It is almost midnight. The temperature has dropped to 2 degree Celsius. A large gathering of devotees wait in anticipation huddled near Jampa lhakhang in Bumthang, their eyes on the monastery’s main door.
Exactly at midnight, a group of men rush out from the door, swirling and twirling in the air, to the rhythmic accompaniment of traditional mask dance drums and cymbals.
Except for their faces, which are covered by a white cloth, the men are all naked.
They are known as the sacred naked dancers or Tercham of Jampa lhakhang Tshechu, which started on November 13 (in 2008). It is one of the tshechu’s highlights and a popular item among the spectators.
Some sections of crowd burst into giggles at the sight. The dancers, more than following routine dance moves, generally fool around, sometimes carrying off outrageous stunts. They wear condoms. They play with their organs. They tie ropes around it.
According to Chamkhar Lam Dorji, the dance was introduced by the great treasure discoverer, Tertoen Dorji Lingpa, on the prophecy of the Guru Rinpoche in the 8th century. It was first performed in Nabjikorphu under Trongsa dzongkhag. A band of devils was believed to be causing havoc and misery during the construction of a lhakhang in the area, destroying the work and delaying it. To distract the devils, Terton Dorji Lingpa launched the naked dance. The outrageous antics of the naked performers during the dance are said to have kept the devil spellbound. In due course, the lhakhang was completed and consecrated. Terton Dorji Lingpa, who also consecrated Jampa lhakhang, brought the dance here.
The Chamkhar lam, Dorji, in an interview with Kuensel describes the dance as one of the most sacred in Bumthang. “You shouldn’t look at it as just a male organ. It is one of the precious ter (treasures in the world). All sentient beings are brought into the world by this organ.”
The dancers are chosen from the four different villages of Jampa lhakhang, Nobgang, Changwa and Nashphey.
At one time, there is extreme uneasiness when the 16 dancers surrounds the fire, near family members, but spirituality overcomes discomfort. Elders fold their hands. A dancer, who has volunteered for seven years, said that he was very hesitant the first time he appeared naked in front of people. “But today I’m proud to be a part of such a sacred dance.”
Some dancers said that their friends were able to recognise them through their guise, but were not allowed to call their names out in the crowd. The dance also draws a lot of tourists every year. “There was a good sense of humour as the dancers came closer and closer to the spectators,” said Carla Duymelinck from Belgium.
The naked dance was once banned by the Bumthang dzongkhag administration citing vulgarity. But the ban was lifted after the dzongkhag’s drub (religious festival) was spoiled by unusually heavy rainfall. Local astrologers pointed out not performing the Tercham or the naked dance during the drub as the cause of the downpour.
Elderly devotees said that the male organ, which is never exposed in public, was like the ter. “We have to look at it with devotion and not make fun of it,” said a villager, folding his hands during the dance. “The younger generation may find it funny, but it was started by our great saints.”