Yak cham and Achil­hamo cham in Merak los­ing pop­u­lar­ity

Business Bhutan - - Nation - Jigme Wangchen from Merak, Trashigang

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.

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