Initiated by the third reincarnation of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, Thuktrul Jigme Drakpa, the old ways live on
Talo Tshechu: Every year, two weeks before the annual Talo tshechu in Punakha begins, a group of lay monks and elderly women gather below the Talo goenpa and practice mask dances and folk songs.
It is not that there is no other space around the goenpa for them to practise. But it’s believed that Gangsa Pang (ground) was the place where dances were first practiced, when the third reincarnation of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, Thuktrul Jigme Drakpa first introduced the Talo tshechu in 1708.
Carrying on the 305-year-old tradition, a group of 22 men and less than a dozen women have been on the ground since March 7 to practise for the upcoming annual Talo tshechu, which begins from March 19.
It is believed that Zhabdrung Jigme Drakpa would watch from his zimkhang (residence) window, when his gomchens (lay monk) and village women practised for the annual tshechu, one of the dancers, Lhendup, 57, said.
Those days, Zhabdrung’s attendants were mostly gomchens.
The zimkhang, which is considered as one of the most sacred rooms of the goenpa, overlooks the Gangsa Pang ground.
In his last 39 appearances as a dancer in the annual tshechu, Lhendup, who became a mask dancer from 18, said not a single dance has been performed at the goenpa’s courtyard without being routed from the Gangsa Pang. “I saw this legacy being followed since I was 18.”
On the first day of practice, the dancers gather at the geonpa’s main lhakhang (temple) for a Zhukdrel ceremony. As they come out to walk down for practice, a pair of old trumpets is blown to inform the people and local deities about the practice. After they reached Gangsa Pang, the group facing the zimkhang, offers chang phee (the first sacred offering) and starts their practice.
Before the tshechu begins, the group would bathe in the spring that flows below the Gangsa Pang, said Lhendup. The spring, which is considered holy, will clean the defilement of body, speech and mind.
During the four-day annual tshechu, the dancers spend the nights in the goenpa and are not allowed to mingle with their spouses. “We’re held back from sleeping at home,” a folk dancer, Kinzang Wangmo, said. “Our leader keeps an eye on us even when we go to toilet.”
Kinzang Wangmo joined as a dancer when she was only 14. Today, she leads the folk dance group. “In the last 34 years as a dancer, I haven’t spent a night at home during the tshechu,” she said. “It’s believed that dancers would skid, if we have sex during the tshechu.”
Despite being old, these dancers continue to actively participate in dancing to the songs composed by Zhabdrung. They said most young girls in their village are in schools or towns and those, who aren’t, are not interested in becoming dancers.
Talo gup, Kinley, also shared his concern about youth losing interest in traditional values and cultures. “Our culture is being overshadowed by modernisation,” gup Kinley said. “Today, the young ones are mostly interested in foreign songs and dances.”
By Tenzin Namgyel, Punakha