Bhutan 4 – The People and the Festivals

June 5th, 2012

I am sure I have said so before.

When I travel, I still marvel at the architectural, natural and historical sites that I visit – those are usually the reasons why I travel to a particular place.

However, more and more, it is the people I meet, and those I just accidentally cross paths with, that I remember and who make the places I go to most memorable.  In that respect, Bhutan is no exception.  We saw, and met, and crossed path with wonderful people everywhere and only very few of these are represented in the photographs that follow.

We were scheduled to attend at least one day of the Paro Tsechu, and annual festival held just outside the Paro Dzong.  What we did not expect was to happen onto another festival in a small temple near Wangdue.  As we approached, we heard music, and what we saw after that was pure magic.  I will do my best to try and share these with you in the next photos – there are a few more than my usual posts, but I am sure you will agree with me that this was worth it.

Coming back from one of our very firsts walks, we ran into two school girls going home after class.  They were very impressed by the fact that they ran into foreigners I believe, but what I like the most about these is the expression of Lebo in the first and Kipchu in the second picture.

In another village in the Haa Valley, we ran into an old couple doing work in their “garden”.  They stopped briefly to look at us go by than he went right back to work.

In the same village, we ran into this lady petting he puppy in the local temple.

A constant theme for the whole trip was the devotion and superstition of the people we encountered.  We ran into several people who were walking with these “contraptions” which had been blessed at the temple and were to be located around the village to ward off evil spirits.

We went to the Farmer’s Market in Thimphu, which is an incredible mixture of sights, sounds and smells!  This lady had a great selection of vegetables of all different colours – however she was unimpressed by the fact that I was taking her picture …

Her attitude changed once her friends started to clown around to have their picture taken.  Look at her smile now.

In Wangdue Dzong, the craftsmen carving the new wooden beams to be used in the reconstruction are using old-fashion hand tools, same as were used centuries ago – with the exception of the cell phone sitting right next to him, just in case he gets an emergency SMS he had to deal with right away…

Small child encountered in the Phobjikha Valley, on the way to Gantey Gompa

Kipchu explained after this encounter that this gentleman is not a priest of monk but a devout local person who supports the temple.  He was coming back from Gantey Gompa just as we were starting the final climb towards it and stopped for a chat, and a few pictures. Notice the handle of a knife stuck in his belt – this is not at all unusual outside of the big cities.

Two people just sitting around one of the temples we visited near Punakha.  They were intrigued by our group, just like all the people we met, but did not mind having their picture taken or the attention we were giving them.

The top of the temple was very windy – the poor monk who had to replace the seven bowls of holy water from the upper sanctuary needed to be very careful in tossing them over the the railing in order not to get too wet himself.

Our first Tsechu in a small temple just above the Wangdue Dzong.  The local village people had put on their best clothes for this special day, and did not mind being photographed in them!

Masked Dance – unfortunately we did not really understand what was going on, but that really did not matter – the spectacle was enough.  Notice, in the background, the tent with the VIPs.

Two old men watching intently the goings on in the middle of the patio

Music! That usually introduced a significant mask …

… dancing escort …

… and finally the local deities – the Bhutanese religion is a mixture of Buddhism and Bho, the older, more mystical religion from this area.

People use every vantage point to view the spectacle – kids are just mesmerized…

However, again, tradition is nothing without modern technology.  Watching a spectacle that has remained unchanged for 100’s of years, wearing traditional clothing that has evolved very little, this girls are still captivated by modern tools (toys?).

I waited probably 5 minutes to take this picture looking though the eyepiece of my camera, hoping that at one time, both would be looking more or less in my direction. They finally did…

In between the masked dance, a group of local dancers would perform traditional dances to entertain the crowd.  This one dancer was very beautiful and always had very graceful hand positions.

Peeking around the corner …

Another masked dance – as you can see in the background, we were not the only foreigners at this particular event, but there were very few and so I felt very privileged to participate in something that was certainly not done for our benefit.

more dancers

We knew that the end of the trip coincided with the last 2 days of the Paro Tsechu, one of the most important religious celebration in Bhutan.  We left Thimphu very early in order to arrive in Paro before the day began, so we could see the parade of participants at be beginning of the day.  They actually gather into the Paro Dzong and then parade to the site of the festival.  This is the opening of that parade, with music and a group of traditional dancers.

The dignitaries – the gentleman with the blue hat is the head abbot of the Paro Dzong.

Every spectacle needs clowns – most of the masked dancers are monks who have learned the steps and dances from word of mouth.  The clowns too are monks and you can see them here plotting their next action…

The dancing girls, of course, are easy target for the clown…

But serious dances follow – again, the meaning was somewhat over our heads, but we could feel the concentration in the crowd as the story unfolds.

The crowd was immense, with several 1000’s people watching

Deer Man – most energetic dancer …

… especially when he does these jumps. Notice the bare feet…

But the fun is in the crowd.  Young children as excited just to be there …

Older kids are happy to see family they have not for a while …

and old friends are happy to be with each other, just to shoot the breeze.

Dressed in Sunday Best – need to be careful not to ruin it…

Here is a general view of the Festival Venue.  The hill side is just filled with people.

Sisters having fun!

Beautiful Face!

Another general view of the venue – remember the building in the background for later…

Older brother teaching younger sister how to shoot a toy gun …

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In all that, the dancing continues and this is a build-up to one of the great moments of the day.  More and more people appear on stage.

The big horns blast away – the sound is more felt than it is heard!

And finally, the major deity is paraded out.  This character represents the god who decides the fate of all people after they die.  There are 6 worlds into which he can place them, and only the world of the Humans is likely to permit reaching Nirvana in the next life and therefore the decision is very important.

The characters are giant puppets handled by about a dozen people.  They dance just like the rest of the people on stage.

On the last day of the Tsechu, the holy scroll is unfurled on the main building for all to worship.  It was raining that day, but still, before dawn, the very large, and very old scrolled was hung and displayed in front of one of the buildings of the Festival Venue.  Go back a few photos to see how BIG that building is, and therefore how BIG the scroll is!  There is a long queue of people waiting to kiss the scroll – they are hard to see on this picture as they are hidden under the umbrellas to the right of the picture.

As the day slowly rises, the scroll becomes more visible and the line of people waiting does not get any shorter… We stayed for only 1/2 hour as the rain was getting stronger.  As soon as the sun comes out, the scroll is folded back up (for another year) in order to protect it from any fading.

I cannot think of two better pictures to use to complete this very brief overview of my experience in Bhutan.  Pictures of the two people who made all this possible.

For the Paro Tsechu, Lebo had decided to wear his best Gho, and it looked very impressive.  But it is the dedication to the task, every task, that he showed throughout the trip that I will remember.  Here, he is probably worried that one of us has wandered away and may not find the group again …

And of course, Kipchu, our leader, inspiration, historian, cultural guide, interpreter and so much more.  This experience would not have been the same without him.

‘Till we meet again … I know I have said this before, but I also know I will return to Bhutan, somehow, as I have not seen enough of this country to satisfy my curiosity.  Next time, I hope to wander more into the Central and maybe even Western side of the coutry, those areas less frequented by visitors as they are more difficult to reach.  To verybody who contributed and participated in the voyage, all I can say is “Thanks for the Memories” – I believe some one beat me to it, but it is worth repeating!

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One Response to “Bhutan 4 – The People and the Festivals”

  1. Karenon 09 Jun 2012 at 16:21

    Oh, Pierre, your documentary has given me goosebumps and tears. I hope you know how very much your expert recounting and skillful photography will continue to give me joy in the years ahead!

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