Archery – ‘the celebration of the Bhutanese way of life’

“An arrow can only be shot by pulling it backward. When life is dragging you back with difficulties, just imagine that it’s going to launch you into something great!”

Archery or “Datse”, as locally called in Dzongkha language is the national sport of Bhutan. The much celebrated sport can be traced back in 600 B.C., used as an essential tool for hunting and war battles. In course of time, it has evolved into a social game enjoyed by all, whether be it the royals or the locals. Archery gained popularity following its official recognition in 1971; while the kingdom joined the United Nations the same year.

The traditional Bhutanese bows commonly known as zhu are made of bamboo with twisted stinging nettle strings. The arrows are lead–tipped bamboo sticks with bird feathers. While professional archers use the compound bows for international tournaments, these traditional bow and arrows are still preferred by the locals during festivals. The bow and arrow represents a religious significance in the life of the Bhutanese and their culture as they use it in different ceremonies, rituals, and other social activities.

No festival or celebration in Bhutan is considered complete without archery and mask dances. Besides the striking cultural celebration of the local festivals (Tsechu), majority are drawn to the traditional archery tournaments held among the villagers – the battles for honor.

Bhutanese band performing in a local archery tournament

With two teams passionately competing with each other, the archers of each team stare down visualizing by mind onto the small wooden targets, placed at the end of a 145 meters range (double the Olympic distance of 90 meters). Each team has their own set of singers and dancers performing varied traditional songs and dances about love, enlightenment, and karma.

A common yet surprising sight is of the natives standing casually next to the targets cheering enthusiastically for their teams as well as mocking and distracting their opponents, passing comments on poor aims. At a successful attempt of hitting the target, teammates celebrate with a slow motion dance praising the shooter who tucks a colourful scarf into his belt. It is a remarkable sport deep rooted in Bhutanese culture as a symbol of festivity and rivalry.

Women dressed in their traditional attire – Kira entertaining the audience with their dance performance

Witnessing such a lively social event is an unparallel experience on its own as ‘Archery is the celebration of the Bhutanese way of life.’

According to Prince Jigyel Ugyen -“Buddhism is about emptying your mind, and so is archery,” “Once you pull the bow, you forget about everything else and find complete bliss. And if you can hold that mentality for 24 hours and 365 days, that’s enlightenment.”

Tihar at Dharma!

Tihar is the festival of lights. The five day long festival is a joyous annual festival that brings happiness, prosperity and good wishes into the lives of people.
Being the festival of lights, butter lamps known as diyos are lit and the entire country illuminates to celebrate with immense joy and ecstasy.
Here’s a picture of the ladies at Dharma during Tihar in October 2017.

The vibrant month of Shrawan

Shrawan is the fourth month in the Nepali calendar. If you happen to be anywhere in or near the vicinity of Nepal, you will come across women clad in red, green or yellow bangles. Most of them will also have henna tattoos decorated on their hands.

This month is considered highly auspicious and each Monday of Shrawan, known as Shrawan Somvar, is dedicated to Lord Shiva, the god of destruction. Believers, especially women, observe fast every Monday during this month and visit the holy Pashupatinath Temple. They light butter lamps and incense to please Lord Shiva. According to Hindu mythology, Monday fasts in this month ensure good prospective husbands for unmarried girls and good health for husbands of married women. They believe Goddess Parvati observed fast for the entire month of Shrawan before Lord Shiva was impressed and married her.

Several days prior to this month, the market bustles as women passionately shop for new clothes and bangles. Items for prayers such as flowers, colours, butter lamps, incense sticks etc collect a high demand. Most women gather and pre- celebrate this month by applying henna on the hands, singing, dancing and making merry.

Nag Panchami

Nag Panchami is celebrated on the fifth day of the moonlit-fortnight in the month of Shrawan. As this festival falls during the rainy season, it is believed that serpents come out of their holes which get flooded with the monsoon rain to look for dry shelter.
Meanwhile, people stick pictures and images of snakes on the entrance to their houses across the country to mark the Nag Panchami. They also visit temples and offer milk to the snake god.

Teej
Teej is another festival that occurs during the months of Shravan and Bhadra, corresponding to the monsoon season of July-August. Married women celebrate this festival by fasting and worshipping idols of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati seeking marital bliss. Legend has it that it is the day when Lord Shiva was impressed with Parvati’s dedication and so accepted her.
Teej celebrations last for three pious days. Traditional dances and songs form an important feature of Teej celebrations. Red color is considered auspicious for women observing Teej fast and so most of them dress up in red or bridal clothes.

Lhosar Tashi Delek!


Pola & Mola (Tibetan for grandfather and grandmother) are an old Tibetan couple living in Nepal. Originally from Lhasa, Tibet, they migrated to Kathmandu in the late 1950’s to begin a new life in Nepal. A young 20 year old Pola had on his shoulders, the responsibilities of educating his younger siblings and taking care of his parents. Despite cultural and language differences, he set foot exploring the streets of Kathmandu.

Initially, he bought Nepalese spices, tobacco and candles; and exported them to Lhasa. He recalls those days when there were no roads and they had to send men on foot till the border carrying the supplies for days. “The Nepalese people are very hard working and with a Khukuri attached to their shirts, they carried goods on their backs,” he recalls. This went on till 1969, after which the highway was built and the Tibet – Nepal trade flourished. Since then, he traveled back and forth for 48 years between Nepal and Tibet, importing raw wool, musk, Tibetan thermos, campus shoes and later the famous Tibetan carpets from Lhasa to Nepal and likewise, exporting herbs, cotton, jute, ghee etc. to Lhasa.

While Pola sold Nepalese imported goods in the popular Barkhor Street in Lhasa, Mola stayed in a small retail shop they opened in the busy streets of Ason in Kathmandu selling all types of clothes, shoes, accessories, etc. “I made a lot of friends in Ason”, she says. “Those were the carefree days; chitchatting and drinking tea with fellow shopkeepers is how I improved my Nepali.

After 57 years in Nepal, Pola & Mola share fond memories of Tibet and Nepal comparing similarities & differences between the two places they call home. “The same astounding landscape, mountains, hard-working people yet so distinct in culture and language.

With 4 children and 6 grandchildren, they now live a happy retired life in Nepal. “Life has shown us so many phases, between being born and brought up in Tibet and retiring in Nepal. We love our life and are happy but what is important to us is that we do not forget our Tibetan culture and heritage, the place that defined our existence. We are proud of our traditional dress – Bakhu and our Tibetan language. Also, on this happy occasion, we would like to wish everyone a very happy Lhosar. Lhosar Tashi Delek!”

Gai Jatra 2015: The festival of death and rebirth

Nepal celebrated its first big festival after the earthquake of 25 April 2015. On Sunday, 30 August, thousands of people across the country flung to the streets to celebrate the festival of Gai Jatra.

The story dates back to the mid-17th century, when Pratap Malla, the then King of Kathmandu thought of a way to console his grief stricken wife who was inconsolable at the death of her young son. To show the queen that she was not the only person to have lost a loved one, King Pratap Malla ordered everyone in his kingdom who had lost a loved one that year to bring out a procession for the queen. He also ordered them to dress in funny attire to make the queen laugh. Thus, started Gai Jatra, the unique festival of satire, death and rebirth.

This festival celebrated annually carried special significance this year since the earthquake killed over eight thousand people. Even though the festival commemorates death, it is filled with laugher, music and feasting as people participate in the procession dressed as gods and goddesses, animals etc. People carry the picture of their loved one in hand held chariots and dance and sing songs as they follow a route that leads them to different shrines and temples. People participating in this procession believe that by doing so, the dead will safely enter the gates of heaven.

Gai Jatra is a healing process and it gives people the strength to deal with death in the family and move on. It is a proof of perseverance and strength of the Nepalese. The original spirit of Gai Jatra allows us to deal with natural calamities. Joyously celebrating this festival is a way of showing that Nepal is getting back to normal.