It’s a sight we witness at any given scenario in Bhutan – the promotion of a high ranking official, during a visit by a head of state, other ceremonial events and even during the Royal Wedding. It seems like the scale of occasion doesn’t matter; a Chipdrel and Marchang ceremony can make one small event as significant as the other with this simple, yet deep in content, ceremony. Many of us have probably stood by without even understanding why that man takes a ladle out of the pot to be blessed, what that white flag stands for, or make head or tail of those chants. And what about the little pieces of fruit and doma that we are handed out? The staid decorum and etiquette, common as it may be, surprisingly leaves many aghast when jousted about the actual significance. Just what is the story behind the rider-less horse, the wine-dipping standup and those colorful dancers lining up an important guest?
The quest for the trails leading to these practices leads us back in time, far back as the 16th Century with the arrival of the Zhabdrung in Bhutan. It also has ties to events from the time of the historical Buddha.
To delve on, under Bhutan’s unique code of conduct and etiquette, known as Driglam Namzhag is the Zhugdrel Phuensum Tshogpa ceremony. The ceremony comprises the Chibdrel and Marchang ceremonies amongst others.
Back in 1937, the Zhabdrung’s visit to Punakha was marked by great reverence not only from the people of Bhutan but also from India and Nepal. He was so impressed with the gathering and what was offered to him that he said the gathering was a good omen, and named the place Punathangkha, meaning the Mouth of the Plain of Gathering.
The Zhabdrung instructed everyone to be seated in rows and served food items of droma (kaser), drizang (saffron), suja (butter tea), dresi (fried sweet rice), doma pani (beetle nuts and leaves) and a variety of fruits, while special prayers dedicated to his spiritual lineage were recited.
From that day onwards, the auspicious day of gathering became the origin of what is today the Zhugdrel Phuensum Tshogpa in Bhutan.
The Chibdrel Ceremony
Chibdrel in simple parlance is a ceremonial procession of men and horse. Chib means horse and Drel means line in uniformity.
According to religious texts, when the Buddha was imparting teachings in heaven, earthly monks and nuns wanted to invite the Buddha as people had not seen him for a long time. They approached a man called Mougyel whose son had mystical powers to ascend to Heaven. The son in turn went to invite the Buddha who agreed to come to earth. The son then came back and urged people to make preparations to receive the Buddha.
However, the people questioned whether the Buddha would appear magically or if he would walk down the road? The concern was that if the Buddha appeared magically, people would not be able to see him. And if he descended walking down the stairs, the Mutigpas (anti-buddhists) would feel that the Buddha possessed no magical powers.
Nevertheless, for the sake of the people, the Buddha agreed to walk down. So, the people built three staircases made of gold, pearl and glass.
It was in Udumvara where the Buddha descended. People came for the reception with various tokens – flowers such as the lotus and coral, incense, unworldly crops and even a duck with a melodious voice. Following them were the precious gems, expensive embroidery and religious instruments.
The other incident that marks the importance of the Chibdrel was when King Zugchen Nyingpo of Magada brought a piece of the Buddha’s robe back to earth from heaven.
King Zugchen Nyingpo was immensely wealthy and he had a close friend, King Utrayana of Dradrongna, who was equally wealthy. The two friends decided to use their wealth for a good cause. A Dramze (a pious renunciate) requested King Nyingpo to draw an image of the Buddha. Thus the king had to ascend to heaven to meet the Buddha with precious gems. He then requested the Buddha for a piece of cloth from his robe where he would draw the image of the Buddha.
On his return to earth, King Zugchen Nyingpo summoned the best artists to draw the Buddha’s image. But the artists could not as they had not seen the divine one. The king then asked them to stretch the cloth and miraculously, the Buddha’s image was formed. So, on that image, the artists painted.
The sacred image was sent to King Utrayana. King Utrayana, in order to receive the image, beautified his kingdom. He planted fragrance trees and flowers. Finally, when the time for the reception of the image came, he did so with different colored scarves and a Chibdrel ceremony.
Coming back to Bhutan, there are three types of Chibdrel processions – high, medium, and lesser levels depending on the importance of the person. The longer ceremony takes over 45 different particulars with religious items carried by monks and earthly items carried by ordinary people. An ideal Chibdrel process is carried out with quite a number of fillers.
The procession occurs on an auspicious day designated for a special occasion such as high-profile promotions, marriages or major religious functions. It is led by a person, someone designated by astrological findings who represents and possesses a clean mind, body, luck and intelligence. He carries a white scarf that displays the emanation of Nyimo Delek (auspicious day) and Tashi Dargye (eight auspicious signs).
Following him is a white stallion, riderless. Its forehead is decorated and on its back is laid a white scarf displaying prints of Nyimo Delek and Tashi Tagye. On the scarf are placed three jewels. The stallion at the head of the procession signifies good omen as it is believed to have powers to resist evil.
In the religious legend, Changshay Balaha, a white horse manifestation of Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara) is said to have rescued many people from the underground and carried them back to earth. Thus symbolizing auspiciousness with the power to drive away evil spirits and install longevity.
Behind the white stallion, men walk dressed in red ghos beating drums and ringing bells. Two men in green ghos blow small horns. Then there are people carrying the Chogdar (directional flag), Tsendar (flag associated with a deity), Rudar (coy flag) and Gyaldar (victory banner). In the procession are people in armor and Pa Chham dancers followed by high profile officers. Behind them are people carrying various religious items like alter covers, Mandala (mystic circle), Zegyed (eight lucky articles), Gyalsid Naduen (the seven precious emblems), statues, stupas and incense.
In the group are also people holding earthly objects like Thrikheb (throne cover), Soelchu Jandum (water container), Chagsil Pangkhep (hand wash lap cover), Chitala (spit pot), Doma Bathra (doma pani container).
Finally followed by the Kudrung (monk prefect) whipping the ground, are the chief guests, body guards and attendants. Processing on either side of the Chibdrel are the Pawo dancers.
These days, the Chibdrel procession does not start all the way from the house of the person being honored as it was done back in the day. He travels in a car until the entrance to the venue and the procession begins from there.
However, an exemption is the promotion of the monastic elites where a Chibdrel process is not necessary as they reside within the Dzong.
When the Chibdrel procession arrives at the venue, people carrying Chogdar, Tsendar, Rudar and Darna Nga should stand behind the official who is promoted. Dancers and singers, office people and divisional heads should stand on the right side. On the left stands the escort team and people carrying the official’s belongings. The promoted official will stand in the middle of the line. And so begins the Marchang ceremony.
The Marchang Ceremony
There is a belief in Tantric Buddhism that at the earth’s beginning, the oceans churned so much that it led to the formation of a black smoke, the moon and the holy water. The gods and goddesses then rushed to drink the holy water which satisfied and rejuvenated their beings. From then on the holy water was considered an elixir by divine spirits. Today, the holy spirits are invoked in the form of wine during the Marchang ceremony.
In the olden days, visiting guests were received on half-way by the host with wine, serving as refreshment and energy for the travelers. These days, after receiving the guests, only the chief guest pretends to taste the wine – a symbolic gesture on behalf of everyone present.
In the ceremony, the important deities invoked are Mahakala and Mahakali, the main guardian deities of the country. The glorious teacher, the four assemblies of deities, the Daka and Dakinies of the three worlds, the dwellers of carnal grounds and the guardians of directions are also significantly mentioned in the prayer. The prayers appease the deities for good luck and the successful completion of the occasion.
The ceremony is usually conducted for inauguration of new structures, promotions, marriages, archery tournaments and major school or institutional functions, and therefore they can vary in levels.
This ceremony is also conducted during the National Day and during His Majesty the King’s dzongkhag tours. The ceremonies are always conducted outside in the open.
During the ceremony, a mat is spread in front of the chief guest’s seat, on which a Chogdrom (low carved wooden table is placed and covered with a clean cloth, never black). The Changthro (wine bowl) placed on the right end of the Chogdrom and the Chemar (floor butter) on the left, with Phuechog (wine offering) on the middle.
The wine bowl is filled with freshly fermented grain with a bamboo-knit filter in it. Fixed on the rim of the bowl are three horns made of ivory or wood called Yangdrons. With one facing the server, the other two take on the server’s right and left positions. The Yangdrons never face the chief guest. The Kuchu (ladle) is placed into the Changthro with the handle on the server’s right.
At a level where the King is present, the offering of the Chemar is made by an astrologer (Tsilop), Phuechog by the Gyalzin and the Marchang by the Dzongda. Standing in order of the offerings, as soon as the Gyalzin picks up the Phuechog from the table, the Tsilop and Dzongda offer the Chemar and Marchang at the same time.
As the grace recites “Zhenyang Yulchog”, the Phuechog and the ladle of the Chemar are put back in their respective places. The Marchang server draws up fresh wine and passes in to the middle person, who then walks outside and throws it away. While coming back, the person makes a sign of tasting the freshly drawn wine and indicates and offering to the chief guest. Then he goes outside to throw it away. Returning, he carries a ceremonial flag which is offered to the chief guest. He then leaves from the right side of the Chogdrom, while the other two servers pick up the Chogdrom and the bowl, and follow.
The person serving Marchang stands near the Changthro, lowering and opening the left palm, while the right hand holds the ladle. As the wine grace “Om Ah Hung” is recited three times, he simultaneously offers the wine, lifting up the ladle and pouring the wine into the Changthro at every recitation of “Om Ah Hung”.
As the grace reaches “Choedo Phued Thamched Kyi Ngadag…” the Marchang server offers the wine, lifting up both hands to shoulder level. Then at every recitation of “Zhaldu Pantsa Amrita Pauza Khahi” he pours the wine into the Changthro.
At the end of the fourth offering, as the grace recites “Zhan Yang Yulchog Di Nyid La Neypa La Sog Lhama Sin Degyed…” he draws fresh wine from the Changthro and throws it outside. He then draws wine again and offers it in front of the chief guest and walks out, turning from the right side.
After handing over the ladle to the person holding the Thugmon Darshing at the backyard, he stands near the Changthro with the Darshing’s lower part resting on the outstretched left hand and the upper part resting on the right shoulder.
While taking the Darshing to the chief guest the lower part of the Darshing should not be raised high but placed in the right hand of the chief guest who then says a prayer.
After the prayer is finished, the bottom of the Darshing is lowered and the server should leave the place turning from the right side of the Chogdrom. After the Marchang sever leaves the place, the Chagep is distributed, followed by the prayer of auspiciousness (Phuensum Tshogpai Zhaldon).
The writer is a freelance journalist. He was the former editor of Bhutan Youth.