Saturday, 16 March 2013

School has begun...

So school has begun, with perhaps more of a whimper than a bang. A long slow fortnight in which classes may have started, or may have not. A fortnight in which the students prepared items for His Majesty’s birthday celebrations whilst teachers potted around in the staffroom, sometimes planning, sometimes not. A fortnight in which I was happy to drift along with the laidback atmosphere of things, despite  my plans of coordinating a Himalayan DzongkaPop version of a Michael Jackson medley replete with traditional circle dancing and liturgical-style banner waving in honour of His Majesty’s birthday being shunted to the sidelines. (I don’t know how this happened, it must have been something in the way I pitched it).

Class VII kids dancing up a storm.
His Majesty’s birthday celebrations went ahead and they were beautiful. Students shimmied and twisted and ducked and demurred to a series of glorious folk and more contemporary rigsar tunes. Senior students crowded into the staffroom where, along with the teachers, they recited prayers for His Majesty’s long life and for the upliftment of all sentient beings. Lilting syllables of Dzongka text filled the room with a harmony and sincerity that was both humbling and uplifting. Pineapples and paw-paws were offered, butter lamps were lit. I sang a ukulele tune with a little crowd participation which took things down a notch but helped to pad out the program for our visiting dignitaries. We finished the celebrations with all the teachers and senior students (including Lula and I) joining in for the final traditional circle dance in honour of His Majesty’s supreme dedication to all of his subjects and the upliftment of all sentient being everywhere. 

The audience
We missed a day of staffroom potting the week after, stranded as we were in beautiful Punakha, the neighbouring valley to the east, where we had travelled trying to catch a glimpse of the fabled Punakha Domchoe – a religious festival held in the jaw-droppingly beautiful Punakha Dzong. As part of the festival, fully costumed soldiers re-enact a 17th Century battle scene in which Tibetan soldiers attempt to invade the dzong in an effort to recapture one of Bhutan’s most treasured artifacts the Rangjung Kharsapani – a self-created image of the Chenresig, Boddhisattva of compassion. Brought to Bhutan from Tibet by the religious and political leader Zhabdrung Rinpoche - ‘precious jewel at whose feet one prostrates’ – who is also known as the founder of unified Bhutan – the Rangjung was saved from the marauding Tibetans by a dastardly act of cunning in which the Zhabdrung, in full view of the invaders, pretended to throw the precious relic into the waters of the Mo Chhu river, after which the disappointed Tibetan’s withdrew, leaving Bhutan in possession of this sacred piece of  self-creating wonderment.

Punakha Dzong
Staying with our truly excellent BCF buddy, Sarah who is teaching English at Punakha High School, we all dutifully trekked down to the dzong on Sunday and Monday mornings but were disappointed to find that most of the perfomances seemd to be either finished or in perpetual rehearsal. We experienced great difficulty in gleaning any reliable information from anybody about when any of the festival events were actually due to take place and spent most of the days hanging around the courtyards and drinking tea in the local tea house (oh the pain…) 

Monk Watching

Inside the dzong
Festival Participant in a Traditional Guard's Outfit
Despite these (oh so unbearable) frustrations, I was unexpectedly charmed and delighted when – after watching me tying myself in knots and at risk of toppling down the vertiginous front steps – the monastery security guards intervened to help me put on my kabney – a ceremonial scarf  that needs to be worn when visiting dzongs . Like so many times in Bhutan, it was the people more than the tourist attractions which made the experience memorable. Two local engineering students who’d come to see the festivities struck up conversation with me when Lucy and Sarah were off taking pictures after admiring the fact that we were both wearing gho and kira.  When they found out that Lucy and I were a couple, one of them grabbed my arm and in a beautifully earnest and completely unselfconscious way exclaimed: “She’s absolutely gorgeous!” to which, of course, I heartily agreed.
Lucy and Shmitty

And on the way home...snow! So much that we had to spend an extra night in Punakha before braving the cold at Dorchu La, the pass separating the Thimphu and Punakha valleys. The pass is also the site of 108 chortens built by the government in 2004 to atone for the deaths of three Assamese separatists who were killed by Bhutanese military during an operation to flush the separatists out of the jungles of southern Bhutan. 

We have very different reactions to cold...