Capital city Thimphu celebrates its annual tsechu, for three days, which began yesterday.

Monsoon having ceased, farm work temporarily suspended until harvest and offices closed, it’s a time for leisure for Thimphu residents, who head to the majestic Tashichhhodzong in their best attire saved for the occasion.

There will be age-old sacred mask dances and almost of a theatrical spectacle.

Originating from tantric Buddhist practices, the dances are what has been performed for centuries taught and passed down by some of the great tantric masters themselves.

What is unique about the spectacle on this Bhutanese open-air theatre is the mix of several mask dances, ballads being sung and acts all coming together.

One fascinating story is “the stag and the hound” dance, which tells the story of a fearsome hunter and his flaming hound chasing a terrified stag. After a long chase around the courtyard of the dzong, the stag takes refuge near a yogi, by the name Milarepa. The hunter tries to shoot the yogi with an arrow but fails. The drama ends with the stag being spared its life and the hunter with his dog vowing to renounce hunting.

Open to interpretation, the basic understanding the tale brings to the spectators is of compassion and tolerance.

Other as fascinating spectacle is the story of the intermediary state of a person between death and rebirth. Audiences are often seen following this act with rapt attention, including children listening to their parent, or grandparents relaying the act. The performance offers spectators the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the deities (mostly animals, including some mythical ones) they will encounter after death. Inability to recognise them means the soul of the dead will be startled by the appearances of these deities, causing panic and subsequent rebirth in one of the samsaric realms. To be able to recognise the deities would mean for the same soul to find liberation.

Then there is the day of the judgment where a sinner is cast at the centre of the courtyard after several failed attempts to flee, caught and secured by two guards in front of the imposing lord of the dead, Singye Chojey Gyalpo. Judged based on his good deeds represented by white pebbles and black ones for the bad deeds, the latter weighs more. The sinner is eventually led to hell.

These are some of the deeper aspects of the tsechu ceremony, which over the years though, have come to be seen as a mere dance performance.