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Festivals in Bhutan - Better understanding of local Culture

  • Author: Naba Raj Amgai
  • Posted on: Thursday Jul 30, 2020
Dochula Druk Wangyal Festival
Festivals in Bhutan are vibrant social and religious celebrations which sees the participation of whole communities. Joining these festivals lets you immerse in Bhutan’s rich culture and get close local communities. Most of the festivals celebrated in Bhutan are dedicated to Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, Buddhist deities and saints.

Festivals in Bhutan are vibrant and colorful celebrations. These are often held at the monasteries and lakhangs (Buddhist temples), and presided over by the monastic community. People from all walks of life converge at the monasteries to observe these sacred occasions.  During these festivals the monks deliver religious sermons, perform masked dances and skits. Attending these festivals will give you a better understanding of local cultures and traditions. As one of the last surviving Buddhist kingdoms in the Himalayas, Buddhism in Bhutan is not just a religion; it is a way of life.

Tshechus are Buddhist religious festivals held annually at the major districts or Dzongkhags in Bhutan. Tshechu, which means ‘ten’ are held on the tenth day of a month on the Bhutanese lunar calendar. The tshechus are performed in honor of Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava who introduced Buddhism in Bhutan. These vibrant festivals involving masked dances, folk songs and skits are held in dzongs or the courtyard of important monasteries of the dzongkhangs. These celebrations provide an opportunity for the commoners to mingle with the monastic community. It is believed that attending a tshechu and watching the performances of the monks will wash away your sins and multiply your blessings.

Jambay Lakhang Festival

Jambay Lakhang Festival

Jambay Lhakhang Festival is held on the grounds of Jambay Lakhang temple in Bumthang. One of the ancient temples in Bhutan, Jambay Lakhang was built in the 7th century by Songsten Gampo, the Tibetan emperor during the 7th century AD.  The temple is one of the 108 lakhangs built to subdue the demons that were troubling the people residing in the Himalayas. It is believed that Jambay Lakhang and Kichu Lakhang in Paro were built on the same day by Songsten Gampo. Guru Padmasambhva himself visited the temple several times and deemed it very sacred.

The spectacular festival of Jambay Lhakhang is held at this temple every year in November. The festival lasts for five days and people from far and near gather at the temple to celebrate.  Cham or masked dances are performed by monks. The highlights of this festival are Merwang and Tercham. Merwang is a fire ceremony where the participants run underneath a flaming arch made of dry grass. Tercham or the ‘Dance of Treasure’ is performed late at night by naked dancers wearing masks. It is believed that those performing Tercham brings blessings to infertile women.  The fire dances attracts many locals as well as tourists. Take the Bhutan Heritage Tour to take experience this wonderful festival.

Dochula Druk Wangyel Festival

This festival is held at the Druk Wangyel Lhakhang festival ground located at Dochula Pass. Dochula Druk Wangyel Festival was first observed in 2011 in memory of the Fourth Druk Gyalpo (King Jigme Singye Wangchuk) and the Bhutanese armed forces who were involved in a battle with insurgents in 2003. The construction of Druk Wangyal Lhakhang was ordered by Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo. It was built over a period of four years (2004-2008) under her majesty’s supervision.

This one-day festival is held annually in December. Spirited chams or masked dances are performed. The Je Khenpo(chief abbot) together with other lamas(monks) perform religious folk dances and songs.  The chief highlight of the Dochula Druk Wangyel Festival is the magnificent outdoor setting. Held in Dochu La Pass, it is a treat to watch the colorfully attired monks perform under the backdrop of panoramic mountain views. The Dochu La Pas pass lies around 22 km from Thimpu. This place is one of the most scenic locations in the country. It offers stunning views of the Himalayas. The festival set against such beauty is an experience like none other.

Haa Summer Festival

Haa Summer Festival is an outdoor festival which celebrates the spirit of Bhutan’s nomadic herders. This is a 2-day celebration held in Haa Valley in July. The festival showcases the rich culture and nomadic traditions of the Haa inhabitants. Major highlights include Ap Chundu dance by female dancers, masked dances, archery and flat stone swing competitions etc. Various stalls are erected where visitors can watch tableaus, exhibitions or buy local handicraft items.

Haa Valley is located very close to Paro international airport. To get here you will have to cross Bhutan’s highest road pass which is very exciting. You will get to enjoy one of the most pristine trails and of course Bhutan’s flora and fauna. People gather around on open fields sampling delicious homemade food, playing traditional sports. Homemade liquor is sipped while people play traditional songs and dance to their tune. At the Haa Summer festival you will also get to see fields of white poppy; a variety of poppy that is not found anywhere else in the world.

Punakha Drubchen 

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. 

You can witness this grand festival by visiting Bhutan during Spring season. The festival falls on either March or April as per the Bhutanese Lunar calender. You can book any one of these trips to take part in this vibrant festival – Nepal and Bhutan Tour (9 days), Bhutan Cultural Tour (5 Days), Bhutan Heritage Tour (8 Days) and Bhutan Nepal Tibet Tour(14 Days).  

Black-Necked Crane Festival

Black-Necked Crane Festival

The Black-Necked Crane Festival is held in the ancient Gangtey Gompa in the Phobjika Valley every year on November 11. The festival is held to celebrate the arrival of the Black-Necked cranes to Bhutan from the Tibetan plateau. Every year these endangered birds fly all the way from Tibet to roost on the wetlands of the Phobjika valley.

For Bhutanese the black-necked cranes symbolize longevity and they are believed to bring in good luck and prosperity to this Himalayan kingdom.  One can images of these elegant birds painted on holy sites and temples. The birds are sacred as the locals regard them as reincarnations of two deities who protect the valley.  The cranes circle the valley three times while arriving and departing from the valley. Locals believe that this is a way of the birds to pay homage to the three jewels of Buddhism for protecting them.

The Black-Necked Crane Festival was organized for the first time in 1998 by the Phobjika Environment Management Committee and Royal Society of Protection of nature to raise awareness about the role of this endangered birds in Bhutanese culture and traditions and to protect them.  The festival is observed in the large courtyard of the Gangtey Gompa, one of the oldest Nyingmapa monasteries in Bhutan. Locals as well as tourists gather to witness the masked dances, skits and folk songs. The festival offers a rare opportunity for tourists to not only get an insight about local culture, but a chance to support conservation efforts to save this magnificent and endangered bird.

Suggested Read: Bhutan Festivals Calendar

Paro Tshechu

Paro Tshechu is one of Bhutan’s oldest and most important monastic festivals. This Paro festival was first celebrated 1644 when Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal consecrated the Paro Dzong. This 5 day long religious festival held at the Paro or Rinpung Dzong is dedicated to Guru Rinpoche, the Buddhist spiritual master who introduced Buddhism in Bhutan. Paro Tshechu is a major attraction for both locals as well as tourists. It is believed that attending a Tshechu and watching the monks sing and dance will bring you blessings and spiritual merit. People come from far and near totake part in the festivity.

As per the Bhutanese lunar calendar the Paro Tshechu begins on the tenth day of the second Bhutanese month and ends on the fifteenth day. During the festival Cham (masked) dances and tantric rituals are performed by monks. The performances depict the saintly deeds of Guru Rimpoche. Monks don elaborate and colorful silk costumes and masks and perform masked dances. 

One of the most special dances performed during the festival is the Shingje Yab Yum, the dance of the Lord of Death and his consort. Other dances include Shana or the Black Hat Dance, Dramitse Ngacham or the Dance of the Drums from Dramitse, Sha Tsam or the Dance of the Four Stags, Tungnam or the Dance of the Terrifying Deities etc.

On the last day of the festival, a gigantic thangkha or thongdrel (embroidered scroll painting) of Guru Padmasambhava is displayed to the public. The ceremony is held early in the morning, before the sunrises. The giant thangka depicts the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava. Buddhists believe that witnessing the unfurling of this thangka at the Rinpung Dzong will cleanse you of your sins. The King of Bhutan also makes it a point to attend this religious ritual.  

Attend this religious festival and experience Bhutanese culture by booking any of our Bhutan trips – Nepal and Bhutan Tour, Bhutan Nepal Tibet Tour, Bhutan Cultural tour, Bhutan Heritage Tour etc. 

Thimpu Tshechu 

Thimpu Tshechu

Thimpu Tshechu is one of the biggest and the most important festival celebrated in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. Tshechus are celebrated in Bhutan’s major cities in honour of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) who brought tantric Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century. Thimpu Tsechu was first observed in 1670 AD, during the reign of Tenzing Rabgye, the fourth ruler of Bhutan, to celebrate the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhasava. This 3-day long festival is celebrated on the eighth month of the Bhutanese lunar calendar at the magnificent Tashichho Dzong. 

Thimphu Tsechu is witnessed by thousands of people who travel to Thimpu from far and near. As it is a religious festival, Bhutanese believe that they are blessed by Bhutanese saints and gain merit by attending a Tshechu. During the festival masked dances representing the life of Guru Padmasambhava are performed. 

When it first started, only a few Chham(masked dances) were performed by the monks. Dance of the 21 Black(Zhang Nga Chham, Dance of the Lord of the Cremation Ground (Durdag) and Terrifying Deities Dance (Tungam) were some of the few dances. The 3rd King of Bhutan, Jigme Dorje Wangchuk, during the 1950s introduced some more dances to the Thimpu Tsechu. The dances that were included are known as Boed Chams and these are performed by lay monks. The new chhams added more variety and colour to this vibrant festival. 

The other major performances that one can enjoy are the Shaw Sachi (Dance of the Stags) and Guru Tshengye (8 Manifestations of the Guru). Viewing these performances is considered to be very spiritual and believed to cleanse one’s sins. Locals from other Dzongkhags(areas) converge to the capital city of Thimphu to take part in this religious festival.  

Witness this vibrant festival and celebrate with the local Bhutanese this wonderful festival by booking our Bhutan Heritage Tour and Bhutan Cultural Tour.  

Punakha Tshechu

Punakha Tshechu is held right after Punakha Dubchen, the most magnificent festival in Bhutan showcasing the military prowess of the ancient Bhutanese army. Punakha Tshechu is celebrated in late February or March at the grounds of the Punakha Dzong. The festival was first held in 2005 after a request was put forward to the 70th Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot) and administrative body by the locals for a celebration honoring the teachings of Padmasambhava.  

The tshechu, which lasts for 3 days, is held to honor Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava and to celebrate his good deeds. Colourful cham dances and religious skits are performed by the monks. Local people dressed in their finery attend this sacred festival and seek blessings form the Buddhist monks. This colorful ends with the unfurling of a huge thongdrel (giant thangka or scroll painting) of Guru Rinpoche. It is believed that one receives the blessings of the guru directly by setting eyes on the image of the guru on the thongdrel.

Wangduephodrang Tshechu

Celebrated in September, Wangduephodrang Tshechu is one of the oldest annual tshechus celebrated in the Himalayan country. This annual festival is held in the Wangdue Phodrang district of central Bhutan. The festival was first introduced by Zhabdrang Ngawang Namgyal in the 17th century after the completion of the magnificent Wanduephodrang dzong.

The 3-day festival is held on the grounds of this dzong and sees the participation of locals living far and near. This is the biggest cultural festival held in the district or dzongkhang and people living as far as Thimphu and Punakha flock to the dzong to be a part of this tshechu.

One of the major highlights of this festival is the Raksha Mangcham or the dance of the Ox. The monks living in the monastery perform energetic Cham dances, songs  and Buddhist skits. The festival concludes with the unfurling of the huge thongdrel with the image of Guru Tshengye. This ceremony is attended by all the locals as witnessing the unfurling of the sacred thongdrel is believed to wash away your sins and accumulate your blessings.

Kurjey Tshechu

Kurjey Tshechu is held in January in Kurjey Lakhang (temple) of Chokhor Valley in Bumthang district. The festival is held in honor of Guru Rinpoche who is believed to have saved the inhabitants of the valley by subduing the demons and evil spirits.

According to local legend the ruler of Bhutan, Sindhu Raja was concerned with the suffering brought about by the evil spirits that he invited Padmasambhava or guru Rinpoche (the Second Buddha) from Nepal to destroy the evil forces. Guru Rinpoche arrived and chose a cave which looked like thunderbolts or dorjes to meditate. He was successful in removing the evil spirits after a long meditation. His meditation was so intense that he left an imprint of his body on the wall of the cave. Thus the locals named the place Kurjey, meaning ‘imprint of the body’. Three temples were built on this sacred site. The first temple was built in 1652 by the first Governor of Trongsa, while other two temples were built in 1900.

Kurjey Tshechu or festival is observed to celebrate the victory of Padmasambhava over the evil spirits. Locals from Jakar and Kurjey congregate at the lakhang to pay respects to the guru and seek blessings from the lamas(monks).  Cham dances and skits are performed by the monks of Kurjey Lakhang during the festival. This grand festival ends with the unfurling of the magnificent thongdrel or a giant thangkha (scroll painting) of  Lord Buddha.

  • Author: Naba Raj Amgai
  • Posted on: Thursday Jul 30, 2020

Naba Raj

About Author - Naba Raj Amgai

Naba Raj Amgai, stepped into the world of travel and tourism in 1996. He is Founder and Managing Director of Third Rock Adventures.

Beginning his journey in the tourism industry as a humble Porter Guide to founding hospitality establishments and an adventure travel company, he has come a long way.

In a career spanning more than two decades, he has achieved more than anybody dreams of achieving. Along with his professional achievements, his selfless contribution towards his community and society has won him a lot of accolades and praises.

Having dedicated more than two decades in the tourism and hospitality sector, he has amassed a wealth of experience.

After passing high school, he began helping out some trekking guides and was soon recruited as a porter guide at a reputed trekking agency. Within a short time, he was individually guiding clients across the well-known trails of the Himalayas.

He went on to lead tour groups on multi-country tours to Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and India. Being a part of mountain climbing expeditions familiarised him with expedition logistics and operations. Later on, he went to become the Executive Director and took over the reins of Operations, Sales and Marketing departments. Spending several years in the tourism field has made Naba Raj Amgai a destination expert.

Travelling is his passion and he has been to many countries across the world – USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, Holland, Germany, Austria and many parts of Asia.

His journeys to different parts of the world have enriched his travel experience and knowledge. This experience has been instrumental in planning and organizing successful trips for several clients.

As of today many reputed travel companies, hotels and restaurants are under his leadership. A dynamic and proactive leader, he continues to inspire and motivate people from all walks of life.

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