Bhutan, a Big Wooden Phallus, and the Secret to Happiness

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Picture, if you will, a wooden phallus resting atop your head. Imagine using this phallus for a traditional house-blessing ceremony. Then return your mind back to its position on your crown and meditate on its function. If it has lightened your mood, then it has served its purpose. I forgot to mention you are currently at a Tsechu festival in Bhutan, and the person holding the phallus is wearing a large, blood-red mask that features a permanent grin and an exaggerated nose. Fear not, though, for you are in the company of an atsara, one of the most revered folk figures in Bhutanese culture. Also, a clown.

Seated to the south east of the Himalayas, Bhutan is completely land-locked between Tibetan China and India. It has a population around 700,000, life expectancy of less than 60 and its own national language of Dzongkha. Founded in the 1600’s as a Buddhist sanctuary, “The Land of the Thunder Dragon” was subsequently all but shut off from the outside world until the 1960s.

In 1999, the king allowed television in Bhutan for the first time ever. Physical televisions. It did not take long for cable conglomerates to capitalize on this virgin market — looking at you Rupert Murdoch — and Bhutan’s national broadcast network BBS never really tried to compete. In 2008, the government began the transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional, permitting the country’s first elections. Although this recent influx of change has had some effect on Bhutanese society, centuries of isolation helped preserve Bhutan’s cultural traditions while the world rapidly shifted around it.

It helps that it’s darn expensive to be a tourist in Bhutan, be it comedy tourist or just the regular kind. To control swarms of crunchy backpackers, the government requires all non-Indian foreigners to book travel through an approved company. They also must pay $200 USD per day they spend within Bhutan’s 38,394 square kilometers. A price tag like that is comedy, but it helps Bhutan maintain its cultural integrity.

And cultural integrity is paramount to the monarchy. Bhutan is one of the only countries in the world to annually measure its Gross Domestic Happiness. Not only is the GDH consistently high, but Bhutan also consistently ranks as one of the happiest countries in the world. While my skeptical readers may cry subjectivity, I’d like to save the “what is happiness” existential debate for another day. Many researchers point to the strong sense of cultural identity as the reason for such a high level of happiness. Basically, the Bhutanese are not as insecure as most of the world and thus, happier.

But if no one is insecure, then how does comedy flourish?

Glad you asked. Not every kind of comedy has to be steeped in neuroses. Bhutan is famous for their sense of humor, specifically their historical appreciation of irony. Not taking the world too seriously probably contributes to their overall happiness index. But they don’t just enjoy humor, the Bhutanese have humor ambassadors who figure prominently into their folk traditions. Which brings us back (finally) to the wooden phallus.

Rao Online recounts a scene at a Tsechu in the capital city of Thimpu:

The familiar atsara face with a permanent grin brandishes a wooden phallus, rests it on the head of a young girl and says:”May you be blessed with nine boys.”“Nine is too much,” reacts an elderly observer.”Then let it be 11 so that you can have a football team.”The crowd bursts into laughter as the man in the mask leaves to help a hunchback find a place to sit.

They may appear mischievous and playful to the untrained eye, but the atsara have realized the Samsaric truths of Buddhism. This means they are jokers because they have defied societal norms and actually exist to help define socially acceptable behavior. And they are able to do so because they recognize emptiness and “the futility of emotional bonds. They feel no shame in begging, no humility in being obstinate, or remorse in what we’d term ‘unethical.’ They neither crave nor do they want.” It is the nothingness that makes everything funny.

Atsaras can be traced back to the origins of the Tsechu. Started around the 8th century, the festival became an important way to honor Bhutan’s cultural identity. The atsara became the “protective deity” of this event. According to legend, there were once 84 dubthops — known in Buddhism as Mahasiddhas who are those who study the specific teachings that lead to achieving perfection —  “who had extinguished all defilements and afflictions” and “roamed the universe to subdue evil thoughts by mocking at worldly thing.” The atsara tradition descended from these enlightened beings. In a way, the atsara are like comic superheroes whose powers of wit, vulgarity and trickery are used to combat evil thoughts.

Bear with me on this whole superhero thing, because I’m going to compare the wooden phallus to a superhero’s accessory. According to the previously mentioned Rao Online article, the wooden phallus “symbolizes the genuine accomplishment of wisdom by the dubthops.” It is the atsara’s moral compass. To you it might look like a large wooden penis, but that just reaffirms the atsara’s total cultivation of detachment.

People not only respect the atsaras, they listen to them. And not just for the jokes. The atsara has become a kind of mouthpiece for holy messages and cultural agendas. Sometimes atsaras choose a cause on their own, like their recent condom campaign to promote safe sex. But often, they support specific government agendas. A study by Royal Institute of Management students proposed the use of atsaras to promote the government’s anti-smoking campaign.

However, these students also offer a different view of atsaras than perhaps Bhutanese cultural advocates would like you to believe. While in the past atsaras might have played a satirical role in critiquing society and playing into classic Bhutanese irony, now the atsara is a “shadow of its former self.” The students blame the recent tourism surge that has made clowning more than just a noble venture. The kind of tourists who can afford $200/day just to stay in a country can also afford some generous tips for the lewd jester. The students suggest this new profitability has corrupted the purity of the atsara.

Whether this is the cynical opinion of youth or a true cultural evolution, the atsara is still a prominent fixture in Bhutan. If nothing else, the transcendental clown will always be good for a laugh. Fortunately for the atsara, the rest of the developing comedy world is not necessarily mutually exclusive.

One of Bhutan’s most famous comedians, Phurba Thinley, got his start studying at Bhutan’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts where he was designated an atsara. RADA contributes at least four atsaras to the Thimpu Tsechu every year. Prior to acting, Thinley was a monk until age 22. While at RADA, he started a company called Comedy Musical Live Show with a fellow comedian. He stayed at the academy for almost 10 years, and has since enjoyed a fruitful acting career in Bhutan’s burgeoning film industry.

If it’s any testament to Bhutan’s appreciation of comedy, the annual National Film Awards has a specific category designated for Best Comic Actor. Thinley has taken home this award twice.

Another rising comedian, referred to as Leki and Lakey depending on the transliteration, circumvented both RADA and the atsara route altogether. Before becoming a stand-up comedian, he was a monk first and then forced to join the army for four years. He’s since been in movies, and has gained popularity for mimicry of Dzongkha accents and various nature sounds. Here’s a video of his skills:

The film industry in Bhutan is as young as 2002, and still very traditional. Actors are required to appear onscreen in Bhutanese dress code unless the story calls for alternative garb. While they are still developing what a pure comedy looks like in Bhutanese cinema, the “age-old” humor pervades many of their films.

One of the first movies shot entirely in Bhutan, Travelers and Magicians is more of a love letter to Bhutanese culture than a laugh-out-loud comedy. But as the New York Times review points out, the film is full of “ingratiating comic moments.” For those of you who have not abandoned Netflix, the film is available on Instant. As is often the case, I found the jokes in the movie most telling about the country’s culture. After the Westernized main character misses a very important bus, he curses that it was “all because of a bearded mosquito and a wooden phallus.”

The filmmaker manages to edify Bhutanese culture while simultaneously laughing at it. So does the atsara. Such it would seem is the Bhutanese sense of humor. Perhaps that balance is their secret to happiness.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.