Musicians accompany every performance and play a variety of instruments from drums to high-pitched flutes. The most atmospheric is the deeply resonating yak-horn that lends an immense sense of importance and solemnity to the dances, which have evocative names, such as the Dance of the Lord of death and his consort; the Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds and The Dance of the Four Stags.
My personal favourite was the Dance of the Terrifying Deities. In this dance, each dancer’s mask is primarily of one colour, with the eyebrows high-lighted in another. The teeth are bared in an evil grimace. Every mask has five small horns, each with a skull at the base of it and each with a piece of differently coloured ribbon attached to it, which lends a sweep of drama to head movements. As a costume, the dancers wear a light coloured cape over a highly coloured brocade dress, which has flowing sleeves that mimic the pattern of the dress, as do the pants that are worn underneath. A pair of beige coloured boots completes the outfit and each participant carries a ceremonial dagger.
Tourists to the festival are provided with a program describing in English the schedule for the 5 days of dances and also a description of their religious significance and meaning. The local people are incredibly accommodating, waiting patiently while I take pictures of them in their national dress and very politely ushering me forward to get close-ups of some of the action. An outdoor market takes place at the same time as the Tsechu in the monastery grounds, where you can buy local souvenirs or foodstuffs and indulge in some rather dated gambling games which are officially frowned upon but nevertheless tolerated
on such occasions as these.
At Paro Tsechu, a large and beautifully appliquéd ‘Thanka’ scroll, known in Bhutanese as a “Tongdrol”, is gradually unfurled from the roof of a four storey building before dawn on the final day. This Thankha measuring 90 feet by 70 feet, embroidered in silk, is more than 300 years old. The devout line up to touch it and receive merit before it is rolled up again before the first rays of the sun hit it. Bhutan only allows a few thousand visitors per year into the country and this ensures that like the Tongdrol, its essential character isn’t faded by outside influences.