Week of 27 November: Yonphu Tshechu

We got back from Trashi Yangtse just in time for me to proctor one of the two exams I needed to “invigilate.” Exams here are very solemn things, with desks set far apart, writing paper distributed on a strictly need-to-have basis, counter-signed by students and invigilators, and so on. At the same time, when I called time at the end of the exam, no one stopped writing. Gradually, the more docile students handed over their exams, but the more stubborn ones were still writing five to ten minutes later. I had heard a lot from other American instructors about the contrast between formality and what different people called disrespect or defiance or insubordination, but this was my first very clear experience of that contrast.

As I worked on marking the exams, I was struck by the persistence of Bhutanese morals in the reading of Western poems. Students found support for claims about reincarnation in Yeats, Eliot, and the Romantic poets, for example. A couple of groups of students had clearly worked together to develop a set essay for the final essay question on the exam: the same topic sentences and thesis appeared in multiple exam papers, with very slight variations due to the vagaries of memory. Unsurprisingly, this essay did not actually address any of the questions on the exam.

But the most striking event of the week was the Yonphu tsechu. Jeremy and Zoë declined to go, but James and I walked up the mountain with Chitra, meaning to stay only a couple of hours–but we struggled to drag ourselves away some six hours later. Perhaps you’ll see why.

The thongdrel was taken down before the lunch break, rolled up and carried off by a group of important monks and citizens.

The black hat dance was performed even as the thongdrel was descending:

The lords of the cremation ground were engaging:

And in fact all of the dancers were fast, dramatic, and remarkably athletic as they danced for hours on end.

The atsaras were particularly explicit in their costumes:

And the fading light lent its own special drama to the closing dances: