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Yak cham and Achilhamocham in Merak losing popularity.

Merak is a traditional hamlet perched on the remote mountains of eastern Bhutan inTrashigang.

It comprises acluster of stone and mud rammed buildings and its inhabitants, the Brokpashave a unique culture that presents itself as anattraction to many people.But their traditionalway of living and culturalpractices are quicklydisappearing in the questfor modernized lifestyles.One of the distinctive features of the Merakpasis their famous and sacred yak cham and Achilhamocham. These sacred chamswere famous among the highlanders in the past butnot anymore.Today, highlanders donot perform these sacred hams during occasions and festivals. Village elders in Miramar worried that the sacredmask dances which werepassed down through thegenerations may soondisappear.Unlike other Bhutanesereligious mask dances, yak ham and Achilhamochamare very unique to the people of Merak. Yak cham has two origins, according to a lay monk from Merak, Pema.

The yak cham is believed to be the replication of the legendary tale of ThopaGali while it also signifies paying due respect to yaks in the form of dance as the yak is the main source of income for thehighlanders.Though it is unknown when and who composed and initiated the performance of yak dance, people believe that it was performed in a place calledTengchen in the vicinity of Mount PemaGosumwhen people of Merak andSakteng migrated fromTshona (Tibet) to the present villages. Pema said that it isalso believed that whileperforming the first everyak dance, the dancers sunga song which describedthe yak citing examples ofgeographical location.Yak dance is a popularpantomime of thehighlanders and in thedance, a dummy yak ismade by covering the bodywith a frame of bambooand a black cloth andsetting a wooden head onit.

An image of the country guardian (sungma) sits omits back and the body frameis carried by two men whodance to the beats of adrum and cymbals. Four masked men representing ThoepaGali,who were said to havediscovered the yak, danceround the yak narratingin the form of song, theromantic story of the originof yak, its discovery andhow its integration broughta permanent source ofwealth and happiness to the entire community. Similarly, Pema said that Ache Lhamo or AsheLhamo is regarded more as a drama rather thandance, but many believeit is a dance-drama thatflourished in Bhutan sincea long time back. Ache Lhamo dance was believed to flourish in Bhutan along with the Tibetan saint and bridgebuilderThangtongGyalpoand this art travelled toBhutan during the late 14thcentury.Ache Lhamo literally means sister goddess or lady goddess. This isperformed by herdsmenonce a year in keeping withthe local customs.

It relatesstories of people famed fortheir piety and miraculousachievements, be it spiritualor temporal.'The dance isaccompanied by the rhythmof the cymbal and beatingof the large-sided drum,while the story unfoldsin operatic recitative andchorus.'And he said thataside from the mainperformance, comic scenesare also acted out withgreat brilliance.Apart from the yearly festivals and occasions, the famous Yak cham andAchilhamocham were also performed at some great monastery or at wealthy nobles' home and during other special events but now it is not practiced inMerak anymore.PhuntshoWangdi,27, a yak cham dancer in Merak said that these sacred chams are losing its popularity as the maskdancers do not get anyspecial exemptions orwages unlike in the past.According to him, a fewyears back mask dancersused to get incentives andwere exempted from taxes(woola) in the gewog.'However, now we do nothave any such incentives,'he said, 'No one agrees to perform the chams since we do not get anything.'Further, he also saidthat to perform the maskdances,practice is neededwhich is a waste of time.'Since, we depend onanimals for our livelihoodwe can't waste our time likethis, we need to be paid forthis.'

These sacred maskdances used to be performed during the annual MerakTsechu andMerakpas also used to perform yak cham during the GomakoraTsechu.'We could not perform the yak cham andAchilhamocham during the MerakTsechu this year. And it has been morethan two years since we performed the yak chamat GomakoraTsechu,' saidPhuntshoWangdi.MerakGup LamaRinchen said that thesemask dances are in need ofprotection.To preserve andpromote the mask dancesand other dances in thegewog, a cultural group(DoegarTshogpa) was formed in Merak in 2003.Lama Rinchen was the chairman of the Tshogpathen.'Everything was okay till the gewog changed the chairman of the DoegarTshogpa,' he said. 'Nowpeople are not willing toperform the dances as theyare not getting anything from the gewog.'

The Gup said thatAchilhamocham has declined in popularity since long time in Merak. 'The dancers of Achilhamo were mostly laymen (gomchens)and they are exempted from taxes (woola) but they complained that they are not getting incentives so they stopped cooperating and performing the cham.'The gup said that thegewog authorities gave some incentives to the dancers to encourage them but a few villagerscomplained about this and the gewog stopped the practice. He said that maskdancers have to spend timepracticing and performingduring occasions. 'Theyhave to make time fromtheir daily work so theyneed to be paid.'Meanwhile, the gewogauthorities have decided look into the matter. 'It isnecessary we have properrules and regulations forthis without which the issue becomes very confusing, 'said the Gup. Lama Rinchen added that the chams were omitted from the MerakTsechu, GomakoraTsechu,TrashigangTsechu and other festivals recently as the dancers were unwilling to perform. 'We can't forcethem,' he said. All the cham dresses were collected and kept in the gewog office since lastyear.Meanwhile, the Unsaid that the issue willbe discussed during theDzongkhagTshogdu very soon.
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Publication:Business Bhutan (Thimphu, Bhutan)
Geographic Code:9BHUT
Date:Dec 1, 2018
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