The comical character gépo (རྒད་པོ་) is a prevalent presence in the festivals of Central Bhutan, particularly in Bumthang district. Gépo, which literally means ‘the elder’ or ‘the old man’, holds an august position in some festivals. The gépo figure is not only the lead clown who entertains the crowd but is also the master of ceremonies who manages the festival programme. As a character who effortlessly combines the sacred and profane, the gépo is a powerful cultural figure who is treated with respect and a deep sense of affection.
The gépo is mainly identifiable by his mask, which bears the wrinkles and grey hairs of a male elder, often with a dark countenance and a weather-beaten face. His frozen facial expression evokes mystery, antiquity, mischief, and conviviality. A wisp of white hair hangs on his forehead to remind people of his age and wisdom. He wears a heavy long-sleeved Tibetan tunic tied at the waist with a silken sash. Around his neck is a short woolen mantle sewn in the shape of dorjé gong (རྡོ་རྗེ་གོང་), or vajra shoulder cover. Most gépo characters wield a large phallus to symbolize masculinity and fertility and some carry a pre-Buddhist ritual implement called chalang (ཆ་ལང་), a bell with a clapper in the shape of a tiny penis.
The gépo of Ura Yakchö festival is known as Gadan Gépo, as the character originates from the Gadan Temple, and plays a major role in the festival alongside the temple lama and its main relic, a statue of Buddha Vajrapani. The gépo character represents the human patron of the lama and the relic. Thus, he arrives at the beginning of the festival and departs at its conclusion, never too far from the lama and the relic. The gépo character of Shingkhar Rabné festival is called Chath Gépo and has a wrinkly cream-coloured face. Various gépo of Chökhor valley, including those of Jampé Lhakhang and Tamzhing, also have names that reflect their localities. Gépo masks are attributed with divine powers and are said to protect the temple and its properties. Gépo are primarily associated with Bumthang festivals, however, now there are also gépo characters in Mongar and Kheng.
A survey of gépo figures, their dress, and hand implements, suggests they may have a pre-Buddhist origin although their characters and roles have been heavily influenced by Buddhist elements. There are no surviving written records, except for the shépa (བཤད་པ་) or recitations they chant during the festivals. A common chant is a set of humourous verses—delivered in a number of local dialects—that praise the phallus they carry. Gépo are prevalent in central Bhutanese valleys unlike the atsara clowns, who are universal in all Bhutanese festivals. When there is a gépo character present, the red-faced atsara play secondary roles as clowns during the festival. The gépo character is often accompanied by a ganmo, or old woman, and several other characters who represent his children and extended family members. In some festivals such as the Ura Yakchoe, the first performance is a dance by the gépo, gémo, and his retinue known as Sipa Pomö Cham (སྲིད་པ་ཕོ་མོའི་འཆམ་), or Dance of Worldly Man and Woman. The dance involves bawdy movements and paradoxical chants which are meant to cause laughter as well as undo conventional taboos and reduce social tension.
The following sample verse from the chants of Gadan Gépo of Ura Yakchö gives a hint of the paradoxical hymns of a gépo:
སྟི་ གངས་དཀར་རྩེ་ལས་ང་བབ་ཚེ། བསང་གཏང་མི་ཁལ་ལྔ་ཡོད། དུད་པ་གཅིག་ཡང་མིག་མ་མཐོང་། །
སྟི་ གངས་དཀར་རྩེ་ལས་ང་བབ་ཚེ། སྨན་ཆུང་ཁལ་ལྔའི་བདག་པོ་ཨིན། ཞག་ཉལཝ་ད་ང་རང་གཅིག་ར་མས། །
When I descended from the summit of the White Peak, one hundred people offered incense but I saw not a single wisp of smoke.
When I descended from the summit of the White Peak, a hundred damsels waited on me, but I had no company at night.
The gépo have many duties during a festival like Ura Yakchö. From waking up the priests in the morning for prayers to leading lamas for ritual rounds in the morning, through performing pranks and jokes to entertain the crowd, and guiding and supporting mask dancers during the day to ending the prayers in the evening, the gépo plays a major role in a successful festival. Some festivals begin with a performance by the gépo and end with prayers for auspiciousness made by the gépo. The gépo must also perform divination to foretell the village’s wellbeing for the upcoming year, and act out several parodies of rituals that both entertain the crowd and ward off malicious gossip. The gépo figure is thus not just the chief clown but a crucial moderator of and contributor to the festival, all while enlivening the spirits of those in attendance. Above all, the gépo character epitomizes the robust sense of humour among the men and women who reside in the central valleys of Bhutan.
Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.
Subjects Tibet and Himalayas