Jambay Lhakhang is a Centuries-0ld Autumn Dance Festival
By Nancy Cooper Frank
The fairytale princesses wore demure masks, slender red gowns and track shoes. To a slow drumbeat over droning horns, they twirled and swayed on the grassy dance ground.
All the while, they lavished mysterious half-smiles on the spectators sitting on the grass or perching between prayer flags on the six-foot-high rough stone wall that enclosed the temple grounds. Behind the wall hung a seamless backdrop of green mountains and blue sky.
I was at the autumn dance festival at the Jambey Lhakhang Temple in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. As the drums pounded, the world beyond the circle of dancers and spectators faded into unreality.
There were only about two thousand people there — mostly farming families from the Bumthang Valley and other pockets of central Bhutan, joined by perhaps a hundred foreign visitors. But in a sparsely populated and sparsely-paved mountain land, it was an impressive crowd.
Men with Toddlers
In the front row, a woman breastfed her baby; men carried toddlers on their shoulders; three little boys in wine-red monk’s robes felled each other with cap guns; a teenager slouched around in baggy jeans under the traditional knee-length male garment.
Old men and women with deeply wrinkled faces bent over their handheld prayer wheels. A ten-year-old girl in a bright red woolen jacket and Bhutanese striped dress plied me with orange before quizzing me about my fantastically faraway home and family.
Players Rolled the Dice
People squeezed into and out of a narrow side opening in the stone wall. Shouldering my way through this opening, I came upon a makeshift row of fair booths. Here, women sold candies, toys and children’s masks, and collected cash from men placing bets.
Players rolled dice to determine how far on the paper track their Matchbox cars could advance. There was a scrap-lumber roulette wheel, marked with handwritten numbers from one to eight. Young men took turns shooting arrows at a target.
These were blessedly simple, win/lose storylines compared to the sometimes bewildering narratives played out on the dance ground where performers enacted everything from bawdy folk tales to multi-layered allegories of Buddhist doctrine.
Rag Tag Buffoons
The princesses cavorted with rag-tag buffoons until their royal fiancés returned from a journey and ordered the princesses’ noses cut off. (Were the track shoes a tip-off that they were “fast women,” I caught myself wondering.) Then, the princesses were forgiven and their noses magically restored.
A character in a furrowed, bug-eyed mask pranced up to a woman in the audience and waved a wooden stick over her head. It was a realistically rendered penis of a somewhat unrealistic size that spread giggles and guffaws, but also boosted female fertility wherever its owner turned.
The Workings of Dharma
I had no idea what the dances and stories meant, but, I was told that solemn or slapstick, the dances of the Jambey Lhakhang festival represent the workings of Dharma — cosmic order. Kinley, the Bhutanese guide, gave me the main outlines but shrugged off the finer points. Andrea, a German scholar of religion and folklore attending the festival, plunged deeper into the symbolism than I could follow.
The dances continued. Twelve fierce creatures shook their horns and tusks, kicking and swirling their yellow silk garments, beating drums with curved sticks. According to Andrea and Kinley, these were twelve disciples of the eighth-century holy man Guru Rimpoche, as they once appeared to a monk in a vision. The men-god-beasts personify the triumph of Buddhism, its assimilation of the old forest deities.
A hush spread through the crowd as the drums thundered on. For once, I stopped pestering my ‘teachers’ and let my thoughts fall silent too.
Even this outsider who had trouble spelling “Dharma” could understand the worldly delight and the other-worldly awe in the faces of the audience.
Where to See Jambey Lhakhang
The Jambey Lhakhang Festival is one the most spectacular of the many monastery and temple festivals held throughout Bhutan on various dates in the spring and fall. All festival dates in Bhutan are subject to change.
Getting to Bhutan
Druk Air (Royal Bhutanese Airlines) is the only airline serving Bhutan, with flights from Bangkok, Delhi, Calcutta and Kathmandu to Paro. A round-trip flight from Bangkok to Paro is approximately $700.
Traveling Around Bhutan
The total cost for a Bhutan Visa for Americans and Europeans is USD 250 per day during peak tourist season (March-May and September – November), and USD 200 a day for the low season (December – February, and June – August). This fee is inclusive of accommodation, transportation, meals, plenty of bottled water, and special entry fees.
The tourists need to obtain a visa clearance before the Bhutan trip. Visas are processed through an online system by the licensed Bhutanese tour operators directly. Non-group travelers: add $40 per day for a person traveling alone, $30 a person for two people.
These charges are included in the prices charged by tour operators, which generally vary from just over $200 per day, land cost, to $300 and up.
For a list of Bhutan’s festivals and dates