Punakha Drubchen is one of the grandest annual festivals celebrated in Bhutan. Held in the country’s former capital, Punakha in western Bhutan, the festival falls on February or March and is celebrated for 5 days. The Punakha Drubchen or Dromche commemorates the gallantry and victory of the Bhutanese while fighting the invading Tibetan forces during the 17th century. The Bhutanese forces were led by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal , popularly known as the Bearded Lama. After the war with the Tibetans, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal unified Bhutan.
The Tibetans had waged a war against the Bhutanese to seize Ranjung Kharsapani, a precious self-made image of Avalokiteshwara or Chenrizing (the God of Compassion). Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal of Punakha cleverly duped the Tibetans by pretending to throw the precious relic into the Mochu River. The Tibetan armies had retreated when they saw the Zhabdrung throw the fake relic into the river.
During the festival battle scenes from the historic 17th century battle are reenacted. Young men from eight Bhutanese Gewogs or clans – Chang, Mewang and Kawang from Thimpu and Shengana, Baap, Tewang, Toeb and Khabjisa from Punakha- are selected as Pazaps (local warriors who fought under Zhabdrung Namgyal), Zimpons(Generals) and Gups (Zabdrung’s representatives). The Pazaps and Zimpons dress up in magnificent battle gear, ride horses and reenact the scenes from the battle, while Gups dress up as Lamas and guide the warriors.
The most important ceremonies are the Bae and the Bae Cham. Bae is the groundbreaking ceremony where Pazaps sing war songs and demonstrate how to fight a war. Bae Cham is the war dance performed by the Zimpons in front of the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot) and the Gups. Both these performances are held at the courtyard of the Punakha Dzong. This will be followed by a religious procession where many Buddhist monks led by Je Khenpo will head to the Mo Chu River and throw some oranges symbolizing the immersion of the fake relic. Later Pazaps and Zimpons celebrate their victory at the dzong’s courtyard.