The 400-year old Yonphu Tshechu (festival) held in Yonphu Lhakhang, Kanglung is considered a popular tshechu in Trashigang, but both the Lhakhang and tshechu are more than just a festival that has proven as a sign of strong community vitality among the community over the years.
Community vitality is one of the nine domains of Gross National Happiness (GNH) and based on several literature reviews, especially in terms of GNH to look into the socio-cultural participation, its domains and index, it has determined a significant relationship between culture and community vitality where culture (festival) shapes the community.
This domain attempts to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of relationships, and interactions within communities like social cohesion among family members and neighbours, and practices like volunteering and donations.
Considering the domain and its relationship between community vitality and culture, and based on GNH, Yonphu Tshechu was considered as a case study to meet the research statement. The tshechu originated from the name of the place, Yongphel Ugyen Chholing. The research has stated how the Kanglung community, which believed in the concept of community vitality, has prospered the community through the festival and most importantly, through the people’s participation.
The tshechu is performed thrice a year – once in June to mark the birth anniversary of Guru Rinpoche, and the other two in September and November. This culture is believed to be more than 400 years old, according to the locals. Since then, the community through different means have kept the culture alive resulting in strong community vitality.
Over the years the community believed that both Lhakhang and the tshechu hold a significant place in the lives of the community. It is believed that Terton Pema Lingpa’s son, Choeje Sangdag built the Yonphel Lhakhang and initiated the mask dances (chams).
“Everything was prepared by ourselves, food and also the cham (mask dance), which is still practised today. We were told that this practice has been there since the Lhakhang was given to the community by Choeje Sangdag. The continuation of this practice in itself is an indication that strong community vitality still co-exists,” a 90-year old former mask dancer shared.
Community Vitality and Donations/contributions
From the GNH point of view, in terms of community social support, it may be reflected by the provision of support by volunteering or donating to an individual or a community. It is relevant to all spheres of life and without a doubt has a positive impact on a wide range of social, economic, cultural and environmental issues, including physical and mental well-being. A community must have strong relationships between community members and within families, must hold socially constructive values, and must volunteer and donate time and/or money.
It is vital that volunteering and donations of time and money be recognised as a fundamental part of any community development and considered this cultural event as an important festival.
Hence, this indicates the community meets two domains of GNH—cultural diversity and resilience – shown through the diversity and strength of traditions, including festivals, norms, and the creative arts. Another domain, community vitality, according to ( Bhutan’s 2015 Gross National Happiness Index) studies relationships and interaction within communities, and among family and friends. It also covers practices like volunteering or donations.
Kanglung community has five chiwogs with more than 700 households.
Kanglung community volunteers and donates in various forms, including monetarily to conduct tshechu every year which has kept this small and close-knit community together.
In the olden days, as many shared, this community has a fond memory of how they would conduct tshechu with their own contributions – a bowl of rice, a bottle of locally brewed alcohol –before the practice of donation slowly changed to monetary donation today.
“During our times, Chupen (local messenger) would collect contributions from each household and then handover to the lhakhang’s storekeeper. In 1990s, the lower part of Kanglung had to contribute rice since they used to grow rice and the upper Kanglung community was asked to contribute vegetables.”
The contribution, however, has changed over the years, but in a good sense, according to the community. From rice and vegetables, people now donate/contribute in terms of money. Some shared by the time they realised the donation amount was Nu 5 while some remembered contributing Nu 10 and some Nu 50.
But today, each household is required to contribute Nu 400.
The change, for many, expressed could be a sign of prosperity where people’s living standard has changed/improved over the years. Some attributed to the developments in the gewog where they have access to market and earn to contribute. The monetary contribution was initiated after people agreed to donate and continue the tshechu as a means to maintain community vitality.
Apart from the contributions, the community also takes part in the tshechu as mask dancers. There was a practice where the mask dancers’ responsibility was passed down from generations, especially from the father to son. In the absence of a son, the family would hand over the responsibility to a son-in-law.
“Handing over the responsibility was a means of contributing to the community participation and keeping the tshechu alive since it enhanced vitality among the community.”
“I contribute and take part in the tshechu or any other festivals to showcase to my children so that they could take forward this tradition. This is why even if my children live in Thimphu, they send me money as a contribution and feel a sense of belonging to this community.”
Although it is unknown when the first tshechu commenced, the community believes that the Yonphuel Ugyen Chholing Lhakhang is more than 400 years old.
Apart from the name, the tshechu is also considered unique for its rare mask dances. One of the dances, Homchham where the two dancers wear the mask of the lord of the cremation ground (durdag) was originally performed naked (Kuensel, 2018)
However, the Lhakhang does not have a record or data of its establishment since many believe that its karcha (catalogue) was lost a long time ago. Its history was established based on elders who believed Choeje Sangdag came looking for a suitable place to establish his religious seat and upon reaching Yonphu, he gave blessings to the local people. It is believed that Sangdag was destined to visit this place. The community offered the land to lama as gratitude which is why the place is known as Yonphu, meaning to offer land.
According to locals, in the past, there were three different communities that used to perform mask dances—Threpu community, which used to perform the first mask dances, Suma and Dakpu communities.
The Yonphu Tshechu and Kanglung community’s cohesion are examples of how a culture could shape the community’s vitality, including mutual beliefs.
Yangchen C Rinzin
Centre for Bhutan and GNH Studies