Yak cham and Achilhamo cham in Merak losing popularity
Merak is a traditional hamlet perched on the remote mountains of eastern Bhutan in Trashigang. It comprises a cluster of stone and mudrammed buildings and its inhabitants, the Brokpas have a unique culture that presents itself as an attraction to many people.
But their traditional way of living and cultural practices are quickly disappearing in the quest for modernized lifestyles.
One of the distinctive features of the Merakpas is their famous and sacred yak cham and Achilhamo cham. These sacred chams were famous among the highlanders in the past but not anymore.
Today, highlanders do not perform these sacred chams during occasions and festivals.
Village elders in Merak are worried that the sacred mask dances which were passed down through the generations may soon disappear.
Unlike other Bhutanese religious mask dances, yak cham and Achilhamo cham are very unique to the people of Merak.
Yak cham has two origins, according to a lay monk from Merak, Pema.
The yak cham is believed to be the replication of the legendary tale of Thopa Gali while it also signifies paying due respect to yaks in the form of dance as the yak is the main source of income for the highlanders.
Though it is unknown when and who composed and initiated the performance of yak dance, people believe that it was performed in a place called Tengchen in the vicinity of Mount Pema Gosum when people of Merak and Sakteng migrated from Tshona (Tibet) to the present villages.
Pema said that it is also believed that while performing the first ever yak dance, the dancers sung a song which described the yak citing examples of geographical location.
Yak dance is a popular pantomime of the highlanders and in the dance, a dummy yak is made by covering the body with a frame of bamboo and a black cloth and setting a wooden head on it. An image of the country guardian (sungma) sits on its back and the body frame is carried by two men who dance to the beats of a drum and cymbals.
Four masked men representing Thoepa Gali, who were said to have discovered the yak, dance round the yak narrating in the form of song, the romantic story of the origin of yak, its discovery and how its integration brought a permanent source of wealth and happiness to the entire community.
Similarly, Pema said that Ache Lhamo or Ashe Lhamo is regarded more as a drama rather than dance, but many believe it is a dance-drama that flourished in Bhutan since a long time back.
Ache Lhamo dance was believed to flourish in Bhutan along with the Tibetan saint and bridgebuilder Thangtong Gyalpo and this art travelled to Bhutan during the late 14th century.
Ache Lhamo literally means sister goddess or lady goddess. This is performed by herdsmen once a year in keeping with the local customs. It relates stories of people famed for their piety and miraculous achievements, be it spiritual or temporal.
“The dance is accompanied by the rhythm of the cymbal and beating of the large-sided drum, while the story unfolds in operatic recitative and chorus.”
And he said that aside from the main performance, comic scenes are also acted out with great brilliance.
Apart from the yearly festivals and occasions, the famous Yak cham and Achilhamo cham were also performed at some great monastery or at wealthy nobles’ home and during other special events but now it is not practiced in Merak anymore.
Phuntsho Wangdi, 27, a yak cham dancer in Merak said that these sacred chams are losing its popularity as the mask dancers do not get any special exemptions or wages unlike in the past.
According to him, a few years back mask dancers used to get incentives and were exempted from taxes (woola) in the gewog. “However, now we do not have any such incentives,” he said, “No one agrees to perform the chams since we do not get anything.”
Further, he also said that to perform the mask dances, practice is needed which is a waste of time. “Since, we depend on animals for our livelihood we can’t waste our time like this, we need to be paid for this.”
These sacred mask dances used to be performed during the annual Merak Tsechu and Merakpas also used to perform yak cham during the Gomakora Tsechu.
“We could not perform the yak cham and Achilhamo cham during the Merak Tsechu this year. And it has been more than two years since we performed the yak cham at Gomakora Tsechu,” said Phuntsho Wangdi.
Merak Gup Lama Rinchen said that these mask dances are in need of protection.
To preserve and promote the mask dances and other dances in the gewog, a cultural group (Doegar Tshogpa) was formed in Merak in 2003. Lama Rinchen was the chairman of the Tshogpa then.
“Everything was okay till the gewog changed the chairman of the Doegar Tshogpa,” he said. “Now people are not willing to perform the dances as they are not getting anything from the gewog.”
The Gup said that Achilhamo cham has declined in popularity since a long time in Merak. “The dancers of Achilhamo were mostly laymen (gomchens) and they are exempted from taxes (woola) but they complained that they are not getting incentives so they stopped cooperating and performing the cham.”
The gup said that the gewog authorities gave some incentives to the dancers to encourage them but a few villagers complained about this and the gewog stopped the practice. He said that mask dancers have to spend time practicing and performing during occasions. “They have to make time from their daily work so they need to be paid.”
Meanwhile, the gewog authorities have decided look into the matter. “It is necessary we have proper rules and regulations for this without which the issue becomes very confusing,” said the Gup.
Lama Rinchen added that the chams were omitted from the Merak Tsechu, Gomakora Tsechu, Trashigang Tsechu and other festivals recently as the dancers were unwilling to perform. “We can’t force them,” he said.
All the cham dresses were collected and kept in the gewog office since last year.
Meanwhile, the Gup said that the issue will be discussed during the Dzongkhag Tshogdu very soon.