Dance of the Masks in Bhutan - The Stars of Bhutanese Festivals

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Dance of the Masks in Bhutan - The Stars of Bhutanese Festivals

With swirling, bright yellow skirts, wild gyrations and lurid, grotesque masks, the barefoot dancers prance and leap onto the field in front of the monastery.

We’re in Phobjikha at 10,000 feet, the highest we’ve been yet in the Himalayas in Bhutan.

We’re here to see the rare and elegant black-necked cranes.

Every year at this time they swoop down from Tibet and wait on the north side of the snow-covered mountains to catch a rising thermal and a southerly wind. Then if the weather is right, the winds favourable, they soar higher than any human could go without oxygen. Sometimes they might make it on the first attempt, usually they don’t.

It’s perilous, chancy and absolutely incredible.

Then they settle on the wetlands in the middle of the valley to breed, safely sheltered from the harsh winter elements by the same mountains that imperiled them on their journey south.


To witness this miracle of nature, we have suffered through a perilous journey ourselves – four hours of bone-jarring, gut-wrenching mountain roads. Describing this as a road would be too kind, most of it is a single-lane track that follows a river initially, then hugs the side of the mountains as it climbs higher and higher until I’m expecting an oxygen mask to drop from the ceiling of the car.

We dodge rockslides, wade through deep, water-filled potholes, and peer anxiously over the steep cliff side as massive trucks filled with gravel and stone bear down upon us. They force us to the very edge of the roadway, squeeze by inches away from our car then rumble on down the road.

We snake our way up and up and at one point stop to take pictures of a rock slide.

As I guard Carolann’s washroom break, I hear a bird call and answer it. More calls follow and then suddenly the branches in a large tree start to sway and a large troupe of golden “monkey” erupts from the forest and swings away to safety. They turn out to be Assamese Macaques. I had no idea “monkeys” existed in the Himalayas.

We continue winding our way up until we crest at a pass and begin the downward descent. We drive by a herd of large, shaggy Yaks. These are domesticated, but roam freely all over the mountainside. The locals use their milk for cheese, butter and the Bhutanese favourite drink, butter tea, which I detest because of its salty, rancid taste. Carolann says to pretend its chicken broth. I’ll stick to Earl Grey, thank you.

On the downward slope, I am astonished to see wild Cotoneaster draping over the rocks on one side of the roadway. Then I notice that on both sides, the slopes are covered with a blanket of wild rhododendrons. These tricky plants we struggle to grow back home are growing wild under the trees and even in the open, lining the roadway like weeds.

Bhutan is, in fact, blessed with 48 different species of rhododendron and I see at least five different varieties right alongside the car. Rhododendron wood is used locally for cups, the handles of daggers, saddles, and incense. The leaves are used to wrap butter and to line buckets.

At this altitude, blue gentians are in bloom. A blue primula also blooms in the fall. Locals rub the flower on their faces to protect from dry skin. In all there are 71 species of primula in Bhutan.


The roadway turns into a muddy, rutted, stony farm track.  As it winds its way down through the trees, we catch our first glimpse of the valley below all lit up golden in the sunlight.

This area is protected for the benefit of the annual migrating guests the black-necked cranes.

No hydro lines, telephone poles or cell phone towers mar the landscape. It’s kept pristine and development is strictly controlled. The hydro wires are buried to keep them out of sight, but most houses still only use solar power. There are no toasters in our hotel; toast is made on top of a barrel stove in the centre of the dining room.


I ask our guide if he sees any black-necked cranes. My heart sinks as Sonam replies, “No, it’s too early for them.” We pass Tibetan-style farmhouses and get a closer look at the fields below. “Any cranes yet,” I plead. “No, it’s too early,” he says again with no further explanation, and I’m beginning to fear that even though it’s bright and sunny out, we have not come at the right time.

I spy a flock of black birds below and am about to ask the question again when I realize they are just large ravens, the national bird of Bhutan.

Could this be an omen?

We reach the valley floor, a large wide plateau with fields and marsh in the middle. This is the feeding and breeding area of the black-necked cranes, but there are no birds. This is a major disappointment for me. The cranes are the main reason why we ventured so far into the mountains on such horrible roads.

We follow the track up into the woods and pull up to a nice looking hotel. But this isn’t ours, the driver is lost and the guide is just going in to ask for directions. Somehow we have driven right past our hotel and have to backtrack down the dirt path.


Our hotel has a beautiful façade, with all the typical Bhutan architectural elements of rough-hewn pine beams, brightly decorated and painted posts and trim around the doors and windows. It’s three stories high and looks promising.

At the entrance we face a narrow, steep staircase that we have come to call a “duck-walk” stair. As steep as a ladder, with treads half the normal depth, it is very tricky to climb without turning your feet sideways like a duck. This is not a good sign.

At the top of the dark stairs is a rough wooden door leading into a darkened, low-ceilinged dining area. It is freezing cold inside and there is no light. Another bad sign.

We turn right and step over a foot-high threshold and into our dark bedroom. It is cold and dreary with no lights and two small shabby single beds. The washroom is two steps down onto a cold stone floor and again there are no lights. “Solar power,” our guide explains and leaves us to get settled while lunch is prepared. I contemplate navigating those two steps down in the middle of the night.


Carolann has a cold, probably because all the Bhutanese have colds these days, and partly because she always suffers in high altitude. She doesn’t say anything about the room and just wants to lie down for a while until lunch. But I know the signs. She won’t tell anyone else, but she’s depressed about the room. She’s on the verge of tears and I know from experience that I have to do something.

Don’t get me wrong, we’ve stayed in far worse places, as many of you know from our previous travels. We’ve slept in tents in the Amazon, frozen in a cold hut at 13,000 feet on an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca, and sweated in a non-airconditioned concrete block shed on a beach in Thailand. But we paid only $25 per night for the privilege and loved it. This hotel is the pits and we’re paying 10 times that amount – per person!

More importantly, Carolann needs warmth, light, and a comfortable bed to recover from her cold. I find the guide outside sipping tea, explain the situation and ask him politely if he could check with the first hotel we saw to see if they have a room for us. “We can’t stay here and I’ll pay the difference if there is any,” I tell him.

But I know there shouldn’t be any difference.

Some tourists come to experience the rustic, old-fashioned style of living and that is available to them if they want it. We noted some tourists turning off the road to go to a “Farm House”. I’m all for authentic and rustic, but we’ve done that before and not at these prices, especially when better alternatives are readily available.


Sonam calls head office and all I can make out is the repeated words “Boss”, which he uses all the time and “Ah, ah, ah,” which I know means “right” or basically nothing at all. In his laid-back Bhutanese style, he shows no sign of success or failure. When his call is over, he looks concerned, but then explains that they have a room and we can change hotels.

His worried look is because he has to explain this to the hotel manager after we’ve finished lunch and he’s not looking forward to the confrontation. I tell him I would gladly do it, “I’ve done it many times in China and South America”.

But I can’t speak Bhutanese.

Carolann is relieved and, sitting outdoors in the warm sun, we have lunch, or what passes for lunch in these parts – the ever-present rice, a topping of stewed onions, some fried potatoes, and two small bowls of chopped cabbage and mashed vegetables. No meat, chicken or fish. Actually, however, the onions are delicious and so are the potatoes that are like giant French fries with the skin on.


At lunch we meet two American women, one from Georgia and one from Connecticut. We’ve encountered several groups of women travelling on their own and I surmise that with a male guide and male driver they probably feel safe in this country. At any rate, they tell us they attended a festival that morning at the monastery in the middle of the plain.

The festival is the secondary reason why we came to this area.

Our guide knows nothing about the festival and has no idea of what takes place when, but if it started this morning I’m anxious to go see it before the dancing ends.

As soon as lunch is over we skip down the “duck stairs” guiding our hands down the polished pine stair railing and head for the car hoping to catch some of the festival.

We cross the plain on a bumpy, dirt track and head towards the two gold roofs of the small monastery in the distance. I can still see people clustered around a field in front of the building. At the monastery, we have to cross a ditch on two wooden planks and then dodge the cow patties on the way.

Only a few years ago, this festival was only open to Bhutanese, no foreigners were allowed.

Festivals or Tshechu (“tenth day”) are held every year in various temples, monasteries and dzongs (fortresses) across the country. The Tshechu is mainly a religious event celebrated on the tenth day of a month of the Bhutanese lunar calendar.

As I watch a circle of women in traditional garb, I pray that the best has not already passed. They start singing while swinging their arms, spinning and dancing around.

As soon as this is over, a large drum sounds, off-key clarinets squeal and a monk dressed in red leads out two huge masks on platforms. Musicians playing traditional “Tibetan-style” music on round vertical drums, cymbals, horns and conch shells follow the monks. They seat themselves in the middle of the field facing a large blue tent under which are seated the higher-ranking “lamas” or monks. Locals rush forward to receive blessings from the large “masks” and to have their sins forgiven.

Then to my great delight, out come the mask dancers, the stars of Bhutanese festivals.

Wearing grotesque, frightening masks depicting demons in animal form, such as a deer, snow lion, snake, leopard, and dragon, the dancers leap into the air, spin around and arch their bodies in unison and in time to the music.

The masks are carved from wood and painted in garish colours. The dancers are barefoot and wearing bright yellow pleated skirts that swirl around as they dance. On top of their heads are bright red ribbons that twist and dance around as well. It’s fascinating to watch and the music is hypnotic.

The dancers are all monks specially trained in the traditional dances. It takes many years to perfect the rhythmic swaying, leaps and swirls while wearing frightening carved masks representing demons.

The dances are supposed to destroy evil spirits and the drums drive them away. Witnessing the dance is believed to remove sins and take one closer to attaining nirvana or enlightenment.

When the dancing ends, two even more grotesquely masked “clowns” come out and perform for the crowd, approaching people and begging for donations for the monastery. The clowns, or atsaras, mimic the religious dancers.  They are the only ones who are allowed to mock religion in a society that treats religion with respect. We give each of them a donation as thanks for a great experience.

I’m excited and greatly pleased to have witnessed this spectacular event.


We leave to check in at our new hotel. This time the façade is backed by reality and our room is nicely decked out with old pine floors, a large bed and large windows on two sides overlooking the valley. Perhaps we’ve reached nirvana – at least temporarily.

Earlier, as the festival ended, I had turned to photograph a grouping of white prayer flags fluttering in the wind on tall bamboo poles.  As I did, a lone, large black raven glided in and perched on top of the highest pole. Apparently the ravens I had seen earlier were good omens after all.

In Bhutan, success is measured not by GDP, but by GNH (Gross National Happiness).

Even though we missed the cranes, we experienced an incredible spectacle, we have a comfortable hotel, and Carolann is happy.

My GNH is high!


Travel diary shared by Dan Cooper