In Praise of Dzonga Reflections of a first-time Pangtoepa

It is with altitude and also age that as you go higher the air you breathe has a subtle change. It enters the nostrils, plays with the synapses in the brain and makes you believe you can climb Everest. So there I was at 40, brandishing a sword and shield feeling like an overdressed gladiator on the courtyard of the Mane Chokerling complex at Rabong ready to perform the Pangtoed Chaam for the Dra lhas of Sikkim.

The Pang Lhabsol is an annual propitiatory ceremony in which fresh harvest and prayers are offered to the guardian deities of Sikkim seeking in return blessings and benevolence. Pangtoed Chaam, or simply the warrior dance, is a part of the celebrations where the lay persons as Pangtoepas perform as the soldiers of Dzonga, revered as the guardian deity of Sikkim, vanquishing evil, suffering and ignorance.

The one street town of Rabong lies on a ridge that overlooks both the Teesta and the Rangit rivers. The high Maenam hill slopes its way down to Rabong allowing itself a little linear path before rising to meet the Tendong hill across. As you can see, the ridgeline is the lowest point for the moisture-laden clouds to pass through which either brings about precipitation or a constant cloud cover over the town. No wonder the town finds itself named for a wet goat.

Somewhere in the 1980s, Rabong put up its hand and took over the mantle of performing the Pang Lhabsol in Sikkim. As the years wore on, the little Mane Lhakhang, where the celebrations were held annually, with the devotion of its people transformed into a beautiful monastery and throngs of people continued to increase soaking in the festive air.

How did the fool notion of being a Pangtoepa enter my head?

Well, I was told a member of our family had always performed the Chaam. I do not know how far back the line went, but my grandfather for one, Sonam Dorjee was a renowned Champoen, the lead dancer, in his time. My uncle Sherap Palden was amongst the others in the family who performed the Chaam, even performing during his stint as the Finance Minister of the State.

Then there were none. It could be the discontinuing of the Pangtoed Chaam at Tsuklakhang, the sending of children to missionary schools, the advent of cinema and VCRs that the religious aspects in our lives slowly took a backseat. But like I said, I had turned forty, found myself posted at Rabong, the photograph that hung in our sitting room wall of my grandfather in the ceremonial dress of a Pangtoepa looking slightly askance played on my mind and a sudden itch developed.

Being a bureaucrat in Sikkim has its perks; you can force your way into many an advantageous situation. So one fine day, I rang up my landlord Yenten Gyatso, Head Master of a nearby Secondary School, who, I heard, was performing and asked him if I could join in. He paused, a little taken aback at my request, he was probably expecting me to ask him to repair the roof that leaked from time to time and then was kind enough to invite me.

Trudging my way to the monastery on the first day, I found little monks in rehearsal with a couple of young men. There had been a decrease in the participation of the laity over the years and monks were now filling in. Among the men, Thendup was a young teacher in the nearby Senior Secondary School and into his third year as a Pangtoepa, while Chophel and Tsegyel, young emerging entrepreneurs, were performing for the first time. The Head Lama assigned young Lama Tashi to tutor me. With only a fortnight left, I took my stance and suddenly realized I had two left feet.

The Pangtoed Chaam is a Gong Ter or a mind treasure, attributed to the third Chogyal, young Chagdor Namgyal. Whether it was his days in exile in Tibet as the royal astrologer in the court of the 6th Dalai Lama or it was his way of bringing discipline and cohesion in his people who had suffered from an easy Bhutanese defeat and long occupation, the choreography for the Chaam is supposed to have come in a vision.

And here I was 400 hundred years later, marveling and struggling simultaneously with the nuances of the dance. The two hour long dance, spread over a sequence of nine movements performed in both slow and fast tempo punctuating the circumambulating steps in the courtyard.

The Chaam is a test of stamina. The year before, one of the dancers had quit midway as the dance in the sweltering heat had become too much to bear while another had completed the Chaam and then fainted inside the monastery. Add to it the pressure of performing in front of a huge crowd. Age was also not on my side, there was heaviness in my steps and stamina was an issue with a sedentary life, but mule-headedness is a family trait.

By the looks of young Lama Tashi, I knew he found my stiff postures sacrilegious as he had trouble stifling his smile and reprimanding the giggles of the young monks as I huffed and puffed along while he glided effortlessly. Somewhere down the family line, the elegance of movement had deserted me. With few days left, I coaxed Lama Tashi to give me private lessons in the morning that would be repeated in the evenings with the others.

As my learning advanced steadily from Thomay Ngakor to Gulung Chhup, so did the length in time of the hot water fomentations, and the smell of Volini pervaded. The muscles were rebelling violently to the sudden change in their lifestyle.

As the big day came closer, the flurry of activities grew. Yenten and Lama Tashi took to painting helmets and fixing wires for the silk flags while others took out the Khos of brocade and docha, boots of brocade, from their long hibernation in the boxes and had them sunned. Swords were oiled and polished.

On the penultimate day, a final rehearsal was played out in the presence of the stern senior monks who seated themselves in the Yabring. By now, dancers of the previous years had also started trickling in and it was sad to see the youngest monks weeded out, but their time would come. Monks from the Ralang monastery were to enact the majestic Dzonga and Mahakala and young Lama Tashi would be Chamjug, who would bring up the rear and perform the entire sequence of nine movements an unbelievable three times before closing the Chaam. As for me I tucked myself in between two dancers I could cajole to go a little slow and correct me along the way.

On the 29th of August, 2015 the sun broke into a smile over Rabong. An early bath, a small breakfast and I was within the monastery precincts. We all helped each other get into our battle regalia and dabbed paint on our faces. With sashes across our kho and festooned helmets we sure looked dapper.

As the 15 of us kneeled before the altar, special prayers were performed for us and we were ordained as Dzonga’s warriors. Me, I was praying hard to Dzonga that my sore legs wouldn’t give way and I could complete the Chaam. And then with the beat of drums, clashing cymbals and trumpets blowing, we stepped out.

With the sun out, a jam-packed audience, and somewhere within the throng my family looking, it felt good. The days of practice paid out as we moved in unison making turns and twists, leaping and slashing as we danced our way around the courtyard. It wasn’t exactly climbing Everest but it was way up there.

Thank you, Dzonga. Thank you, Lama Tashi. And thank you, Rabong.

(The writer is proud that another cousin, Pempo Dorjee, has taken up the mantle this year and is performing the Pangtoed Chaam at Tsuklakhang)