Our tiny carriage road spiraled up the skirt of the mountain, through rice paddies and beautiful peasant cottages. Serfdom was only abolished fifty years ago, and the rural towns are still set up like fiefdoms with tiny homes clustered around the protective fortress of the zhong. The zhong not only serves as the shelter from warring neighbors, but was also the heart of religious life and was where the monks resided and practiced their devotion.
We parked our bus in a cedar and pine forest on the outskirts of the village of Taro where the four queens who were all sisters had been born in. I could barely see the zhong with its satin yellow flags, but the whole forest floor had been trampled around tents where locals had been camping out: selling sweets and treats and chang. Once a year a celebration is organized at the zhong to give the subsistence farmers a break from their toiling lifestyle. They come out of the woodwork from the hills and crannies of the mountain and flock to the zhong to camp out and party for days during the dancing and celebration. This was the last day of the festival.
We entered the festival under a brilliantly colored gate of bright fabrics and draping flags. The path to the zhong was packed dirt through a feathery cedar forest. Families from the village were decked out in their finest and most lavish kiras and ghos. They smiled at us with red-rimmed teeth that had been stained with beetle nuts that the locals chew like gum. The fortress of the zhong had been draped with flags and ruffles of royal yellow satin and the grounds were alive with people. The main field had been cordoned off where the mask dancing was taking place. People milled under the ancient cedars, the trunks ribbed in fine grooves like fingernails had caressed them 500 years ago.
People had crowded cross-legged under their crowns of lacey green down. Mothers had babies in their laps, lines and lines of thermoses and picnic bags of woven plastic strips. Everyone was sipping tea out of ceramic mugs, passing the thermoses over each other’s heads. Others wandered, spitting beetle nut juice, men mingling in groups, children frolicking and running circles around the zhong. Old monks sat on the plastic chairs against the fortress and the hillside was packed with layers of peasants watching the mask dance below.
Dancers with ghoulish masks spun in ruffled skirts, lifting their legs high in whirlwinds of colored cloth. They bobbed in their masks, holding drums, and pounding the ground with their bare feet. Another dance was taking place simultaneously. A group of women in lavish kiras had formed a line and hooked arms. They bent their wrists delicately to a lilting song praising the four directions.
No one seemed to notice us as we circled and took pictures, the only foreigners in the whole town. It was a beautiful and protected moment, cupped and sheltered in the geography of the Himalayas and these high pine forests.