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A winter ritual to bring the community together

The dusty farm road cutting the slopes and hills between Bemji village and Doksephey lhakhang in Trongsa is too small for Thuji.

The 73-year-old man is returning from the monastery, perched on a gentle slope overlooking the Mangdechu meandering through the valley, after attending a nyungne, a fasting ritual.

As a lay monk, he knows that nyungne is an effective practice for purifying the negativities and accumulating merit, especially when it is held in a goenpa, which he considers sacred as the main relic, a seven ft. tall Buddha Shakyamuni is a replica of the Jowo in Lhasa.

He said he attends the event every winter but the village elder had more reasons to look forward to this year.

Unlike the past years, where people from a nearby dzongkhag came to sponsor the ritual, the non-resident people of Pang and Bemji, who he is familiar with, sponsored the ritual this year.

While the non-residents of the two villages contributed money to buy rations and pay cash prizes and wages, the villagers contributed what was available from the farms and labour.

“Winters can get real desolate here and nyungne is the only festival that makes the place lively,” he said. “It was so good to see everyone together this year.”

Thuji said that unlike the past years, when people returned home after attending the tsechu held on the fourth day, everyone stayed back in the monastery, reviving the old tradition.

Dophu, 69, also echoed similar views.

The father of seven said it drew many elderly people of the two villages of Pang and Bemji to the monastery to pray, prostrate and conduct fasting this time. “There are 39 of us this time. Usually, only 10 to 15 people turn up.”

Villagers gather at the goenpa for a feast on the final day
Villagers gather at the goenpa for a feast on the final day

The ritual formally takes two and half days but it has a preparation day, where the elderly people, sponsors and ritual conductors gather. The fourth and fifth days see a celebratory conclusion where all the local residents take a day off from their usual chores and gather in the monastery.

Another village elder, Gem Thinley, said it was good to see the monks of the two villages performing masked dances on the fourth day, as it provides an opportunity for village elders to watch it. “This is a new system but a good one.”

He said that many aged people cannot make it to Trongsa, which is about 23kms away from the village to watch Trongsa tshechu and the mask dances would entertain and educate them.

The eldest resident of the two villages, Pem Wangmo, 94, said she never thought she could watch mask dances during the nyungne. “I am too old to travel anywhere.”

The single woman, who raised her granddaughter and her children, by working as the monastery caretaker until a few years ago said she had seen many people coming to sponsor the nyungne, as the Jowo is believed to be a wish-fulfiller.

“This year’s nyungne was different, as it had dance components,” she said. “My six-year-old grandson took an active part by helping to clean the butter lamp bowls and cleaning the monastery.”

Students and women performed dances during the day and men and boys continued throughout the night. “I have seen some men dance so well,” Tshering Yangdon, 17, said.

She said she remembers how she looked forward to the nyungne every year as a child because it was the only occasion that brought everyone in the locality together. “I wish to grow up continuing to look forward to this occasion.”

People were served food, beverages and alcohol, which was locally brewed.

Meanwhile, Thuji walked about 3kms from the monastery with the ritual cake on the final day, as locals believe that it cannot be take ferried in motor vehicles.

“This is our tradition and if few people make the habit to carry it, others might continue,” he said.

As the dancers and people bring the cake, housewives gather in the Bemji nagtsang to prepare the reception with tea, food and marchang.

Drinking tea and alcohol to his glory, Thuji offered ‘nyendar’ to the ritual cake, prayed for all the sentient beings and peace and prosperity in the country.

He also gave Nu 10 each to the 10 dancers and 20 to the main host.

Tashi Dema

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