A Mountain Festival in Bhutan Draws Locals and Visitors

Guest of honor Chencho Norbu arriving at festival source: Karma Tenzin)
Guest of honor Chencho Norbu arriving at festival (source: Karma Tenzin)

Hundreds of people, ranging from yak-herders to government officials to foreign tourists, gathered in a remote village of Bhutan earlier this month to attend a two-day mountain festival, designed to celebrate local cultures and promote conservation. The sponsoring organizations and communities presented a wide array of activities, with broad participation by the diverse set of people who attended.

The sponsors of this festival included the local communities themselves and Jigme Dorji National Park, the park in whose lands the host village of Dangochjang is located. They received support from the Bhutan Foundation and the Snow Leopard Conservancy, an international environmental NGO. The  Tourism Council of Bhutan also played a crucial role in granting recognition in promoting it.

Dancers from Soe village source: Ben Orlove)
Dancers from Soe village source: Ben Orlove)

As Lhendup Tharchen, the field director of the national park, explained, these organizations share the common goals of protecting the landscape and biodiversity of the high mountain ecosystem and of promoting the community-based conservation approach. They hoped that the festival would promote closer relations between the national park and the communities, and at the same time stimulate tourism and bring more government services to the isolated setting, located at 4000 meters at a two days’ walk from the end of a narrow, bumpy unpaved road. In addition, they hoped that the festival, by bringing attention to mountain cultures and instilling pride in them, might help slow down the flow of migrants from these high areas of Bhutan’s towns and cities.

Mount Jomolhari (source: Karma Tenzin)
Mount Jomolhari (source: Karma Tenzin)

The festival opened on the morning of 7 October with a marchang—a ritual offering of fermented grain and butter—followed by a series of short speeches, including one by the guest of honor, Chencho Norbu, the Director General of Forests and Parks.  It soon shifted to a presentation by members of the local communities of Soe and Yaksa, who wore national dress and performed a set of circle dances similar to those found at the middle-elevation agricultural regions of the country. They differed from the high-elevation communities of central and eastern Bhutan, whose dances and customary dress are strikingly distinct from the national majority populations. (The long history of incorporation of this western mountain area into Bhutanese national society and its proximity to national capital of Thimphu may account for this difference from other regions.) The children at the local school also performed dances, which were greeted with enthusiastic interest by the local villages, the government officials in attendance, and the tourists in the audience as well. The latter formed a small group, about two dozen, some of whom were passing through on treks (Dangochang is located on a popular hiking route which leads to the major glacier-covered peak of Jomolhari) and others of whom had taken a layover day at a tourist site, Jangothang, several kilometers away.

Horsemen waiting for the race to begin. source:
Horsemen waiting for the race to begin. (source: Ben Orlove)

Later in the day, local men took part in a horse race, followed by athletic competitions. The assembled crowd watched avidly as young men took part in pundo, a kind of shot-put competition for which two large round rocks had been carried up from the river. Participants took turns picking up a rock, lifting it to their shoulder, and pushing it as far as they could. They did not seem disturbed by the fact that the rocks were not quite the same size or shape.

Man preparing to throw rock in local game  sour
Man preparing to throw rock in local form of shot-put (source: Ben Orlove)

The crowd also enjoyed watching a group of young women play musical chairs (a bit of a challenge, since they were wearing close-fitting ankle-length kiras or traditional skirts). Over one hundred villagers stopped by a public health booth, where their blood pressure and other vital signs were measured, and where they were evaluated for diabetes and other medical conditions.

Visitors watching a sport event at the festival. (source: Ben Orlove)
Villagers watching a sport event at the festival. (source: Ben Orlove)

Later that evening, a large bonfire was lit in the festival grounds, and visitors and participants alike gathered for hours, taking part in some spontaneous dances, while Sirius, Orion and the Milky Way shone high in the sky. The festival had been set for the 25th and 26th days of the lunar month. These dates in the local calendar were chosen because local villagers recognize them as auspicious, but they have the added advantage of providing moonless skies with bright stars.)

Prayer-flags placed over stream connecting two sacred lakes (source: Ben Orlove)
Prayer-flags placed over stream connecting two sacred lakes (source: Ben Orlove)

On the morning of the second day, groups set off on half-day hikes to different spots. One group of visitors followed a trail up a steep slope to two high lakes, sacred places in the local cosmology, and placed a prayer-flag over the stream that connected the lakes–an act which promoted harmony at the festival. Others hiked up to glaciers and went to visit the cameras that had recorded snow leopards. The groups reassembled on the afternoon of the second day, in time to see more dances by the communities of the region, the awarding of prizes to the participants in the athletic events and a distribution of certificates to the local villagers, and to hear speeches by officials to close the festival.  A bonfire on the second evening drew a large group as well.

Visitor at festival having blood pressure checked by national health worker (source: Ben Orlove)
Visitor at festival having blood pressure checked by national health worker (source: Ben Orlove)

The festival met at least some of the goals of the organizers. Most simply, the festival succeeded in providing entertainment and information in a challenging, remote setting. It brought local villagers in closer contact with the national park and with representatives of other government agencies, and also provided them with government support in the form of free health check-ups and medical information.

Students from village school performing a dance (source: Ben Orlove)
Students from village school performing a dance (source: Ben Orlove)

The contributions to tourism were on a smaller scale, though the international tourists and government officials brought some additional economic activity to the village—a local shopkeeper said that she sold much more beer in two days than she usually sells in several weeks, and the yak-herders who brought cheese for sale quickly disposed of their stocks. But the engagement of the participants was genuine, and the villagers and government officials seem likely to carry through on their statements of planning to return for the festival next year.

For other stories on Bhutan, look here and here. For other stories of festivals near glaciers, look here and here.

 

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