December 10, 2014

Of Fire-Blessings and Naked-Dances

Jambay lhakhang, located in Bumthang observes its festival for five consecutive days. This festival is called Jambay Lhakhang Drup.

Jambay Lhakhang being one of the oldest temples in Bhutan holds many ancient relics such as Jowo Jampa (Maitreya) from whose name the present name of the temple is derived, more than one hundred statues of the gods of Kalachakra built by the first king, in 1887.

In Jambay Lhakhang Drup one of the rituals performed is the fire ritual (me-wang) that is held in the evening where crowds gather to witness the ritual together with the naked dance (ter-chham). Dances were composed mostly by Terton Pema Lingpa, the great treasure discoverer of the 15th century, who lived in the valley.

The first time I hear of ‘ter-chham’ is from my Bumthap friends, during my stay in my previous school. And early this year when I was transferred to Bumthang, I am introduced to the background of this spectacular dance by my colleagues. It seems this Jambay Lhakhang Drup is a major attraction for tourists, who intentionally choose the autumn package to witness the ‘ter-chham’.

On the first evening the ‘me-wang’ is scheduled to be lit at around 9:00 pm, while the ritual and dances in preparation are performed in the courtyard starting from as early as 5 pm. The actual ‘gate of fire’ is a few hundred meters away, in a field beside the temple. Once the mask dancers reach there from the courtyard, the gate is lit, and devotees start running under the fire (we are instructed not to walk, as there is always a stampede when the crowd rushes through the fiery gate).

[Fire about to be lit]

[Fire lit, and people readying to run under it]
I am with a friend (we lost the others in the darkness). We run once under the gate of fire. Hundreds of others are also running under the fire, some even thrice. The cold is forgotten as devotees and thrill-seekers run in an uncontrollable mass. Desuups, Community Police and RBP personnel are there to guide them, as they enter and exit from under the fire.

[A daredevil runs under the fiery gate]
Then we return to the courtyard where the devotees have now gathered for the ‘ter-chham’, which is scheduled to be performed an hour or two after midnight. Meanwhile all the chhams to be performed tomorrow during the day is also performed tonight.

We wait. I am so excited that I don’t feel the cold. Meanwhile I try calling my friends on my cellphone, and am able to connect after many tries. We meet up, and discuss how to while away the time (we are going to watch the other chhams tomorrow during the day). We go to the various eateries outside the temple walls and try a couple of ‘Bathups’ and some fried ‘Ara’. I am going to try anything in order to warm myself as we wait for ter-chham to start.

After sometime my friends point out that if we don’t find a good vantage point, we might not get to witness this dance properly. And he cautions me; no cell phones, no cameras, no flashlights allowed (that's why you won't ever see a photo of the actual ter-chham). The huge halogen lights are switched off in the courtyard, and the courtyard is packed to full capacity. Many people are sitting on the cold pavement, while others stand up behind them, leaving a large opening in the middle of which a bonfire is lit.

My eyes fight sleep as I am slowly shoved from side to side. Someone is leaning on my shoulder and gently snoring away. Around me, hundreds of people are either shoving each other or fighting for a foothold.

Then the cymbals start. Slowly the lead dancer enters the courtyard, his entire head bound by a white cloth, narrow slits cut out for the eyes and mouth. He is wearing a white traditional mask-dance, knee-length trousers. And slowly, he is followed by some 20 young men. They also have similar headgear. But the resemblance ends there. They are entirely naked, with not even footwear, in this November cold. The last person is also clad in a trouser similar to the first one. They follow the leader in a slow trance like dance around the fire. Waving their hands and arms in synchronized movements, they perform the sacred ter-chham.

The crowd shows mixed responses. Some are bowed down in reverence, some are smiling and laughing silently, some on their toes, necks craned for a better view, while others are shoving back and forth. The Desuups and Police are in constant vigil, as most of the crowd is seemingly high on alcohol. Many foreigners are also in attendance, eyes fixated on the dancers and their movements.

After a few rounds, the dancers gather around the fire and warm themselves. Most look shy, and terribly cold. I can see them shivering. The slow claps of the cymbals don’t stop. Suddenly, a pair of dancers breaks off the group to rush towards the spectators in a synchronized movement. They tease the spectators in sexual antics, even shoving their members very close to some woman seated in the front. With shy smiles and muffled laughter, these women hide their faces in their arms, as the crowd shouts and shrieks in laughter.

But behind this jest, is a very strong belief. There are many ter-chhams performed in some parts of Bhutan, but not as naked and sacred as this. I have heard of people travelling all the way from the East and West to gather here for this dance.

Now it is another pair who breaks off the group around the fire, and performs similar sexual antics. After almost an hour of similar antics, they regroup as the leader leads them for a dance around the actual Jambay Lhakhang which houses Jowo Jampa.

And then they leave the courtyard. The crowd breaks off. I am freezing. And I have lost my friends in the confusion.

(Pictures courtesy of