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Mani sum: the sacred songs of Talo Tshechu

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.

It is the second day of the Tshechu in Talo - the seat of the mind incarnations of the Zhabdrung.

Rinchen Dema settles in a corner and waits for her favorite programme - the Zhungdra (classical song sung in meditative style without music) performance by the Talo dance troupe.

Talo Tshechu
"Very 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.

The three-day Talo Tshechu is well known for its mask and Atsara dances, but an equally popular attraction with deep religious and historical significance is the Zhungdra by the Talo dance troupe.

"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.

According 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.
Another notable Talop song is the Drongla ya ya, which was composed by Zhabdrung Jigme Choegyal's father, Kencho Wangdi. The song praises in detail the Talo monastery from the cobblestone flooring in the courtyard to the ladders that reach to the seat of the Zhabdrung.

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.

"Very 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.
The three-day Talo Tshechu is well known for its mask and Atsara dances, but an equally popular attraction with deep religious and historical significance is the Zhungdra by the Talo dance troupe. According to Ap Dawpel, Meme Sonam Dhondup first taught the Mani Sum to his two younger sisters, Aum Kaka and Tshering Lham. Ap dopey recalls his parents telling him that the two sisters took about two weeks to master the songs and the steps of the accompanying dance. "The steps might appear simple, but it takes months to perfect the movement," says Ap Dawpel.

Tsepoem (dance leader) Kinzang Om agrees. The 40-year old dance leader who started dancing at the age of 17 says that one perform the Mani Sum in two weeks but without the subtle nuances. "I have been singing and dancing for the last 23 years and I still need to practice the Mani Sum," she says.

One unique feature of the Talo Zhungdras is that only the Talops are allowed to learn the songs. "The songs are blessed and people from other places other than Talo will find it difficult," Ap Dawpel says. "If not performed properly it can bring misfortune in the form of natural calamities and outbreak of diseases."

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.

The 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.

Even 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.

Kinzang Om fears that one day there will be no dancers during the Talo Tshechu. "All the girls are now going to school and show little interest in these kind of songs," she says. "The government should intervene to help this tradition alive for ever."

According to the principal of the Royal Academy for Performing Arts (RAPA), no research has been done because these songs were registered under the Thram of the Talo monastery.

The RAPA dancers do not know how to perform these songs. "We made research attempts, but we were told that these songs were not for public entertainment," Principal Thinley Jamtsho said.

"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.

Contributed by Ugyen Penjor, Kuensel
Talo is in Punakha valley and it used to be closed to visitors. Some of the Travel Agents had promoted Talo Tshechu and they had problems since they were not allowed to take guests to the festival.
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