The sang (བསང་) ceremony is observed mainly by the women of Ura village in the Bumthang district. It is a festive occasion when the young ladies perform a special ritual in honour of the local deities, particularly the guardian Azhé Lhamo (ཨ་ཞེ་ལྷ་མོ་) who is associated with the Purshé Mountain. The ceremony has as its main component a song sung in the local Ura dialect of Bumthangkha language with a dance by the ladies.
Nothing can be said with certainty about the origins of the ceremony. Like most pre-Buddhist rituals of Bhutan, it seems to have arisen from a desire to appease the local territorial deity. It reflects the relationship people have with the physical environment, and their willingness to negotiate with invisible natural forces. In the traditional Bhutanese worldview, nature is a living force and the environment is filled with various types of invisible non-human spirits. People have communicated with these spirits through a range of shamanic priests and have undertaken many rituals to maintain good relationships with natural forces.
Locals in Ura village, where the sang ceremony is observed, claim that the village once experienced a serious disease outbreak that they believed was caused by the displeasure of Azhé Lhamo, the mountain deity of Purshé Mountain located east of the village. The local ladies placated the deity by making offerings of food and singing praises. The village recovered from the disease and this seasonal offering became an annual ceremony. Today, the ceremony is observed every year on the 8th day of the 7th lunar month of the Bhutanese calendar.
The ceremony is almost entirely organized and run by the women of Ura village. Unlike most other festivals in Bhutan, men have virtually no role to play. Between the 21st and 30th days of the 6th lunar month, young women collect the grains needed to brew alcohol and the necessary food, including flour, butter, and cheese. Alcohol is usually made from wheat, barley, or buckwheat, all of which are grown in the valley. Each participant household contributes two measures of cereals towards the alcohol. The women begin the process of fermenting the grains after they have chosen a house to serve as that year’s host.
On the 3rd day of the 7th lunar month, the ladies finish fermenting the grains and the first portion of alcohol is offered to the local deities. In the evening of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, the ladies gather and make buckwheat noodles. Despite not contributing any of the effort, the men have the right to go and eat without invitation and also to steal the singchang cider that the ladies have brewed.
In the early hours of the 8th day of the 7th lunar month, the ladies make a journey to the peak of Pushé Mountain to make the offering. A smaller party departs ahead of the main group to prepare the offerings. This party would have already cleaned the necessary offering vessels and readied the offerings on the previous day. The group prepares the first offering near the lake and waterfall in Düthang at the end of the valley, where they offer up the first portion (ཕུད་) to the territorial deity népo (གནས་པོ་) and the tsomen (མཚོ་སྨན་), a water spirit, in order to ask for a good weather. Offerings include various food items and fruits including flour, milk, alcohol, and specifically the bramnyé dish. After the main group arrives on the spot, all of them make an offering and prayers for good weather. They are not supposed to take any raincoats or umbrellas, as that is believed to do so would provoke rain. Usually elder participants enforce this rule and, even if it rains, they make sure everyone tolerates it without any coats or umbrellas. They also do not change clothes. After this initial offering, the party sings the Vajraguru mantra and make prostrations, thrice to the cliff and thrice towards the lake.
After the concluding the first offering, they eat some of the food and pack the rest. The party then starts the trek singing the song “Temola Jön”, an invitation to come to the show, which is believed to encourage territorial deities from near and far to attend. The climb to the top of Pushé Mountain takes approximately three hours. The women sing “Shomo Alélomo” as they climb further up, accompanied by the beating of a drum.
When they reach the mountaintop, they make the offerings to the mountain deity and perform Azhé Lhamo dance around the main spot, sing the Vajraguru mantra, and make prostrations. At this point, the best portions of the singchang, flour, milk, and other food items are offered. Yakherders in the area provide fresh cheese and butter to be offered, and their contributions were often deducted from the butter tax the yak herders had to pay the state. The offering ceremony is followed by a lunch for the dancers, usually a dough made of roasted barley flour and heated butter. Sometimes the yak herders provide the butter in return for the flour and alcohol given to them by the ladies. It is believed that serving the barley dough foretells a good yield of barley for the year.
As the group descends, the ladies carry the mazang plant while singing the Azhé Lhamo song. Before reaching the village, the ladies change into more festive clothing and then enter the village singing songs. Spectators gather as the ladies enter the temple, where they perform a few other dances before performing the Azhé Lhamo dance. The song, composed in the local Ura dialect of Bumthangkha, describes the view from Purshé Mountain, the flora and fauna, the mountain deity and the family, and the journey from the mountain top to the temple. After the dancing is complete, the ladies gather at their host household and must treat the men to tea.
On the 9th day of 7th lunar month, the young women must ascend Rathpé Mountain, make offerings, and return singing the same song. The procession comes to the temple where the villagers get together to watch them dance. In the evening, the young women must offer bangchang to the village men.
The sang ceremony and the Azhé Lhamo dance remain cultural traditions unique to Ura and the adjacent Shingkhar village. Both are almost entirely performed by local ladies in mid-summer, when agricultural crops are at their peak. The ceremony most likely existed long before Buddhism had a strong influence on the local population. It is also remarkable as a festival in which women play all the important roles and also perhaps the only case of a traditional dance in which women play a drum. Today, the festival is in decline as most young ladies go to school or college, find jobs outside the village, and return to live in the village and take part in the sang ceremony. The discontinuation of yak rearing in the valley has also led to the end of the yak herder’s role in providing fresh butter and milk.