Saturday, September 21, 2013

Tsechu, a Buddhist county fair?

The country of Bhutan is divided up into 20 districts or Dzongkhags. Each one is a bit like a county, small enough that the administration is quite accessible by everyone. The Dzongkhag officials are responsible for the schools in the district and for overseeing the other civil servants and their respective duties. Every Dzongkhag has a ceremony called Tsechu, typically a three day event which happens annually but at a different time of year for each district. There are perhaps 20 other Tsechus as welI which are hosted by various monasteries and such. I reside in Wangdue Phodrang and this past week, Thursday, Friday, Saturday was our Tsechu. Since Sunday is our holiday for the week this gave me four days off in a row. I felt like I should really do something with the time but I did not want to go to far because I did want to see some of Tsechu.
Not too long ago roads were few and far between in Bhutan and people traveled by foot over trails that had existed for centuries. Folks living here in Gaselo would walk over to Nahi and up over Hingle La and down to Thimphu. I had been curious about this walk since I arrived. There is another BCF teacher who lives in Chamgang, this side of Thimphu, which gave me a destination a bit short of going all the way down to the city. So Thursday morning I rose early and hit the trail at 5:30 which is not too long after first light this time of year. I walked to Nahi, a route I had explored and was somewhat familiar with, which took me past a trio of ancient chortens which have become dear to me as a special gate from “my” part of the valley around the ridge toward Nahi. At Nahi I walked the road which accesses that valley and ran across a barking deer and a fox with bushy black tail. I had a bit of a mix up at the end, the road petered out and I walked up to a house where I saw a young man standing in the yard. As I approached I said that I thought I had lost my way. He agreed in a matter of fact way indicating that he understood there was no way his yard was my intended destination. He explained my error and walked with me back to the fork in the road I had missed due to a “shortcut”. It was nice to be pointed in the right direction and a 20 minute side trip was not the end of the world. The road ended shortly and then I was back on my favorite route, the old trail leading toward Hingle La, the pass between me and Chamgang. The trail is little used although very well established. Bhutanese do not hike for recreation so there is little traffic on the trails. This trail is apparently one chosen by the Fourth King as a mountain bike route, he is an enthusiastic rider himself, which might have contributed to how well cleared the trail seemed to be. A surprising number of hours later I was over the pass and resting by a very
old water driven prayer wheel and two old chortens. The whole way up had been in forest with only an occasional glimpse of the surroundings. When I checked the altitude and found it to be 10,700ft I soon understood that I had climbed about 5000 vertical feet, no wonder I was tired and the time so late! As I began the 2 ½hr walk to Chamgang it began to rain, it rained steadily almost all the way, I was a drowned rat by the time I reached Matt and Lucy’s. Just as well they weren’t home and I could spread out, bathe, become human again and be ready to catch a ride to Thimphu to meet them for dinner. Being treated to dinner by Matt’s parents was wonderful after what turned out to be close to a 20 mile day with a big climb.
The following day I ran errands in Thimphu and succumbed to the temptation of a western style lunch with Val, a fellow BCF teacher from Rukubji which is also in Wangdue. After enjoying a fresh salad, pizza and beer sipped from a coffee mug, all restaurants will serve beer before the official 1:00pm “opening time” but it is done discreetly, I headed out of town. I was waiting at a major junction outside of town when a college student who was with a group going on a 3 day “picnic” approached me and said they had 16 bus tickets and only 15 students, would I like to use the extra. So I ended up on the bus over Docha La, things so often work out in Bhutan in unexpected ways.
Saturday morning I was in Wangdue on the Tsechu grounds as things were opening up. The Tsechu is essentially a 3-5 day Buddhist ceremony. The focal point of the event is the dance ground set up with seating on all sides. This Tsechu is currently being held outside, normally they are held in the Dzong which is the fortress-temple-administrative building for each Dzonkhag. These buildings have a history of burning and the Wangdue Dzong burned just over a year ago. The principal activity is three days of dancing, each dance is performed by a group of dancers in elaborate costume often
including masks. Each dance is a cultural event and the Bhutanese can tell you the story behind and the reason for each dance. The culmination seems to be on the third day when the dance depicts the eight manifestations of the Guru Rinpoche who is also represented in the dance by the High Lama of Wangdue in costume and mask. He is then seated and all the guests, which includes tourists, administrators etc are blessed and then it is time for the commoners. The residents of Wangdue queue up for many hours as thousands get blessed one by one, leave a small donation and receive an orange sunki (string) which is worn around one’s neck. I, for
some reason, disdain my opportunity to be with the tourists and wait in line later in the afternoon with everyone else.
            The day opened with a formal procession and a religious ceremony by the Wangdue monk body but next to the dance ground is an area with hundreds of booths set up. Food and drink, trinkets, clothes, games of chance and whatever else one might expect to find at the county fair. The crowd is decked out in their best kira and gho, the children are all excited, the festive atmosphere is pervasive.
            After a wonderful day I headed to Punakha to resume my usual weekend pursuit, a visit with Sarah and a walk on Sunday followed by some shopping in Bajo and the process of finding a taxi for the return to Gaselo.
            Tuesday I was walking to school and saw that all the cars were decorated, ribbons, balloons and bows festooned every vehicle. I found out it was an Indian celebration, Viswa Karma Puja, that has been adopted in Bhutan. It is a day for all creations to be blessed, this includes machines of all kinds which is why the cars were dressed up for their blessing. Bhutanese love their cars, very often they will be parked at the side of the road where a convenient stream or water fall is used as the water source for washing their car inside and out. So this day allows them to dote on their car and is enjoyed by many.

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