“We are blessed as truly cleaver, good looking, and mentally and physically fit people – Happy – this is because we worship our Pholha Tashi Gyeltshen, a local deity of Nasiphel,” said Pema Lhazom from Nasiphel, Choekhor, Bumthang. The deity is very sacred for the people of Nasiphel. People in the village touched with death or new born cases cannot visit Pholha Neykhang (the sacred abode of the deity) unless the rituals are over, e.g. three days for new born and 21 days in case of death. She told me that their Pholha Tshoetpa (festivity offering and worship Pholha) is similar to the practice of Aap Chhundu in Haa. “The difference is that we do not use the powers of pow (the spiritual healer) but conduct this festivity with lam (high monk) and chhop (religious practitioner). The pows are only hired when there is severe sickness around,” she said.
Every year on the 10th day of the 12th month of Bhutanese calendar, the people of Nasiphel celebrate the Pholha Tshechu. This year it fell on 21st of Jan. This is the pride and joy of this village – unique to this village where they all come together as a family and celebrate a common heritage – that brings them peace, harmony and happiness. Everyone contributes in some form or other and participates in this celebration. “Of course, we offer our worship to Pholha each month but this time of the year, we do it in exquisite details with complete etiquettes,” said Pema Lhazom.
In earlier times, a month before the event, wheat would be collected from each household by an appointed household to prepare singchang and ara (special local brew) for the festivity. Today a few volunteers who wish to provide these items for the event prepare them in their respective houses.
The preparation for the tshechu begins on the 9th day of the 12th month. People from the village gather together on this day excited, happy and eager to contribute rice, vegetables, chho (offerings that become sacred food of deities), fruits, incense, and the like to the village people’s store located in the village Lhakhang. Two of the villagers voluntarily work round the clock in serving the lams and chhops, and commit themselves to serve thuep (rice porridge), local brew, wheat flour, including food and drinks for the lam and chhops and the people present there. That whole night, people involved in preparation have no opportunity to sleep – but work round the clock feeding each one and preparing for the following grand day.
Early morning of 10th day, one of the volunteers goes around the village announcing in loudest voice, “Please come and enjoy the thuep.” Those who are late to wake up and also those who cannot come are served at their houses. Immediately after that people are served with local brew prepared with butter and eggs known as changkue. All these ingredients are volunteered by village people. After a little rest, five or six volunteers begin preparing the feast. While the chhops followed by their helpers/assistants go to the Pholha Neykhang and burn incense, recite prayers and make offerings there. After which people from the village one by one go with the offerings to Pholha. The volunteers would have to now bring tea and/or whey and snacks to the people who have come to the Nyekhang for offering – which could mean all village people would have gathered there. The Pholha Nyekhang is very close to the village situated on the western side of the village.
After much singing and dancing, the chhops with villagers return to the village temple after taking due permission from Pholha and re-instituting him imaginarily at the Lhakhang and proclaiming that now he is residing in the village temple. Tashi (good luck) offering is conducted at Pholha near the shrine by throwing offerings into the sky, which is a marvel to watch. At the Lhakhang tea and deysi (special sweeten rice prepared with special ingredients) are served on behalf of the volunteers who are Pema’ brother and Choeki’s brother both are not residing in the village. They are volunteers for these items each year – and everyone is served with this speciality.
It is lunch time – everyone is summoned, by loud announcement, to the temple for the lunch. As the evening approaches, the payers are over and everyone is again summoned to take the share of chho. After sharing the chho, the dinner is served. Then the girls go to six houses who have volunteered to prepare the singchang and ara (this time again one of them is Pema Lhazom’s house in name of her elder sister Kinga, who is a school teacher and away this time) and collect the local brew and return to the village temple singing lebay (songs of praise, goodness and happiness). On reaching the temple, they go around the temple three times and settle down. Songs and dances continue after the lunch. There are six members in Pema’s house and every member contributes to this tshechu.
The entire village sits down in the temple. The chhop who is sitting on the chair calls names of volunteers one by one with their specific tasks and asks them if they wish to continue the following year. Then they promise again to sever as volunteers in front of the village deities by accepting through prostrating and drinking holy water and eating a piece of fruit offered to deity. If for some reason a person wishes to go out of a particular volunteerism then he/she must say so at this stage and appoint another in his or her place and take up another voluntary work. Even if one is away from the village, he/she has to have a role to play and provide for volunteerism through people in the village.
The singchang and ara that are collected by girls is now served to the volunteers. According to the number of areas that they have volunteered for, they receive that many portion of local brew as honour. This ordeal takes quite a while because of many volunteers – a person or family could be involved in three to four areas or more depending on his/her affordability. After this is over, the songs and dances begin again – a happy get together. “These days by ten p.m. it is over, but in the past, it would continue throughout the night,” says Pema Lhazom.
It seems in earlier days, the village engaged in playing archery for three days beginning on 10th day and completing it on the 12th day of the 12 month. They would dance for an evening after the archery. It used to be participated by the entire village – women would take food and drinks singing labey beginning from their respective houses and once they arrived at the archery field, everyone would sit down, marchang (soliciting from deities blessing for a good, successful, and happy event) would be conducted and food served. Then the dances continue there and those who went with food would return home singing. “This practice has vanished. It is being replaced by khuru (throwing of dart on a target at a distance of about 60 meters) but not in the same pompous that was done for archery – we wish to revive all lost old traditions from next year,” said Pema.
On the 11th day – village people form in groups – young boys, young girls, men and women groups and go from house to house for merry making – known as Changkor (pilgrimage for local brew) – “This continues even the following day now because they would not have completed visiting every house,” she said. In each house these groups sing songs and dance and receive ara, singchang, tea, snacks. They spent about a good 30 minutes or more in each and every house. It keeps everyone awake throughout the night. The archer’s (now khuru players) teams also go from house to house on the 11th day and celebrate grandly in each house with marchang and get fed lavishly with local brew and food. The archers organise a lunch offering on the 12 day for all the people in the village.
This festival is more than just a tshechu. I see this as a great uniting factor of the village. They form into a family and serve the interest of each other. They are proud of their culture that is truly sharing and care – the basis of happiness. The valley of Choekhor where Nasiphel is one of the several villages is blessed with varieties of culture and tradition, which the GNH Centre is now taking stock of.
By Dr Saamdu Chetri
The writer is the Director of the GNH Center in Bumthang