Mythical dragons and snow lions would take on regulars like the monkeys, tigers, snakes, even dogs to a whirling dance competition. Amid performing creatures come clowns that bring a mix of jocular welcome distraction. Gods and deities send the solemn whiff.
Humans, who form the square boundaries on a courtyard of a fortress, or a lawn of a remote village play devout spectators, struck with mixed feelings – pious, enchanted, cracked up, terrified.
Much before there was television, even much before cinemas, there was the open-air theatre.
Of course the concept is closely linked to Shakespeare, whose as popular plays – tragic, comic and tragi-comic – were acted out by talented village folks and wanderers on a stage, sans roofs, for spectators rich, poor and sometimes the Queen herself.
In Bhutan, such an open-air theatre is believed to have existed with the construction of the first dzong, or fortress following arrival of the Zhabdrung in 1616, the same year the Bard of Avon died.
But open-air theatrical performances, Bhutanese scholars believe, probably existed much before there were theatres.
It was believed Bhutanese enacted roles of saints, performed mask dances and sang out ballads in tribute of great tantric Buddhist masters and treasure discoverers that visited the kingdom as early as the eighth century, on lush bucolic lawns.
It is unknown when exactly, or on what year of the 10th day of the Lunar calendar the first tsechu, an occasion of open-air festivals through such performances, were observed.
In Bhutan, all dzongkhags, within them the gewogs and even within gewogs, village communities had festivals marked by open-air performances, a tradition passed down generations.
For common people, who cannot read Buddhist scripts, it is a why of the learned monks to help them understand some of the basic tenets of Buddhism through a graphic representation, through a narrative, a story.
Good always triumphs over evil, sinners are brought to task on the judgment day. Stories are told of what happens to a soul following a person’s death, during the intermediate stage, what it goes through, the sorts of creatures it comes across.
In a way, such open-air traditions are a means of keeping the Buddhist faith alive and to be passed from one generation to the next.
It is also a media. Guided by the Bhutanese agrarian practice, such festive activities were said to have been saved for end-of-cultivation season, or pre-harvest season. That way, talented farmers were available for hire to play certain part and there are ready spectators. Dressed in their finest, men, women, children, families, couples and singles all flock to the courtyard of a fortress, or an open lawn by a monastery.
An evidence of a living faith, an epitome of Bhutanese culture, open-air theatres are here to stay.