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Six and half string the story of how one of the strings of the Bhutanese lute was lowered.

September 28, 2013 Destination Global, Headline News No Comments Email Email

egtmedia59The Bhutanese Drangyen or the lute has the unique distinction of having six and half strings referred to as drays, which denote seven different scales.

Ap Dawpey (85), master traditional musician shared an oral story of how one of the strings was lowered.

Long ago, they lived seven angels. In the spring they would descend down to earth to bathe in a pool that was in the middle of a lush meadow bordered by snow peaked mountains.

Nearby the meadow lived an orphan. The young shepherd used this idyllic land as pastures for his sheep.

One day after taking a nap under a willow tree, the shepherd wakes up to find a find a lute next to Drangyenhim.

Rubbing his eyes in disbelief he plucks a string and a beautiful melody flow forth. Enthralled he plucks more strings and enjoys the music from it.

Meanwhile, the seven beautiful angels were enjoying their bath nearby playing happily in the water.

The shepherd gets excited with his new toy and he immediately rounds up the sheep to take them to the barn. On the way home he crosses the pool and sees seven beautiful women taking bath in the pool but shows no interest in them.

After putting the sheep in the barn the shepherd hides his new possession in the attic of the barn and every night he would climb up to the attic and play the lute at the stroke of midnight.

The youngest angel allowed the orphan boy to keep the lute on the condition that under no circumstances he was to play the instrument or show it to other people.

She said that every night he was to play it for her and to beckon her by strumming the lute, which would be taken as a cue for her to appear in the attic of the barn.

So every night the young angel would sneak down and spend the entire night listening to the young boy play the lute. At the sound of the rooster, the angel would disappear.

As the story goes, the blessings of the lute made the poor boy rich. He became as rich as the king in his valley and never breached the contract with the young dakini.

In the same valley but across the river, lived a powerful king who fathered the most beautiful women in the kingdom.

Every night the music flowed into the air and the wind carried it to the distance kingdom. Soon the music enveloped the princess and she became infatuated with it and would spend the whole night listening to the music.

On her 21st birthday, the king wanted the musician to play for his daughter and send men across the river to look for the musician, which they did.

Soon the king built a bridge over the river, and the princesses started visiting the musician and called him uncle.

The princesses also arranged archery matches for the man who loved to sing and dance. The princesses were so curious that they inspected his house, opening and closing the door several times, and noticed a lute behind the door.

The princess in her joyful mood strummed the lute and the dakini appeared. Realizing the presence of other people the dakini immediately, cut all the seven strings of the lute and disappeared.

That night, at the stroke of midnight the shepherd picked up his lute to play it and noticed that all the strings had been cut and became anxious.

Before he knew he started to become poor and in a short time had nothing. Realizing what was happening, the next spring he hid in the meadow and waited for the dakin’s to take their bath which they did.

The young man confronted the youngest angel and pleaded, “please put back the strings,” to which she replied in the negative.

The young boy was adamant and persistently pleaded with the dakini  who reasoned, “If I had not cut the strings that day, I would have died because of the impurity caused by betrayal.” Finally the dakini, consented to string the lute but lowered one; an indication of  breach of trust.

Why Crocodile?

All the old lutes in the country have a crocodile carved as the head. Ap Dawpey explained the reason why traditional lutes have this animal.

In the old days all lute players went insane. No one knew why, so they consulted Sha Gyalp (King of the East).

According to Bhutanese myths each direction has a king whose responsibility is to protect the kingdom.

For example, the king of the east is known as the Sha Gyalp’s and it is said that his voice was so powerful that every time he spoke it would destroy anything that came its way. As a result, he had to remain silent till he discovered that he could convey his information through the lute.

So the Sha Gyalp used the Dramnyen to relay his messages, even though he is neither a great musician nor a singer.

Through the lute, the Sha Gyalp explained that the melody of the lute had attracted demons.

Like the people, the demons also became enthralled by the music and they would come as close as the knees of the lute players.

Since they were invisible, the lute players never noticed but because of the negative energy that anyone in their proximity would go insane.

As a remedial measure, the Sha Gyalp instructed that all lute to have the head of the crocodile with horns and beaks as a figurehead to ward off the negative forces.

This way, even if the melody of the lute would attract demons, the sight of the crocodile would keep them at a safe distance.

Today we find many of the modern lutes with heads of different animals and Bhutan’s master traditional musician Ap Dawpey is concerned and remarked, “ The carpenters who make these modern lute’s have  to be educated on the history of the lute.”

Written by : Tshering Tashi

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