The Atsara is an integral part of many Bhutanese festivals. Primarily an agent of mirth and merriment, the red faced comical characters are generally thought of as clowns, wielding phalluses at tshechu festivals. The Atsara character, however, is more than just entertainment. The Atsara combines the spirits of the sacred and the profane, wit and wisdom, humour and responsibility. He uses his pranks to help his audiences not only to forget their worries and problems but also to prod them to overcome their sense of self-importance, hypocrisy and false propriety.
The name, Atsara, is said have originated from the Sanskrit term acārya, which is transcribed in Tshuyig as ཨ་ཙརྱ་. Acārya refers to a teacher or scholar, and often refers Indian masters. For instance, the three famous Indian acāryas who have shown great kindness to Tibet are said to be 1) Atiśa Dīpaṅkara, the white acārya, 2) Dampa Sangye, the black acārya, and 3) Padmasambhava, the variegated acārya. Another acārya, depicted as red-faced and of Indian origin, visited Tibet in the 11th century, and is remembered primarily for his licentious behaviour in the name of Tantric practices, is considered to have been a corrupting force. Due to lack of evidence it is difficult to say on which of these personalities Bhutan’s Atsara character is based, nor how it might have evolved over the years. Many traditional scholars claim that Atsara is a parody of Indian mahāsiddhas, some of whom were enlightened mavericks living unconventional lives that masked their highly realized Buddhist natures. Some of these enlightened saints, such as Drukpa Kunley achieved levels of renown despite being renegades on the fringes of society.
Whether the Atsara figure serves to remind one of unorthodox saints of the past or vestiges of poorly-behaved practitioners who did a disservice to Buddhism, Atsara today are an embedded part of Bhutan’s culture. With his red face thought to symbolize burning passion and his hand carrying a phallus to signify masculine power and fertility, the colourfully-clad Atsara plays a very important role in Bhutanese festivals. In some festivals of central Bhutan, the Atsara is replaced by other figures such as the Gadpo, yet in any manifestation the figure serves as the chief clown to entertain the crowd and helps the festival to run smoothly. The Atsara guides the mask dancers should they forget their steps, re-ties masks and silk robes should they fall loose, and provides any other support needed by the dancers during their performances. Often there is more than one Atsara on site, but only those who are a master mask dancer, who is sharp and witty, dexterous and sensitive to the crowd normally qualify to be the lead Atsara. Junior Atsaras in various masks and costumes accompany him and learn the craft year by year. Towards the end of the festival, the Atsaras are also allowed to collect money offerings from those attended, funds that are in some cases are later shared with all dancers and performers.
The Atsara character embodies personality traits of openness, jocularity and spontaneity. As the festival ground is largely escapist, allowing those assembled to suspend their woes and worries, the Atsara reminds people to overcome unnecessary hang-ups and inhibitions, and open themselves more fully to the festival experience. His character is that of a liberated spirit, which has transcended the dualistic apprehension of likes and dislikes, pain and pleasure, and such other prejudices, biases and fixations. In an age when people are ever more susceptible to stress, the Atsara can be viewed as a teacher to help us let go of our mental and emotional constrictions and seek inner states of openness and ease.
Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel in a series called Why We Do What We Do.
Subjects Tibet and Himalayas