The Dochula Festival and the Bhutanese Ritual Dance Tradition

A group of staff and students from SHARE's Body Health and Religion Research Group undertook a four-week field trip to the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan in December 2011 and January 2012 in order to study a significant new State ritual performance, organised at the Dochula pass near the capital of Thimphu in order to commemorate a complex recent episode in Bhutanese history, a 2003 campaign to remove a number of Indian separatist encampments which had been set up in Southern Bhutan. The study team consisted of Geoffrey Samuel, Dawn Collins, who is undertaking a PhD on Tibetan ritual, and Ann David, a dance anthropologist from Roehampton University in London who visited Cardiff for a BAHAR seminar last year and has been part of the wider BAHAR research network for some years. The Cardiff participants were funded by a British Academy small grant for 6932.

Bhutan is situated to the east of Nepal, and is bordered by Chinese-occupied Tibet to the north and India to the south. It is part of the wider Tibetan cultural world in many ways, and for several centuries was ruled by a series of recognised rebirths of a senior lama, in a similar fashion to the rule of the Dalai Lamas in Tibet. In the early twentieth century, the lamas were replaced by a series of hereditary rulers supported by the British regime in India. The present and fifth king, Jigme Khesar Namgyal, succeeded to the throne in 2008 on the abdication of his father, and has presided over the introduction of a parliamentary democracy in Bhutan. The new state ritual was commissioned by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the senior queen of the fourth king, with assistance from the Bhutanese army, who provided many of the performers.

The Dochula event took the form of a series of Tibetan-style ritual dances and other dance performances, and was organised by Dasho Karma Ura, a leading Bhutanese scholar and creative artist who studied at Oxford and Edinburgh, directs the Centre for Bhutan studies in Thimphu and is closely associated with the Bhutanese Government's well-known emphasis on Gross National Happiness as a national development goal. Dasho Karma Ura is scheduled to visit Cardiff in 2013. The BAHAR visit to Bhutan, Dasho Karma Ura's visit to Cardiff, and a related conference panel at the Association of Social Anthropologists conference in Delhi in early April 2012 are all funded by a small grant from the British Academy. The theme of this conference was 'Arts and aesthetics in a globalising world,' and the panel examined the development of a number of new state rituals in the South and Central Asian region, as well as including three papers on the Dochula event itself.

While in Bhutan, members of the team attended and studied a number of events apart the Dochula festival itself. These included a more traditional ritual dance event (tsechu) at Trongsa Dzong in Central Bhutan, and a variety of other cultural and ritual performances. The team also had meetings with a number of senior personnel in the Royal University of Bhutan, and visited the Samdrup Jongkhar Initiative, a social development organisation in Southeast Bhutan based on organic agriculture and associated with the contemporary Bhutanese lama (and film-maker) Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. Geoffrey Samuel plans to apply for funding for a larger research project based around this project and a similar project in Bangladesh.

Ann David's illustrated blog on the Bhutan trip.
Page modifid 20 September 2012
by Geoffrey Samuel.