddhism, the spirit of the deceased goes through a process lasting forty-nine days called ‘Bardo’ whereupon the departed spirit either enters nirvana or returns to Earth for rebirth) where he witnessed all the characters in the mask dances. The only difference was that they were real ones. They displayed their dreadfulness in their demeanor; yet, the boy didn’t feel a moment of being afraid. Instead he watched them with great enthusiasm with their familiarity coaxing him. This is because while he was alive he saw his father draw their faces countless times. “They are just characters that my father used to draw with his spittle brush”, thought the boy. It is said that this very incident led the wandering soul of the boy to find his way to the path of heaven.
This story highlights the importance of having the festival of tshechu in every part of the country. Tshechu are held in dzongs and monasteries annually. This is one of the most colorful festivals in the country where people from all walks of life don’t want to miss it. It is often seen as an opportunity for the people to gear themselves up with their best dresses, usually the bright, colorful and expensive ones. Apart from that the event also propels the people to have a great time to get together, socialize with one another.
Wangduephodrang Tshechu attracted thousands of people in its three days (12th-14th September) period. The unfortunate fire in 24th June burned the entire Wangduephodrang dzong to ashes, since then the annual tshechu has been held in the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) ground which is located a few kilometers away from the town. However, the open ground provided more space for the people to watch the mask dances than the courtyard in the dzong did. One of the most important and interesting features of the mask dances here is the Raksha langgu chham. It was first introduced in the 16th century by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. The myth has it that while constructing a cantilever bridge across the tshangchhu river during the day time, the people tried laying foundation for the bridge while the mermaid destroyed them at night. Thus, Raksha Langgu chham was introduced in order to distract her. It has been said that the mermaid disguised as an ordinary citizen went to witness the dance. She was mesmerized by the chham that she totally forgot about the on-going construction of the bridge. Meanwhile, people hurried their work and erected the bridge in her absence.
It is not just what people see these days that attracts them to come and watch the mask dances but the background stories and myths that each of them carries like Raksha Langgu chham, giving a very meaningful purpose of their existence. Similarly, every masked dance is introduced with a consequential message. Most of them deal with what happens after death to wandering souls. While some mimic the dances which are found in the paradise, one of such chhams is, Pa chham. Pema lingpa, a very renowned treasure discoverer in the 15th century was said to have visited Zangtopelri (paradise) in his dream. He saw a dance performed by yogis there. He then introduced the same dance here what is known today as Pa chham.
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Jigme Namgyel, research intern