Festivals of Bhutan
Tshechu, or religious festivals are at the very heart of Bhutan’s unique way of life. These sacred festivals take place all year round – in every monastery and temple, even in the most remote parts of the country. Bhutan’s festivals are not re-enactments of the traditions of a bygone age, but a form of living art and culture. For scholar Gisela Bonn, they are the ‘keys to the country’s religion and history’, offering deeper insight into the religious and cultural heritage of Bhutan and the country’s spiritual and social structure.
This article will explain the history and spiritual importance of these festivals, before focusing in depth on the Punakha Dromchen, a fascinating historical festival visited as part of Odyssey Traveller’s guided tour of Bhutan.
Sources for this article include Karin Altmann’s Fabric of Life – Textile Arts in Bhutan: Culture, Tradition and Transformation and Kharma Phuntsho’s The History of Bhutan.
Among the most significant festivals are the tshechu held in honour of Guru Rinpoche. According to Bhutanese tradition, Guru Rinpoche visited Bhutan in the 7th century and established the first monasteries, marking the arrival of Buddhism in the area. In the Tibetan Buddhism practiced in Bhutan (along with Tibet, Mongolia, and nearby areas of India and China) Guru Rinpoche is venerated as the ‘second Buddha’, a religious figure second only to the Buddha himself.
The tshechu celebrate his birthday, his arrival in Bhutan, and his outstanding deeds. His birthday is dated to the tenth day of the seventh month of the Bhutanese lunisolar calendar, in which months correspond to the cycles of the moon. It is thus believed that all the great deeds of Guru Rinpoche took place on the tenth day of a month, explaining why the festival is called tshechu (‘tenth day’).
The two most attended festivals are the Thimphu Tshechu and the Paro Tshechu, held in autumn and spring respectively. Regional festivals, which venerate local deities in addition to Guru Rinpoche, occur throughout the year, but always on or around the tenth day of the month. Alongside the tshechu there are many other religious festivals, including the Punakha Dromchen.
Central to each festival is the cham or sacred dances. Accompanied by instrumentation provided by cymbals, horns, oboes and trumpets, monks – lavishly dressed in brocade and silken garments, some wearing masks – dance for hours at a time. These dances are perhaps best understood as ‘mystery plays’, as each convey messages based on the teachings of the Buddha.
The cham are essentially a danced form of yoga. Found in Hinduism and parts of Buddhism, the philosophy of yoga regards the individual as a person travelling inside the vehicle of the material body. The body is the vehicle, the driver is the understanding, and the traveller is the soul. Yoga unites the three.
Through dance, the highest form of meditation (or mahamudra) is achieved, in which dualistic mental concepts are overcome and the individual experiences an absolute reality. Simply by watching the dances, the observer is liberated from the circle of suffering and the circle of existence. The dances also help maintain links between humans and deities through the veneration of local spirits.
Though the dances originate in the pre-Buddhist culture of Bhutan, the first recorded performance is connected to Guru Rimpoche, who is supposed to have danced the cham to overthrow the demon Shelging Karpo and force him to swear an oath to serve Buddhism as a protective deity.
Though such stories integrate history and myth, it is clear that the cham dances have a deep-rooted history, passed down from one generation to the next for centuries. These transmissions were as accurate as possible, yet were developed and renewed following new spiritual revelations granted to important individuals. Many of the dances performed today are based on these subsequent visions.
Today, the process of learning the dance is a highly regarded part of monastic discipline. Each monastery has its own dance group, made up of monks of various ages who are instructed by their champon, or master of the dance. This involves both learning the steps and acquiring a thorough training in religion, philosophy, history, and magic.
The dance also incorporates elements of meditation, and the monks aim to have the right motivation, what the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard calls the ‘mind of enlightenment’. During the dance, the performer must not just visualise the deity he represents, but must become aware that he is the divinity that he is representing – as the Buddha nature is present in every thing.
The dances thus have the religious significance of allowing the Bhutanese people to engage directly with their deities. They also allow the Bhutanese people – many of whom are illiterate, or lack the leisure time for extensive study of religious texts – to understand Buddhist teachings.
Since the cham are often slow and solemn, comic interludes are introduced to keep the crowd entertained. Atsara or clowns, dressed in tattered clothes and wearing long-nosed and caricatural masks take over the stage after long performances and perform a slapstick version of the same dance.
Traditionally, they also performed the duty of keeping the public away from the performers, chasing unruly spectators with a baton in the shape of a huge phallus. Today, this function has been largely taken over by uniformed police carrying batons of a more conventional kind – but the atsara keep their phallic batons and engage in sexual innuendo with the public. Performances today are also interspersed with folk dances and folk singing by women.
The festivals also form an essential part of the social life of Bhutanese people. As many Bhutanese people continue to live in remote parts of the country and earn a living from agriculture and animal husbandry, they have few opportunities to visit local temples and monasteries.
The annual festivals are also a time to have fun. People stream into monasteries from miles around, dressed in their best clothes and wearing their most valuable jewellery. Each festival has a little market where the latest products are sold, people play games of chance, and eat, drink, and socialise. For teenagers and young adults, the festivals provide the freedom to flirt with their peers – and marriages are commonly made as the result of meetings at the annual tshechu.
Each year, Odyssey Traveller gives travellers the privilege of experiencing the unique Punakha Dromchen festival, as part of the guided group tour to Bhutan. The festival is held at the Punakha Dzong, one of Bhutan’s most beautiful traditional fortresses. Strategically positioned at the junction of two rivers, it is almost 200 metres long and 73 metres wide. Punakha was Bhutan’s capital until 1955, and the first kings were enthroned here.
The Punakha Dromchen is unique among Bhutanese festivals as it incorporates historical aspects into the spiritual event. It commemorates a historic battle between Bhutanese forces and an invading Tibetan Army. When Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel – who was then an important religious figure – sought refuge in Bhutan following disagreement regarding his right to lead a powerful monastery in Tibet, he brought with him a the most sacred relic of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, known as the Rangjung Kharsapani, and interred it in a special chapel in Punakha Dzong. Due to his political and religious skill, the Zhabdrung quickly became the leading authority in Bhutan.
In 1639, a huge Tibetan army marched into Punakha in 1639 to retrieve the relic, but thanks to a series of elaborate ruses – and the intervention of deities – they were routed by the much smaller Bhutanese forces.
First, Tibetan spies watching from a distance saw a seemingly endless stream of well-armed Bhutanese soldiers marching out of the dzong. In actuality, this only a small group of men, who would march out of the dzong, circle it, and then re-enter from a hidden back door – only to re-emerge from the front again.
The Zhabdrung also laid out dummies in rice fields and gardens to further give the Tibetans a false impression of his number of troops. Bhutanese accounts claim that – due to the powers of the Choechong Sunghma, or protective local deities – these ruses convinced the Tibetans, who saw many more soldiers during the battles than there really were.
In the second ruse, the Bhutanese made a solemn procession to the nearby river. The Zhabdrung himself made up the rear of the procession, carrying a casket which he threw into the river. The Tibetans were convinced that the precious relic had been thrown into the river. Seeing the object they came for irretrievably lost – and believing that they were well outnumbered by the Bhutanese forces – they fled the country.
Of course, the sacred Rangjung Kharsapani relic was still safely in its casket in Punakha Dzong, where it remains today.
These episodes are commemorated every year at the Punakha Dromchen with great pageantry. Like the tshcehu, the Punakha Dromchen features masked dances performed by monks from the local monastery.
At the Punakha Dromchen, the events of the Tibetan war are also re-enacted. Heralded by a group of musicians playing oboes, horns and drums, men dressed in as the Zhabdrung’s warriors march in and out of the dzong, while cavalrymen on horses gallop up and down the bridge leading to the dzong.
At the conclusion of the festival is the Serda – a majestic procession of monks led by the Je Khenpo, who is the chief religious authority in Bhutan. Dressed in a sumptuous ceremonial costume, he ends the Dromchen by immersing a casket and some oranges in the river in a symbolic re-enactment of the victory over the Tibetans. Young people dive into the river to retrieve the oranges, which are believed to bring good fortune for the year.
The festival ends with the unfurling of the Punakha thongdroel, which is an applique scroll measuring 83 feet by 93 feet. The thongdroel, picturing Shabdrung Nawang Namgyel, takes fifty-one artists over two years to create, and uses about 6, 000 metres of brocade.
If this article has interested you in attending one of Bhutan’s unique cultural festivals, Odyssey Traveller runs a small group tour of Bhutan