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. 

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