Bhutan is a treasure trove of rich and unique tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Bhutan’s distinctive and often sacred cultures have been preserved and passed down through the generations. Today, the country is recognized for its unbroken and untainted immemorial cultural inheritance. One of the components of Bhutan’s varied intangible culture was royal court dances performed to entertain kings and their entourage at the palace.
Bhutan is gifted with myriad traditional songs, music, and dances, and these form the essence of Bhutan’s rich intangible culture. Even to this day, intangible culture is considered sacred since these works are refined artistic creations of great saints and artists having efficacy to bless and connect people with greater religious meaning and themes.
The court dance in Bhutan was first instituted during the era of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1616-1651) , who was the political and spiritual leader of Bhutan. The dancers at the court are known as boegarp, which means “courtiers.” The dances during that period were considered an integral part of social life as it transmitted social and religious values to the people. However, not everyone had a privilege to perform at the court. Only those with special abilities to compose, sing, and perform were eligible to be court dancers.
The court dances performed during Zhabdrung’s era were continued and performed even during the reigns of first king Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck (1862-1926) and the second king Jigme Wangchuck (1905-1952). However, songs and dances of the court reached its pinnacle during the time of the Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1928-1972). The third king then was fond of music and dance. He would have singers and dancing troupes accompany hem where ever he went. Sometimes while travelling, he would let boegarps sit in the back seat of the car to sing for him. The dances at the court were frequent, performed even when there were no special occasions. The king would command his courtiers to compose and choreograph songs any time. When the steps of the dances are complicated, King would introduce his own moves and choreography.
The third king established the Institute of Performing Arts in 1954. Later in 1967, it was upgraded and formalized as an academy and the Royal Dance Troupe. Today, it is known as Royal Academy of Performing Arts, and it supports the preservation of Bhutanese traditional music culture for posterity.
Zhungdra and Boedra
Zhungdra and boedra are two types of court dance performed according to the traditional songs. Zhungdra are lengthy songs and are believed to be an old genre composed by great saints. The principle melody originated in the dzong (fortress).
Zhungdra is performed by women forming single row who face either a choesham (shrine) or the king, in a gesture of respect and worship. Zhungdra choreography is slow and consistent. In the row, the women intertwine their little fingers with one another and create the moves gracefully, coordinating with exact footsteps that seem to hover. The dancers do not move rapidly since the songs and dances signify religious meaning and symbols. To dance and sing zhungdra, the lead singer stands in the middle and leads the dance while rest join in from both sides and follow lead singer’s vocal and directions of movement.
Boedra is performed in honor of the king, country, and the king’s people. A boedra is a short lyrical song with inconsistent dance steps. It is claimed that the boedra was sung by medieval court servants who were messengers of local chieftains. The dance steps and choreography for this song were developed later. Boedra is usually performed in a circular formation called gor-gom, which means “circle.” It is performed by groups of men and groups of women, but in on most occasions both men and women mixed together to perform. The style and steps of the dance depend on the lyrical intonation and the tune of the songs. Thus, boedra does not have consistent steps.
However, staging the boedra dance has not been easy. The dancers have to rehearse diligently to perfect their dance and song before they perform in front of the king and his family. At the end of the performance, dancers are gifted with pecuniary benefits, beautiful clothes, and other valuables as a gesture of appreciation by the king. The gifts are treasured by the dancers since many do not get such an opportunity to receive a kind gesture and appreciation from the throne.
The dancers at the court have an opportunity not only to entertain the king and his family but to pay homage to their root lama (guru) since core of the songs and dances are fundamentally spiritual in nature. The dancers always perform with all their hearts, because traditionally Bhutanese people believe that singing and dancing bring joy and happiness, both in the present life as well as in the afterlife where one will be born in a higher realm of existence.
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Ngawang Choden (Assistant Registrar, National Land Commission—Thimphu)