Tamshing Phagla Chothpa Festival is celebrated annually from the 10 to 12 day of the eighth Bhutanese month. It is one of the most sacred festivals in the country. The festival is directly linked to the construction of the Tamshing Monastery in 16th Century by Terton Pema Lingpa and his Yidam, Dorjee Phamo.
In 1501, during the laying of the foundation stone of the Tamshing Monastery by Pema Lingpa, his Yidam, Dorjee Phagmo appeared in the form of a pig (‘Phag’ in local language) and provided the layout of the monastery. When the construction of the monastery was completed, again Dorjee Phagmo appeared in his vision with the head of a pig and the body of a human, dressed in colourful clothes and performed a dance. He was asked to perform this dance during the consecration ceremony of the monastery. Accordingly, Pema Lingpa himself sculpted the mask of a pig and taught the dance to his disciples. This was the first dance performed during the consecration of the monastery and led to the naming of the festival as Phagla Choedpa (‘dance of pig’ in the local language).
Peling Ging Sum is another important program of the festival, which was also initiated in Tamshing by Pema Lingpa in 1506 while performing Lama Norbu Gyamtsho Drupchen as part of the consecration of the monastery. Peling ging sum comprises three different dances – Juging (stick dance), Driging (sword dance) and Ngaging (drum dance). These dances also have three significant meanings as the outer, inner and secret dimensions. The festival also showcases Peling tercham – Tshangpae Ging and others dances performed in Dzongs and other monasteries across the country.
Stick Dance (Juging) – A malevolent spirit known as Damsi Nyulema, is said to cause harmful thoughts and delusions within every sentient being. This is the spirit that the dancers are searching for with their sticks pointing in all directions and trying to locate where the Damsi Nyulema spirit may be hiding. There are sixteen dancers in the group. There is always a dance leader known as champoen who leads the entire dance and the rest follow according to his movement. There is also an assistant dance leader known as chamjug, who always stays at the end of the line and is responsible for assisting the dance leader in guiding the other dancers and ensuring that they follow the steps and body movements in a uniform fashion. While dancing, the dancers explore and point in all directions with their sticks and use leaping gestures to rise up in the air. At the end, all dancers then kneel down to the ground and point their sticks to the earth, but the chamjug indicates with his stick that the evil spirit is actually located inside the body and points to the heart three times. This is meant to demonstrate that it is our own delusions which are the real evil spirits that need to be subdued and transformed by following the truth of Dharma. The stick dance also includes three main sections: the first section is a type of divination dance from where the malevolent spirit can be found, the middle section represents the search for evil spirits, and the final one is the pointing and locating of the malevolent spirit and finding of this within the mind. During this dance, when the dance leader asks his assistant where the evil spirit’s location is through indication of the stick, the chamjug replies with hand gestures that there is no spirit in all directions by using an empty hand gesture. They hold their sticks under their arms and clap their hands in order to symbolize destruction of the evil spirit and to awaken it, and then later all the dancers will throw their sticks to the ground. It is during the stick dance that they are able to discover the evil spirits through realization and performance of this sacred dance.
Sword Dance (Driging) –The second segment of the dance is also known as Driging or the ‘Sword Dance’ and dancers emerge from the changing room wearing red wrathful masks and carrying a sword in their right hand. They all dance with very wrathful emotions and body movements. This dance also contains three sections: cutting, subduing and liberating the spirit. The red wrathful mask represents discriminating wisdom and transforming the great compassionate mind into a wrathful form in order to subdue the evil spirit which could not be tamed by the power of peaceful deities. These masks have three eyes which represent the enlightened ones’ eyes which have the ability to see clearly all three realms at the same time. During the cutting section of the dance, all sixteen dancers gather again using wrathful steps and leaping towards the centre where an effigy is kept in a small triangular box and which represents the malevolent spirit. The sword symbolizes the self-arising wisdom which cuts through all delusions in a single stroke. The five skull crowns on the top of the mask symbolize the Buddha family of Five Kayas. The second section of subduing is the dance in which the true nature of phenomena is dissolved into one true perfect nature and purity. Following this, the dancers once again enter the changing room to prepare for their next performance.
Drum Dance (Ngaging) – A few minutes later they again appear but this time wearing a blue wrathful mask and carrying hand drums in order to celebrate the victory over evil spirit through their subjugation. The blue mask represents the true nature of our pure mind which is stainless and spaciousness like the space beyond ordinary thoughts of cloud. The drum represents the celebration of victory over evil spirit and brings peace and happiness. Each beat brings liberation to all who are present in the dance courtyard and helps to remove suffering and its cause. In Mahayana Buddhist tradition, drum is known as the drum of dharma which liberates all from suffering just through the action of hearing its sound. When this particular dance is being performed, the dancers meditate on the power of compassion which is the altruistic mind that wishes for others’ happiness and cause of happiness. The drum also symbolizes the interdependent phenomenon that everything has cause and condition which influence and bind all events and actions. The drum stick used to sound the drum is viewed as skilful means of compassion and the drum itself is wisdom. The two unite, victory emerges from self-arising awareness. The blue mask also represents the Dharma Kaya which is the source of all qualities of enlightenment.