Among an array of literary talks and creative shows on the first day of the Drukyul Literature Festival, “Saang: Ura’s Festival of Women”, a documentary by Loden Foundation caught the attention of the participants yesterday evening.

Directed by Lopen Karma Phuntsho (PhD), the 30-minute documentary captured the powerful role of women in upholding the culture of Saang, a festival unique to Ura valley in Bumthang.

The festival is held to invoke and appease a female deity,  Ashey Lhamo, who is said to ward off calamities and diseases and bless the inhabitants of the valley with happiness.

The breath-taking shot starts with the clear resounding of local songs, in praise of the Ashey Lhamo, whose displeasure struck the valley in an epidemic a long time ago. The festival was started as a ritual to propitiate the female deity.

A group of women from the valley makes an arduous three-hour climb to the Mount Purshe at 4,500 metres above sea level, the palace of the deity and make some grand offerings of edibles and songs.

The women sing songs along the journey as an invitation for the other deities to attend the ceremony. Shomo aley lomo is one song that the women sing throughout the hike. It is said that the tune for Bhutan’s National Anthem was adapted from this song.

On the way back down from the mountain, the women collect a plant called Mazang (Lobelia Nubigena), which is a tall herb and can be found only in the region.

The women collect other plants to use as incense and to offer to the local temple. The way back down is also filled with song as the women sing Ashey Lhamo’s song.

When the women reach a village called Taling Thang, they change into festive clothes and proceed to the temple with each woman carrying a Mazang on their back.

The villagers all gather at the temple to witness the ceremony and the women perform the Ashey Lhamo song for the spectators.

The following day, the women propitiate another mountain deity, Tashi Pelzang, reigning over Mount Ratpey.

The tradition, however, is losing its importance as young women and girls move from the villages looking for opportunities in towns and cities.

The audience that almost filled the Royal University Hall (RUB) were astounded by the documentary. For most of them, it was the first time they heard about the existence of such cultures in Bhutan.

A Bhutanese woman who recently returned to the country for vacation from Japan said that she felt connected to the culture, and a sense of belongingness to the country. “It was heart-warming and unique.”

She said that she liked the strong image of rural communities which she never experienced while growing up in Thimphu.

Some said that if given the right opportunities, Bhutanese people are talented in many ways. “We think whatever foreigners produce are of the highest standards, but we have a talent pool that is impressive,” one said.

“Regrettably, I didn’t get to know my country,” another participant said.

The opening of the Literature Festival was graced by Gyalyum Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck along with the Prime Minister and other officials at the RUB Hall in Thimphu yesterday.

The four-day event ends on August 7.