Khebisa—it is a bright sunny day. Zhabdrung Jigme Chogyal is in Dagana, the place he often loved to visit. After his midday meal, he takes a walk along Gangkha valley. The sun hits the zenith and he sits on a stone slab by the mani dangrim to rest. He looks at his walking stick and composes Sham Sha Doley:
“The ground of the eight petaled lotus, Sham Sha Doley…
The space filled with the auspicious melody of Brahma, Sham Sha Doley…
May I sing this harmonious song, Sham Sha Doley….
From the eastern Vajra Mountain rises the sun, Sham Sha Doley…”
The year 2022, Dagapela Tashichoeling Monastery—the sky is blue as a vast ocean. A few important guests from Thimphu are seated inside a ceremonial tent. Donning a pinkish red jadrim kira, a bright blue tego, and a pink wonju, Sonam Choden leads a group of eight women at the centre of the crowd.
The ladies, dressed in different colours, make a circle. Sonam Choden, popular as Selem, begins the song as the women swing their right hands and feet eight times. The high-pitched voice resounds in the area. It is difficult to make out what she is singing.
On the ninth step, everyone brings both their hands on their hips and join in to sing the chorus ‘Sham Sha Doley’.
Until the Zhungdra ends, the troupe goes round and round in the clockwise direction.
For the last 26 years, Selem has been singing Sham Sha Doley. After her friend, Yeshi Lham, relocated to Gelephu, she is the only destined singer of the holy folk song from Dagana.
Selem takes her performance seriously. She performs on auspicious events such as the important rituals, tshechus, and for high officials. She takes pride in her performance during The King’s coronation in 2008.
She learnt the song and the dance from Aum Lengom. It took her more than a month of vigorous training. “In the beginning, it was so difficult. The words were complex and dance moves, too. We forget the words if we don’t sing it in its original tune,” Selem said.
Out of nine, only Selem and Yeshi Lham could perform it well. “The prophetic song is about how a unique tree will grow from the Zhabdrung’s walking stick. The tree is not found anywhere in Dagana.”
Lengom from an ancestral family in Khebisa is the first singer to perform the song after the Zhabdrung composed it in the 19th century.
Oral accounts say that the song was first performed in Sham-Doley village in Tashiding gewog. The stone slab on which the song was first performed by women is still seen in the village. But, not many know the historical significance.
As prophesised, the tree is still seen by the Zhabdrung’s stone slab in Khebisa. Residents say that the tree sheds leave from one side, the other side remains evergreen. It is believed that the tree sheds leaves when it gets contaminated by wordly stains such as the birth and death among others.
Lengom’s grandson Yeshi Dorji wants to preserve the song for generations. He has asked Selem to teach the young girls in the village and schools in the dzongkhag.
Not many are interested.
As young people move to towns, the melody risks turning into a faint echo of the past.