Bhutanese Mask Dances at a Festival in Bumthang

Bhutan has a long tradition of colorful religious festivals.  They are integral part of the cultural and spiritual life of the Bhutanese people. We wanted to witness this rich tradition for ourselves and planned our trip around a festival season.

Bhutanese believe that everyone must attend a religious festival and witness the mask dances at least once to receive blessings. The Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival in Bumthang was the only festival included in our itinerary, but we were fortunate to also observe the Dromchoe Festival in Thimphu and the  Tsechu Festival in Wangdue. It so happened that these two extra festivals were taking place as were were visiting those places. We felt so lucky to receive blessings three times! Mask Dance in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, Bhutan Like all Bhutanese festivals, the 3-day Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival in Bumthang is celebrated to commemorate the good deeds of great Buddhist masters. This particular festival is held to honor the great saint Pema Lingpa and is held annually at the courtyard of Tamshing Lhakhang, a  temple built by Pema Lingpa himself.

Mask Dance in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, Bhutan And like all Bhutanese festivals, the core of Tamshing Phala Chhoepa are the ancient traditional mask dances called “chams.” Most of the dances were created earlier than the Middle Ages.  They were choreographed by the great Buddhist masters and saints themselves to convey spiritual messages to the people.

Mask Dances in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, Bhutan The dances re-enact significant spiritual events from the past and are mostly performed by monks in brilliant costumes. They take the roles of wrathful and compassionate deities, heroes, demons, and animals and are accompanied by blaring horns, booming drums, and clashing cymbals as they whirl and leap around the temple courtyard.

Mask Dances in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, Bhutan This  dance is called ” The Dance of the Stag and the Hunter.” It tells the story of saint Millarepa’s conversion of a hunter, his dog and a deer into Buddhism.

Dance of the Stag, Mask Dance in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, Bhutan

Mask Dances in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, BhutanThe “Dance of Three Kind of Gings” is performed to bring good luck and happiness to all beings.

Mask Dance in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, Bhutan

Atsara (Clowns) in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, Bhutan Each festival include atsaras (“clowns”). They mimic the dances and joke with or annoy the audience. They also help to keep order.

Atsara (clown) in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, Bhutan One of the atsaras liked bothering the audience. He asked money from the audience and then gave them blessings by patting their heads with a wooden phallus.

Mask Dances in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, Bhutan The performance extended to the roof of one of the buildings. It looked like that one of  the characters was chasing an evil spirit.

Audience in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, Bhutan The audience looked very engaged and amused.

Audience in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, Bhutan Bhutanese believe that during the mask dances, the deities of the tantric teachings are invoked and through their power and blessings, misfortunes are removed and sins are purified. They also believed to subdue evil spirits that prevent the Buddhist teaching from flourishing, thus, bringing joy and happiness to all sentient beings.

Audience in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, Bhutan Locals believe that by dressing in their finest is a another form of offering to please the deities that could bring them blessings and merits, It is also an occasion to see people and to be seen.

Monk Audience in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, Bhutan Young monks intently watching the dance drama. They were probably wishing to someday perform the dances themselves.

Folk Dances in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, Bhutan In between mask dances, this group of women perform folk dances and songs.

Mask Dances in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, Bhutan The “Dance of the Wrathful Deities” represent the ‘Buddhist teachings on the liberation of consciousness from the body.”

Mask Dances in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, Bhutan

Mask Dances in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, Bhutan

Mask Dances in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, BhutanThe “Dance of the Drummers from Drametsi” represents the entourage of Guru Rinpoche, the patron saint of Bhutan. They celebrate the victory of  religion.

Mask Dances in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang

Audience in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, BhutanAudience of all ages anxiously awaiting the next dance during a break.

Audience in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, Bhutan  Mask Dances in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, BhutanMonks helping monks get dressed for the next dance performance, the “Black Hat Dance.” It was the only dance without masks.Monks getting dressed for Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival, Bumthang, Tamshi Lhakhang, BhutanMask Dances in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, BhutanThe “Black Hat Dantce” was performed in the rain. Dancers represent Tantrists with supernatural powers. They are said to drive out evil spirits and purify the grounds with their footsteps.

Mask Dances in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, Bhutan The” Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds” depicts skeletons protecting the dwellings of the deities from evils.

Audience in Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival at Tamshi Lhakhang, Bumthang, Bhutan This adorable old man who was siting next to us seemed fascinated with our cameras. He asked if he could try them. He looked like he was having fun.

We may not completely understood or relate to all  the messages that the dance dramas conveyed, but we felt honored to experience this rich old tradition of Bhutan.

Most of all, we cherished our interactions with the locals during the festival.  They gave up their prime spots for us so we could have a better view of the performances. They said that they observe the festival year after year but we may only have that one chance to do so. We were deeply touched by their warmth, hospitality  and spiritual devotion.

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