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Day 112: Paro

Michael Palin - HimalayaThe courtyard is filling up. In the buildings on the far side boys faces peep out and figures in maroon robes flit across the windows, their shaved heads catching the sunbeams.

There are a few tourists, but they're heavily outnumbered by local people, and heavily out-dressed as well. Not for the Bhutanese the polyester or the Gore-Tex. For them it's fine cotton and silk brocade, or hand-woven wool, individually patterned. Colours and designs are bold but never brash. I've rarely seen showing-off done with such subtlety.

There are no rows of seats, no tickets, no security staff bristling with head-sets. Spectators are left to sort themselves out, though there is a jolly, smiling actor brandishing what looks like a cat o'nine tails, who occasionally intervenes to help little children and performers get to the front.

First in the arena are the atsaras, clowns with bright red costumes and face masks dominated by exaggerated, beaky noses. They look like Mr Punch. Some carry painted wooden phalluses, which they use for crowd control. In their half-frightening, half-funny masks they are extremely effective at everything, from keeping the crowd back to chasing off stray dogs who want to take part. They also keep the crowd's spirits up with slapstick routines. Doje tells me that the atsaras, like court jesters, have licence to mock anyone involved in the tsechu, including the monks. This is quite necessary, as the long dances can become a bit tedious and are notably short on laughs.
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  • Series: Himalaya
  • Chapter: Day 112: Paro
  • Country/sea: Bhutan
  • Place: Paro
  • Book page no: 256

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