Zangtopelri Tsechu 2015
For all Khandromas
…Bells are ringing its way unreal, I’m trying to tell y’all just how it feels, and it’s bigger than a drive in movie for real…”
Zangtopelri is an extravagant privately owned temple perched on a hillock overlooking the confluence of two valleys and two rivers. Every October they put on their own three day festival which is every bit as extraordinary as Shakshing which is our local Tsechu. So we are fortunate to get another round of holiday although the students remained on campus with regular study hours. On the first day I opted out since only a hundred or so gathered and I peddled up the chain of green mountains to Brongla. I couldn’t sleep so I rolled out of the hut while the stars were still twinkling and hanging low below the silhouetted hump of Shampula and one at a time they faded until only the burning morning star rose higher and higher and then disappeared. The sunrise viewed from a Chorten scorched the dragon’s tail and Tshongtshongma. It took me six more hours to lumber to the sublime golden pastures of Brong La. From that vantage point one can peer clear over the top of Shampula spotting snowcapped Tawang peaks. Following the overgrown pastures with decaying bamboo herder huts and thigh high brittle grasses the view opens like an accordion westward beyond Yangtse. On my daylong trek I never saw another human only the melancholy birds in the deep and twisted jungle on the sheer face of Brong La peak. Those oaks rise hundreds of feet sprouting from a near vertical slope. Their serpentine branches keep leaves now sprinkled in autumn gold and red. The canopy intersperses and one feels like a hovercraft or a diver on the continental shelf. It’s a WILD place with no trail. Atop the pastures a few pruned hemlocks look like a bonsai wet dream. I breezed through the Tsechu late that first afternoon but the real action lay ahead.
Tsechu is an opportunity to worship and celebrate life with ones community and so that’s exactly what I chose to do on a Thursday and Friday in East Bhutan. I hiked up the hill with Nima and Pema meeting many familiar and unfamiliar faces along the way. Smiles were in abundance and the sun spread its loving rays over everything. Before reaching the Lhakhang we hit Shakedown Street an array of tarp bivouacs selling beer, momo’s, clothes, and toys and down in the pasture a makeshift casino with roulette and darts was in full swing. At the Lhakhang we did a kora which means circumambulating around the three tiered pagoda called Zangtopelri. The name Zangttopelri means Guru Rinpoche’s copper mountain of paradise and it’s an archetype meaning there are numerous Zangtopelri’s across the country but this cute little gem is ours. Perhaps the guts of the event were ingeniously orchestrated by caretaker Rinchen Wangmo who kept the train running on the tracks and batted an eyelash while serving me tea and crispy rice in the VIP tent. The myriad of colors and cornucopia of religious artifacts and sacred regalia all swirl in a phantasmagorical display of revelry that sizzles on the tongue. It’s easy to get swept away in the festivities and infinite interactions happening constantly at this gathering. I spent the Thursday roaming here and there with Nima spending some quality time with my former student (although former students are still my students) since he will be moving on soon. Pema was marooned in his uncle’s canteen making momo’s all day. Girls are nuts about snapping photos and the boys like it too so I take them and promise to “wash” them later. It’s a real treat for them since most families don’t have cameras. Everyone is decked out in their finest handspun gho and kira except the kids who are wearing their penguin school issue uniforms. I’m wearing my gho that Pema has put on and many others have adjusted as I proceeded up the trail. There’s a shakedown street (makeshift bazaar) selling all manner of clothes and snacks including warm coca cola and peculiar clouds hover over the peaks and ridges in all directions, the party rages. Many of the students see the Tsechu as an opportunity to socialize, flirt, and shop while others do watch the Cham’s intently like Dechen Wangmo with a scowl to match Bobby’s. I love the Cham and as Mare likened Tsechu to a Bhutanese Ratdog show for me specifically the Cham’s where I’m riding the invisible rail doing dervishes in my own mind matching each step and bounding pirouettes. Leap, spin, and twirl you name it! Pairs of Bare feet kicking up clouds of dust, the men’s flexing bronze sinewy calves move in unified precision (like a Swiss watch) Thursday featured the Bardo Cham which is a juicy interpretation of our common situation immediately following death. We will end up in this Bardo or in between realm where our fate will be judged and decided. A Mormon might shit his pants when he sees the monstrous lord of death boogieman instead of a white bearded old man at the throne. It takes some getting used to let me affirm. The deceased kneels down while ghosts wail around him and if he’s lucky some dakini’s might swoop down and guide him. His good and bad deeds are weighed and the Lord of Death is joined by an angelic figure in gorgeous porcelain mask. Bhutan might be a developing country but I’ve never seen such a regal display of silky rainbow goodness anywhere on earth. The Bardo Cham goes on for about four hours punctuated by circle dervishes with gold skirted dancers whirling coming together then flying apart. Each dancer, about fourteen in all, wear stunning animal masks depicting the years, Tiger, Ox, owl, horse, and so on…not in that order. The music a cacophony of twenty foot long bleating horns, crashing cymbals and nifty hand drums that resemble ping pong paddles played by the dancers themselves. All the bells and whistles are played by red robed monks. A drunkard in a disheveled orange shall insert’s himself into the dance and is dragged off by a VIP guest to the amusement of the crowd. I’ve witnessed the Bardo Cham several times in two locations but I still can’t make out the resolution although I think it’s a happy ending and the departed is ushered off to a higher realm another step towards ultimate exulted enlightenment. That was a good day in Bhutan for me and in any excellent run there often is a standout where you’re rolling the most-and why not a Circus style Thursday and oh what a long strange trip this big top has endured. Born in the pastures of Humboldt and delivered to the pastures of East Bhutan. I had wonderful encounters with students and villagers and even tolerated the heckling of the Atsara’s (holy jesters) who make dirty jokes and solicit donations. One wore a huge red dong on his crown pinched with a condom. This clown harangues and harasses even class nine girls, embarrassing for everyone. They play an integral role though which might have something to do with the whole crazy wisdom bit. In the tantric lineage these lamas were all about drinking and balling their way across the Himalaya spreading the good word of Buddha. Ho! Things might have toned down a bit but the great ones are still revered by the farmer and poet alike.
Friday was another sparkling morning and I arrived at the temple early to see the unveiling of the giant Tanka banner which is a magnificent boon for all present. The tapestry is three stories high depicting Zangtopelri itself and its three tiered pagoda. And there’s a smirking Guru with his two fetching consorts embroidered at his sides. There’s also the whole world stitched in with naked farmers being subdued by wrathful deities. Musicians and holy men and all the beasts along with forests, mountains, and lakes. Unbelievable craftsmanship blowing any art out of the water this sucker is alive and crawling with energy depicting the simple story of the world and all its realms. The colors of the rainbow dancing off the cloth while the red hats chant A.M incantations. Some student dancers assist in the ceremony including Broomsha. Not much happened between the morning ritual and afternoon Guru Cham. Nothing like a Guru Cham at his own palace, eh? When I came back from lunch the dance was in progress and the precession already lined up with the Guru and his retinue all represented by extravagant masks that are transfigured into characters. The Guru his priests, a wrathful manifestation with fangs and skull necklace, and of course Yeshi and Mandarava his faithful consorts flanking. The dancers are wearing the silks like the Black Hatters but animal masks remain instead of the huge geometric black hats with dark side prisms painted on and topped by antennas. The animal masks are amazing and a few other blue and red deities join the round robin of beasts. Today they wear serpent boots to complete the regalia holding bells and streaming silken scarves. Everything has meaning but one misses more than he sees at this show. The weather has responded to the whirling performers and the crowd has thinned out, the students sent back for study, only diehards and stragglers remain. An ominous soaring black cloud extinguishes the sun and a fierce wind kicks up out of nowhere. It’s time for the parade to return to that realm where we cannot follow and disappear behind that velvet red curtain. In a procession of horns the masked characters move together a constellation of transitory form an ancient tale passed along each generation. The Guru departed a thousand years ago but he lives on and it’s real. That mask is charged with holiness and the Guru is there among us as we carry him through the crowd, the features of the mask come to life and his smile broadens and bloodshot dilated pupils track us wherever we move. The class ten students (now holy men and women) draped in gold scarves and matching sashes sing a mellifluous melody waving their arms in rhythmic unction while the horns bleat and cymbals break all forms crackling in the void. They bunch together, duck and pass through the portal leaving the last troop of gold skirt dancers and us behind. The wind is roaring now and the sound seems to surf on mighty gusts and one by one the dancers peel off for their final gyrations. Until only one remains in green top and flowing gold skirt prancing around before coming home leaping four times his feet vibrating the earth tickling the soles of my feet. He bows to life spreading his arms wide and tipping beast mask upward then slips through the portal his headgear supported by two pairs of hands of the unseen handlers. Its over! For me anyway as I retire to the canteen with Karlos while the students do a number to close out the ceremonies. Wind rattles the shack where I join a splinter of my community for refreshments.
“…Every time that wheel turn round, bound to cover just a little more ground…”
I tripped down the mountain for some shopping in Doksom along with a pilgrimage to Gom Kora and my favorite spot on my favorite river. Doksom is a strange outpost jammed with Hindi themed Ta Ta trucks and row of shanty shops with tin roofs weighted down with stones and tires. A few of these roofs are covered with drying red chillies. There’s a decent canteen serving beef curry with a Nepali flare although the lady cook says its Indian infused. I love the walk from town to the Kora although I loved it more when the road was cute and not a dusty track marred by construction. They have been widening the road from Chazam for nearly two years now curtailing my trips to Trashigang with roadblocks. All in favor of the Kulong Chu Hydro project that is significantly impacting the Trashiyangtse area. Alas a heavenly image appears on this dusty afternoon a swarthy angel in a do-rag and hundred watt grin comes sweeping by with Cinderella broom fastened from long reeds a Himalayan delight-hotty Indian road sweeper. I didn’t see another human until I reached the oasis of Gom Kora. I detoured through blooming aromatic weeds, sand gullies, finally scampering over giant boulders to the rocky bank of the Dangme Chu. Set in a deep canyon with blood stained rocks and sea green water this is a stark landscape the lowlands closed off by steep hills within a sinuous V shaped canyon. There are always many days between my landing on these rocks and I appreciate getting back to this spot enveloped by roaring whitewater, the zillion water voices in a ceaseless raging chorus. Gom Kora itself is an oasis with scraggly palm, flowers, and great bodhi tree with flapping leaves. This magnificent pagoda inlayed with painted slates is adjacent to a huge black rock where the Guru meditated and encountered a temptress in the form of a ravenous serpent who wanted to devour his family Jewells. After several rounds of wrangling the demoness was subdued.
Central Marking has begun and I’ve had a mundane week at the desk in a room full of boisterous Bhutanese picking through piles of examination papers. I managed to get out on Monday evening for a rare moonrise over Tawang seen from the newly cleaned trail to Shakshing which is already scattered with wrappers. The valley and ranges bathed in moonlight is a wordless phenomenon which almost dispelled my loneliness and softened my hard edges. After a good ski run, tasty jam, or good lay one feels softer in the middle, less solid, more doughnut like. This lighthearted non attachment is more characteristic of Bhutanese who are more like doughnuts to my Danish. Some are becoming jelly filled though as the western styled sensory delights enfold their enclaves and tiny black and white farmhouses dotting the cliffs above waterfalls and hollows. Now T.V lights flicker along with the stars.
Most Bhutanese are kindly exemplified by the middle aged Shali-Pa who told me in broken English that she’d bring me walnuts the next day at Tshechu and did so to my surprise. They were delicious too even though I sliced my thumb on a shell. I should beware of nuts since I’ve chipped a tooth and sliced a thumb on shells this year. Weather Report is cool and clear with a layer of cirrus clouds, still wide and good visibility an infinite panorama of mountains with exquisite formations spreading in broken spokes from the radial of my stoop.
On a sad note Dawa Dema has a broken paw and is hopping around on three legs. She looks scruffy and emaciated and I’m feeding her any available scraps and even gave her some beef jerky from the U.S.A. She’ll pull through but it’s a trying time for a young dog.