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Exploring Bhutan’s Cultural Side: When dance steps beyond movement

By Petra Loho 3 February 2020

Travel through Bhutan at any time and you’ll be rewarded with fascinating sights of the Himalayas, phalluses painted on homes and businesses, and a famous Buddhist monastery, the Tiger’s Nest, sitting high up on a cliffside. Cultural connoisseurs, however, know how to make the most of their journey and explore the landlocked South Asian kingdom when tshechus are on. Attending one of these religious dance festivals ropes you straight into the rich traditions of the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

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Whirling feet and body to the sound of drums and singing, the performers take on the roles of both enraged and kindhearted deities, demons, and animals. While different, the Bhutanese dances, called chams, are as flamboyant and riveting as their Western and Latino ballroom counterparts. For five days, Buddhist monks wear colourful costumes and masks when performing the centuries-old mystical routines.

The masks are typically made of hardwood and painted mostly red with traces of yellow, blue, white, and black. The Mahakala mask, for example, features five skulls, a third eye symbolising awareness and wisdom, and an open mouth with teeth carved out. The masked dancers mostly look through the nostrils of the large, upwardly curved nose.

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One of the sacred chams without a mask is the Black Hat dance. It chronicles the tale of the assassination of King Langdarma in the year 842 AD by a monk who hid his bow and arrows in the voluminous sleeves of his garment. The dancers are dressed in long silk robes, which are tied around the hip and whirl elegantly when the performers present spinning moves. The gowns are made of different colours of silk brocade and covered by a dark apron with a wrathful face on it.

Since the 17th century, these vibrant dance spectacles occur every year. In 2020, the largest of it all, the Paro Tshechu, takes place from 4–8 April. Get your dance card out and your move on! No matter if you’re a regular traveller or a cultural explorer, Bhutan is requesting to have the pleasure of the next dance.

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Petra Loho

Contributor

Petra Loho is a freelance journalist and photographer. She specialises in covering travel, art, and architecture and design for magazines and digital media. Petra loves exploring Asia and captures her cultural experiences across the globe, both in writing and with her camera.

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