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The pomp and festivity of Bhutan's warriors pageant

Karma Dorji Bhutan Himalaya Travel Programs Coordinator

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Stone-faced, burly and forbidding, the warriors are suddenly all smiles and grins, showing crimson teeth stained by beetle-juice. The fierce men lined up moments earlier for the group photograph are modern-day descendants of Bhutan's Pazaaps, a centuries-old citizen's militia charged with safeguarding holy relics within the fortified ramparts of western Bhutan's Punthang Dechen Phodrang or "Palace of Great Bliss," which straddles the confluence of two rivers, Mochu and Phochu, like a great white ship at anchor. 

Monumental and majestic, the Dechen Punthang Phodrang or "Palace of Great Bliss", otherwise known as Punakha Dzong, emerges from the morning mist like a great white ship at anchor. From the Bhutan Himalaya Archives

Like their ancient forebears before them, the present-day Pazaaps have heavy spiked brass helmets with protective coverlets that run down the sides and backs of their heads. They carry lightweight shields made from woven cane with an outer covering of tough animal hide. Their bright red shoulder-to-knee ghos are made from a dense blend of yak hair and wool. Wrapped around their shoulders and their necks are durable lengths of dull raw silk which, used correctly, can stop a full frontal blow from a long sword. And yes, they are wearing swords; swords well over two-feet long and hanging swashbuckler-fashion from their waists or tucked at rakish angles into their belts. 

Fierce protectors of an ancient martial tradition, the Pazaaps of Punakha appear in public in full ceremonial regalia once a year at the end of a great spring festival to commemorate their proud military past and their role safe-guarding the holiest relics in the land. © Karma Dorji/Bhutan Himalaya

After leaving me with detailed instructions on where I can find them in their villages (so I can deliver their pictures when they are printed) they rush off, disappearing quickly into the long shadowy passages on either side of the massive stone fortress (known colloquially as a dzong*) they have known all their lives. They are in a hurry because the Pazaaps and their cohorts are the main attraction today at the annual "Procession of Warriors", a grand festival blending religion, history and cultural spectacle in this part of the country we have invited our guests to attend. 

Each year, when winter gives up its hold on the countryside to an early spring and purple jacarandas start to bloom on the trees outside its walls, the grand halls and courtyards of this monumental monastery-fortress, one of the kingdom's finest, explodes in a riot of colors and sounds, a medieval pageant recounting one of the country's most important legends. 

The normally restrained and formal interiors of the Punakha Dzong becomes a riot of colorful festivity during the Procession of Warriors. © Karma Dorji/Bhutan Himalaya

The story concerns a certain holy relic—the Rangjung Kharsapani*—a miraculous self-created image of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, which was brought to Bhutan from Tibet in the early 17th century when Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel—master-builder, administrator and renaissance spiritual leader— who is credited with unifying and creating the nation-state of Bhutan, came to the kingdom. It was only natural that when he left the feuding monasteries of Tibet Shabdrung would bring his most prized spiritual inheritance with him. But the perceived loss of the holy object in the wake of Shabdrung's departure irked his powerful rivals in Tibet who promptly launched several military campaigns from the north to reclaim it. Enter the Pazaap warriors, who were sworn in as its defenders. 

Lining up for the procession, the pageant of Bhutanese warriors is more tradition than utilitarian and yet the men are still chosen for their strength, intelligence, standing in the community and to a certain extent for their good looks and physical stature. © Karma Dorji/Bhutan Himalaya

A sudden blast of ceremonial music—drums, long horns, reedy pipes and clashing hand-held cymbals—announces the start of the day's festivities. Following the sounds of the music to the main outer courtyard of the dzong, I see the grand procession of warriors weaving its way from the ample grounds outside the fortress. 

I scan the hushed, expectant crowds of spectators gathering around the festival arena and am glad to see our able guides and staff have already found favorable seating for the guests in the upper galleries from where they will have unobstucted views.   

As the procession moves closer, I can see that in addition to the foot soldiers like the ones I photographed earlier, there are proud commanders with gleaming helmets and flashy silks and brocades. They ride brightly festooned horses, led and followed by long lines of monks and monastics. 

The ceremonies begin with the arrival of a senior lama playing the part of Shabdrung (lit. "At Whose Feet We Kneel"), 17th-century hierarch of the Drukpa or "Dragon" school of Himalayan Buddhism and Unifier of the modern nation-state of Bhutan. © Karma Dorji/Bhutan Himalaya

Each time the expeditionary forces from the north were repelled by the Pazaaps they returned with more troops in further attempts to capture the relic on behalf of the rival monasteries in Tibet. Finally, Shabdrung and the ancestors of today's Pazaaps came up with a clever idea to put an end to the hostilities. 

During a lull in the battle, they formed an elaborate procession of monks and warriors to the banks of the Mochu river next to the dzong and pretended to throw the holy object into its rushing waters. When it seemed to the Tibetan forces that the Avalokitesvara image was now lost to everyone they turned and left, never to return, at least for the express purpose of retrieving that particular sacred image.

 

Meantime, unbeknownst to the Tibetans, the Rangjung Kharsapani was securely placed in one of the highest, most fortified towers of the dzong, where it remains to this day. In time, it became one of Bhutan's most important state treasures.

Colorful swirling religious standards and pennants dominate the view on the festival grounds as the annual procession of warriors gets underway. © Karma Dorji/Bhutan Himalaya

Then, a flash of yellow, a quick gleam of reflection from round-rimmed glasses announcing the arrival of one of the most recognizable and beloved figures in the kingdom, His Holiness Je Khenpo, chief arbiter of all things monastic in Bhutan. The courtyards now fill up quickly with vibrantly dressed festival-goers in their best and brightest. Among the residents of the surrounding valleys of Punakha, are state guests, high officials, ministers and members of the kingdom's beloved royal family who take their seats  in the upper viewing galleries of the dzong. In short order, the festivities begin in earnest. 

The elaborate upper gallery of dignitaries at the festival, including the ceremonial seat of His Holiness Je Khenpo. © Karma Dorji/Bhutan Himalaya

A sudden explosion of fire-works accompanied by blood-curdling yells, whoops and whistles announces the entrance of our friends, the Pazaaps. Blades slice the air and shields rise to meet them. Faces contort fiercely, bodies twist and twirl. Drums beat, and feet leap in the air, a strenuous if effortless-seeming ballet telling a story about the brave and historic encounters of warriors past.

Re-enacting the battles of forbears past, Bhutan's Pazaap warriors preserve a vital aspect of the kingdom's cultural memory © Karma Dorji/Bhutan Himalaya

Suddenly, a plaintive cry, followed by more ceremonial music. The yellow-robed figure of the Je Khenpo rises, followed by his retinue of monks and ceremonial standard bearers. The procession gradually makes its way out of the courtyard and down the stairs to the banks of the river. Bhutan's spiritual leader ceremonially throws something round and shiny into the river (I am told it is an orange) symbolizing one of history's most unique peace-inducing deflections as well as an annual offering to the spirits of the river.

The re-enactment of the ancient procession includes Bhutan's chief abbot, His Holiness Je Khenpo (in yellow robes), modern day representatives of officials and nobility from the surrounding valleys and retinues of monks, musicians and warriors. © Karma Dorji/Bhutan Himalaya

Watching this final act of one of Bhutan’s most militarily-influenced living cultural artifacts, in a country otherwise known for its peace and steadfast non-alignment during the cold war, I have reached a personal conclusion. I have decided that, despite the explosions, in spite of the fierce dances, the leaping, jousting and vigorous crossing of swords, this event is really about finding resolution. It is not so much about the pride and prowess of the Pazaap warriors as about defusing potentially damaging and lasting conflict, something we need more of in the world today. 

Young Pazaaps warriors resting after the festivities and exertions of public performance, with a young man studying to be a monk. While their lives will lead them down very different paths, of householder and renunciate (in the case of the monk), their strong bonds of kinship will endure through the years enabled by the openness and the variety of roles that those in the monasteries play in the lives of the average Bhutanese citizen. © Karma Dorji/Bhutan Himalaya

Down by the river, I can see the Pazaaps celebrating, pumping their fists gleefully in the air. I hear their exuberant shouts and cries, and though I can't see their faces from the distance, I imagine them grinning ear to ear with red betel-stained teeth, marking yet another happy year of their lives. 

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