“Tshechu” is the annual event of the year in every district and though it is billed as a religious festival it is very much more than that.
I, myself have advised people travelling to Bhutan to make sure that a tshechu is included in their itinerary so I shouldn’t have been surprised to see so many tourists in guided groups at the recent Wangduephodrang District Tshechu.
In fact we had made a hotel booking a month in advance expecting an influx of tourists and not wanting to spend 2 hours each day travelling back and forth between Samtengang and Bajo. We had been anticipating this grand event for some time and so it was something of a disappointment to have the day finally arrive and know that Ian would miss out since he was still in Thimphu receiving physiotherapy treatment twice daily.
Somehow by the time I got there on Wednesday morning after a 5am start in the village and dressed in the best of my traditional clothes, which I was later to discover was on inside out, I was focused on the local audience and hoping to see many of my own students with their families and I had completely forgotten the tourist draw card that a tshechu this close to the capital would obviously be. Wangdue is only 3 to 4 hours from the capital, if you play the road conditions right.
I was more than a little curious to see how it would be staged in the army barracks. Given that I have only ever attended 2 before and both were inside the magnificent Trashigang Dzong, I was skeptical about the location and setting but intrigued about how an outdoor performance would compare to the shade and intimacy of the inner courtyard and sacred, ancient space of a dzong.
As I suspected the lack of shade was an issue, despite the covered areas that had been set up especially for the local audience and I felt very fortunate to be invited into the part of the “grandstand” set aside for tourists because it contained seats and was shaded for most of the mornings at least.
In the afternoon I returned to the covered zone, siting on the ground with the locals where I belong. It was there, via gestures that a kind, local woman alerted me to the fact that my kira needed to be reversed! She even intimated that her daughter would go with me to help. When I returned properly attired without the daughter’s assistance, she was as pleased as punch and invited me to sit with her family group.
Shops and stalls selling everything from fresh vegetables to plastic toys or cheap, imported, synthetic clothes and exquisite hand-woven traditional clothing and handicrafts were interspersed among a proliferation of small snack shops, makeshift bars and restaurants. Old-fashioned sideshow stalls were by far the most popular with the young people and there were the usual prizes of enormous stuffed toys and plastic junk in abundance.
I loved that the tradition sport of darts, known as khuru had been adapted into a test your skills funfair game with monks being the most interested and successful of the competitors. An absolute cacophony was created by spruikers shouting into megaphones to attract customers to play quoits tossed over prizes, or bingo or wheel of fortune or to knock down stainless steel beakers with tennis balls. Set up in tents and plying their trade at the perimeter of the actual performance area in their own enclosed zone, these businesses thrive on everyone having a little extra to spend and the novelty of being available only once a year.
Tshechu is the time to don your finery. Exquisite kira and gho, elaborate hairstyles, carefully applied makeup, brand name accessories and flashy jewelry and sunglasses are all de rigueur for the young singles strutting their stuff and feigning interest in only the religious lessons of the performance. People- watching is a major part of the spectacle. This is certainly the time for young people to meet potential partners and they are afforded more freedom than usual. Many a romance has begun at a tshechu, if class XI short stories are to be believed. Promiscuity is rampant and huge posters promoting contraception and educating about sexually transmitted diseases are prominently displayed on the tarpaulins separating the funfair from the amphitheater. Condoms were actually available from a help yourself for free box at the last tshechu we attended in Trashigang
Without doubt business opportunities, romance, fashion shows and sideshows aside, it is the masked dances, religious morality plays, comic relief of the apsaras and storytelling that are the main events. This is what draws the huge crowds and certainly what keeps them captivated throughout the 3 days of performance. I guess I too am more taken with that traditional aspects of tshechu as of the hundreds of photos I took, none depict anything except the performance, the ‘stage’ or the audience.
At certain points blessings are bestowed and just being in attendance and making a donation earn merit.
I decided to stay for only the first 2 days as I wanted to spend part of my 5-day break in Thimphu with Ian, but nonetheless I enjoyed every minute and never tired of the spectacle. It was an exhausting but event-filled couple of days and I was delighted to see so many people young and old, immersed in their culture, dressed to the nines and obviously enjoying themselves immensely.
I am looking forward to being able to attend Trongsa Tshechu in one of the most impressively located dzongs in the country, with Ian and a visiting friend at the end of December. I never seem to tire of watching and I understand more and more each time despite my complete lack of language skills.
Just for the record to do prefer the dzong as a venue and I am sure I am not alone.