WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: The Atsara figure is an integral part of many Bhutanese festivals. Being a primary agent of mirth and merriment, the red face comical character holding a phallus is generally thought of as a clown at the tshechu festivals. The Atsara character, however, is more than just a clown for entertainment. The Atsara combines the spirit of the sacred and profane, wit and wisdom, humour and responsibility. He helps his audience not only to forget their worries and problems with his jokes but also to occasionally drop their normal sense of self-importance, hypocrisy and false propriety through his pranks.
The name, Atsara, is said to have come from the Sanskrit term acārya, which is transcribed in Tshuyig as ཨ་ཙརྱ་. Acārya refers to a teacher or scholar and was a title used to refer to the Indian masters. For instance, the three famous Indian acāryas who have shown great kindness to Tibet are said to be 1) Atiśa Dīpaṅkara, the white acārya, Dampa Sangye, the black acārya and Padmasambhava, the variegated acārya. There was also a red acārya from India who came to Tibet in the 11th century and is sadly remembered for his licentious behaviour, which is said to have corrupted Buddhism in the name of tantric practice. It is difficult to say, without any evidence, on which group of personalities Bhutan’s Atsara character is based and how it has evolved. Many traditional scholars claim that Atsara is a parody of Indian mahāsiddhas, some of whom were enlightened mavericks living unconventional lives while being highly realized Buddhist saints. These enlightened saints, who were renegades on the fringes of society, practiced crazy wisdom as did the divine madmen of Tibet such as Drukpa Kunley.
Whether the Atsara figure is a caricatural reminder of unorthodox saints of crazy wisdom or remnants of loose lustful behaviour of some priests who abused tantric Buddhism, it is today one of Bhutan’s unique and exotic cultural institution. With a red face to symbolize burning passion and a large thunderbolt or phallus to signify masculine power and fertility, the Atsara plays a very important role in Bhutan’s major festivals. Curiously, it is also a Bhutanese cultural character, who is dressed in trousers and a jacket with fanciful patches. Unless he is replaced by other comical figures such as the Gathpo, as is the case during some festivals in central Bhutan, the Atsara is the chief clown to entertain the crowd and the master of ceremony to help the festival run smoothly. The Atsara guides the mask dancers if they forget their steps, tie the masks and silk robes if they fall loose, and provide any support the dancers may need once in the public arena. Often, there are more than one Atsara but only a master mask dancer, who is sharp and witty, dexterous and sensitive to the crowd normally qualify to be the lead Atsara. The junior Atsaras in various masks and costumes merely accompany him. The chief Atsara must know the jokes he should crack and the antics he has to play in the course of specific dances and performances. Towards the end of the festival, the Atsaras are also allowed to collect money from the people as tips and offerings, which in some cases are later shared with all dancers and performers.
The Atsara character represents the traditional Bhutanese personality of being open, liberal, jovial and spontaneous. On the festival ground where people come to immerse in sacred enjoyment and forget the woes and worries of everyday life, the Atsara is a reminder for people to drop unnecessary hang-ups and taboos, inhibitions and obsessions and to unleash their free spirit of ease, joy and laughter. His character remotely reflects the liberated spirit of the Buddha, which has transcended the dualistic apprehension of likes and dislikes, pain and pleasure and such other prejudices, biases and fixations. In an age when people are becoming increasingly neurotic, complex, susceptible and stressed, the Atsara is a true teacher to help us let go of our mental and emotional constriction and seek the inner state of openness and ease.