Monday, March 21, 2011

Rimdro: school purification ritual

Once again last week was a busy week.

I thought it was going to be the first full week of teaching without any interruptions but I was wrong. The staff meeting on Tues revealed that we were having “Rimdro” on Saturday. I had no idea what that was and even after a 2 hour meeting after school I knew very little, as so much was discussed in Dzongkha. I got the allocation of duties and that was about it. It wasn’t until I started asking questions that I learnt any of the logistics but it is always difficult to know what questions to ask to get to the bottom of these things! I discovered that there would be no lessons on Saturday but that we were all expected at school all day, which didn’t really turn me on but after a 12-hour stint when I thought back over the day, I can say that it was pretty amazing.

It is actually a purification ritual and all schools have them. At first Ian’s school was supposed to hold theirs on Sunday but as Saturday was such an auspicious day they changed to Saturday too.

A big advantage for me was that there was no morning study on that day and I was on study duty last weekend. That meant that I didn’t have to be at school at 6am for the morning session so that was a huge bonus. I did evening and night study as usual on the Sunday but anyone who knows me will know that I am not a morning person so that was good omen for me. (FYI Everyone takes a turn once a month at this duty as we are a boarding school and usually you do all 3 on one day except if it falls on Saturday when we do the morning that day and then the evening and night on Sunday.)

I got to school early to see the big event and when I arrived at 8 am, the monks were already in place chanting and playing their cymbals, drums, trumpets, conch shell, and long horns at specific points. I knew that the purification ritual had begun as soon as I stepped onto our balcony in the morning actually, as there were clouds of smoke coming from both our schools. Huge branches of pine trees with the needles still attached are burned and offerings are added to the fire all through the day and the smoke was the evidence that it had obviously begun.

I took photos, observed the students and the ritual that was in full swing in our Multi-Purpose Hall, chatted with other staff and students and helped with the preparing of food for most of the morning. All students, teachers, and guests are provided with snacks and meals as the day progresses and given tea both “suja” the Tibetan style butter tea and sweet milky black tea. Both were served in copious quantities all day.

I was told early on, that I should feel my stomach full all day and it did feel like the typical over indulgence of an extravagant Xmas by the time things wound up. I got rice porridge, which was salty and spicy and contained cheese, as soon as I arrived at school and I had already had breakfast and then about an hour and a half later we were given breakfast. Throughout the day snacks including a delicious yellow rice dish cooked with sultanas, cardamom and butter were served and tea and soft drinks flowed freely. Next a lunch of curries and rice and papadams appeared. The food was prepared and served by an incredibly efficient group of female staff and mostly class XII students and my efforts to help in simple tasks like peeling boiled eggs and cardamom or slicing mushrooms or beans only seemed to slow down the other wise efficient functioning of the group but I felt more comfortable helping than being served.  Since the monks were included in this feast it was all vegetarian too.

Then a delegation of staff from our school, which of course, I had to be part of, went off to Ian's school to be guests. We had to hike down a mountain in the rain as they are constructing a new road into the school and it was incredibly slippery. Our school bus dropped us at a point above the school and making our way down the slope was the best way in. I was the only woman in the group and I was wearing my best kira and tego so that was a real treat but I survived and didn’t end up in the mud.

Ian's school event was smaller than ours but very similar in most respects. We were all treated as honoured guests and served tea and biscuits and then other drinks and snacks. I went off to see the monks performing their rituals and even got to add to their sacred fire with some of the blessed offerings as all the Rangjung LSS staff had done already. An hour or so later we made our muddy way back to the bus and returned to our own ritual.

Ian’s own account of his school’s event sheds more light on their preparations and festivities.

“Preparations began towards the end of the week and were at fever pitch by Friday afternoon. A group of class 6 boys was responsible for setting up the platform on which the offerings would be burnt. Another group of boys had already been dispatched to gather a quantity of pine branches. This involved sending one lithe young man up a suitable pine tree so he could hack off a good few branches which were duly dragged or carried back to school where further processing took place. Yet another party had been sent out to bring back some giant bamboos, these were to be used as poles for the new prayer flags.

Digging and constructing seems to come naturally to these boys as they set about their tasks enthusiastically and with little guidance or supervision.
Once the actual platform was constructed, layers of grass slabs, rocks, sand and concrete were laid on it to form a protective layer to stop the platform itself from burning while the offerings were being burnt. The pine needles gave off plenty of spicy smelling smoke and provided enough heat to burn the other offerings which included blessed grain, buiscuits, butter from butter lamps and dough which had been formed into significant shapes by the monks. Lots of smoke! ‘Pollution with a purpose’ one of the teachers quipped to me during the day.

One of the high points of the day was seeing the students recieve the lunch preapred for them in the outdoor kitchen at school. Many hands were employed to produce a meal much enjoyed by the masses.”

Back at the high school things were winding up but more chanting and offerings were required before the huge tower that was in our hall was dragged outdoors. We all had to throw a mixture of grains at a model of a tiger, which miraculously appeared and was especially constructed to bear the weight of our bad deeds. Then all the students had to do the same, to the tower once it was outside. This is symbolic of destroying all your misdeeds for the year and ensuring a prosperous and successful year to come.

2 girls from Ian’s class returned to my school where they live and attached themselves to me for most of the afternoon. I can see how their incessant questioning and constant need for attention could drive one crazy in the classroom. I finally had to take photos of them before they would stop pestering me to go to their homes or give them my camera. They loved telling tales about their mums, their classmates and Ian’s classes.

Ian's group arrived at our school and were served dinner to reciprocate our earlier visit and they were followed by the staff from the local Vocational Training Institute, main street traders, parents, spouses, children and ex-students all keen to participate in the celebration and show respect. 

By 8 pm, when I departed the hall was still buzzing with conversation, the students were relaxing in their dormitories more at ease and well fed than any ordinary day and the monks having performed all their duties were finally able to unwind.

Perhaps for me the best part of the day was participating in lighting this beautiful display of butter lamps!


  1. It sounds very wonderful, magical and mystical at the same time. Never a dull moment in Bhutan.
    I just booked my ticket to Mumbai for this year, I will visit the not so well known state of Gujarat.


  2. Dear Vicky and Ian,
    What an awesome experience....I am loving reading what your days consist of and your own views of life in Bhutan. Your photography is absolutely stunning.....and I feel as though I am with you over there sharing in your experiences. I can see this turning into a published book .... think about are in a rare and very privileged position to get so close up and personal with the wonderful and colourful Bhutanese.
    Much love to you both

  3. WOW. Working on Sundays too. The ritual is fascinating. I love the last photo with the lamps, magical. Keep up the great posts. Love reading about your adventures. Very envious.

  4. Wonderful posting. I'll take the early morning gigs for you. =)