…a blessing culture preserved in the form of a dance festival

Introducing themselves with verses the dance of Gadpo (old man) and Ganmo (old woman) is a distinct dance that one gets to witness during the Druk Wangyel Festival held every year on December 13 at Dochula in Thimphu. 

The dance, through the verse, informs spectators of the purpose of their visit.

The dance is meant to bring prosperity, longevity, and happiness to the spectators, according to the Druk Wang Festival book written by Dasho Karma Ura. 

The dance of Gadpo and Ganmo is believed to be a very old performance. 

The gadpos are dressed based on Ngangla Chodpa in Kheng and Nyalamdung Kuchoed in Kurtoe Khoma. The dress of ganmos reflects the design of leukashing, probably a dress worn by women of certain parts of eastern Bhutan until the mid-20th century.

The dance

The verses recited and performed by Gadpo and Ganmo, as interpreted, mean they have descended from heaven unto earth so that they can bless the people witnessing their dance with all desirable ingredients of life. 

The narrative begins with them descending unto Gangkar Puensum, the highest peak of the country. The peak is also visible on the eastern horizon of Dochula where the festival takes place.

As they walk around and recite the verses, it also describes gadpos and ganmos walking arduously unto Dochula which it is believed to be a place chosen as a meeting point for themselves and the people. 

As spectators witness the dance, the dancers point out in a clockwise direction and verses consist of sharing memorable and auspicious sites seen with the spectators. The site begins from Sinchula, Gasa, Punakha, Shengana, Talo, Nobgang, Toebesa, Begana, Wangdue, and Pelela.

The dance also consists of dancers carrying lewd objects and gestures which is usual in any Gadpo and Ganmo dance, including coarse acts of atsaras. Such an object displayed in the dance, according to history, is to break the nervousness and anxiety usually associated with sexuality, its repression and possessiveness associated with sexuality. The dance of old men and women also has a part about male and female organs. “The dance thus overturns any obfuscating conventions and dogmas of false ethics, in an effort to revert people to the original state of sanity,” as mentioned in the guidebook of Druk Wangyel Festival.

As signified by wrinkle-faced masks covered in shocks of white hair, this dance is also said to be representative of the god of long life in the archetypal painting of longevity called “six longevities.” The five longevities are depicted through a river, a cave, a bird with a long tail, a four-footed animal, and a towering old tree.

A sixth longevity element is an old man with flowing white hair and a wrinkled face that radiates vitality and youthfulness known as the God of longevity or Lha Tshering. In the Gadpo and Ganmo dances, the men represent the god of long life who descended on earth to bless people with longevity, peace, prosperity, and happiness. This is why the dance requires both old men and women to dance with joy and celebrate the bounty of life.

During the festival, both gadpos and ganmos stand in front of spectators and welcome people from all walks of life by wishing them an enjoyable day at the festival.

Significance with Dochula 

However, the full-length verse composed for old men and women dance at the Dochula festival contains a reference to Dochula and depicted towards lives of Drukpa Kuenley (1455-1529), Terton Drugda Dorji, and Drupthob Jimba Gyaltshen, the younger brother of Gyalsey Tenzin Rabgye.

Dochula’s association with great figures continues to this day.

It is said that Lama Sonam Zangpo built a Khangzang Chorten at Dochula. It is also believed that the verse chanted by the dancers finally turns to the prosperous communities established towards the west of the pass such as places like Yuesipang and Hongtsho with lush fields of apples, potatoes and other crops.

Given its significance, Dasho Karma Ura said that the festival needs to be preserved because it represents a different cosmology and idea of different realms of existence. It also deals with the permanent questions of longevity, fertility, and prosperity of humans and other beings.

Contributed by

Yangchen C Rinzin

Research Fellow

Centre for Bhutan & GNH Studies