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Friday, 8 January 2016

Flying monks and naughty clowns - the swirl of the Jampalhakhang Drub

We're up early for day two of the oldest festival in Bhutan, the Jampalhakhang Drub - the consecration of Jampa Temple.  The night before we'd  attended the Mewang (Fire Offering) and Naked Man dance and became mesmerised by the trance-like dancing, while our necks crinked trying to find a vantage point to see the dancers and our butts froze on the ice-cold flagstone pavement of the temple courtyard when we did eventually find a front row squat spot.  I'm determine to get a front row seat first thing in the morning for day two and encourage our guide to collect us from our hotel at seven-thirty am....even though the day's swirls, twirls and trance dances are due to start at nine.  

We arrive early, along with a lot of other tourists, and peg out our perfect vantage spot. As the courtyard fills up I find myself feeling a little disappointed - most of the spectators are  tourists - western tourists - there's barely a Bhutanese person among us. We all sit there with our tri-pods, fancy SLR cameras and for many, whopping great lenses. Lens envy starts to creep up on me when I see some of these expensive fancy-pants toys.  The chanting soon starts and the festival comes to life and all thoughts of Ooh-la-la techno are soon gone as I am transported into an ancient time.

The second day of the festival is called the Tsukton (beginning) and is the 'proper' start of the festival - the dance circle has been purified by the Black Hat Dance and so now the mask dances can be preformed. 

These dances have wonderful sounding names like Yamantaka Yab-Yum Dance and the Three Wrathful Dance.  The Yamantaka Yab-Yum which is also called the Shinje Yab-Yum Cham,  is performed first  to expel evil spirits lurking about in the area. The bull-like mask is bright red with sharp horns which represent compassion.  We're told that if the dance is viewed with faith and devotion, then we will receive powerful blessings.   I would love to say that I viewed the dance with intense devotion, but the cheeky clowns wandering around the dance circle kept taking our attention and had us in fits of well as trying to catch them in photos. 

Dressed in a lairy version of what looks like mens hospital PJ's, the puce-faced masked clowns (Atsaras) wave with gay abandonment oversize bright red phalluses, teasing and gesticulating at everyone and their cameras. The lewd gestures become more and more cheeky as the clowns sing ribald songs with very eyebrow raising racy motions. Part way through the day, one of the clowns discovers we are filming the spectacular and decides to give his own dance - 'bonking' our camera.
The chief Atsara however is more than just a clown,  he is also the manager of the festival from beginning to end, making sure the dancers motions are in sequence or, if the performer makes a mistake - helps them get back on track.  If a dancers mask falls off or there's a problem with the fabulous costumes then the Atsara is there to immediately assist.

The Stag Dance (Shazam Cham) is performed next, nimble and strong, taming the earth spirits and bringing blessings for all beings.  It is a magnificent display of trance like movements and seems to go on and on.

The dances blend into one another and soon the arena is filled with mask dancers swirling and jumping, a flourish of colour and vitality.  We have no idea what the story lines are or why so many incredible dancers fill the circle but we take delight in the spectacular.
As the morning turns to afternoon we are transposed to another realm and become lost in the Lord of the Cremation Ground Dance (Durdag Cham) when  masks of white skeletons dance in slow ethereal movements.  At times they carry a large black cloth which holds a linga representing an evil spirit. The evil spirit is dissolved and sent to the pure land thus giving us, the spectators a mind free from obstructions and open to enlightenment. It's a beautiful dance and I am held spellbound.

It is getting late and we are still to visit another festival, the Prakhar Tsechu which is held at the tiny Prakhar Goemba, a good half hour drive from Jakar.  Our guide tells us that today is a practise day and that not much will be happening, there'll be no masks or costumes...all very quiet he says.  

The Goemba is perched on a tiny hillock across from a river and it is a lovely ten minute walk from the road to it, across a swing bridge. 

When we enter the courtyard of the Goemba, we are immediately held transfixed.  There are only two other tourist and a handful of local Bhutanese - some children and elderly women - watching the trance like-dance being performed by magenta robed monks.  Each of the monks hold a large drum in their hands.  They appear to all be in meditative focus, their eyes closed tight, their mouths twisted as if in pain and peace at the very same time.  

Mal and I take a seat on the grassy courtyard and watch.  They are performing the Drametse Ngacham - the Drum Dance from Drametse.  This dance was designated by UNESCO in 2005 as an 'Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity" - described as a tradition/living expression inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants.   An incredible dance it is considered to be sacred, symbolizing attainment and generating 'good karma to be reborn in paradise' and goes through a process of twenty-one sessions all performed in  in a meditated state, focusing on the power of compassion and visualizing the nine stages of becoming enlightened.  It is said that watching this dance in all its glory removes obstacles and brings peaceful activity to the spectators - and one's wishes will be fulfilled.   I feel an incredible sense of peace as I am pulled into the beat of the drums and watch the monks spin and fly as if in another world, a world where peace is attained.


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