Sunday, April 29, 2012

Ura Yakchoe: The annual grand festival of Ura

Wrestling with Change: The Story of Ura’s Festival: 

                                                           By Dr. Karma Phuntsho


This is a story of keeping the old and embracing the new. Ura’s Yakchoe festival is an example of Bhutan’s struggle to balance tradition and modernity.

The village of Ura is nestled in a valley in central Bhutan at roughly 3200m altitude, surrounded by forests of spruce, pine, larch, fir, juniper, bamboo and rhododendrons where wildlife such as tigers, leopards, bears, boars and red pandas roam. Its beautiful landscape, bestrewn with the farmhouses, watermills, temples, stupas and prayer flags, provides a wonderful balance between pristine nature and thriving traditional life. It is one of the largest clustered villages in Bhutan consisting of some sixty-three households and about three hundred residents.

Ura is named after Padmasambhava, the guru from the land of Ugyen (Oddiyana) who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century. He is said to have first passed through the village on his way to the court of Sindhuraja in Chagkhar. Since then, the village came to be called Urbay, the hidden land of Ugyen. People in neighbouring valleys still call Ura by this archaic name. It is however the second coming of Padmasambhava that the village remembers and celebrates through Yakchoe, the grand annual festival of Ura.

Padmasambhava and Yakchoe festival
An ancient account has it that the Ura community prayed to Padmasambhava to cure them of an epidemic leprosy. He answers their call by appearing as a mendicant at the house of an old lady, who was busily spinning wool on her terrace. The lady invites the mendicant to lunch, but he mysteriously disappears when she has finished making buckwheat pancakes. Thoroughly perplexed, she sits down to spin her wool only to discover to her astonishment a statue of the Buddhist deity Vajrapani sitting in her wool container.

There are two versions of the story about how the statue subsequently reached the house of the Gadan Lam, a descendant of Phajo Drugom Zhigpo. Some say it flew there after three nights in the old lady’s house, others give a more human story. ‘The statue was presented to the Gadan Lam through a village consensus,’ says Lam Thinley.

When the statue of Vajrapani reached Gadan, a nine-headed snake rose out of the place that is now known as ‘the nine-headed snake’ (puguyungdhogo) and slithered out of the valley. Leprosy, the disease spread by the serpents, was eventually overcome by the blessing of Vajrapani, the subjugator of the subterranean world. ‘The Yakchoe is a commemoration of this important event and an offering in gratitude,’ comments Tshewang Dargey.

Fascinating as it may be, this account of the festival’s origin does not explain the name Yakchoe. It may well be the case that the festival has an animistic Bon origin before it was turned into a Buddhist ceremony. Even today, an archaic ritual using the Bonpo liturgical text for fumigation is performed on the third day of the festival by one of the priest dressed as a Bonpo. The same liturgical text is used during the Yaklha, Ura’s festival in summer when cattle gods are invoked. Few village elders also recall the days when the Yakchoe festival was just a simple occasion for offering food and drinks to local spirits. Thus, the origin of Yakchoe is far from a straightforward one.

Today, the Yakchoe has become an elaborate affair. It formally begins on the 12th of the third Bhutanese month with a procession from Gadan to Ura. The Vajrapani relic and the Gadan Lam are received by Ura’s priests in a long procession which trails through open fields and meadows, over streams and brooks and past chortens and mani walls, all of which provide a magnificent backdrop to the event. In the last few years, hosts of tourists joined the procession often disrupting the file to get their best pictures.

Having arrived in Ura, the gomchens perform their dance tests and a religious ceremony dedicated to Vajrapani, which begins with the ritual of exorcism. This religious ritual continues for several days in early mornings and late evenings, while several dozens of masked, religious dances alternated by folk dances occupy most of the daytime. The festival ends on the fifth day with the distribution of blessings accumulated by the religious ceremony and the tour of the relic through the village before it is brought back to the old lady’s house, where it remains for three nights to mark its initial arrival in the village.

The currents of globalization

But, Ura’s local festival is no longer a local affair: most of its audiences is now from abroad. As the symphony of monastic music heralds the first mask dances from the temple roof top, crowds of shy villagers in their best clothes and eager tourists with cameras hanging down their necks fill the temple ground. Then, to the sound of cracking cymbals, the dark, wrinkled character of Gadan Gathpo emerges draped in a thick, long-sleeved Tibetan tunic, waving a large wooden phallus. He performs a bawdy dance interposed by Zen-like paradoxical chants.

When I descended from the summit of the white peak, a hundred people burnt incenses, but I saw not a single smoke.
When I descended from the summit of the white peak, a hundred damsels were waiting on me, but I had no company at night.

Each time he swings in rhythm to the erratic clashes of the cymbals, the crowd bursts into laughter. When he finishes his dance, he greets the audience, some of them in English. The Gadan Gathpo, the old man from Gadan, is a character combining the sacred and profane, wit and wisdom, humour and responsibility. His role spans from Gadan, where the procession on the first day begins, to the old lady’s house where the relic of which he is the guardian is temporarily stationed on the final day. He plays the host, the master of ceremony and the chief clown during the Yakchoe, responsible both for the entertaining the crowd and for the smooth running of the festival. Today, he, like rest of the village, has to shoulder an even greater responsibility of keeping in with tradition and keeping up with modernity.

‘I am also from the US,’ he tells an amused American woman. ‘George Bush is my brother but mine is bigger than his,’ he adds, wielding his phallus. Just then Atsara, the second clown jumps in saying: ‘No, no, he is Bin Ladin. This is his bomb.’ Their foreign audience erupts into laughter. Globalization, it seems, has even caught up with the pranks of Ura’s clowns.

Not long ago, a common saying in Ura went ‘Gyatsa is the end of sky (Gyatsa namai thama)’. Now, that Gyatsa is only two hours from Ura by car and most villagers have ventured out of their isolated valley to other parts of Bhutan and beyond. They talk about New York and Tokyo and a few members of Ura travel and work abroad. With the influx of tourists, the villagers also meet people from all over the world at their doorsteps. Consequently their world view has changed as have their dreams, values and ideals.

Ura had motor road since 1973 and electricity - from a local hydro-electric station installed by the Japanese - since 1986. The village has today a few shops, a handful of cars, trucks and tractors. Few households watch television captured through broad satellite dishes planted in their vegetable gardens. Telephone has finally reached Ura this year connecting it to the outside world. Despite being one of the highest and remote villages in Bhutan, Ura is changing and globalizing fast. Yet, Ura looks still more or less the same village as the one described in a 14th century Tibetan travelogue and in photos taken in the early twentieth century. The aura of the quaint “hidden land” still permeates the air.

The curse of consumerism and materialism

Globalization per se is less of a threat to Ura’s local culture and the smooth and sustainable management of the festival than the two other curses of our contemporary world: consumerism and materialism. In the past, Ura had a sizeable population which could easily organize the festivities for a small local audience. Beside, Uraps had a reputation for their dexterity and sense of communal solidarity. Neighbouring areas often looked up to Uraps as the cream of people (miyi nangneng uraiba).

Although Ura is primarily a farming community, the village has produced leading religious figures, statesmen, traders, artists and scholars throughout Bhutanese history. Ura’s success, many people believe, came from the blessings of a “hidden land” while some even ventured to credit it to the drinking water in Ura. It is more likely that the social structure and a sense of community, for which Ura is acclaimed, are the main factors contributing to Ura’s achievements as a society.

Today, however, Ura is running short of dexterous members. Most of its inhabitants are either aged parents or very young children, who attend the local school. Almost two thirds of Ura’s adult population now live in other parts of Bhutan or abroad, either studying or working. The introduction into Bhutan of white collar employment and a cash economy, and the subsequent consumerist lifestyle and outward migration has drained Ura of many of its capable citizens and of much needed human resources for the festival.

It is now left mainly to the elderly villagers to take up the various responsibilities of the festival. Men do the catering from a large kitchen, tend to guests and support the priest in running the shows, while women perform folk dances, or brew and serve the festival’s famous singchang drink. They observe every minute detail of the festival customs and routine with much dedication and humour creating a convivial atmosphere. Sadly, there are not many young people taking part in the old customs and fewer still committed to actually learning the old traditions. ‘When my generation ends, there will be very few who will know the procedures of the festival,’ laments Tshewang Dorji.

Bhutan’s changing economy also has a serious impact on the festival. Materialism has insidiously crept in, increasing people’s desires and shaking Ura’s long standing social cohesion. Personal economic opportunities are now being put before community projects and events. Some villagers even miss the festival in order to tend to their businesses, whilst others try to exploit the occasion to make money, setting up stalls for food, drink and gambling. All this exacerbates the shortage of manpower needed for the running of the festival.

With growing materialistic leanings, the interest in the festival is declining. This is apparent at choja, the public tea session in the afternoon. Butter tea is served with rice accompanied by tea-songs and a unique tea-sermon. Now, many people do not take part in this custom, being too distracted by activities at the vending stalls. ‘If we sit and form the rows, there aren’t enough people to serve tea. If we serve tea, there aren’t enough to form the rows,’ jokes Jamyang Nidup. Another event suffering from poor attendance is the changor churma in the evening when the village men gather to taste the day’s singchang and deliberate over the issues of the festival. There are far fewer men attending these sessions than in the past.

Modernization has also brought Ura a socially free and egalitarian attitude and, with it, a sense of self-importance and individualism. ‘We now lack the social sense of mutual understanding to respect the older and guide the younger. No one listens to any one any more,’ comments Tashi Dorji. Communal solidarity and the tradition of mutual social support, for which Ura was famous in the past, is ebbing away.

Yakchoe is one of over a dozen festivities and ceremonies in Ura’s calendar year, which are all fully funded through contributions from the village. Unfortunately, the village’s economy shows signs of decline, despite the numerous development efforts. Dairy farming, once a major enterprise in Ura, is now slackened as is the work in the fields. ‘There is no point cultivating any crop if the wild boars harvest it,’ complains Dorji. The farmers blame the Bhutan’s excessive environmental and land policies for the decline in both dairy and agricultural farming. Ura’s days of a subsistence economy and self-sufficiency are long gone. It now depends, as never before, on external remittance and imports from India and other districts.

Thus, with no funding and the soaring prices of basic materials, the festival is turning into an economic burden. Small donations from visitors temporarily ease the financial difficulties but the problem is far from being solved. Despite being a major attraction of the season, tourism has not really benefited the village. ‘It is the tour operators who make the profit from our free shows and hospitality’, says Tashi Dorji. At the festival management meeting this year, the villagers have resolved that starting from 2007 tour operators will be charged a fee for each foreign guest they bring. ‘We do not want to commercialize the festival but we need funds,’ they argue. ‘The money will be used to build a festival fund’. A significant festival endowment, the villagers think, is the most viable way to sustain the tradition.

What does the future hold?

The impact of global and national trends on Ura and its Yakchoe festival is palpable. Yet, Ura’s festival is not a lost cause and is at the moment thriving against all odds. The residents of Ura conduct the festival with a zest for celebration. The healthy population of enthusiastic gomchens perform the rituals and dances with the flair of a professional troop. The spirit of Yakchoe continues undiminished.

But, for how long will this go on? The onslaught of socio-economic changes including consumerism and tourism will no doubt put Ura’s social integrity to the test. Ura’s battle to be and become, to keep the old and adopt the new, to strike a fine balance between the ancient and modern, the local and global, the personal and communal is far from over.

One thing however is certain. In the years to come, Ura will desperately need vision, patience, solidarity, and the dexterity and dedication of today’s senior villagers. Only then can the village be sure that the Gadan Gathpo’s prayers at the end of the festival - that the festival ‘next year be grander than this year, the year after the next be grander than next year’ (daning wa namung jaiwa, namung wa di mung jai wa) – will really come true.

As the Ura yakchoe is near (4-6 may 2012) ,  I am posting this article written by a great Scholar  Karma Phuntsho, D. Phil.
Dr. Karma is from Ura, Bumthang and is currently working at University of Cambridge and he is also the Founding Director of The Loden Foundation

Comming of URA Yakchoe festival...

The Story of the Old Man of Gadan        By Dr. Karma Phuntsho.

I am not Grimaldi, or Charlie Chaplain or Mr Bean but I am a comical character in my own right. I have a dark wrinkled face and I wear a heavy long-sleeved Tibetan tunic tied with a silken sash at my waist. Around my neck is a short woollen mantle. My face, people say, evokes a sense of mystery, antiquity, mischief and conviviality, all at once. A wisp of white hair hangs on my forehead to remind you of my age and wisdom and I wield a large phallus on my right hand to prove my masculinity. Even the clapper of the chalang bell I carry is a tiny penis.

Despite the comical and senile appearance, I am the driving force in Ura’s annual Yakchoe festival. I am the host, the master of ceremonies, and the holy clown from the first day to the last. I am responsible both for entertaining the crowd and for the smooth running of the festival. For this, many people praise my character as a combination of the sacred and profane, wit and wisdom, humour and responsibility. The five days of Ura Yakchoe is a stressful and hectic time for me. I am fully alive then. For rest of the year I remain sequestered in meditation in the quiet sanctum of Gadan temple.

Each year, on the opening day of the festival, the priests of Ura come to my residence to invite my guru, Gadan Lam, and our holy relic. Long ago, they claim, the relic was presented to an old woman in their village by Guru Rinpoche and it brought them good health and prosperity. They wanted to keep it forever but the relic had other plans. It “flew” out of the village to Gadan. Ever since, they came each spring to take the relic back to their village to imbibe more blessings. I accompany my Lama and the relic to Ura, at the head of the procession, enjoying the reception they arrange for us year after year.

Some people ask me about my ancestry. All I know is I am from Gadan, a place above the village of Ura. My memory fails to recount the origin of my own being beyond that. There are no written or oral records of the dates, motives, purposes and significance of my persona. I may represent a human patron of the holy relic, with multifarious roles to play. My frock is archaic and very different from current Bhutanese dresses and it may indicate a costume people wore in the old days. The chalang I carry is a Bonpo ritual implement. So I may even have a Bonpo past.

There are a few other comedic characters in the region who resemble me in facial complexion and costume. They are also called Gathpo, the Old Men. The clowns who play with me during the Yakchoe festival and appear in other Bhutanese festivals are of a different category. The most senior of them, who works as my apprentice, has a red face with a red phallus hanging on his forehead. They are known as atsaras, from the Sanskrit word acarya, and I hear they have a dubious history of being parodies of wayward Indian monks who came to Tibet in search of gold. Thus they represent charlatanry, quite different from my type of honest characters. Now they grotesquely imitate the crazy wisdom saints of India who lived the care-free lives of enlightened experience.

Given my distinguished place and central role in Ura’s Yakchoe festival I strive to make the festival a success. I rise before daybreak to wake up the priests for their prayers and, at sunrise, lead the village on their breakfast rounds. When the public performance starts and crowds of shy villagers in their best clothes and eager tourists with cameras around their necks fill the temple ground, I emerge at the beat of clashing cymbals leading a file of atsaras to perform a bawdy dance. “Old Man! Tell us about your journey,” demands the main priest. I present a narration in an idiom and style befitting a paradoxical mystic.

When I descended from the summit of the White Peak, a hundred people offered incense but I saw not a single wisp of smoke.
When I descended from the summit of the White Peak, a hundred damsels waited on me, but I had no company at night.

Each time I swing my hips salaciously my audience explodes into laughter. I then mingle with the crowd to exchange greetings and crack jokes, but times have changed now. Today, I face the challenge of maintaining tradition while keeping pace with modernity. Many of my audience now come from distant lands, speak foreign languages, and have a strange sense of humour. It is becoming increasingly difficult to entertain them without learning a few modern tricks.

“I am also from the US,” I once told an amused American woman. “George Bush is my brother but mine is bigger than his.” I wielded my wooden phallus. The joke went down well and she laughed. When I asked her “How old are you?” she frowned. People are difficult to understand. Today, it is not just a mono-cultural performance I put on but a multi-cultural discourse I have to follow. The world converges for the festival and globalization has brought me new challenges. Even the perception and emotions of our own people have changed and the robust sense of humour is dying. With modern education they have become sophisticated and sensitive, complex and constricted. With their newly acquired sensitivities, some even take offence at my age-old pranks.

There are also social changes affecting the smooth running of the festival. With creeping materialism, people have no time to run or watch the festival at leisure, and rising individualism is eating away the tradition of communal solidarity. It is becoming increasingly difficult for buffoons like me to keep people interested in the festival. Vanities and new trends like game stalls are taking over our folks.

Yet, true to my character, I maintain my humour and happiness. I drink and dally all day long and play my part with professional flair. From opening chants to farewell songs, from morning prayers to eulogies to the phallus, from fondling women’s bosoms to pulling men’s legs, from the trifle to the most trying moments, I play my buffoonery as well as I could. At the end of the festival each year I earnestly pray that the festival, the village, the country, and the world will flourish until eternity.

But an old clown can only make a heartfelt wish. The future lies in the hands of the real players.

As the Ura yakchoe is near (4-6 may 2012) ,  I am posting this article written by a great Scholar  Karma Phuntsho, D. Phil.
Dr. Karma is from Ura, Bumthang and is currently working at University of Cambridge and he is also the Founding Director of The Loden Foundation

Thursday, April 19, 2012

My trip to Adha at Wangdue phodrang

memorable trek

Adha village

 Reptile species of the season

 Popular Adha lake

 White-bellied Heron looking for a fish at Adha lake

Text under way........

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A walk to conserve Tigers

Walk-shop: A walk for tiger conservation.
On 17th  April, 2012, a serene and peaceful valley of Tango-Cheri was filled with a diverse crowd from various organizations like monks from Tango and Cheri monasteries,  participants from all time donors for tiger conservation like WWF- Bhutan program and BTFEC, energetic conservationists from JDNP park, representatives  from various media agencies and other government agencies.   His Excellency Dr. Pema Gyamtsho, Hon’ble Minister of Agriculture and Forests led the Tiger walk organized by WWF-Bhutan in collaboration with the Department of Forests and Park Services. The WWF-Bhutan and the DoFPS organized the walk-shop, so called tiger walk by the participants in order to create an awareness on the importance of tiger conservation as Bhutan is considered as the celebrity for the tiger conservation among the tiger range countries.
The valley is the closest tiger destination from Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan and is considered to be the hub for tigers. So called ideal tiger habitat, Bja-kamji valley (Cheri and Tango river basin) echoed the murmuring sound of Tiger, Tiger, Tiger.....from every individual. To me, as a person working on this very specie and currently holding the responsibility of looking after Tiger Conservation, the word Tiger....Tiger...Tiger......sounded like a dharmic chant for tigers survival for eternity.
To most of the walkers on the day, the tiger pug marks (foot prints of carnivores) and the scratch marks on the tree trunks have been just a hear say, where as for the park officials and fellow conservationists, pug mark, scratch mark, scrape mark (scratch on the ground), scats (droppings) and calls are a daily chant and I call it as  a conservation chant which forms the pillar for the dharmic chant through conservation. Among the participants,  some are already at the optimum age of growth and  have never realized that tigers would be roaming freely in the forest of Tango and Cheri, but as the saying goes  “better late than never”, they got to see and believe from the tiger signs that tigers do really live in close proximity to the city. For some, it was a reminder of the legacy from the fore fathers and for others, they took it as a pride of having such a majestic species occupying the forest so close to Tango and Cheri monasteries.
Despite walking for about 2-3 hours on a slippery, rugged and narrow path that tigers and their prey uses,  none of the walkers complained of tiredness, rather wanted the walk to be longer to see more of tiger signs along the route. For me and my fellow park officials who are used to with such walks and signs couldn’t  believe that there are people who would love to see and feel  and conserve tigers as much as we do. It wasn’t a matter of concern, but a joy of relief, but reminded ourselves not to relax as we know that tigers are disappearing in other parts of the world through poaching and illegal trade and tigers in Bhutan are not exempted from this. The day reminded me that if all Bhutanese unite for the cause of saving tigers, our unity will definitely save our tigers in Bhutan.
 Let’s term our common effort as “conserving this endangered tigers for our next generation”.
Let our babies now  and their babies in future get to see the majestic king of jungle (TIGER) roaming freely in Bhutan