Shawa-Shachi: The Dance-Drama of the Stag and Hounds

Category: Mask dance

The Stag and Hound, or Shawa-Shachi (ཤ་བ་ཤ་ཁྱི་). is a semi-operatic dance-drama often performed in festivals across Bhutan. It is also known as Acho Phento (ཨ་ཅོ་ཕན་ཏོ་) based on the two lead human characters. The performance is both entertainment and a medium to convey the Buddhist message of non-violence. The dance-drama consists of two main chapters, usually performed over two days with each chapter lasting up to two hours.

Clowns and Hunter Gyonpo Dorji
The drama begins with the arrival of the hunter Gyonpo Dorjé, who is referred to as Acho or older brother, and his manservant Phento. Acho, an ornately dressed nobleman, is played by a tall man wearing a white mask, an expensive gho, and ceremonial shoes. He wears a sword, carries a quiver, and uses his long bow as a walking stick. He is accompanied by his red hound as he sings hymns from either an elevated point or the corner of the courtyard. Phento, on the other hand, enters the main courtyard to play with the other clowns. He wears a dark mask, a black gho with layers of local montha kira over the gho. Both Acho and Phento carry yak hair ropes. They engage in different contests and amusements until Acho calls for his manservant. Acho scolds and punishes Pento for not being obedient and present during the hunt.
Stag and Hounds
As Acho and Phento meet, Phento also calls his hounds. Both hounds are played by young agile men wearing dog masks. They wear silken scarves crisscrossed to form a skirt and an upper top jacket over which are crisscrossed silken sashes called trab. The two hounds swirl around quickly, greeting each other and their master, and indicating their canine pleasure by jumping toward each other and the two masters three times.
Acho and Phento eat their lunches and feed their hounds. This involves a ritual of throwing food as offerings to the protectors of the four directions, bringing water to wash Acho’s hands, and feeding the hounds, each phase of which involves Phento's humourous pranks. Once the hunt is finally underway, Acho is hurt when a thorn pierces his foot. Remedying the situation entails a consultation of diviner, fetching priests to perform remedial rituals, and also conducting the ritual. As the meal is served, guests are pulled from among the spectators to share in the meal. The priests, who are actually the silly clowns, perform a boisterous parody of a religious ritual. Throughout these courses, Pento keeps the crowd entertained with his pranks, jokes, crudity, and lascivious behaviour.
The two hounds, who had disappeared after being fed, return with a stag. The stag, played by a tall slender man, is dressed similar to the hounds, but wears a deer mask with long antlers. The dance is performed with the music of a small symbol and drums, and oboes sound as they enter and exit the dance stage.
In the second chapter, the hounds come out with the stag to perform and dance whilst Acho and Phento, with the help of the clowns, try to trap the stag. Using chasing movements, the hounds and the stag perform dances when the two human characters and the clowns try to separate the stag from the hounds using their ropes. Towards the end of the performance, Milarepa appears, depicting a travelling priest dressed in white cloth, wearing a white mask and holding a hand drum. He sings his spiritual songs of peace to the stag and the hounds which them. The stag moves towards Milarepa to rest on his right side followed by the hounds who slow down to sit on his left.
Acho and Phento approach Milarepa, and surprised and agitation at Milarepa’s pacification of the hounds and protection of the stag, Acho issues a long reprimand to Milarepa before shooting an arrow at him. Instead of hitting the target, the arrow bounces back towards Acho, nearly hitting him. Acho suddenly realizes the error of his ways, and is regretful of the evil life he has lived as a hunter. Acho throws away his weapons and submits to Milarepa to follow a spiritual path. The performance ends with the concluding dance of the stag and hounds as the oboes herald the end of the dance-drama.
Shawa Shachi is believed to be an enactment of a historical event which took place in the region of Nyeshag at the border of Nepal and Tibet, where Milarepa is said to have converted the hunter Gyonpo Dorjé to religion. It is based on the accounts found in the biography of Milarepa written by Tsangnyon Heruka (1452-1507). The dance-drama serves both as entertainment and a medium for important spiritual and moral messages of non-violence, right livelihood, devotion, miracles, and enlightenment.
Source: Mandala Collection, Bhutan History fb

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