Atsara: the Bhutanese clowns who are not just clowns

Email

On top of being clowns, they are also storytellers, spiritual teachers, and the master of ceremony. The bright red mask and giant phallus hanging from their forehead speak to the level of enlightenment they have achieved.

What are Atsaras?

If you attend a Bhutanese tsechu, expect to see comical characters prancing around. They wear a red mask with a hawkish nose, a giant phallus hangs from their forehead. These are Atsaras. 

Atsaras are synonymous with the tsechus

The red mask symbolises burning passion, whereas the phallus represents power and fertility.

Atsaras embody the Buddhist principle of being open, jovial, and liberal. Their character vaguely reflects that of the Buddha, who has transcended the petty human dichotomy of like and dislikes; pain and pleasure; biases and fixations. The Atsara teaches us to look inwards and rise above our constricted surroundings.  

The legend of the Atsara

The word ‘Atsara’ derives from the Sanskrit word ‘Acharya’, which means holy Indian master. 

Atsaras are Dupthobs, enlightened beings who have realised the Samsaric truths. At this stage, they have risen above petty human emotions like shame, anger, desire, and likes. They do not live in want, and they do not covet. 

Legend has it that Atsaras were among the Dupthob Gyabchu, the Buddha’s disciples. 84 Dupthobs, who had detached themselves from worldly desires and attachments, roamed the world, mocking worldly objects to overcome evil. 

They dressed in colourful attires and had eccentric behaviour. Sometimes, they even used foul language in their quest to subdue evil in the minds of the mortals. 

The Atsaras emanate these learned beings. Their vulgar forms send the message that they know no embarrassment, hesitation, or reservation.

Atsaras were initially known only in Trongsa and a few other places. The character gained acclaim when tshechus became popular under the reign of the second King, gaining popularity throughout Bhutan.

The role of the Atsaras

Some people think of them as clowns. While it is their job to entertain the crowd, and sometimes they do that with comedy, it is also their job to encourage the audience spiritually — to forget their burdens and unleash their free spirit.

In truth, a lot rests on the shoulders of the Atsaras.

They are also the master of ceremony as they perform crowd-control and ensure that the tsechu runs smoothly. 

Ultimately, Atsaras are storytellers. They provide the background story during the mask dances. 

The Atsaras have three main roles: External (Pchi), Internal (Nang), and Hidden (Sang).

Externally (Pchi), the Atsara aids the mask dancers in case of, say, a wardrobe malfunction, or if the dancers err in their dance steps. Regular people are not allowed to help them, and only the Atsaras may do so. 

Internally (Nang), the Atsara translates the dances or chams for the lay audience. Some people might have trouble understanding them, so the Atsara explains the meaning to the audience. He clowns around to keep them entertained. 

On the hidden level (Sang), the Atsara has achieved a level of enlightenment that he tries to pass down to those around him. 

Not simply any Tom, Dick, or Harry can become an Atsara. The position is passed down through the lineage although nowadays, anyone who has performed all the mask dances may be considered for the role. 

Over time, the role of the Atsaras has evolved. Present-day, their duties include educating the public on issues such as the importance of safe sex and personal hygiene. 

At the end of the festival, the Ataras might collect tips from the audience to be shared with all the dancers and performers. A new rule dictates that the Atsaras are only allowed to ask for money on the last day of the tsechu. 

Usually, there are a number of Atsaras, but only one plays the role of head Atsara. 

Performance by the Atsaras

Curious about these enigmatic characters? Check out their comical antics in the video.

Do you wish to see an Atsara in real life?

If you do, visit a tsechu! Bhutan is known for their festivals, held all year round, but the tsechu in Bhutan is the most significant of them all. In fact, you may plan your trip to Bhutan according to which tsechu you wish to attend.

Tsechu literally means ‘tenth day’. It is celebrated on the tenth day of different months of the Bhutanese lunar calendar. The festival is meant to honour Guru Rinpoche, the saint who brought Buddhism to the country in the 8th century. For the Bhutanese, attending a tsechu is a religious move that brings them closer to enlightenment. 

The tsechus are held in different temples and dzongs throughout the country at different times of the year.

Among the popular tsechus that you can visit to see an Atsara are:

January

  • Trongsa Tshechu
  • Lhuntse Tshechu
  • Pemagatshel Tshechu

February

  • Punakha Dromache & Tshechu
  • Trashiyangtse Tsechu

March

  • Talo Tshechu
  • Zhemgang Tshechu
  • Paro Tshechu
  • Chuukha Tshechu

July

  • Nimalung Tshechu
  • Kurjey Tshechu

October

  • Phuentsholing Tshechu
  • Wangdue Tshechu
  • Gangte Drubchen & Tshechu
  • Gasa Tshechu
  • Thimphu Tshechu

November

  • Jakar Tshechu
  • Mongar Tshechu

December

Nalakhar Tshechu



Related Posts

8 most popular festivals in Bhutan that you should check out

Bhutanese festivals are colourfully vibrant affairs that draw crowds from all over the world.

May 14, 2021 17:15

Rifles and Rituals: Satire and Societal Shifts in Bhutan as...

Pawo Choyning Dorji, whose film "The Monk and the Gun" offers insight into the Himalayan nation's modernization process.

Feb 20, 2024 11:04

All You Need to Know About Gelephu Mindfulness City

The kingdom of Bhutan is planning to develop a "mindfulness city" covering about 2.5% of its land, which is larger than...

Feb 08, 2024 10:42

Bhutanese artist wins one of Asia's top art contests

The International Artist Grand Prize Competition is held in Taipei, Taiwan.

Oct 04, 2023 18:19

Art United: A Contemporary Vision' Exhibition Now Open to Public

'Art United: A Contemporary Vision' Exhibition was unveiled by Her Royal Highness Ashi Sonam Dechan Wangchuck

Sep 19, 2023 18:56

Bhutanese Students Get Ready to Compete In First Global Robotic...

Five students from Bhutan will compete in the First Global Robotic Competition in Singapore, which is themed Hydrogen...

Sep 14, 2023 13:51

Latest

News

Bhutan Receives Annual Special Travel Destinations Award

This is Bhutan's second tourism award in China, reaffirming its status as an extraordinary travel destination.

Feb 02, 2024 11:12

Bhutan Waives SDF for MICE Events

Bhutan seeks to establish itself as a prime destination for MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions) events in the region.

Jan 24, 2024 14:34

Features

Rifles and Rituals: Satire and Societal Shifts in Bhutan as Portrayed in 'The Monk and The Gun

Pawo Choyning Dorji, whose film "The Monk and the Gun" offers insight into the Himalayan nation's modernization process.

Feb 20, 2024 11:04

All You Need to Know About Gelephu Mindfulness City

The kingdom of Bhutan is planning to develop a "mindfulness city" covering about 2.5% of its land, which is larger than the size of...

Feb 08, 2024 10:42

Business

Brand Bhutan: Karma Yangchen

Karma Yangchen, a distinguished artisan from Bhutan exemplifies a profound commitment to the art of handwoven textiles.

Dec 14, 2023 10:22

Brand Bhutan: Bhutan Herbal Tea

Bhutan Herbal Tea is the brainchild of two Bhutanese individuals who first crossed paths in New York during a Bhutanese New Year gathering...

Nov 25, 2023 13:56

Sports

Bhutan Cricket's New Milestone: The Inaugural Indoor Cricket Academy

The Bhutan Cricket Council Board (BCCB) inaugurated its inaugural indoor cricket academy on 20th December, with the objective of ensuring...

Dec 21, 2023 14:57

Paro FC Clinches Third Consecutive Victory in BOB Bhutan Premier League

Paro FC has once again claimed the BOB Bhutan Premier League championship, marking their third consecutive title victory during the season's...

Dec 12, 2023 10:26

Travel

Alii Palau Airlines Inaugural Flight From Singapore to Palau via Drukair

On November 23, 2023, Alii Palau Airlines made history with its inaugural flight to Palau.

Dec 04, 2023 10:32

Singapore to Palau: Alii Palau Airlines Launches Historic Route With Drukair

You can now visit the Palau Paradise directly from Singapore!

Oct 27, 2023 16:17

Lifestyle

Chunipa Losar: Bhutan's Timeless Celebration of Traditions and Offerings

Chunipa Losar is a day of offerings, a moment when communities come together to express gratitude, seek blessings, and strengthen bonds.

Jan 12, 2024 12:31

Bhutan's Time-Honored Tradition: Exploring the Nyilo Season and the Lolay Ritual

Approximately 750 children recently took part in the traditional practice known as "lolay" in Bhutan, marking the beginning of the Nyilo...

Jan 04, 2024 14:18

Subscribe to our newsletter

Never miss out on new happenings and news stories!

Download Daily Bhutan Mobile App

Connecting with us just got easier!