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Day 112: Paro

Michael Palin - HimalayaThey are, however, astonishingly rich in costume. From the very first number, described in the programme as Dance of the Lord of Death and His Consort, the profusion of colour and design, the sheer quantity of brocaded silk on display, the exuberance of the ankle-length robes with their wide, swirling sleeves, is marvellous to behold.

Big, expressive, brilliantly coloured masks complement the sumptuous costumes. If the deities are to be portrayed then they must be portrayed in all their terrible, magnificent glory. The music that accompanies the dance is played on eye-catching instruments ranging from the seven-foot-long Tibetan trumpets they call dungchen to painted and tasselled double-sided drums that look like cushions. Oboes, bells, cymbals, conch shells and a small horn made from a shin bone contribute to the clashing, tinkling, plangent sound.

As the morning goes on, the crowd swells, more and more people squeezing into the limited space around the perimeter until it's barely possible to avoid being pushed forward. It gets hotter, the high bright sun slicing the courtyard in two, reminding me of the sol y sombra of a Spanish bullring.

The Dance of the Lord of the Cremation Grounds is followed by the Dance of the Black Hats. I don't know the significance of these dances and the English translations are not always enlightening: 'on the external edges of a symbolic mandala where the assembly of the secret tantric deities are residing.' What is impressive is the poise of the dancers, often carrying enormously heavy costumes and headdresses, as they trip, turn, whirl and pirouette on the hard stone flags. In the last dance I see, The Dance of the Drum From Dramitse, the Black Demons are vanquished by the splendour of the White Gods, who swirl round in golden silk skirts hung with precious jewels. It is outlandish, frequently inexplicable and very wonderful.
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  • Series: Himalaya
  • Chapter: Day 112: Paro
  • Country/sea: Bhutan
  • Place: Paro
  • Book page no: 256

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