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The Buddha bar

Shriya Mohan | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on October 06, 2017

Long shot: A stopover at Bamiyan, in Afghanistan, along the route Buddhism traversed out of India, into Bhutan Images: Pawo Choyning Dorji

Inside peek: Pakistan’s Hunza Valley, which features in Dorji’s book Light of the Moon   -  images pawo choyning dorji

Enlightened: Dorji’s book took him to Buddhist sites across China and some parts of the Indian subcontinent Images: Pawo Choyning Dorji

Harvesting smiles: Circling the Cypress explores Bhutan through its lost culinary recipes

Tree of life: In Circling the Cypress, Dorji retraces Bhutan’s relationship with food and farming

In a country hung up about its religious identity and culture, Bhutanese filmmaker Pawo Choyning Dorji wants to push the envelope of artistic freedom

“Being anonymous is intoxicating. You are here to find out who you really are... what you would do if you were not known. This only happens once in 12 years, so don’t waste this opportunity,” says Thinley Dorji, a high priest, to a gathering of people wearing traditional masks, both human and animal, with exaggerated expressions. His words encapsulate the essence of Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait, a Bhutanese film that plays out like a philosophical fairy tale about identity, ritual and religion. It is set in the dense jungles of eastern Bhutan, where the masked group meets once every 12 years to spend an entire fortnight in complete anonymity, to celebrate that “intermediary state” between death and rebirth, where the past fades away and the future is yet to begin. The anonymity gives them the freedom to act upon sheer instinct and get away. But can the masks buy them freedom from their conscience?

“Hema Hema” in Bhutanese means ‘once upon a time’. Made by the Lama and filmmaker Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche (The Cup, Travellers and Magicians, Vara: A Blessing), the film raises uncomfortable questions about religious masks prompting a ban on it on the grounds that “it demeans religious symbols, including masks worn by actors”. So, while the film opened to global acclaim, with screenings in Locarno, Toronto, Busan and London last year, it did not get a release at home.

Pawo Choyning Dorji, one of the film’s producers, is a man on a mission. Attired in a traditional Bhutanese grey-and-white gho, complemented by knee-high dark socks, and with his long black hair pulled tightly back in a ponytail, he has the demeanour of a Samurai calmly determined to push the envelope of artistic freedom in Bhutan. The country’s sole defining character is its Buddhist culture and tradition, which is often why people feel so personally involved in any artistic interpretation of it, Dorji tells BLink on a breezy August night at the Mountain Echoes literary festival in Thimphu.

“Where everything in Bhutan is marinated in Buddhist spirituality, it’s very easy to mistake cultural interpretations,” explains the 34-year-old producer, who is also a photographer and a filmmaker. “The Buddha says that when the finger points to the moon, use the finger to look at the moon. Unfortunately, in my movies, instead of looking at the moon, they have gotten too caught up with the finger, and that has led to hampering the creative space by asking ‘Is it Bhutanese enough?’ ‘Is it elegant enough?’ ‘Is it cultural enough?’.”

But none of this has stopped him from telling his story. In fact, he believes this is a good time for the film industry. “Last year was very prestigious for Bhutanese films. At the Locarno festival, eight Bhutanese films were selected to showcase three different projects. At Busan in Korea, the top festival in Asia, two Bhutanese films had their first Asian première. We’re a tiny country that’s come a long distance,” he says.

Dorji feels a bit like a once-wounded boxer who is back in the rink with carefully rebuilt zeal. Except, this time he knows how to score by simply staying firm and letting the punches slip past him. “After such an episode (the ban), it is easy to fall into a trap where one feels uninspired. But I’m more determined than ever to make a movie that fits the bill of what the government allows. I want to tell a Bhutanese story and I want it to be successful, and I want the government to then think that filmmaking can actually do things, such as preserve culture,” says the man who identifies himself as a devout Buddhist. He believes that festivals such as Mountain Echoes help further the scope for discussion and debate, giving more ground to artistes like him.

Journeys through reincarnations

In China, India is referred to as Indu, which actually means the moon. The Light of the Moon is Dorji’s work-in-progress book, which retraces how Buddhism travelled to Bhutan and took root there after nearly disappearing in India. “The Chinese feel that India’s gift of Buddhism to the world compares to an autumn full moon shining in a world of ignorance. That’s how much they respected India,” he says.

He always found it fascinating that while the Buddha lived 2,500 years ago, the Buddhist sites of Sarnath, Sankasia and Vaishali in India were rediscovered and re-established only 250 years ago.

When Dorji came across the detailed records kept by the Chinese monk Xuanxang, he knew this was going to be his next project. Xuanxang had studied in the ancient Buddhist monastery Nalanda (in modern-day Bihar) and met emperor Harshavardhana. A meticulous record-keeper, he wrote down everything he saw in Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Vaishali, Kushinagar before returning to China. In the ninth century, 200 years after Xuanxang, the Delhi Sultanate’s Qutub-ud-din Aibak sent his army eastward into present-day Bihar and Bengal. “In their war to conquer lands, Buddhism was wiped out. When his (Aibak’s) army torched Nalanda, the fire raged for six months because of the number of texts and scriptures that burned. Six hundred Buddhist monks were decapitated too, Xuanxang tells us,” says Dorji. Finally, in 1837, when the British explorer Sir Alexander Cunningham excavated the ruins of the Buddha statues at Sarnath and asked the locals who they thought it was, they said it was either a Persian or African personage.

It took Dorji three years to retrace the seventh-century journeys of Xuanxang — from China, through Xi’an, the Gobi and Taklamakan desert, Xinjiang, Hami, Dunhuang and Turfan — all thriving Buddhist kingdoms during fifth to ninth centuries, then heading south into Afghanistan, through Kabul and past the ruins of the Bamiyan Buddhas (destroyed by the Taliban), through Karakoram and Hindukush mountains of Pakistan, past Taxila, all the way north into the Hunza and Gilgit valleys, then along the Grand Trunk Road into India and, finally, Sri Lanka.

At Mountain Echoes, Dorji’s striking 40-minute visual presentation depicted the 13 lives of Pema Lingpa, an ethnic Bhutanese Buddhist master — from a mosquito during the building of Kathmandu’s Boudhanath Stupa to the Princess of Tibet, a beggar woman in Lhasa and many other reincarnations until, finally, his birth as Pema Lingpa. Dorji’s travels to each of these spots associated with Lingpa’s rebirths have translated into a work-in-progress book, The Turquoise Heart.

“Pema Lingpa is, in my view, the greatest spiritual master Bhutan has ever produced. His teachings thrive in Nepal, Tibet and India.”

Seeing himself as a photographer first, and not a writer, Dorji uses social media to tell his stories, in order to reach a much wider audience. Another of his ongoing works is titled Circling the Cypress, which is a collection of photos and stories that showcases the role food plays in Bhutanese life.

Funnelling life through Buddhism

Dorji’s biggest inspiration comes from Khyentse, the director of Hema Hema. “He’s a lama in robes and people expect him to just meditate, but he engages with the world by making films. He is my spiritual teacher from whom I’ve learnt to always push boundaries.” Among Khyentse’s works is The Cup, which is about monks sneaking out of a monastery to go watch the football World Cup. “For him, that’s his finger that points to the moon,” says Dorji. Khyentse lives in Himachal Pradesh, a place that is also home for Dorji, his wife and two children.

Asked if the religious framework underpinning his works proves suffocating at times, Dorji replies readily, “The magical thing about Buddhism is that it’s so vast. We don’t believe in a god or a creator. Everything that exists has three stages: creation, existence and destruction. Not only in physical things... even thoughts — a thought is born, it exists and dies. It shows how limitless the Buddha’s teachings are. It transcends all boundaries. I can tell any story within that.” Meanwhile, as Bhutan’s artistic landscape slowly changes hues, Dorji has mastered the art of waiting for the perfect spring.

(The author was in Bhutan on the invitation of Mountain Echoes)

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Published on October 06, 2017
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