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The Role of the Atsara

Sandwiched between two large tourists at the Trashichhodzong courtyard in Thimphu, the familiar atsara face with a permanent grin brandishes a wooden phallus, rests it on the head of a young girl and says: "May you be blessed with nine boys."

"Nine is too much," reacts an elderly observer. "Then let it be 11 so that you can have a football team." The crowd bursts into laughter as the man in the mask leaves to help a hunchback find a place to sit.

Tshechu Mask Dance
The atsaras are the clown figures who entertain the crowds at tshechus. But their role and significance transcends entertainment. "We are an indispensable part of the tshechu," says a senior atsara, or atsara gom (senior), played by a student of the Royal Academy for Performing Arts (RAPA). "There is a world of meaning to the atsara figure and we have a big responsibility."

According to Phub Gyeltshen, they should have mastered all the mask dances. "As the atsaras should correct the dancers if they make mistakes he should know the sequence of the dances and all other rituals in between the mask dances or associated with the dances," he explained.

The atsaras have multiple roles, according to Chencho of Chang Olakha in Thimphu. The 65-year old, who has played as an atsara for 12 years, said the atsaras also explain the meaning of mask dances to spectators, entertain them when dancers are in the changing room, and help control the crowd.

From the eight atsaras at the Thimphu tshechu, four are selected from the geogs and four from RAPA. Although atsaras from the villages are not professional dancers they help the dancers by tying their mask threads, adjust falling dance robes, and even find missing children.

Atsaras also perform the Atsara Ngon Cham on the last day of the Tshechu. According to Phub Gyeltshen, the dance is an interpretation of the resurrection of legendary hunter Sharop Gyem Dorji. "Through the dance it teaches people that even the most sinful is enlightened if he follows the path of Buddha's teachings," Phub Gyeltshen said.

The term atsara, according to Bhutanese scholars, is derived from the Sanskrit word Acharya (holy teacher) called dubthop in Dzongkha.


The Legend of the Atsara

Legends say that about 84 dubthops (Mahasiddhas), who had extinguished all defilements and afflictions, roamed the universe to subdue evil thoughts by mocking at worldly things.

Colourfully dressed, eccentric in behaviour, and even vulgar and abusive in language, the dubthops used their wit and tricks together with their powers to uproot evil from the minds of mortals.

"The atsaras today represent these learned and saintly beings," according to a scholar, Dasho Lam Sanga. "The dubthops cultivated detachment from mortal feelings like embarrassment, hesitation, and reservation, as such they appear in these forms and are always vulgar."

Dasho Lam Sanga said that atsaras also symbolised spiritual protection. The balloon and the wooden phallus, which the atsara holds are symbols. The balloon represents the swine bladder, which the dubthops used to collect diseases sown by demons. The wooden phallus symbolises the genuine accomplishment of wisdom by the dubthops, and the tang-ti (rattle), represents khandoms (consort) of the dubthops. Atsaras from the villages have their own interpretation. According to Chencho, the four masks they wear symbolise the four protective deities of the Thimphu valley. The red mask is the Dorji da-tse, blue is the Yeshey Gonpo and other two are the Geynin Bjakpa Mila of Dechenphug and the Dungla Tsen.

Atsaras feel spiritually lifted and happy performing their roles during the three-day Tshechu although sometimes they have to face uncomfortable situations in response to their lewd and vulgar comments. "It's a part of the tradition, but people don't understand," said Chencho.

"Atsaras do not respect time and place," a young student said. "It is embarrassing when you are with your parents and atsaras come with their vulgar jokes."

Today atsaras are also criticised for asking for money during the tshechus. Although atsaras claim that this was a part of the tradition, a new rule now allows the atsaras to collect offerings only during the last day of the tshechu. On an average an atsara collects about Nu.10,000. Chencho collected Nu.14,000 last year.

"They are a wonderful part of the Tshechu," a tourist, Marsha Davis, said. For Lil Laidlaw from Montana, United States, who boasts of an atsara mask back in her room in Montana, atsaras keep the tshechu alive.


The Atsaras at the Thimphu Tshechu
Tshechu Mask Dance
They can be witty and wry, lewd and salacious, annoying and bothersome, but without them a tshechu would be tame.

The Atsara, in his the wooden mask with a crooked red hawkish nose and a permanent grin, and commonly seen as the jester of the tshechu, is more than the mask depicts.

Atsara is derived from the Sanskrit word Acharya (holy teacher) or dubthop in Dzongkha.

According to religious history, about 84 dubthops (Mahasiddhas), who had extinguished all defilements and afflictions, roamed the universe to subdue evil thoughts by mocking worldly things.

Weirdly dressed, whimsical, vulgar and abusive in language, the dubthops used their wit, foolery, and drollery, together with their powers to uproot evil from the minds of mortals.

Atsaras today represent these learned and saintly beings. Their apparent vulgarity arises out of their detachment from human feelings like embarrassment, hesitation, and reservation.

At 2007's Thimphu tshechu 29-year-old Tsagay, a student of the Royal Academy of Performing Arts (RAPA), is the Atsara gom (head Atsara).

Tsagay, a father of two children, calls himself an artiste. "It is no joke being an Atsara at the tshechu," says Tsagay. "Without mastering all the mask dances, you cannot become the head Atsara. It is an art."

According to Tsagay, Atsaras are spiritual figures at the tshechu, who carry the blessings of mask dances, and, through the auspiciousness of the day, can heal or cure.

Dorji Wangmo, 63, never misses receiving wang (blessing) from the Atsara. According to the farmer from Kabisa, the lewd remarks and outrageous behaviour of Atsaras when they come to bless people is a test in itself. "It is way to test if people are ready to embrace religion in all forms," she said.

Dawa Nob is another Atsara at the tshechu selected from Thimphu's Toeb gewog. "We have a big responsibility," he said, waving a wooden phallus. "We are the guides here for the mask dancers and also for spectators. We explain the meaning of the dances and correct any mistakes in the dance steps."

This year, on their own initiative, the Atsaras decided to promote the use of contraceptives. "If you use condoms, you will live long," an Atsara explained in English to a group of tourists. "Yes," the tourists agreed.

"It's a good opportunity to educate people because they are not embarrassed listening to an Atsara," he said.

Most spectators see Atsaras as entertainers in an otherwise formal festival. "The first thing that comes to mind when we talk of a tshechu is an Atsara," said Choki Lhamo, a student. "I don't mind their dirty jokes as long as they keep them within limits," she said.

"I love them," said Mark Beltzman a tourist from the US, "They are a great transition between the dancers. We should have more of them."

But Atsaras also face awkward situations when women react angrily to their lewd jokes. "Sometimes they do get excited and grab us," said a woman spectator.

This article was contributed by Ugyen Penjore, KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper 2007
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