The Naked Dancers from the eastern Bhutan is cultural dance of Bhutan.The dancing goes on for several hours in the medieval courtyard.The beat is primal, vigorous, ancient and timeless, sweeping back the mists of time to retell a story which begins in the court of the emperor Thrisong Duetson. Bhutan Legend tells that the forbears of the naked dancers of Sakten(Eastern Bhutan) formed part of an elaborate annual ritual performed by the emperor to safeguard his domain from natural calamities, disease and would- be invaders.
Preceded by a month long ritual performed by hundreds of monks from across the empire, the ceremony began with a teen male or female participant being chosen according to forecasts by Thrisong Duetson’s astrologer. At a chosen time, the youths were stripped naked and paraded through the city, accompanied by an enormous altar edifice to be discarded at a distant location in the southern reaches of the kingdom. People gathered in the streets to curse, spit, and fling flour and ash at the participants in the belief that all their collective misfortunes would thus be borne away by the sacrificial youths.
On arriving at the pre-ordained location, the altars were thrown into a gigantic bonfire and the participants, after being briefly fed and feted like kings, were banished from the area with instructions never to look back or return to the kingdom. Over time, the number of youths displaced from Thrisong Duetson’s empire in this manner reached critical mass and formed communities, finding shelter and acceptance in Bhutan, then known as Lho Mon Yul, the land of the south.
These are the settlements, legends say, which we now know as Sakten, Merak and Chaling . Commemorating the poignant story of the Diaspora, the naked dancers of Sakten today perform the Tercham (as it is locally known) once every three years on the 15th and 16th days of the 5th month of the Bhutanese calendar. Taking place simultaneously over two days at the Sakten Lhakhang and also at nearby Borangman village, groups of specially chosen males aged between 18 to 60 years from the core of the festival.The aspirants, mostly drawn from the Ngasipas or herder communities of Sakten, are required to register their names well in advance of the performances on a piece of paper, which is then folded and given to a designated elder of the village. The elder will pick only 12 of the folded pieces of the paper to declare the names of candidates for the dance.
In contrast to its somewhat unfortunate origins, it is actually an honor to be one of the performers at present day reenactments of the Tercham and the men vie and jostle to be chosen. “We were extremely eager to participate, “ reminisces Dorji Tshering, 61, of Sakten’s Tengman village with a smile. “We begged our elders to pick us and plotted ways to influence their decisions”. And just as in the old days, it is believed that the friends and families of the present day dancers and assured protection from all forms of adversity for the coming three years.
After the selection process, the participants are taken to the Boranngtse temple (also in Sakten), where they are required to swear a sacred oath of secrecy. The identities of the dancers are concealed even among the participants themselves. Confined to an undisclosed location for 48 hours leading up to the festival, the dancers’ true identities will remain undiscovered, adding an aura of mystery and mystique to the age-old ritual. Only one person, the temple caretaker (who is also sworn to silence), blesses each dancer by sprinkling saffron scented water on their heads. The caretaker then opens a large wooden box and hands each dancer a mask carved from wood and a long silken scarf or Dorjigong to wear throughout the next two days. On day one, after the dancers emerge loudly from their cloisters, masked and scarf-adorned, they are joined by other dancers representing the Yab-Yum or male-female principles of Vajrayana Buddhism.
After several hours of non-stop whirling and leaping to the clash of cymbals, temple drums and horns, the entire troupe, including the Yab-Yum performers, proceed to the nearby villages where they are eagerly welcomed to confer their blessings on the visited homes. Entire families, male and female, young and old, greet the dancers at their threshold before escorting them indoors where the Yab and Yum dancers perform a brief ritual arabesque around food offerings consisting mainly of three types of local brew: bangchang(fermented barely beer), Singchang (a chilled, lighter version of the Bangchang) and Changkey (fermented alcoholic rice porridge often accompanied by scrambled eggs).
After the ritual in the house, the beverages are served to dancers.At night, the dancers return to the “secret house” where they enjoy a few hours, respite before the following day’s performance. Over the designated period of 48 hours, the dancers repeat the proceedings, traveling barefoot to all surrounding villages and displaying laudable commitment to the continued well-being of their community. The end of the festival brings the performers back to the Borangtse temple, where the participants reassemble within the temple sanctum to relinquish their respective masks and neckerchiefs to the temple caretaker. The caretaker recites special prayers invoking local deities to bless everyone, bringing the proceedings to a close. Finally, the caretaker painstakingly replaces each wooden mask and scarf in their traditional resting place for the next three years until the re-emergence of the naked dancers from eastern Bhutan.