Nestled in the Himalayas is landlocked Bhutan, a country rich in culture and history. Bhutanese traditions have endured through the centuries and is preserved till today. One of the most important traditions is the festival known as ‘tsechu’. Some years ago I had the good fortune of visiting Bhutan and attending a ‘tsechu’.
A ‘tsechu’ is a riot of vibrant colours and significant symbolism. It is held to commemorate Guru Padmasambhava (also known as the Guru Rinpoche), who brought Buddhism to Bhutan. The legend goes that upon the request of the King, who was afflicted with illness, performed a series of sacred mask dances to restore the health of the King. Thus began the yearly ’tsechus’ which goes on for days.
The highlight of the ‘tsechu’ is the sacred ‘Cham’ or mask dances which are performed by monks dressed in ornate costumes. These dances re-enact the events that took place during the life of Guru Padmasambhava, mostly depicting the triumph of good over evil. The dancers usually wear wooden masks that represent animals, fearsome deities, and various manifestations of Guru Rinpoche who apparently had eight manifestations, each with a different name and appearance. Attending a ‘tsechu’ is extremely important to the Bhutanese. They believe you accumulate karmic merit points by witnessing the sacred mask dances and that your misfortunes and sins will be removed by the power and blessings that the masked dancers bestow on you. (The dancers get into a trance-like state which apparently generates spiritual powers to purify, cleanse, enlighten and bless the spectators).
Families and friends set out in their finest clothes and come together to celebrate. Many are poor and live in isolated villages in the mountains from where it would take days of walking just to get to a proper road or access to transport but despite the difficulties, they make this arduous journey to to attend this sacred event with joy and good cheer.
These images of the ‘Cham’ dancers are some of the few that I captured at the ‘tsechu’.
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