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Mongar: Drametse's mask maker
Popularly known among his relatives and the people of Drametse as Bak Sharang Meme (mask head old man), Tshewang Namgyel, 64, has been making the Nga Chham masks for the Drametse monastery for the last four decades.
The Nga Chham requires 16 different types of masks depicting various animals and mythical creatures.

"I was 24, a student, when I took up the craft," said, Tshewang Namgyel. Today he has mastered the craft and can now make all kind of masks depicting heroes, ferocious deities, animals, gods, and atsaras.

But making masks is seasonal work for Tshewang Namgyel who does it in the winter from November to January, particularly when there is a need for new masks to replace the old ones at the monastery. For the rest of the year he meditates in the mountains.

Although a skilled mask maker, Tshewang Namgyel has never thought about making masks for sale. The other reason, he said, was the difficulty involved in mask making.

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"Even with 40 years of experience making masks is not easy," said the Tshampa. The masks need a special kind of wood called Row Shing which is found in the forests of Rolong, Trashigang, a two-day return trip from Drametse according to Tshewang Namgyel.

In the Rolong woods the Row Shing is cut into blocks according to the size of masks and brought on horseback with horses carrying two blocks each.

Tshewang Namgyel has about 30 tools that he uses to make the masks. After drawing the features of the mask - the eyes, nose, ears and mouth - on the block of wood, he starts with the surface treatments, using smaller tools to carefully carve out the features. As the mask gradually takes shape on the outside he also starts hollowing it from the inside with larger tools.

" One has to be extremely careful when hollowing the mask from the back and carving it on the surface at the same time," said Tshewang Namgyel. "Adding the slightest extra pressure could break the mask or make a big hollow which means starting all over again."

Drametse Monastery, Mongar
When the basic features have taken shape, the intricate carvings are done. Tshewang Namgyel keeps the old mask as the model to get the details exact. "Carving intricate designs on the masks are the most eye stressing," said Tshewang Namgyel who has lost vision in his right eye.

The whole process of completely carving a mask takes him eight days. The final touch of painting is done on the ninth day.

Mask with horns take an additional two to three days said Tshewang Namgyel. "I have to look for a curling branch of Row Shing and after finding it, it takes another two days to shape it."

Tshewang Namgyel is passing his skills to three men who are learning to make masks from him. One of them is his own 40-year old son, Sonam, who has been helping his father for a long time.

Sonam said that he could shape a block of wood into a mask and carve the intricate designs on it, but they didn't turn out as perfect as those done by his father. "It is not as easy as it looks when my father does it," said Sonam. "It requires a lot of patience and perseverance."

Contributed by Samten Wangchuk, Kuensel, Bhutan's National Newspaper
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