Saturday, March 29, 2014

Dispelling demons and purifying the school

Last Saturday was our school Rimdro or Purification Ritual. This was not the first Rimdro I have been a part of but it did begin in a way I have never witnessed before.

On Friday evening we were all invited to return to school for the Gangtey ceremony, which is performed to dispel demons.

When I arrived in my school bus with the monks who were about to conduct the rituals, many of the female staff had not yet left school. They had been busy since lunch time trying to turn 30 kilos of flour into the delicious Bhutanese ‘biscuit’ called “tshozay” which would be consumed along with tea and added to the offerings for the ritual the following day. Just as the monks began chanting and playing their cymbals, drums, trumpets and long horns, the electricity went out and we all sat in complete silence and darkness while they continued.

When the ceremonies got underway I was warned that there would be loud shouting and whistling to frighten demons and sure enough boarder boys appeared as if from nowhere and the noise was deafening. Soon enough my colleague was once again whispering in my ear that there would be fire and sure enough 2 masked monks appeared and performed dances brandishing flaming torches.

In the pitch dark those same 2 masked monks raced from the hall with a group of very willing boys also armed with flaming torches in close pursuit.

I think I can confidently say that I was the only person present in the slightest bit concerned that they were all wearing the highly flammable, synthetic tracksuits they had received that same week as a part of their uniform.

The monks who had been on the stage miraculously regrouped in complete darkness at the entrance to the hall to provide the musical accompaniment required while the purifying smoke from those flaming torches enveloped every room of the school.

As if on cue the electricity returned when the whole process was over and we were all quietly served tea in the now illuminated hall. There were no injuries or burned clothes and an extremely excited group of demon dispelling boys evaporated back into the night air.

The following morning there was yet again a group of monks assembled, chanting and creating that unique musical background that I have come to associate with these ceremonies, in place on the stage of the school hall.

My all time favourite Bhutanese food – Thukpa was served and I was more than willing to take second serves even though I had already had breakfast before arriving at school.

Not long after, at the assembly it was announced that the finals of the junior football competition would be played that morning. Not for the first time I was totally surprised about the way the decision didn’t even raise an eyebrow among the student cohort. Girls disappeared and reappeared in soccer attire and just as I was about to head over to the sports ground to watch, I was asked by 2 girls in my class if I could come to our home room.  

Unbeknown to me they had organized a surprise tea party, as it was also my birthday. The girls who were now about to play in the finals missed out entirely but the most of the class was there and my concerns about their absence being noticed by the powers that be were instantly dismissed, since they had obtained permission. How could I have thought that I would know more than them when it came to correct protocol?

My birthday proved to be the worst kept secret in the school and throughout the day I was flooded with handmade cards and even gifts despite my attempts to avoid any such behaviour.

While the party was conducted and the football played the business of the day was attended to with solemn dignity by the monks and the entire class X cohort, who joined them all chanting the prayers in the hall all morning.

Students in small groups were permitted to enter the hall to prostrate, once the football was over and all were keen to do so.

A few girls seemed to be taking rather longer than others and when I questioned them later they were happy to inform me that since they had no money to donate they could instead offer their energy and so they chose to do 108 prostrations instead of the usual 5 or so.

Of course despite the fact that it was the coldest day since we have been in Samtengang and that the fresh snow clearly visible on the mountain tops that morning, had quickly been hidden by thick fog and drizzling rain, there was no shortage of photographic opportunities and students were quick to take up the “One photo Madam,” cries I remember so well.

An essential part of the whole day is the serving of endless cups of tea, and meals. My absence at the staff breakfast was noted (Thukpa was merely the pre-breakfast snack)  and I had to explain that I had been part of a birthday celebration with my home class, but no excuses were possible at lunch. The ceremonies came to a halt and monks were served with veneration in the hall before and we all gathered with the primary school staff to enjoy a shared lunch. As we ate the monks took to playing volleyball with any students willing to join them. I love that they can go from complete dedication and devotion to roll up the robes and have a hit for 30 minutes without batting an eye lid!

At some unannounced moment everyone simply knew that the grand finale was about to take place and assembled in the hall to hear the hour-long dissertation from the lama and once again participate in the howling, shouting and whistling which is an integral part of this whole ritual.

There were in the gathered masses those who seemed genuinely devoted and totally absorbed in the wisdom being dispensed but there were also those who could see this as the perfect way to let off some steam.

Whichever way they felt all complied with the behavior code and watched on with interest as the effigies at the front were systematically removed to far-flung points on the campus in the cardinal directions.

Volunteers assisted the monks in performing this essential final step and then once again unannounced everyone knew it was time to disperse.

At this point in the late afternoon I took my leave and yet again marveled at the unique, traditional customs that not only survive but are also a source of great pride and are avidly adhered to.

The day and ceremonies ended at that point for me at least.

After all I had a birthday to celebrate. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A lot can happen in a single day in Samtengang MSS – A photo essay

Today was a huge day in Samtengang Middle Secondary School, but like almost every other day it began with assembly.

The prayer captain kept the beat and rhythm of the prayers regular with his bell ringing.

The school captain was in his usual position keeping a careful eye on proceedings and when necessary calling the shots and keeping order.

Purifying smoke wafted over the assembled student body.

The TOD (Teacher on Duty) read the essential notices and informed the students when they would finally be able to meet with their parents.

Parents had been arriving and gathering at various points around the school since well before the usual beginning to the school day and they were all loaded with thermoses and insulated containers containing home cooked picnic lunches for their children and any others.

The annual parent teacher meeting was the order of the day but both parents and students were very obviously keenly awaiting the opportunity to chat and eat together.

Within 30 minutes of the assembly ending, the hall was full of parents and students about to receive awards for the their academic achievements in 2013.

While parents were briefed on the many aspects of the school about which they need to be informed, students assembled again on the sports field.

Just the previous day the long awaited arrival of the school track suits and coloured sports tops for the houses had occurred and distribution was imminent.

My class VIII students wasted no time in claiming their size once our class set had been handed over but the process was in fact fraught with difficulties.

Despite the mismatched sizes and the need to return all the tracksuits after a hour an a half of frantic activity outdoors in the bright sunshine, friends still had plenty to smile about with lunch and family time looming fast.

Meeting over and it was time for tea and a quick snack for parents who were mobbed by their offspring the moment they escaped the hall.

The business of the day was to sign off on the letter of undertaking and then it was time to share those picnic lunches.

Parents who had no way to chat with me and no real interest anyway positively mobbed me and every other class teacher holding the paperwork required.  They were only concerned with getting those contact telephone numbers recorded and signatures or thumbprints on the sheet so their precious family time could begin.

Within 15 minutes 33 of my 35 students were eagerly leading family members to our classroom. I had told them that if they wanted a photo of themselves and the members of their family who were present today, that’s where we would meet.

Joy was written all over the faces of most of these boarding students. 

In some cases there was an incredible resemblance between mothers and daughters- often referred to as having photocopy children
here in Bhutan.

I even discovered 2 girls in my class share the same grandfather who was as proud as can be of both of them and one of the few who signed rather than putting his thumbprint on my form.

Before we had even begun taking photos the school was transformed into a picnic ground and ringing with laughter. It had a fair ground atmosphere.

I think this just might be the one day of the year when the day scholars wish that they too were boarders, and not wandering home along the dusty road. Even though this photo makes Samtengang look like a thriving metropolis in, actual fact all the building visible in this shot are on the primary school campus.

Although I was repeatedly invited to share lunch with students and their families I decided to head home, knowing I had to be back in a couple of hours for the evening entertainment.

Most of the performances were dances and predominately presented by girls.

There was just too much excitement for some, but I was thrilled to see one of the hardest working and most reliable students in VIIIC so obviously happy on stage.

The scout troupe managed to present the only spoken word piece of the evening and the comedy was so slapstick that even the non-English speaking parents fully appreciated the humor.

Clapping in time and singing along encouraged others to dance with confidence and grace,

and all those who chose to showcase their talents were warmly received.

The few boys who did participate had their own original and modernistic interpretations of Dzongkha remix pieces.

Now at 10.30pm I am ready for bed and amazed that so much can happen in a single day, even if it was a Saturday and it did mean that the real start of our club activity had to be postponed yet again.

Now all we need is a bit of luck and a fair wind with the Internet connection in Bajo tomorrow.