… a festival with a do-it-or-else twist in the tail subtext

Martalungchu:  Martalungchu village, hidden behind a small hillock, amidst a pine forest, high above Bajothang in Wangduephodrang, is in celebratory mood.

Men, dressed as women in a village reputed for women singers, are actively taking part in the four-day village tshechu, known as the Lhakhang Wang tshechu.  The highlight of the tshechu is a tribute to the story of Gyalpo Norzang and his wife Yethro Lhamo.

The tradition is strong, as not practising it is believed to bring ill fortune to not only Martalungchu, but to its sister village, Chizhi goenpa in Thimphu as well.  The tshechu was started by the popular Chizhi lam, who is known more by his whimsical steward, Tashi.

According to Martalungchu tshogpa Namgay, the tshechu brings home blessings and good fortune and gets rid of evil and bad luck.

That is why the whole village, all 26 households, is involved in the tshechu.  Without mask dancers, the 26 households contribute cash and kind and organise the tshechu.  Monks and lay monks come from Chizhi goenpa in Thimphu to perform mask dances.

Prior to Martalungchu tsechu, the mask dancers have to perform for four days at Dawakha village in Punakha.  The same mask dancers also perform in Heibesa village in Gasa.

Tshogpa Namgay said the third day was considered significant, as it depicted the story of Gyalpo Norzang and the two women in his life, his mother and his wife Yethro Lhamo.

Yeethro Lhamo was believed to be a daughter of a goddess who came to earth.  She was kidnapped by local people while taking bath, and was made to marry Gyalpo Norzang.

The tshechu also perform dances, depicting scenes of how his mother sent Gyalpo Norzang towards the north to fight against meghoes (gorillas), and how he returns after winning the war.  The fighters wear fierce outfits and black masks.  However, villagers cannot recall why they perform the Gyapo Norzang namthar (epic) during the village tshechu. “Maybe, one of the King’s kingdom was Wang in Thimphu,” said a village elder.

Meanwhile, villagers contribute money to pay mask dancers and conduct the four-day tshechu.  Although the tshechu existed for generations, it couldn’t gain much popularity, said the tshogpa.

Since it is a ritual passed down from generation to generation, failure to perform the tshechu seems to bring bad luck to the village, a villager elder said.  Once the Dawakha villagers had stopped the tshechu in their village, as they couldn’t afford to pay the mask dancers, and they had a poor harvest.

“They had to continue the tshechu,” said tshogpa Namgay.

By Dawa Gyelmo, Wangdue