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The Pazaps - Keeping alive a historical tradition
The pazaps are beeing sent of with an elaborate ceremony

The PunakhaDzong resonateswith the war songs and sounds of explosions as the Pazaps sing and throw enormous fire-crackers into the courtyard to recreate the noise of battle. Dressed in red and black, the 136 Pazaps represent the soldiers in the Zhabdrung's army (only the people of western Bhutan belonging to the Wang Tshochengye - the eight great clans or geogs, situated within the boundaries of the Thimphu and Punakha regions) can take the role of the Pazaps.

Today the battle scene is re-enacted during the annual Punakha Domchoe by 17 people forming eight groups led by eight generals (Magpon).

The generals wear the finest battle garb: ghos with magnificient patterns, yellow silk skirts with coloured ribbons, and white, blueand red felt boots. They also wear heavy metal helmets decorated with flags, and attheir sides hang resplendent swords.According to a spokesman for the Central Monk Body, the ceremony was performed by the Zhabdrung in 1639 to hoodwink the Tibetan invaders into believing that the Rangjung Kharsapani had been thrown into the river.

The Tibetans had come to Punakha to forcefully take back the Rangjung Kharsapani which was brought to Bhutan by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. Realising that the sacred relic cannot be recovered from the river, the Tibetan warriors retreated. Thus the Zhabdrung had won another battle throught craft and cunning.


Amazing and unique: The last day of the Domchoe
Punakha Dzong
On the last day of the Domchoe each pazap performs Lengmag dancein front of His Holiness the Je Khenpo in the great courtyard of the dzong. Then they leave the dzong in groups shouting and whistling, and gesticulating theatrically as they descend the great staircase. At the bottom of the staircase, the generals mount their steeds and gallop away in a cloud of dust in four directions towards the surrounding areas to protect the religious relics that are being immersed in the river.

Then begins a slow religious procession with hundreds of monks and lams wearing the high red hat of the Drukpa Kagyu order leaving the dzong complex amid the sound of trumpets and drums.

The procession stops at the river bank where His Holiness the Je Khenpo with black hat and great apron decorated with the fearsome head of Mahakala performs the Luu Chok (religious ceremony for sub-surface spirits) and throws a handful of oranges into the river symbolising the precious relic, Rangjung Kharsapani - the self created image of Chenrezig or Avoleketeshvara. His Holiness represents the Zhabdrung, who performed the same ceremony on this spot in the 17th century.

After the symbolic immersion of the relic the Pazaps return with triumph. At the foot of the stairway leading into the dzong, the generals are pulled off their horses and carried in triumph up the stairs into the courtyard where the day of victory ends with celebrations.

One of the oldest and most popular in the country, the Punakha Domchhoe is attended by thousands of people from all over the kingdom and many tourists. It is being held from the 24th day of the 12th Bhutanese month to the 9th day of the 1st Bhutanese month every year. The war cries of the Pazaps, the sound of fire-crackers and the ceremonial procession (serdang) for a symbolic immersion of relic into the Mochu river are the highlights of the Punakha Domchhoe.

Punakha Punakha Dzong
Unlike Tshechus in various parts of the country which are dominated by the mask and folk dances Punakha devotes several days to ritual ceremonies (Goenwang Drubchog) appeasing Yeshey Goenpo or Mahakala, the protecting deity of Bhutan.

According to the Dorji Lopon of the Central Monk Body, Yonten Gyaltshen, the Punakha Domchhoe, introduced by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, is an expression of gratitude to all forms of protecting deities (Goenpos) from enemies and invasions.

The three-day Domchhoe is preceded by an eleven-day Goenwang Drubchog which was performed by His Holiness the Je Khenpo and more than 250 monks in the Dhukhang (congregation hall). During the Drubchog the monks perform religious ceremonies, the Black Hat dance, and many other sacred dances in the Dhukhang. But the three-day festival is dominated by the Pazaps.

A tourist described the Punakha festival as amazing and unique. "On the first day of the festival I saw some masked dances in the courtyard which were very spiritual," a French tourist told. "But I was also deeply moved and fascinated by the Bhutanese warriors which is very historical and different from other festivals."

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