This piece is an excerpt from my book and it mentions about an unusual festival that I witnessed sometime during the fall of 2009. Happy reading!
My way of interpreting who we are is deep embedded in our culture and it is this culture of ours that make us distinct and different from the rest of the world. Since we are different, that gives us a different identity. As men make families, families make households, households make a village, villages make communities, communities make societies and ultimately societies make up a country. So this chain of interdependence is very much crucial for our co-existence. As said “man cannot live by bread alone”, our cultural heritage is important. Likewise we have our own way of doing things that makes us distinct and different.
So down to the villages, we have our own system of celebrations and set of belief that conjures up a split image of practices that ultimately makes the broad and diverse culture of our country. As ‘little drops of water and little grains of sand, makes the mighty ocean and the pleasant land’, Degala village too is no exception when it comes to portraying its own share of culture through festivals and beliefs. My encounter with such a festival took place in the 10th month of the Bhutanese calendar. It is a festival which locals term it as “Chodpa”. This festival goes on for four nights and three days. During my stay in Degala, I got two wonderful opportunities to witness such a rare event. Had I not come to Degala, I wouldn’t have seen this unusual fest in any other places in Bhutan. Degala people practice both the mainstream Buddhism and Bon practices.
During the festival, besides school going children, all other village folks are in their best of the mood- drunk! Not for a day but for the entire duration of the fest. This festive celebration begins with recitation of the religious texts and the mask dances begin. It literally is a fest of colors.
During the day it’s like any other local festival in Bhutan but it’s in the evening that things turn out to be interesting and worth witnessing. People come to the community temple in their best outfits in the evening and already, there would be lots of young girls singing and dancing, entertaining the gathering. After a few number of songs and dances, these girls sing their way to the “Gadpu Apa’s” residence to receive him. As per Bonism, he is supposed to enact some Bon god believed to be related to Guru Rimpoche. These girls affectionately sing and escort him to the community temple. After reaching the temple, the entire team circumambulates the village temple and gets into the temple. Most people would be already in the temple before his (Gadpu Apa) arrival and people impatiently wait for his arrival.
As he begins to dance, his gestures depict vulgar actions and all of his dances somehow or the other portrays the biological destiny of living beings-sex. When people get the message, men usually laugh and women hide their faces. While the elderly smile and little children yell. After this session, the Gadpu Apa, settles down with his assistants and starts drinking Bangchang, and soon others follow. The entire people gathered must be served Bangchang and Ara. One of the assistants called me outside and he offered me some. I too gave a few shots down my throat.
After the Ara session, it’s now time for the women and young girls to go crazy. They start passing remarks (bawdily) and soon men follow. The Bhutanese full stop which is very much prevalent is made public. It is more or less used as and when required and needed but if this remark is for me supposing, I shouldn’t get angry or annoyed regardless of my position or the status that I hold. Or in other words you shouldn’t feel ashamed not only during the festival but for the entire month (The 10th month). After the festive season, people carry on with the vulgar statements and remarks till the end of the month. That’s the norm. Strange!
The mask dances are like those performed in any other festivals elsewhere. Other than ‘Chodpa’, there are three more local festivals namely “Kharphu, Kaath & Shoo”. During the day, the celebration is mostly mask dances and nights are primarily meant for secretive love affairs among young, unmarried people. During my first year, I witnessed a middle aged woman accusing her husband of adultery and later we were told that she was drunk. She had some grudge against the other woman and then she might have thought “this can be the opportunity to bring her down”. In this whole drama, Mr. Husband was the puppet. In a typical Kheng dialect I was told, “Migser bulo rey, o kai chi kamey gi”. (This woman is suspecting adultery).
I was asking a few elderly people why is that people shouldn’t be ashamed of foul remarks during this time? “If you are ashamed especially in front of your kith and kin-this shame drives away your sins and bad deeds” said one. The other opines, “Foul remarks are better, it doesn’t cause much harm, in the past people used to drag women into the bushes and there’s nothing the spectators could do”. I too thought, its way better now, only coarse remarks!
I had a different reason to be ashamed of because when I was witnessing this vulgar episode of the ritual and dances performed by the so called ‘Gadpu Apa’, there were many of my students whom I taught in the school. I am not sure whether they ever were ashamed or not but I certainly was. When I was thinking of hiding my face from the children, women started yelling at me with all the vulgar remarks and I was red-ashamed.
One thing that is in plenty during this fest is the abundance of locally brewed alcohol. Every household would have brewed alcohol months in advance so that drinking becomes fun. During this time, fights and quarrels are also rampant. They also have meat on the menu and they celebrate ‘Chodpa’ like any other festivals in other parts of our country. One thing that isn’t common is the fact that, if a couple is childless, the wife will be given an erect (wooden) phallus by the Gadpu Apa. She will have to wrap it like a baby and carry it on her back and circumambulate the village temple. This practice is believed to be true and the couple did have a child later. Strange! The phallus can be seen in other fest such as the Kharpoo. Men in groups go from door to door singing “A-hoi”, wishing the household luck and fortune. And in return, the singers and the group are served alcohol and also given money-which they tie it on the wooden phallus.
According to my oral findings, different people have different things to say about this festival. Unlike other festivals, here the present generation of the people doesn’t really know much about the fest significance. However, the role of a Gadpu Apa isn’t hereditary and its skills can be learnt by any aspirant. On the 30th day of the ninth month in the Bhutanese calendar, the Lhakhang care taker will read a letter, claimed to be Guru Rimpochhe’s decree, to every house hold about how this festival began initially. He will also ask for contributions that must be made during the festival.
When I asked a few people, they say elderly might know but elderly ones say nothing concrete about its significance and origin. Due to limited information on this unusual fest, I couldn’t really put the facts as it should have been. It is what I have seen and experienced. And for alcohol drinkers, this festival is a safe haven.
 A saying from the book of Bible
 Opening lines from the poem ‘Little Things’ by Cobham Brewer
 The name of the festival that falls on the tenth month of the Bhutanese calendar corresponding to the 12th month of the Gregorian calendar
 A grandfather who is considered the main actor in the fest
 An 8th century Buddhist saint
 A distilled alcohol
 The names of other local festival of Degala which falls on the 3rd and 8th month of the Bhutanese calendar
 Community monastery