Burning Arches and Masked Dancers at the Tamshing Phala Choepa
Bumthang Valley, Kingdom of Bhutan
My husband, two friends and I waited as long as possible inside the dry vehicle before joining the procession. As the van door slammed shut behind me, rain droplets exploded onto my face. I felt the air move while a swell of people quietly shuffled past. My boots slid sideways, carried by the ooze of the mud. Our cue came when a small group of monks walked forward, lighting up the darkened route. The persistent rain did little to diminish the flames of their torches. The monks walked from the direction of the Tamshing Goemba, an ancient monastery up the road to our left. They led the way to a field and the crowd followed. We merged into the mass. Everyone sloshed through the muck, the brown puddles and the odd tufts of greenery. It was a road we were following, but a dirt road transformed at the end of the monsoon season. Our destination lay a couple hundred metres away.
Our guide had contacted local connections to confirm that the affair would indeed take place on this September night. It was to be held in a field behind the Tamshing Goemba in the tiny town of Jakar. The mewang (“fire blessing ceremony”), as it is called in the local Dzongkha language, is distinct to the Bumthang Valley in the Kingdom of Bhutan. Only three temples follow this practice, usually between late September and November. You cannot find a definitive schedule posted on the internet or a program advertised in advance on social media. The specific date for this ceremony fluctuates from year to year, as do most traditions in Bhutan. A local lama must interpret lunar signs and ascertain the right time for such a cleansing ritual. The day must be considered auspicious according to the cosmos, local signs and other religious indicators that shape the lama’s guidance.
When we arrived in the field, an arch made from the branches of cedar, cypress, pine and other local trees stood almost hidden in the gloom. It was just after 9:30 p.m. Two monks beat drums, creating a unified pulse that moved across the audience. Fellow monks joined in with a melody of horns, and a rhythm formed. The masked monks then started to dance. The enlarged features of their masks glowed under the light of the fire and, at certain angles, disappeared completely into the shadows. This cham (“dance”) is believed to rid the area of evil spirits, to purify the scene. Soon, the head monk touched his torch to the dangling branches of the arch. Their dry needles grabbed the flame and carried it higher.
At first, only a few audience members dared to step forward and tentatively run under the flaming arch. Participants believed that their sins would be cleansed as they passed under the blazing structure. This would earn them a second chance. Such acts of purification are common in Bhutan, where the predominant religion is Buddhism. The good that you do in this life is believed to affect what form your soul will be reborn with in the next life. After the first brave devotees dodged beneath the flames, the crowd galvanized. People ran. Friends watched. Couples huddled together. More people jumped into the activity. Others returned to the sidelines to watch. The rain was forgotten.
Throughout, people smiled, laughed and recorded the scene on their smartphones. I could not help but mentally compare the scene in front of me with how I imagined ancient pagan rituals unfolded. However, it also felt strangely comforting. At that moment, standing amid chanting monks and people participating in a purification ritual below a burning arch in a muddy field felt completely normal. The words to describe the spectacle may make it sound eerie and mysterious—darkness, fire, spirited believers, masked dancers and haunting music—yet the feeling was entirely different. It was like a Halloween party, a completely natural diversion for many North Americans between summer and winter, yet a strange sight for newcomers.
Just fifteen minutes before, the sky had been dark and people had been cloaked in obscurity, hiding beneath umbrellas. How the night had transformed. Specks of carrot-coloured ember flitted into the sky and formed a swirling crown above two pillars of fire. The flames glowed coral, orange, crimson and white. I felt a rush of heat, even though I was standing five people back.
My thoughts were interrupted when a camera shot upwards: click, image captured. I ducked left to get a better view, away from the phone that had popped up in front of me. Flames reflected in the wet smudges along people’s arms, which stretched up all around to record the excitement, not only by us few foreigners but by the young twenty-something-year-old Bhutanese who composed the majority of the crowd. This soggy field at the southern edge of town was certainly the place to be on this drizzly night.
The crowd developed a natural ebb and flow. Some left the close clutches to walk, then run beneath the burning arch. I imagined how it would feel. As the participants got closer, the heat would intensify; perhaps they intuitively dodged a cluster of ash as it broke free from a too-close-for-comfort cedar branch. As they passed the centre, the crowd would seem to disappear, replaced by a sense of otherworldliness. Darkness and light diverged like the heat of the flames against the cool night air. Another step and they were past the most precarious section. The fire obliterated their transgressions, however big or small, and their sins floated away, mingling with the smoke to drift across the valley. Did they feel cleansed, as if they were entering a rejuvenated reality? Certainly they would feel light and invigorated, if from nothing else than from the energy of the crowd. I watched people smile and laugh as they emerged from the darkness and out through the other side of the burning arch. It was contagious: after one person went through, more dashed around to do their own circuit.
The pyre spread up the branches. Bursts of white fire danced higher as smoke and steam puffed outwards from both sides. Another person ran underneath the burning arch. Arms waved, people shuffled, flames twisted and the branches shifted. Policemen and policewomen stood among the crowd. They smiled and enjoyed the performance, but they were also watching. As the fire progressed, the arch beams cracked, burned and bent. When the arch began to crumble, the officers gently raised their hands to stop the eager runners. The white-hot flames subsided into orange flickers, which then fell away. Embers spewed upwards in one last attempt to light the sky. Soon, smoke plumed around the fallen structure and the field darkened. The hopeful anticipation that people had brought with them turned to worthwhile satisfaction as they walked away.
Most attendees would soon return to the monastery, as would we. The fire ceremony was over, but it marked the beginning of another celebration. The next day was the start of the Tamshing Phala Choepa festival, held inside the nearby temple grounds. Its highlight was an array of chams performed by masked dancers, tossing their heads and spinning around an open courtyard.
...to be continued
For more about the masked dance festival and other rare festivals, watch for my next book due later in 2018.
Discover the best of twenty years of travelling with short stories grouped by travel interest. Dust in My Pack brings adventure stories and ancient sites alive.
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Explorer of all seven continents on a quest to find the essence of lesser-visited destinations.