Standing by the doorway I watch the individual deities performing their final pirouettes for the crowd, who warmly applaud each balletic finale. As the dancers pass by me, they are displaying the more human traits of tiredness and exhaustion, a result of performing in a heavily masked costume under a warm sun for nearly an hour. This is the end of the Dance of the Terrifying Deities at the Paro Festival, one of the most important cultural celebrations in Bhutan, the Land of the Dragon, in the Eastern Himalayas.
Bhutan is bordered to the North and East by China and to the South and West by India. I flew to Paro from Kathmandu with the National Airline Druk Air, over some of the world’s highest peaks including Mount Everest. This flight gives you a teasing introduction to the hiking opportunities in Bhutan on its wonderfully named treks: the Druk Path trek; the Bumthang Culture Trek and the strenuous Snowman Trek, a 221-mile, 3 week journey along some of the remotest and highest valleys of the northern areas of the country, parts of which can be cut off from the rest of the world for six months of the year.
However, like me, most travelers from abroad choose to attend instead one of the fascinating Tsechu festivals as part of their visit. These Tsechus are Buddhist religious festivals where masked dances performed by trained monks depict events from the life of an eighth century Buddhist teacher and provide Bhutanese from far and wide with a wonderful reason to dress up, gather together and enjoy a cultural experience in a light-hearted atmosphere.
It is also an occasion to renew their faith and to receive the blessing of a lama or Buddhist monk. This mixture of humor and faith is also reflected in the presence of atsaras in the dances. These clowns, who mingle on the periphery of the performance, sport fiendish masks, make lewd gestures, crack salacious jokes, and are entitled to mock both spiritual and temporal subjects, so bringing a lighter side to otherwise serious matters.
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.