Clowns In Bhutan?

December 03, 2023

Atsara posing for the camera, BhutanAtsara posing for the camera, Bhutan

Atsara posing for the camera, Bhutan
Fujifilm X-H2, Fujinon XF 56mm f1.2 R, f1.2 @ 1/1800 second, ISO 125

David Oliver says the only clown in Bhutan is me, but I'm used to his poor and ill-founded attempts at humour. However, in some ways he's correct, because the costumed monks you see wandering around the festivals with masks on their heads and large wooden phalluses in their hands are called atsaras, even though they look like clowns!

Buddhism is fascinating in that it can be engaged with at many different levels. The festivals in Bhutan are generally put on for the local people who, in earlier years, would have had limited education. How do the monks instruct them? The dances are one approach, telling stories that they might not be able to read. The atsaras are another approach to teaching, breaking down the deeply spiritual world into a more accessible and profane flavour.  No one is beyond the reach of the atsaras, even the head monks! Wandering around the festival, the atsaras are often making collections for the temple and tapping people on their heads with bright red phalluses. No donation, more taps on the head!

Of course, this is just what we observe when we're there (and yes, I do make donations to the temple). Behind what westerners see as unusual behaviour is a deeply considered approach to communicating the various Buddhist messages.

As with festivals around the world, when everyone is having fun, their guards are down. Photographers these days are very common and nearly everyone in Bhutan has a mobile phone, so taking pictures is commonplace. And while there aren't a lot of western tourists, the monks know that one with a camera is worth cultivating for a generous donation.

At one particular festival just outside Bumthang, access to the changing courtyard behind the festival quadrangle is allowed. At many festivals in the dzongs (fortified monasteries), the monks are getting changed inside where photographers are not welcome, but this courtyard is large enough to entertain a few extra visitors and so it was just a matter of sitting in the corner and wandering out when things looked interesting. I spent three or four hours there and found it far more interesting than the actual dances and presentations themselves.

While it's hard to tell when they are in costume, all the dancers and atsaras are young men and they're having fun. For this photo, a group of them were having a chat as I walked up. My subject happily looked directly at me and you can see his mate give me the victory sign (I am hoping) in the background. A little post-production has added in suitable extra atmosphere - but the costumes and masks are the real deal.

 


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