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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The King of Bhutan's Birthday Celebration

Front Stage with the teaching staff looking out at the children

Ready for the celebration...

During the third week of February I shouted, “What?  We get the day off to celebrate the King of Bhutan’s birthday to kick off the Losar (Bhutanese/Tibetan New Years)!  Oh my!  I love birthdays, especially a King’s birthday.”   This was the beginning of a huge adventure as well as many fumbles being immersed in a culture that is so alien to most Westerners. 

The adventure started with my Bhutanese friend, Sonam Choden, informing me that I had to look extra spectacular for the King’s birthday.  I think that she was hinting my Western clothes wouldn’t do because she insisted dressing me up in one of her best kiras.  Then we headed to the multipurpose facility at our school along with all the students and teachers for a few hours of celebration.  You could just feel the energy of excitement coagulating in the atmosphere and I knew that this would be a day I would never forget. 

Sonam and I got the best seat in the house to film the festivities.  Sitting front center on the stage floor along with all the other teachers I looked out at all the students sitting at their lunch tables with their white paper prayer books.  I felt like I was gazing out into the night sky at shining stars feeling connected to something greater than life itself.  Several monks sat near me on the stage with incense and cylinders getting ready to chant prayers.  In the middle of the multipurpose hall, I could see a table displaying the King’s picture surrounded by endless rows of little butter lamps.  The air was filled with the distinct smell of incense from teachers walking around fanning every square inch with the trailing smoke.  At first, I wasn’t accustomed to this strong smell and at times it consumed my lungs, which would cause me to cough and I tried to covertly cover my nose with my sleeve. 
Students at the lunch tables with their prayer books

Then out of nowhere, my principal surprised me by calling me down to offer a sign of respect to the King’s picture for his birthday.  I drug Sonam with me to capture the moment on film and for support because I had no idea what this would look like.  My principal handed me a white scarf and told me to offer it to the picture of the King.  The offering is difficult to explain, but this is what I perceived that I was supposed to do. I was to hold onto a neatly rolled scarf, gracefully toss it in the air toward the picture, which was in front of tons of burning butter lamps and then somehow glide the scarf back into my hands.  I was also instructed not to let go of one end while throwing it, so it doesn’t land in the blazing burning butter lamps.  Additionally, once I magically pulled the scarf back across my hands, I was to raise it up to the picture and take a bow (this is the offering).  “Ugh say what? How? Right now?” is what I kept mumbling to Sonam and she looked scared for me. 

I watched a few people in front of me offer the scarf so elegantly in a single motion that it looked like a smooth, classical dance step.  I knew that I wouldn’t look like those who went before me and I started to feel a little nervous as all eyes were on me.  I thought maybe I should have practiced this art form of offering a scarf above a hundred burning lamps.  Oh well, no time to worry now as someone nudged me to the front and placed the rolled scarf into my hands.  I ended up throwing it wildly like I was throwing a party streamer across the room.  When it hit the picture, I was so worried that it would land in the butter lamps and catch on fire, that I yanked it back with such a force you would of thought I was handling a fire hose.  Then I scrambled to straighten the scarf out and with shaky hands I raised it to the roof instead of towards the picture.  Lastly, I took a relieving bow.  I was anything but elegant.  Although I didn’t catch the scarf on fire, I did manage to make a big “boo-boo” or “oh noooooo” mistake at the very end.  Sometimes it just wouldn’t be as fun if I knew how to do everything!

Sonam, My Bhutanese Friend
After I thought that I had just turned into a pro offering the white scarf, I lit some butter lamps to offer a good wish prayer for the King.  I looked at Sonam who was filming me and I proudly smiled into the camera because I did it without catching the scarf on fire!  Then I innocently gave a few puffs to blow out the incense stick that I used to light the butter lamps and that’s when I noticed Sonam’s face go from beaming to horror.  I knew that I did something wrong as she quickly took the camera off of me and mouthed “NOOOOOO, STOPPPP!”

I thought, Oh crap, what am I doing wrong?  Then someone snatched the incense stick away from me and Sonam pulled me away from the altar.  She whispered to me that blowing out the incense stick was bad manners and that you should never put your mouth or breath on anything sacred.  Whoops, this would be the first of many mistakes learning about Buddhism and Bhutanese culture.  Most of my fluffs we giggle at, but this one we couldn’t openly laugh at.  It was a very BAD slip-up!  DON’T BREATH ON ANYTHING OR ANYONE SACRED!  Ok, Got it! Hmm I know that I learned that in orientation, but no one told me that included incense sticks.  Yikes, so much to learn!

Happy Birthday to His Majesty!
Thank goodness everyone seems to understand that as a foreigner I am in a constant state of learning.  No one ever gives me dirty looks or says rude comments; instead they educate me or laugh with me.  Thus, Sonam told me no big deal, you didn’t know… and we went back to the stage.  The energy of the room was so tingly with magic and love that I quickly forgot about the mistake.  I couldn’t even think about my silly error if I wanted to because I was now zeroed in on the chanting of the Buddhist prayers that had started without any warning.  The prayers were for all sentiment organisms and I didn’t have to understand the words to know that they were sacred as well as filled with enchantment.

The way that the chorally sung prayers bounced off the walls and echoed from the tall ceilings left me feeling like each note somehow was entering every cell of my body.  I could feel tiny specks of vibrations on my skin and chills ran down my spine.  I also felt as light as a grain of sand and I would have thought that I was invisible if all the students weren’t staring at me with wide, curious eyes.  As I was filming, gazing through my camcorder screen staring back at them with even greater curiosity, the saddest thought creped upon me like a dark thundercloud on a sunny day:  One day I will be watching this film back in America so far away from these wonderful people and Bhutan.  This moment will pass and my time will eventually end in Bhutan…all I will have is this tape to relive it… today will eventually be a distant memory.  No, I don’t want this moment to ever end.  How will I ever leave my new friends and this magical place I now call home…

I could picture myself back in America cleaning my room while listening to the chanting of this tape on my television.  I could see myself doing the mundane and feeling remorseful for not being able to experience just once more the background noise of chanting.  This was the first time that it hit me that my time here is temporary and all these unique experiences will come to an end one day.  Right then and there I almost started crying about not wanting this moment to ever end.  I entered a war with myself trying to fight back the tight marble of tears that was lodged in my throat so I wouldn’t scare everybody.  I had to go as far as counseling myself in my head saying that I have months before I have to worry about such thoughts.  It took me several minutes, but I managed to push the heart aching thoughts out of my mind, swallow the boulder of tears and focus on the beauty of the now

Awe, a memory!
Finally, a few hours later, when the whole thing was over, Sonam and I went outside and she helped me make a little documentary about the King’s birthday.  Although I looked joyful talking into the camera, there was a little sadness dancing around my heart knowing that there will be a day that I look back at the film and miss that moment.  The day was truly a keepsake memory that I will never forget as it was just beginning… to be continued (filming rare black neck cranes, dancing at an archery match and my huge misunderstanding taking my first stone bath).  


  1. Hey Sabrina,
    This is a really touching post.And the way you narrate is awesome. A strange feeling creeps in, a feeling of pride and happiness to know that a westerner is trying so hard to learn the culture and way of life in Bhutan. The part where you mentioned that you would be one day away in the west, away from the place and people as your time in Bhutan is temporary is very emotional one. You seem to be making every effort to record the memories in Bhutan as much as you can do. :) Do make best of the times you spent here. By the way, you look nice in Kira. You will be there for one year?
    Really nice post. Do keep posting.

    1. Ohhh thanks so much Langa. I'm really enjoying your thoughtful comments. Sometimes I worry that my posts are too long like a novel and that no one will want to read them lol. So it makes me feel good knowing that at least I can entertain a few people like you lol!

      I'm so happy that I can creep in some feelings of pride in your heart about your culture. I'm truly in love with my experience here even the challenging parts, which are not too many. Every time that I think about the day I will leave Bhutan (December), it makes me sooo sad.

      Feel free to share it with your friends and family. I have so much to write about. What do you think about this blog turning into a book in the future? What are you studying in India? Law?

    2. Yeah, your posts are long but entertaining lol. Yes, I am doing Law in India. That would be really great if this blog transforms into a book in the future. You would be the few of Americans writing a book on Bhutan then. Looking forward to it. Any plans to settle in Bhutan? :P

    3. I'm not sure yet! I really do love it here though and it's tempting.

  2. You look beautiful in Bhutanese attire. :)

  3. Thank you Sonam Tshering!!! Kiras are beautiful!

  4. Sabrina, The celebration for the Kings birthday sounds exiting and very special . It must have felt amazing hearing th e prayers and seeing rows of candles. I read your post on my lunch break.And I heard myself laugh in our quite house about when it was your turn with the white scarf I was even scared for you. But then I too felt the lump in my throat and the tears in my eyes as I read on . It is going to be sad to say goodbye to beautiful friendships and a beautiful culture in bhutan.Enjoy every moment and try not to think about leaving.Madam Sonam is very kind to take time to teach you about her culture she is a good friend thank you Sonam.Bye for now love Mom. ps I like the Kiras too!

  5. Thanks mom, I like writing for you because I know that you will always be able to pick up on my emotions through the writing including laughing and crying. I love you! And yes, Sonam is a really good friend to me.

  6. Dear Sabrina,
    I've come across your blog by you for writing about the King's birth day celebration. It's touching though!. Keep writing on some other stuffs that you encounter, experience--moments of joy, sadness, loneliness, etc. etc. during your brief stay in Bhutan. Thank you for imparting your knowledge to the Bhutanese children. You mention that "sadness creeps in when you think of your stay in Bhutan is just temporary--will be missing Bhutan and frens so dearly." Yes. Our life itself is very short and every thing is impermanent....We have no power to cling to the things, place, and self forever, One day or the other our life must come to an end, just we dun know when and where. ...Just feel that you are walking the planet to shower the goodness of you to others. You will be remembered by the numbers of lives you have touched upon in Bhutan and beyond. Leave behind your footprints on the sands of time and take away the freshness of mountain breeze, gurgling brooks, and chirping birds that the serene nature of the country has to offer. Wish you well and happiness. God bless you.

  7. Pema Dezang,

    Wow, you gave me such beautiful advice that I wrote some of it down on a post-it note and stuck it near my bed because it really moved me and resonated deep with my soul. Thank you so much for taking the time to share such amazing wisdom. Since it's so easy to get lost in the day to day routine of life, I found your insight so useful to bring me closer to the present moment and remind me of the importance of life: "We are on the planet to spread goodness... to leave behind our footprints on the sand..." I will surely remember this and keep this advice fresh in my head for the rest of my stay in Bhutan and years to come. I hope that I can touch many hearts in Bhutan not only through my teaching in the classrooms, but also through my writing/sharing my unique experiences in Bhutan.

    Once again thank you so much for you kind and thoughtful words. I also wish you lots of happiness and God Bless you and your family!

    P.S. I'm so glad that you came across my blog by accident lol and I hope that you enjoy my future posts...

  8. Hi Sabrina,
    Thank you for your compliments.Now, i've already gotten addicted by your hypnotic appreciated la.


  9. Awwwwww so emotionly felt Sabrina.You will have these memories for ever and get to share them with us and they will never be forgotten.I am looking forward to them.Love you!

    1. I can't wait to share the videos with you guys. You will love them. Love ya too!

  10. Lol the scarfe & incense part was hella funny I can hella picture it, & the big no no on people's face. Don't worry unless you get alzeimers your memories will take you back to those places & feelings you've had. So cheer up lol!

    1. Thanks Santos! Your the best cousin ever! It was pretty funny... haha

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