The Ura Yakchoe, or How To Celebrate A Cure For Leprosy

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May 18th 2011
Published: November 22nd 2011
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If an eighth century saint answers a village’s prayer to cure a leprosy epidemic, it is only fitting that the miracle be commemorated for ever after in dance and colour and panache. And when that village is in Bhutan, the dance and colour and panache are truly fabulous.

On my first trip to Bhutan, I’d been lucky enough to go to one of the biggest festivals in the country, the Tsechu held in the imperious Punakha Dzong, which marks the anniversary of the Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel’s seventeenth century victory over the Tibetans. The Tsechu had been an incredible occasion, presided over by Bhutanese Buddhism’s highest-ranking official, the Je Khenpo, with elaborate dances and re-enactments, fabulously-dressed crowds and colour, bemused tourists and rituals, and the closest I’ve seen to a traffic jam in this sparsely-populated country.

This time we were to go to Ura, a small village in the Bumthang region. We had absolutely no idea what to expect.

Legend has it that Ugyen Padmasambhava, the Guru Rinpoche – a quasi-mythical/historical figure who is credited with first bringing Buddhism to Bhutan – appeared, disguised as a beggar, at the house of an old woman in Ura when the village and surrounding area were being ravaged by leprosy. She invited him in but, by the time she had finished making his meal of buckwheat pancakes, he had disappeared, leaving a statue of the Buddhist deity Vajrapani in her wool basket. The statue stayed in her house for three days and then flew to the nearby village of Gadan. Shortly afterwards, a nine-headed serpent slithered out of the valley and was seen no more. As Vajrapani was known for subduing the subterranean beings which were believed to inflict leprosy, the villagers knew that the valley would now be free from the epidemic.

We’d spent the previous couple of days in Jakar, luxuriating in hot water and warm beds after the chilly and damp excitement of five days’ trekking in the mountains, and now felt nearly human again. The night before, a suitcase had arrived from Laxmi, Tshetem’s wife, and we four girls felt like kids let loose on a dressing-up box. National dress is mandatory for Bhutanese attending festivals, and my experience last time had been that tourists following suit were regarded with delight and pleasure, recognised as showing an appropriate sign of respect for the tradition in which we were participating. One of the hotel staff came to demonstrate (and remind me) how to put it all on: the kira, a rectangular piece of material that is wrapped around the waist and tied with a wide belt (a kera) so as to hang full length, and the blouse and jacket that are wrapped over and pinned at the front, with the blouse’s extra-long sleeves then folded back to form wide cuffs outside the jacket’s sleeves. Colour co-ordination seems optional; it’s all about showing off your best and brightest-coloured outfits. Jeff already had a gho – the heavy long coat worn hitched up to knee-length by Bhutanese men, and tied tightly with a kera at the waist, often purchased by souvenir-hunters as a dressing gown – and Steve had bought himself one in Thimphu. The next morning, we lined up in all our finery, feeling more than a little self-conscious.

Ura itself is curiously organised-looking, flowing downhill from the newer of the valley’s two temples in what appear, from a distance, to be geometrically-regular streets. On closer inspection, the geometry is more than a little wobbly, but it’s still an oddly tightly-knit development for a Bhutanese valley where space
"be prepared, come armed!""be prepared, come armed!""be prepared, come armed!"

[copyright Lorraine Dodd]
would appear to be no issue, as if the houses are huddling together for warmth and comfort at this high altitude.

We were to stay with the family of a lead contender for, and erstwhile holder of the position of, village headman. Our host had also spent some years in the pre-2007 national assembly. Now, since the introduction of democracy in 2007, he feels that he can be of more use back at village level, although – even with Tshetem acting as translator – I struggled to establish the scope and nature of his roles and responsibilities as headman both downwards, to the village, and upwards to the dzongkhag, the next level of local government. Duties called him away to Thimphu for most of our two days there, but we were made more than welcome by his delightfully smiley wife, Tashi, and a bevy of children, both home-grown and ringers.

After a welcome cup of coffee and a bounty of unnecessary snacks which, nevertheless, we devoured as if we hadn’t just had an imperial style breakfast back in Jakar, we walked up the track to the temple. There was an air of expectation – or was that our imagination? We saw only a few other people on the track, a family dressed to the nines, even the two-year-old, and a trio of young girls, shyly giggling in their best outfits. Outside the temple gates, we navigated our way through a clutter of stalls and some decidedly ad hoc parking. Through the gates, people were milling around, with nothing “official” apparently yet happening. To our temporary disappointment (in our ever-selfish quest to be the only Travellers venturing to these places), there seemed to be almost as many tourists as locals. We remained smug, however: no other tourist was in Bhutanese national dress, and no other tourist was staying overnight. (Later, we would look pitying on the early afternoon departures going back the two-hours or so to Jakar, or starting on the long road to Mongar. We’d be heading back to the snug of Tashi’s stove-heated living-room and, no doubt, a generous quantity of tea and warming arra, the potent Bhutanese moonshine, before returning for a second day of festivities.)

The only guidance about the day’s activities came courtesy of a vaguely official-looking information leaflet about festivals in Bhutan, in the section robustly entitled “The Grand Annual Festival Of Ura Village”. According to that – and Tshetem’s guess that we’d arrived on day two of the festival – we would see the Dance of the Clown, the Dance of Yamantaka, the Black Hat Dance, the Drum Dance from Drametse, and the Hound and Stag Dance. We weren’t much the wiser.

Bhutanese festivals take place according to the Bhutanese calendar, a variant of the Tibetan calendar. Although there are now websites devoted to telling you how these dates translate into the Gregorian calendar – festivals are a “must do” of any trip to Bhutan, and modern-day Bhutan isn’t going to leave the tourist dollar entirely to chance – there remains a degree of uncertainty as to when the festival is actually going to take place, let alone which of the festival’s several days you might actually be attending. Even once you get there, there is very little apparent order to the day’s events. People mill around and picnic and chat; the younger ones play, with little regard for their smart clothes or the occasion unfolding around them; costumed dancers – mainly monks who will have prepared for this all year and for many years – appear, dance and disappear, drums and variants on western oboes and trumpets do their thing independent (so far as we could gauge) of any conductor or master of ceremonies.

Actually, there was a kind of master of ceremonies, the “Old Man of Gadan” or “Gadan Gathpo”, a red-masked figure in what appeared to be rough yak-hair pyjamas, though he hardly seemed to be taking his role seriously. He’d amble around, checking and fixing costumes where required, stopping to chat to locals and dancers alike. He’d move people to the sides of the main courtyard before the dancing began, and chivvy along dancers lurking too long in the ‘wings’ of the temple’s doorway. He took a bit of a shine to Lorraine, extending his yak-haired embrace to Alyson who was sitting on Lorraine’s other side (when the girls became a little uncomfortable, Jeff stepped in with his usual diplomacy, suggesting to the Gathpo that it might be time for him to move on); a Japanese-American tourist received his attentions on another occasion, to the belated consternation of her boyfriend. He borrowed Nancy’s hat, using it as a rain-shield for the baby in his arms (had he also borrowed the baby, we wondered?), and returned sometime later with it perched on his own head, where it vied for space with the top of his mask.

Our introduction to the festival was floury and phallic. We’d found a good viewpoint from the wall at the edge of the courtyard, and were happily people-watching in a welcome ray of sunshine as we waited for Something To Happen. A group of costumed men were meandering through the crowd, and before we’d worked out what they were doing, we found ourselves their targets. A plate of flour was pushed forward. By the small-value notes sticking out around a flour-paste phallus-ette in the centre of the plate, we guessed an offering of some sort was required. In return, we were each solemnly anointed with dabs of flour on our foreheads, cheeks and chins, and enveloped in a musty, yak-hairy embrace, while another man waved over our heads a pink-and-white-striped woolly phallus (the symbol is considered to bring good luck and drive away evil spirits, but I’d never seen one like this). Cameras – tourists hoping that they’d escape the same treatment, and locals delighting in the targeting of westerners – clicked around us. It was tempting to brush the flour off once the crew had moved on, but we didn’t: it was a welcome sign that we’d been “done”. We giggled – now we really belonged.

The rest of the first of our two festival days was a little chaotic. The dances would alternate: folk dances featuring eight to ten prim and self-conscious young women doing something not far removed from line-dancing, and masked dancers re-enacting complex legends and myths. We felt sorry for the dancers of that afternoon’s main event. Lacking much by way of upper-body costume, they nevertheless had to lie down when their routine required it: by this stage it was raining and the ground was wet. Dancing in the rain looks a whole lot more glamorous on pop music videos.

The real highlight for us was to come the next afternoon: the Bardo, or Dance of the Judgment of the Dead, a truly superb spectacle. The dance demonstrates how we are judged by the Lord Mara when we are in ‘Bardo’, or limbo, after death. We are brought before him and the case for our destiny presented by the White Spirit and the Black Spirit, supported by a cast of masked dancers.

In preparation for the arrival of the Lord Mara, a huge cast of local people had assembled in the temple and, to the rhythm of the drums, began to process slowly round the courtyard. Women came first, starting with small girls, all beautifully dressed and carrying offerings – biscuits, rice, tea pots – the supplicants gradually rising in height like a well-organised school photograph. Next came the men, then the musicians – who had started playing inside the temple, the ends of wind instruments balanced on window-ledges; when processing, their long trumpets were supported by a man walking in front of the players – and red-hatted senior monks, including the visiting Lama. Percussion-players brought up the rear. Finally, the Lord Mara and his entourage appeared – so colourful and dramatic I found myself forgetting that there were humans beneath the costumes – including one man wearing the mask and uniform of a modern-looking policeman (the gods evidently need protection in today’s world too). When they had taken their seats under a canopy to one side of the courtyard, many people, both from the initial procession and the crowd, queued up to receive blessings. We were amused to see that, when Tashi went up for a blessing and walked down the seated line of dancers, she got bumped on the head by one who clearly didn’t know how far his mask extended when he nodded his acknowledgement of her supplication. When she was also cheekily tapped on the butt by the Gathpo, we thought she’d turn round and give him a piece of her mind, but she only giggled.

The first to be judged was the Sinner who, having a fair idea of what was in store for him, cowered and made several bids for freedom. The dancers and some of the children in the audience would chase after him each time and bring him back for further evidence of his wrong-doing. The Black Spirit and the White Spirit presented their cases through emphatic, exaggerated dance. But there was no hope for him, and, in due course, the Sinner was condemned to hell, the Black Spirit dancing gleefully behind as he was taken away.

Second for judgment was the Good Man, a kata (white scarf) around his neck and a prayer flag in his hand to evidence his virtue. Not surprisingly, the Black Spirit couldn’t find much to ‘say’ against the Good Man, so, in the company of the White Spirit and the oddest collection of ‘fairies’ I’ve ever seen (if it wasn’t for Tshetem’s guide, we wouldn’t have realised that that was what they were supposed to be), he went off to heaven… and the dance gradually drew to a close.

We were exhilarated by the two-hour spectacle, speechlessly delighted that our trip had coincided with this festival highlight. No doubt our camera shutters had clicked a thousand times or more, but the whole pageant had developed so gradually that even the most hardened photo-traveller had time to drink it all in. The holiday atmosphere – so much more than Christmas, Thanksgiving, Hogmanay and a bevy of royal weddings rolled into one. The dancers’ fabulous costumes and complex movements, even if we couldn’t grasp the symbolism in every step. The ancient story being retold, as it had been so many times in the past and would be again, over and over. The humanity of the shared whispers and giggles amongst the dancers when they weren’t centre-stage. And above all, the happy festivity of the gathering, families and friends come together for the biggest party of the year, children running amok in their extended playground, and increasingly merry men, arra already fuelling their day. I even warmed to the bossy Gathpo.

But I found myself feeling a tiny degree of envy for the common spirit, the sharing and the joy, and a wistfulness about the future. Who’s to know for how long this kind of festival might continue? Already there were grown-ups with mobile phones and cameras, and kids with remote-controlled toys, even if they were going back to homes without flush toilets and running hot water. Culture does not exist in a vacuum and tourism cannot pompously demand that it do so, but I find it hard to imagine that this spiritual and other-worldly place will ever wholly succumb to the selfish materialism of the West.

Additional photos below
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1st December 2011

You're back
Considering that you've been in Australia for months, I was surprised to see that your latest blog was on Bhutan! Either way, it's fabulous, with terrific pictures, as always!

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