It is a chilly morning but 64-year old Rinchen Dema is perspiring and panting. She has been walking for an hour carrying a bulky lunch pack from her village, Botokha, nearby Talo.
"The Zhungdra performance particularly three songs known as Mani Sum are very close to the heart of the Talops," says Bhutanese traditional dance master, 73 year-old Ap Dawpel.
Probably the only dance master alive to retell the importance of the Talo Zhungdras, Ap Dawpel says that the Mani Sum was composed by Meme Sonam Dhondup, the grandfather of Zhabdrung Jigme Chogyal (1862-1904), the fifth mind reincarnation of the first Zhabdrung (1594-1651).
The three songs of Mani Sum are performed at the closing item on each day of the three-day Tshechu. Samyi Sala is performed on the first day, followed by Drukpai Dungye on the second day and Thowachi Gangi Tselay on the third and last day.
to Ap Dawpel, Zhabdrung Ngawang Choegyal in his last words (Sung
Chem) requested his younger brother Mepham Kuenga Dra to perform
the mask dances and the songs composed by his grandfather every
year during the Talo Tshechu. Samyi Sala was composed when
the Talo Sanga Choeling Dzong was built. "The inspiration to build the
Talo Dzong was drawn from the Samyi monastery in Tibet. Talo was
then compared to the Samyi monastery," Ap Dawpel says. Drukpai Dungye tells
the story of the Zhabdrung lineage, and Thowachi Gangi Tselay is
the thanksgiving or the Tashi Deleg song.
The songs have passed down from generation to generation without the slightest change in tune and lyrics, according to Ap Dawpel. "It is close to the heart of the Talops because it is like a priceless inheritance and has been blessed by many great Lamas," he adds. The songs, hand written on ancient scrolls, are registered as a property of the Talo monastery.
soon my legs will not be able to carry me to this ground," says Rinchen
Dema, once a member of the Talo dance troupe for 16 years, as she prepares
to spend the day in Talo.
According to a village elder the women of the dance troupe must refrain from sexual intercourse three days before the Tshechu to maintain the sanctity of the Tshechu. Others say that learning, dancing, and singing these songs has become an obligation for the Talops who are one way or the other linked with the various incarnations of the Zhabdrungs.
According to Kinzang Om, she gets a spiritual satisfaction from being part of the age-old tradition. "It is a big responsibility for the Talops and we enjoy shouldering our responsibility," she says. Another dancer feels that learning and performing the Mani Sum was a way to honour ancestors and keep alive an important tradition.
troupe starts practicing 16 days before the Tshechu with a daily allowance
of Nu. 30. According to Tsepoem Kinzang Dem, new comers in the troupe cannot
untie a single knot of the song in 16 days. "I have tried to teach some
dancers from other places and they find it very difficult. I think these
songs are meant only for Talops." "The Talops are known for their
excellence in the Zhungdra," says Aum Ugyen Dem, a villager from
Lobesa, "They are known for their rhythm, voice and the steps." While the
Talops take pride in their rich tradition, veterans like Ap Dopey and Kinzang
Om are worried by the growing influence of modern Bhutanese music.
the Talo Tshechu is changing according to Ap Dawpel. The songs are
now performed outside the dzong and the number of dancers has increased
to 11 from seven, Boedra (lively folk songs originally performed by
Boegarps or court attendants) has been introduced, and people crave
for Rigsar (modern Bhutanese songs) during the Tshechu.
The veteran has another concern. "There will be no one to retell the story of the songs," he says. "Rigsar, which is more appealing to the youth will take over and these songs will only be a history."
On his part Ap Dopey attends the Talo Tshechu every year and personally coaches the troupe and monitors the mask dance practice before the Tshechu.
"These songs are performed only during the Talo Tshechu and if RAPA performs it everywhere, the blessings would be lost," he added.
However, a Bhutanese ethnomusicologist, Jigme Drukpa of the academy has been following Ap Dopey to the Tshechu to study the songs and dances.
Back in the corner of Talo dzong, Rinchen Dema is least bothered by the afternoon wind. She hums along with the troupe as she prepares to leave satisfied. "I prayed to come back safely next year," she says as she tries to recollect a few lines from her favourite number, Drongla ya ya.