Bhutan is rich in cultural diversity and this richness is further enhanced by the wide variety of elaborate and colorful religious festivals that are celebrated throughout the country. Every village is known for their unique festival though the most widely known is the annual Tshechu, meaning a religious festival.
As the Tshechu begins, the villagers and the general populace dress in their finest clothes and congregate at their local temples and monasteries were these festivals take place. Tshechus are usually occasions to mark important events in the life of the second Buddha, the Indian/Pakistani Tantric master known as Guru Rinpoche or the Precious Gem. Various mask dances are performed together with songs and dances for three days.
These religious celebrations are lively, high-spirited affairs during which people share meals of red rice, spicy pork, Ema Datshi and Momos (pork dumplings) whilst drinking the heady traditional rice wine known as Ara. These occasions provide the villagers with a respite from the hard labor of their day to day lives and gives the community an opportunity to catch up with family and friends.
Lhuenste is one of the easternmost districts in Bhutan and borders the autonomous region of Tibet. As the ancestral home of our Kings it hosts a number of important and sacred monuments. The most important amongst these is Lhuntse Dzong, a majestic fortress that sits upon a high ridge overlooking the Kurichu River.
A small hermitage and a temple was built in 1552 by Ngagi Wangchuk and later enlarged to its present state by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal.
Almost every village in Lhuntse boasts of festivals that are unique and distinct from those in other communities in Bhutan. Two notable festivals are the Cha and the Ha festivals. They are celebrated to honor the deities and avert misfortunes. However, the most important festival is the annual three day festival. The Tshechu is normally celebrated in the month of November and draws large numbers of people together for the religious celebrations. During the Tshechus attendees can cleanse their sins by watching masked dances and can also receive blessings from sacred relics that are publicly displayed.
One of the most interesting and visually appealing aspects of these Tshechus is the colourful attire of Kushithara that Lhuentse is famous for. You will come across various intricate and beautiful patterns of Kira and rich ornaments on display.
Punakha is located in the western part of Bhutan is the winter home of the Je Khenpo, the Chief Abbot of Bhutan. Punakha has been of critical importance since the time of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in 17th century.
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal is known as the unifier of Bhutan as a nation state and he was the one who gave Bhutan and its people the distinct cultural identity that identified Bhutan from the rest of the world.
During 17th century Bhutan was invaded several times by Tibetan forces seeking to seize a very precious relic, the Ranjung Kharsapani. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal led the Bhutanese to victory over the Tibetans and to commemorate the triumph he introduced the Punakha Drubchen. Since then Punakha Drubchen (also known as Puna Drubchen) became the annual festival of Punakha Dzongkhag.
The Punakha Drubchen is a unique festival because it hosts a dramatic recreation of the scene from the 17th century battle with Tibetan army. The ‘pazaps’ or local militia men, dress in traditional battle gear and reenact the ancient battle scene. This reenactment harkens back to the time when in the absence of a standing army, men from the eight Tshogchens or great village blocks of Thimphu came forward and managed to expel the invading forces from the country. Their victory ushered in a period of new-found internal peace and stability.
In 2005 another festival known as Punakha Tshechu was introduced by the 70th Je Khenpo Trulku Jigme Choedra and the then Home Minister His Excellency Lyonpo Jigme Yoedzer Thinley. The Tshechu was introduced in response to the requests made by Punakha District Administration and local peopleto host a Tshechu in order to better preserve Buddhist teachings and keep alive the noble deeds of Zhabdrung Rimpoche.
These two festivals not only play an important role in preserving Bhutan’s rich culture and traditions but also provide devout Buddhists with an opportunity for prayer and pilgrimage. They reflect the richness of the Bhutanese cultural heritage and are very special in the eyes and hearts of both Bhutanese and tourists who visit Bhutan.
Merak valley is located in eastern Bhutan within the Trashigang Dzongkhag (district). It is a unique valley inhabited by a semi-nomadic people known as the Brokpas. Situated at a height of 3000 meters, the valley remains untouched by the influence of the outside world.
Living close to nature in this pristine wilderness, the Brokpas way of life has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years and they depend almost entirely on yak rearing and animal husbandry for their livelihoods. Bartering is still the main form of economic activity amongst the Brokpas. They barter their Yak products for food grains and other daily necessities with the neighbouring Tshanglas.
Their attire is also unique as it is entirely woven out of Yak hair and sheep wool. Their culture is also the only one of its kind in that they are one of the few communities to practice polyandry. In fact it is a common norm amongst the Brokpa women to marry all the brothers in a family. They are also fun loving and enjoy merry making with lots of festivities. Indeed, they love music and dance and attending Tshechus.
The Merak Tshechu is an annual three day event at the Merak Lhakhang and provides the Brokpas with some much needed respite from their daily cattle herding routine. Beside the dances that are performed throughout the Dzongs and Lhakhangs, the Brokpas also perform their traditional dances known as Ache Lhamo and the Yak dance. These rare dances are exclusive to the Brokpas and have drawn a lot of visitors to witness the unique spectacle.
Monggar in eastern Bhutan is largely known as the “Bastion of the Zhongarps,” after the illustrious Dzongpons of Zhongar that played significant role in the history of Bhutan. One can still see the ruins of the Zhongar Dzong next to the highway in Lingmethang before reaching Monggar.
The main inhabitants of this region are the Tshanglas and the Kurtoeps. They speak distinct languages known as Tshanglakha and Kurtoepaikha. This region is famous for its exquisite wood carvings.
The new Dzong in Monggar was built at the initiative of the third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck in 1953. Today the dzong is the centre of administration where all important decisions are taken.
The most exciting local event is the annual three day Tshechu that is held every November. It is witnessed by people from as far as Trashigang and Lhuentse.
There are numerous local Tshechus in this region all with their own unique dances and traditions. They occur at various times throughout the year so visitors can be assured that no matter when they visit a fantastic and colorful local festival will be taking place.
The Paro Tshechu is held every spring and is one of the most colorful and significant events in Paro Dzongkhag (district).
The Tsehchu is considered a major attraction and people travel from neighboring districts to participate in the festivity. Early in the morning on the last day of the celebration the monks display a gigantic thangkha (embroidered painting) , the Guru Throngdel, inside the dzong. Thongdrols are especially impressive examples of Buddhist art and never fail to amaze viewers. They are considered so sacred that simply seeing a Thongdrol is said to cleanse the viewer of sin.
Pema Gatshel Dzongkhag is situated in Eastern Bhutan. Its major inhabitants are the Tshanglas who are found living on agriculture and animal husbandry.
The district is known for its numerous festivals and folk songs. The most notable folk song is the Ausa, a song that is sung during the departure of family members, friends and relatives. Since the construction of the dzong in the early 1980’s, they have also celebrated the annual Tshechu over a three day period.
Many Mask Dances or Cham which are believed to confer blessings upon the spectators and teach them the ways of the Buddhist dharma are performed during the festival. Cham are also believed to provide protection from misfortune and exorcise evil influences. The festival is a religious ceremony and it is believed that you gain merit simply by attending it.
It is also an annual social gathering where people from all walks of life get together to celebrate and contemplate religion. People often travel great distances to be a part of the Tsehchu. The entire community rejoices together, dressed in their finest clothing whilst enjoying the company of friends and family.
One of the biggest festivals in the country is the Thimphu Tshechu. This festival is held in the capital city for three days beginning on 10th day of the 8th month of lunar calendar. This Tshechu is witnessed by thousands of people many of which travel from neighboring Dzongkhags (districts) to attend the festivities. The actual Tshechu is preceded by days and nights of prayer and rituals to invoke the gods.
When it was initiated by the 4th Desi, Gyalse Tenzin Rabgay in 1867 the Tshechu consisted of only a few dances being performed strictly by monks. These were the Zhana chham and the Zhana Nga chham (Dances of the 21 Black Hats), Durdag (Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Ground), and the Tungam chham (Dance of the Terrifying Deities).
The Thimphu Tshechu underwent a change in the 1950s, when the third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, introduced numerous Boed chhams (mask dances performed by lay monks). These additions added colour and variation to the festival without compromising its spiritual significance. Mask dances like the Guru Tshengye (Eight Manifestations of Guru), Shaw Shachi (Dance of the Stags) are enjoyed because they are similar to stage-theater.
Equally important are the Atsaras, who are more than just mere clowns. The Atsaras are the dupthobs (acharyas), who provide protection. The dances and the jesting of the Atsaras are believed to entrance evil forces and prevent them from causing harm during Tshechus. Modern Atsaras also perform short skits to disseminate health and social awareness messages.
To farmers, the Tshechu is also seen as a break from farm life. It’s an occasion to celebrate, receive blessings and pray for health and happiness.
Besides the annual three day Tshechu, Thimphu also celebrates a one day festival known as the Thimphu Dromchoe. The day long festival dates back to the 17th century. It was first introduced by Kuenga Gyeltshen in 1710, who was recognized as the reincarnation of Jampel Dorji, son of Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyel. The dromchoe is celebrated 3 days prior to the Thimphu Tshechu.
The Dromchoe showcases the sacred dances dedicated to the chief protective deity of Bhutan, Palden Lhamo. Legend has it, that the deity Pelden Lhamo appeared before Kuenga Gyeltshen and performed the dances while he was in meditation. Based on these dances, Kuenga Gyaltshen initiated the Dromchoe.
Trongsa, the sacred and temporal heart of the country is a two day journey from Thimphu. Situated in central Bhutan, it was once the seat of power over central and eastern regions. Both the first and second kings of Bhutan ruled the country from this ancient seat and it is customary for the crown prince to serve as the Trongsa Penlop (“governor”) prior to ascending the throne.
The dzong built in 1648, is a massive structure with many levels, sloping down the contours of the ridge upon which it is built. The dzong’s highly strategic position, on the only connecting route between Eastern and Western Bhutan allowed the Trongsa Penlop to control travel and trade in the country effectively placing him in command of the whole of the Central and Eastern regions of the country.
Of the many festivals held in various parts of Trongsa, the grandest is the three day annual Tshechu. This festival bring together people from all walks of life and falls sometime in the month of December. In addition to traditional mask dances, visitors can witness the unfurling of the sacred Thongdrol and receive blessings from high ranking monks. People also receive blessings from the sacred Nangtens that is opened during the last day of the Tshechu.