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Asia » Bhutan » Thimphu
September 14th 2005
Published: November 23rd 2005EDIT THIS ENTRY

Please take a numberPlease take a numberPlease take a number

The looooooong march...
Amazingly, for the first time on this trip I wake up on time and manage to go outside before Tshering arrives. We head directly to the festival grounds and notice that the traffic situation is a lot worse this morning and the crowd is gigantic. Security is stricter and I have to surrender my small umbrella before being allowed inside the dzong premises. The crowd is so overwhelming that it is impossible to find a good spot, so after some hapless wandering around we decide to give up for the moment and go sightseeing the city and return to try our luck again in the afternoon. Instead we drive to the nearby BBS Telecom tower hill for a grand view of Thimphu. Next stop is also nearby, the small compound that used to be the Thimphu Zoo. However, ideology dictated that the animals not be held captive and they were subsequently freed. Apparently all the animals were happy to go except the stubborn (or lazy) Tarkins, which chose to remain in the area. The compound is now the home for a small number of these peculiar mammals. The Tarkin is considered holy and is also the national animal of Bhutan. It looks like a weird combination of a musk ox and a goat, and the taxonomists haven't really figured out what to do with it, bringing chaos into their neat world order. Peculiar or not, they seemed rather unimpressed by their visitors, or overwhelmed by the food, because the jolly fellow I tried to photograph just refused to even look up from his lunch for even a second.

It is a beautiful day perfect for walking. I suggest we get rid of the car for a while and walk to our next destination. Tshering agrees and our driver rides ahead of us and will have to look forward to yet another nap. We walk down through Mothithang neighbourhood, which lies in the hills just above the main city and has a lot of modern high rises (that would be up to four floors, all in traditional style of course). A city bus drives past, a rare sight in Thimpu, but on the rise. However, the taxi drivers aren't too happy about it. I guess they can always convert to bus drivers. So far though, the city bus only makes some laps around town during rush hour.

At the end of Mothithang we arrive at the beautiful Changangkha Lhakhang temple which is perched on a small hill overlooking downtown Thimphu. We hang around a bit taking in the atmosphere while passers by spin the prayer wheels and visit the shrines. I make a small donation to the caretakers and receive a set of multicoloured prayer flags to bring home for good luck. We then head for lunch at the familiar Orchid Hotel where I try out the famous su ja salty butter tea. After all the horror stories about it I am a bit disappointed that it is actually quite drinkable. It does taste just like salty butter, but I assume it will be more of a challenge outside of the hotels. Tshering explains that they have toned down its characteristics a bit, probably not to upset the westerner's poor old body.

We return to Traschi Chhoe Dzong after lunch for the second part of the program, and the crowds have diminished a little bit. This time we find good spots in a corner of the western wall close to the entrance of the actors. As last time, the artists are performing impressively, but again it is the colours
Looking down on ThimphuLooking down on ThimphuLooking down on Thimphu

View from the BBS Telecom Tower hill
and faces of the crowds that keep drawing my interest. Everyone except us ugly tourists are dressed in the trademark colourful Ghos and Kiras.

The highlight of today's performances is the Raksha Mangcham, the Dance of Judgement of the Dead. It is a long performance and portrays the entrance of the Bardo, the place where all beings wander in their afterlife, receiving their judgements. With them are the various manifestations of the Buddhas, some mild and some terrifying in their appearances, and only the pure minded will recognize them for what they are. Also present are Shinye Chhogyel, the Lord of Death and his assistants, the Rakshas, a group of animal headed beings with their own special abilities. The story is rich in symbology, for example the mythical Khyung bird which possesses a sword that can cut the roots of the three poisons ignorance, envy and anger and a hammer to destroy the mountain of sin. Another character is the lion with a lasso of love and an iron chain of compassion. I have yet to find someone who can explain why some deer like characters are sporting a pointy flag between their horns though.

The most prominent
Hello, I'm over here! Hello....Hello, I'm over here! Hello....Hello, I'm over here! Hello....

Like he would care...
figures in the cast are the White God and Black Demon who appear just like that, white and black. As the person is being scrutinized the demon is vying for his soul while the White God tries to save him. The first person to receive his judgement is considered a sinner and is sent off the stage through the portals of hell while another virtuous man is delivered to heaven during attempts by the demon to steal his soul anyway. Cheeky bastard!

As the last dance is over we linger in the now trash filled yard while people start crowding at the exits. I am determined to snap a picture of the Desi Tenzing Rabgye as he makes his departure. Knowing which path he took last time I set up camp near the planned exit and casually prepare. My preparations pay off as he exits right past me. The monks continue to tidy the place up and I keep Tshering in the yard and we walk around inspecting the various activities taking place. The Lord of Death is being disassembled and traditional boots are collected and carried away. These weird looking boots are peculiar in that there are no left or right boots, and they may only be carried by people of high stature.

A monk files by with his hands full of red, orange and yellow coloured string. Tshering receives a few from the monk and before I can ask a number of kids rush up to receive strings of their own. Tshering hands me one of the orange strings which has a small knot tied on its middle. He explains that as people approached and paid their respects to the Lord of Death earlier during the performance they were each given a piece of string like this one. The knot contains a blessing they received. Moving on to the main temple building we have a closer look at the decorations, complex astrological schematics of old that explain the ways our different worlds and lives are connected.

We chat a bit with some of the young monks as one of the atsaras suddenly arrives to do an impromptu soundcheck right by the stairs where we stand. A microphone is erected in front of the temple and an old man starts to chant a folk song of some kind. More atsaras arrive and a small group of
Number one, it is a start!Number one, it is a start!Number one, it is a start!

Bus stop over at Mothithang
monks and onlookers begins to form. Suddenly there is a collective gasp among the crowd, the Desi Tenzing Rabgye has returned and the up until now so peaceful onlookers grab their children and run towards him. As he moves forward through the courtyard a mob is formed around him and everyone is pushing to have their children be blessed by him. He holds a piece of his cloth over his mouth and nose to protect himself from any illness and puts his hand briefly on people's foreheads and they bow deeply and silently walk away. He then walks up the stairs just past where I stand and sit down at a hastily brought out chair on the top of the stairs and I slowly realize what is going on. There is going to be a private little afterparty and I'm there backstage!

People continue to walk up and receive their blessings while the atsaras start performing below, singing and dancing. The crowd slowly comes to rest and sits down in front to enjoy the little party and I walk around trying not to be disruptive. Nobody takes any notice of me except two kids who play around with my camera; who knows, maybe we'll see some of their pics here on Travelblog in the future. Our puzzled driver appears wondering where we are and after some encouragement he cautiously receives a blessing. Compared to the hustle and bustle of the festival this is a peaceful and tranquil occasion and I am so happy to be here, suddenly feeling like visiting a time out of my own. The festivities continue until the sun sets for some ninety minutes.

As the day is over for sure this time we go for dinner at the infamous Orchard Hotel. On the way there I suddenly get a call from Jasu who has arrived in town, in a very timely manner so invite her to go with us. A few minutes after I also get an independent call from her sister and some of her friends and quickly invite them along as well. Everybody is a bit hesitant at first but we convince them to come with us. I remember that I still haven't purchased any postcards and beginning to run out of time. The shops close around nine so after dinner Tshering takes me shopping with a few minutes to spare. We split for the night and I walk back through the pitch black neighbourhood for a long session of stamping and typing up addresses. Fun fun!


Additional photos below
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Lunch time at the hotelLunch time at the hotel
Lunch time at the hotel

Tshering is definitely a rice guy
The famous su ja salty butter teaThe famous su ja salty butter tea
The famous su ja salty butter tea

Remember kids, it is considered impolite to refuse a second cup.


24th November 2005

You are an incredible photographer, I was in Bhutan around the same time as you but my pictures look nothing like yours, great blog and what an experience we had, I struggle to explain to my friends. Thanks, your pictures will help, if you want to have a look at my blog my name is degrubs http://www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/degrubs/ I haven't gotten round to talking about Bhutan yet but will shortly. Thanks again Chris
29th November 2005

Breathtaking!
Don't think that nobody's reading. You are a fantastic writer! Looking forward to your next blog.
21st February 2006

beautiful country
You have wonderful photos. I went to Bhutan in Dec.05 as well. I really love the country so much, it is so pure, natural and serene. And amazingly, I had the same guide as yours "Tshering Dorji".

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