Kharphu: A Bon Festival of Shingkhar

Description

Zhemgang district has much to offer in terms of culture and heritage. Every year, many different religious and cultural festivals are performed at different locations, which attract many visitors from both within and outside the country. Amongst the many festivals that are celebrated, the Wamling Kharphu, Goshing Chodpa and Shingkhar Kharphu are considered the most significant festivals that have been in practice for many generations.

In Shingkhar, the Kharphu festival is celebrated mainly to appease Lha Ode Gungyel in the ninth month of the Bhutanese calendar. This festival is practised not only to dispel evil forces and other misfortunes, but also to bring peace, harmony, and good harvest in the community.

History

The Kharphu (mkhar phud) is a Bon ritual, which has existed before the spread of Buddhism in Bhutan. Kharphu ritual is celebrated in central and eastern Bhutan in various forms at different times. Different communities and researchers have given different meaning for the word Kharphu.  In Wamling community, people think Kharphu refers to a white gho and white crown worn by a Bonpo (Bon priest) during the celebration because in Khengkha (local language), kharti means white. In Tsamang gewog under Mongar district, Kharphu (mkhar phud) means pile of offerings that people make to the god of humans, cattle, and crops. In Shingkhar, the village elders believe that it is a Bonkar (Bon white offering) ritual that does not involve animal sacrifice while propitiating Lha Ode Gungyel. In fact Kharphu (mkhar phud) means the festival of first Offerings to the local deity.

It is difficult to trace the origin of the Kharphu ritual. The Bonpo performs the ritual, and it is believed that Bonpo goes into a trance and takes a shamanic journey to reach Central Tibet to invite Lha Ode Gungyel. The Bonpo invites the Lha (god) by reciting the ancient routes from central Tibet to Shingkhar village via Monla Karchung (Mountain pass) to Bumthang, and then to Shingkhar. The Bonpo and his assistants make the offerings by singing verses called Ahoi (Kharphu ritual verses). Thus, by propitiating Lha Ode Gungyel, people believe that their community will be blessed with prosperity, good health, bumper harvest, timely rainfall, and an increase in the number of cattle and other livestock.

Preparation of Kharphu Festival

The whole community engages in the preparation of Kharphu ritual. On the 12th day of the 9th month of the Bhutanese calendar, towards the evening, the Bonpo accompanied by his assistant and a few people go to the Lha Gor (stone of god). The community clean the surrounding area, hoist ceremonial flags decorated with flowers for the occasion, and burn incense sticks to purify the place of all obscurations related to birth and death. Then, the Bonpo invites Lha Ode Gungyel to bless the community by reciting Ahoi.

From the 13th day to the 15th day of the 9th month of the Bhutanese calendar, people distil ara (local wine) and bangchang (local ale), and rice are milled for the occasion. On the 16th day, the Bonpo and the community people build a shrine at the host’s house called Lhai’ Kyilkhor (Mandala of God) with banana leaves and decorated with an array of beautiful flowers. After the kyilkhor is completed, the Bonpo prepares an offering of fruits and bangchang, lights butter lamps, and burns incense stick to invite Lha Ode Gungyel to the mandala.

Bonpo, in a trance, invites the Lha from the thirteen stages of sky (ལྷ་གནམ་རིམ་པ་བཅུ་གསུམ།) to Samye in Tibet. It is believed that the Lha travels from Tibet through Monla Karchung to the village of Kheng Shingkhar. When the Lha supposedly arrives at the host’s house, people offer libation to celebrate his arrival.  After the arrival ritual is completed, both the Bonpo and the people enjoy the bangchang as a blessed drink.

Ba-phud: Offering of Dairy Products              

In the rural villages, cattle are the source of livelihood. Therefore, on the 16th day of the 9th month of the Bhutanese calendar, people observe the cattle festival called Ba-phud (cattle product offered to the god of cattle). It is celebrated in two villages on the same day and the same Bonpo performs the ritual on this occasion. In Shingkhar Trong (village), Ba-phud ritual is conducted in the morning and the festivity takes place near a paddy field. Subsequently, the same ritual is conducted in Moyumbi village in the afternoon. To celebrate this offering festival, the community members of these two villages make a Lhai’ Kyilkhor at their respective villages. Then, a ritual cake called Damba (rice cake) is prepared to represent Lha Ode Gungyel. Everybody gathers at their respective ceremonial grounds to mark the festival, and people come bearing offerings of rice (prepare offering cakes), butter, cheese, milk and bangchang, so that they receive blessings for their cattle in return.

During the cattle festival, irrespective of their age, people bring small stones tied with strings to represent their cattle. These stones are given the names of their cattle, types and genes as per their wish, and then they tie the stones to the pole of Lhai’ kyilkhor. The Bonpo makes an offering of dairy products, and after the ritual people take their stones home as blessings to their cattle.  The villagers share the ritual cake to feed their cattle with the belief that their wishes would be fulfilled; their cattle would multiply, which is also a sign of prosperity in the village.

Ba-phud festival is not only the festival of offerings of dairy product to their god, but also is the day when the Bonpo makes predictions for the wellbeing of the cattle. Therefore, every household consults the Bonpo if there will be fortune or misfortune for their cattle. The Bonpo makes predictions by using a banana leaf, which is thrown into the air. If the leaf lands with the smooth face of the banana leaf upward, it is considered auspicious; if the leaf lands face down, it is considered inauspicious for their cattle. The Ba-phud festival lasts till mid-day in Shingkhar Trong, and people are served lunch in the open ground. After lunch, the Bonpo, accompanied by people, moves to Moyumbi village where 42 households wait to celebrate the same Ba-phud festival to receive blessing for their cattle.

Chachung: Making offering to the God of Human Beings 

The ritual called Chachung is celebrated on the 17th day of the 9th month of the Bhutanese Calendar. People believe that it is the day for the community people to make offerings to the god of human beings. Unlike the Ba-phud festival, Chachung festival brings people from all the 48 households of Shingkhar Trong and Moyumbi villages, and they assemble at a place called Lhabrang (god’s place) in Shingkhar Trong village.  On the day of the festival, every household has to contribute rice, ara and bangchang. Once people are gathered, the Bonpo starts making offerings to the god by offering Damba, bangchang and other food items. As a symbol of blessings, people are served Damba as well as a sumptuous lunch with ara and bangchang.

To mark the joyful event, the bangchang is collected in a large copper cauldron and poured on to the divine stone table which lies behind Kharibang (the residence of the god). People clap their hands for the wellbeing of the people in the community. It is believed that if the bangchang on the stone flows toward the road junction to Wamling, it is considered an auspicious sign.  And if the bangchang does not flow toward the junction, people consider it inauspicious. Despite being in a festive mood, people’s minds are filled with trepidation whether the bangchang will flow to the right direction to bring wellbeing to the community.

During the celebration, the Bonpo uses a banana leaf to make predictions for what is in store—prosperity and adversity—for the different households. If the banana leaf drops face down when it is thrown, the reading is inauspicious; people will have to make monetary offerings until the divination is positive. Towards the evening, the Bonpo buries the head of a rooster (made from maize flour) at a cross road junction to signify the burying of evil spirits and negative forces such as disease and other natural disasters, and to bring positive forces like prosperity and happiness to the community.

Ngagpala: Chill Alcohol Round

On the 18th day of the 9th month of the Bhutanese calendar, the day is called Ngagpala.  On this day, the Bonpo and the community people go for Changkor (alcohol carousing) to every household. Every household has to offer one phuta (small container to measure grains) of rice and one bottle of ara to the Bonpo as an offering of gratitude. Every household then serves ara to the Changkorpa (Bonpo’s companions). If one gets drunk on this alcohol, this particular day marks the blessings for him or her; however, women do not show much interest in this form of revelry and drinking.

This day is also significant for the community people to show their respect and gratitude to their social service providers—the village lama and the village astrologer. From each household, one family member joins the group and meet their village lama and the astrologer. In the morning, people visit the village lama bearing gifts of one phuta rice, one bottle of ara and Soenyom (bsod snyom) (offering of grains), depending on the ability to offer such resources to express their gratitude.  In return, the lama gives them teachings of dedication, and also serves lunch and ara to the people as a Tshog (feast).

Similarly, towards the afternoon the group visit the village astrologer to express their gratitude by bearing gifts of one phuta rice and one bottle of ara. Besides the lama, the village astrologer is an important personality in the village because people depend on the astrologer to predict the good and bad fortunes related to marriage, birth and death, and other farming activities. In return, the astrologer also serves dinner and ara to the people in goodwill and camaraderie.

Gargyab: The Offering of Songs and Dances 

The last day of the Kharphu festival is called Gargyab (Gar rgyab,) whereby the communities of Shingkhar Trong and Moyumbi village gather at the Lhabrang (god’s place) in Trong village on the 19th day of the 9th month of the Bhutanese calendar. On the last day of this festivity, people do not make Lhai’ Kyilkhor (Mandala), but offers sang (smoke offering) and serkem (libation). The Bonpo takes a seat and makes libation to bring good health and prosperity to the community, and people offer Nyendar—monetary offering to Lha Ode Gungyel.

On this occasion, both men and women sing Ahoi and also compete by singing tsangmo and Loze (ballad) to make the occasion more joyful and fun. Everybody who makes it to Lhabrang are served sumptuous lunch and drinks. Towards the evening, after a rigorous and boisterous competition, the Bonpo finally prepares Lha Ode Gungyel’s journey back to his heavenly abode. The Bonpo offers smoke offering and libation and it is believed that the Bonpo, through his divine power, directs Lha Ode Gungyel safely back to his abode in Tibet. Similar to the reception journey, the Bonpo goes into a trance and recites the ancient route and the names of the places from Shingkhar to Lhasa Samye in Tibet, and then finally, the Lhasupposedly ascends to the top of the thirteen stages of the sky (ལྷ་གནམ་རིམ་པ་བཅུ་གསུམ།) .

The return to Tibet and the ascension of the Lha back to his palace marks the end of Kharphu celebration. The whole festival lasts for close to eight days, starting from the preparation to the last day when the Lha is sent back to his heavenly abode. During the festival, there is a heightened mood of excitement and merriment; people engage themselves whole heartedly in the festival with the hope that they will be blessed with good fortunes, and that no adversity will befall the village community. Thus, the festival finally ends on the 19th day of the 9th month of the Bhutanese calendar.

References

Choden, Tashi. (2004) “Ha:The Bon Festival of Gortshom Village” in Wayo,Wayo: Voices from the Past. Thimphu: The Centre for Bhutan Studies, p.1-25.

Pelgen, Ugyen. (2004) “Khar Phud: A Non-Buddhist Lha Sol Festival of Eastern Bhutan” in Wayo, Wayo: Voices from the Past. Thimphu: The Centre for Bhutan Studies, p.24-48.

Video version: 25 minutes, DV Cam, Bhutan 2004, ILCS production.

Informants

Bonpo Kinzang Dorji, 59, Shingkhar Trong

Sangay Thinley, Shingkhar Tshongpa

Researcher                                                                                                

Dechen Tshering, Associate Lecturer, College of Language and Culture Studies, Royal University of Bhutan, 2019.

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