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some background before we begin: bhutan is divided into 20 administrative districts, called dzongkhags. the administrative center of the dzongkhag is the fortress-like dzong, which contains both government offices and a monastery/temple. to the right is a photo of the dzong in punakha, which is one of the sites where the king celebrated his wedding over this past october 13-15.

in october, monasteries and dzongs across bhutan celebrate tshechu, or “tenth day festival”, to commemorate the birth of guru rinpoche (see previous post). tshechu consists of various dances that retell bhutanese and buddhist myths. the dancers wear costumes to represent guru rinpoche, or various masks to represent death and spirits from the afterlife. it is said that when someone dies, he spends 49 days in limbo during which he meets the animal spirits who will help guide him toward his next life, into which he is born in either a better or worse condition. the bhutanese wear the masks in the dance “so that people will recognize the spirits when they die,” as our guide explained it.

at times, the dancing was fairly athletic –

– and the costumes were magnificent, but tshechu music can be repetitive. the musicians played horns and drums and stringed instruments, and some of it was lovely. however, each dance included a section in which a percussionist began banging cymbals that sound like pot lids, or someone else played a series of blasts on what sounded like a foghorn –

waaaa … waaaa … waaaa …
waaaaaaaaaaaa …

waaaa …

waaaa …

waaaa …
waaaaaaaaaaaa …

– again and again for about 10 minutes at a time, during which the dancers simply twirled and dipped in slow motion. this was when all of us started photographing people in the audience:

finally, i have to mention the clowns. there were six guys in grotesque masks running around with wooden penises in their hands, putting them into the faces of the singers who came in between numbers. the clowns actually were dance coaches: when they saw a singer making the wrong moves in the choreography, one of them would come in and show him or her the correct moves. when they weren’t doing that, however, they were putting wooden penises into the singers’ faces. indian temples are full of lingams – the stylized genitalia of the god shiva – but the bhutanese are much more graphic with their fertility symbols. in fact, it’s not unusual to see a penis in full eruption painted on someone’s house.

next: gross national happiness is a warm gun

tiger’s nest

the tiger’s nest (paro taktsang) is an iconic monastery in bhutan. guru rinpoche introduced buddhism to bhutan in the 8th century. according to legend, a tigress carried guru rinpoche on her back up to the peak of a mountain, where he meditated in a cave for three months. monks subsequently founded the monastery around the site of the cave in 1692. it underwent expansion and renovation over the years, and now contains a variety of beautifully-decorated sanctuaries that are, of course, off limits to photography. (as a photographer, it is sometimes difficult to remember that things are worth looking at even if i can’t shoot them, but i made the effort here.)

the monastery is in a ridiculously remote site 900 meters above the valley floor.  it took us about four hours (with many stops for photographs and gasps of air) to reach the entrance. however, this gave us multiple opportunities to photograph amazing scenery that included strings of prayer flags. prayer flags are pretty common around bhutan; they are banners inscribed with copies of buddhist mantras that people hang to spread blessings on the wind to the surrounding area. sometimes they are hung gracefully, and sometimes strings of them are hung together so heavily that they look like laundry on the line. some are hung for good fortune; others are hung as prayers for the deceased; and others make nice frames for portraits.

i have more prayer flag photos, but for some reason blogger.com keeps hanging my computer up when i try to upload them … 

next (hopefully): dancing animal spirits

monks, monks, monks (part 2)

one day, we came upon a housing-blessing ceremony, called a lakh, which is the indian word for 100,000, because the monks recite their blessing 100,000 times. they were fine with our being in there, so eleven of us spent approximately 40 minutes in these cramped rooms, shooting away happily. apparently, we’re not supposed to reproduce the text on the scrolls, so if you’re looking at these photos, you should probably watch out for falling pianos or dengue-bearing mosquitos.

monks, monks, monks (part 1)

bhutan is a buddhist country, and the culture is inextricably linked with the religion. there are monks everywhere; many boys are educated in monasteries; even the district government offices are located in monasteries.  going in, it is tempting to imagine that the monks are saintly …

… aloof …

… and mysterious …

… but the truth is that a lot of them are just kids.


next: monks, monks, monks (part 2).

bhutan – scenery

i’ve just returned from a 10-day trip in bhutan with a group of photographers. the basic stats on bhutan: a population of just under 700,000 people in an area of 18,146 square miles, sandwiched between india and china at elevations of up to 23,000 feet above sea level. the geography and its architecture may remind one of switzerland or austria:


(note the chilies drying on the roof: the national dish is ema datsi, sliced chilies in a cheese sauce. you will find chilies drying on almost every roof.)

the views of the himalayas are pretty impressive.  these photos were taken from a hill covered with 109 stupas, or chortens, built to commemorate a victory over rebels in 2004.


the foothills, with the fog winding its way through the trees in the early morning and the sun shooting over the tops in the late afternoon, make for good photography, too, especially in b&w:


finally, the view was particularly thrilling when we were driving along the narrow winding road along the side of the mountain. we were up somewhere around 9,000-10,000 feet and there were many sections of the road – full of hairpin curves, and too narrow in parts for two cars to pass one another – where the edge had been swept away by landslides caused by the previous month’s earthquake. along these sections, the movement of earth had left only a foot or so of crumbly surface between us and a straight drop downward; meanwhile, the occasional boulder at the side of the road suggested that the situation on the hillsides above us might not have been all that stable either.  nature has a way of reminding you of your own smallness at the most inopportune times.


next: monks, monks, monks.