Meet Atsara – The Sacred Yet Profane Cultural Character Of Bhutan


The Atsara is more than just a clown for entertainment.

(Source: Medium)


By Dr Karma Phuntsho Kuensel

Dr Karma Phuntsho is the President of the Loden Foundation, Director of the Shejun Agency for Bhutan’ Cultural Documentation and the author of ‘The History of Bhutan’.

The Atsara figure is an integral part of many Bhutanese tshechus (festivals). Being a primary agent of mirth and merriment, the red face comical character holding a phallus is generally thought of as a clown.

The Atsara character, however, is more than just a clown for entertainment. It combines the spirit of the sacred and profane, wit and wisdom, humour and responsibility.

He helps his audience not only to forget their worries and problems with his jokes but also to occasionally drop their sense of self-importance, hypocrisy and false propriety through his pranks.

Brief origins of the Atsara

The name, Atsara, is said to have come from the Sanskrit term acārya, which is transcribed in Tshuyig as ཨ་ཙརྱ་. Acārya refers to a teacher or scholar and was a title used to refer to the Indian masters.

For instance, the three famous Indian acāryas who have shown great kindness to Tibet were said to be 1. Atiśa Dīpaṅkara, the white acārya, Dampa Sangye the black acārya and Padmasambhava the variegated acārya.

There was also a red acārya from India who came to Tibet in the 11th century and was sadly remembered for his licentious behaviour, which was said to have corrupted Buddhism in the name of tantric practice.


Source: Youtube/Brian Becker


It is difficult to say, without any evidence, on which group of personalities Bhutan’s Atsara character is based on and how it has evolved.

Many traditional scholars claim that the Atsara is a parody of Indian Mahāsiddhas, some of whom were enlightened mavericks living unconventional lives while being highly realised Buddhist saints.

These enlightened saints, who were renegades on the fringes of society, practised ‘crazy wisdom’ as did the divine madmen of Tibet such as Drukpa Kunley.

The Atsara – a unique feature of Bhutan’s culture

Whether the Atsara figure is a caricatural reminder of unorthodox saints of crazy wisdom or remnants of loose lustful behaviour of some priests who abused tantric Buddhism, it is today one of Bhutan’s unique and exotic cultural institution.

With a red face to symbolise burning passion and a large thunderbolt or phallus to signify masculine power and fertility, the Atsara plays a very important role in Bhutan’s major festivals.

Curiously, it is also a Bhutanese cultural character, who is dressed in trousers and a jacket with fanciful patches.

Role of the Atsara

Unless he is replaced by other comical figures such as the Gathpo, as is the case during some festivals in central Bhutan, the Atsara is the chief clown whose role is to entertain the crowd as well as the master of ceremony to help the festival run smoothly.

The Atsara guides the mask dancers if they forget their steps, tie their masks and silk robes if they fall loose, and provide any support the dancers may need once in the public arena.

Often, there are more than one Atsara but only a master mask dancer, who is sharp and witty, dexterous and sensitive to the crowd, can qualify to be the lead Atsara.


Photo: Flickr/Sebastian Leonhardt


The junior Atsaras, also clad in various masks and costumes merely accompany him. The chief Atsara’s responsibility is to know the jokes he should crack and the antics he has to play in the course of specific dances and performances.

Towards the end of the festival, the Atsaras are also allowed to collect money from the audience as tips and offerings, which in some cases are later shared with all the other dancers and performers.

Symbolism of the Atsara

The Atsara character represents the traditional Bhutanese personality of being open, liberal, jovial and spontaneous.

On the festival ground where people come to immerse in sacred enjoyment and to forget the woes and worries of everyday life, the Atsara is a reminder for people to drop their unnecessary hang-ups and taboos, inhibitions and obsessions and to unleash their free spirit of ease, joy and laughter.

His character remotely reflects the liberated spirit of the Buddha, which has transcended the dualistic apprehension of likes and dislikes, pain and pleasure and other prejudices, biases and fixations.

In an age when people are becoming increasingly neurotic, complex, susceptible and stressed, the Atsara is a true teacher to help us let go of our mental and emotional inhibitions in order to be connected with our inner state of openness and ease.


This article first appeared in Kuensel and has been edited for Daily Bhutan.



Related Posts

Thimphu Tshechu And What It means To The Bhutanese

The Thimphu Tshechu is the biggest festival in Bhutan, among other religious tshechus that happen in every district.

Oct 08, 2019 23:58

Be Awe-Inspired By The ‘Dance Of The Terrifying Gods’ And More At...

Held from 19 to 21 Sept 2018, the annual Thimphu Tshechu (festival) is a vibrant visual feast for both locals and...

Sep 12, 2018 20:45

Tshechus (Festivals) In Bhutan Becoming A Platform For The...

"The impact will be a thousand times more powerful. When a spiritual figure conveys a social message in line with...

Sep 08, 2018 19:00

Be Thrilled By Adrenaline-Pumping Dance Moves At The Dochula...

The Dochula Druk Wangyel Festival was initiated by Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo as a tribute to His...

Nov 20, 2018 17:05

Bhutan’s Black-Necked Crane Festival Drawing More Foreign...

Some 500 tourists from around the world came to Bhutan to see the Black-Necked Crane festival, exceeding the number of...

Nov 14, 2019 23:18

A Run Unlike Any Other, Get Up Close With Charming Locals And The...

The third edition of the Laya Run will take place on October 23 from Panjothong to Laya.

Oct 18, 2018 17:14



Bhutan Kickstarts First Ever Space Week – Hopes To Spark Interest In Space Technology

Since the launch of Bhutan’s first satellite, Bhutan-1, the space sector has garnered a lot of interest in the country.

Feb 17, 2020 23:18

Bhutan Seeks To Export Its ‘High Value, Low Volume’ Organic Products Overseas

The government, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, would provide support to establish trade links.

Feb 12, 2020 23:28


Symbolism Of The Colourful Prayer Flags Of Bhutan

Learn about the rich symbolism of the colourful prayer flags of Bhutan.

Feb 16, 2020 23:28

Marriage – Bhutanese Style

Discover the fascinating events which take place as Bhutanese couples are blessed through a series of rituals.

Feb 14, 2020 23:18


Karma – Female Archer From Bhutan Qualified For Tokyo 2020 Olympic Quota

Karma has been specialising in Olympics-style archery since 2009.

Nov 30, 2019 13:18

Bhutan’s Pelden Wangchuk Wins 10th Edition Of Tour 0f Dragon Mountain Bike Race

This year, the race also saw the highest number of female participants compared to past years.

Sep 10, 2019 01:08


Economic Roadmap Needed To Steer Bhutan Towards Higher GDP Growth

The Lyonchhen said that the economic figures will improve in 2020 as 70 percent of the capital investments still lie unused.

Jan 17, 2020 23:38

Celebrating Bhutan’s entrepreneurs: Tashi Wangdi of iHub

This story is part of an exclusive feature by Yeewong Magazine in Dec 2018 on celebrating entrepreneurship in Bhutan.

Jan 12, 2020 23:38


Forging the Unbeaten Trail Towards Wangdue Nye

When you dedicate year 2020 to hike on unbeaten trails in Bhutan.

Jan 21, 2020 10:58

Make Your Own Personalised Stamps And Discover Bhutan’s Postal History At The Postal Museum

The Bhutan Postal Museum in Thimphu is also a major tourist attraction.

Jan 18, 2020 21:08


Nightlife in Bhutan

The nightlife is delaying the day by engaging with fun and recreational activities at owl hours. Thimphu Nightlife could fascinate you.

Feb 08, 2020 12:22

Bhutan- The Wedding Destination in Asia

Bhutan, a Himalayan kingdom, is a landlocked country located between China and India. With its reputation for mystery and magic, stunning...

Jan 23, 2020 09:07

Subscribe to our newsletter

Never miss out on new happenings and news stories!

Download Daily Bhutan Mobile App

Connecting with us just got easier!