The Bhutanese know how to throw a party. At festival time in Bhutan, the people bring out their brilliantly colored costumes, elaborate turquoise and coral jewelry, ferocious masks, and banners. Preparations may have been underway for weeks, and the ritual dancing, eating, and music can last for days.
Although Bhutan has many festivals, the most well known are called tsechus, which are celebrated on the 10th day of the month of the lunar calendar, corresponding to the birth of Guru Rimpoche. Tsechus, or religious festivals, are spiritually significant, usually describe the victory of good over evil, and are often held in monastery courtyards. But that doesn’t mean they are somber affairs. (Remember this is the happiest country in Asia!) Festivals in Bhutan give the people of a village and nearby districts an opportunity to dress up in their finery, celebrate with far-flung friends and relations and receive a blessing from the Buddhist deity being honored.
Festivals are scheduled on a lunar Tibetan calendar, occurring at about the same time of the year but on different days. We keep a current “save the date” calendar of these important events, so those who travel Bhutan can experience a festival.
Here are six of our favorite Bhutan festivals, ranging from the Haa festival in far western Bhutan to Gomphu Kora and the Trashigang Tsechu in the less traveled east. For travelers who enjoy going off the tourist track, we suggest planning enough travel time to see at least one of these truly authentic, local festivals.
Since Paro is the gateway for many tourists coming into and out of Bhutan, the local Tsechu festival is the most familiar to foreigners. Every year since the mid-17th century when Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the unifier and founder of Bhutan, established the fortress monastery in Paro, monks and Bhutanese people from the region have gathered in the spring for a five-day celebration.
Monks perform “Cham” dances, religious masked dances that dramatize events in the life of Guru Rimpoche (aka Padmasambhava), who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century). Laypeople in traditional Bhutanese dress do folk dances to the sounds of drums, cymbals and horns. Markets spread in all directions, and people picnic or buy food from stalls.
The festival culminates at dawn of the last day with the unfurling of a nearly 100-foot long thangka, appliqued with an image of Padmasambhava. This is the only time the enormous thangka is displayed, and those who see it are said to be blessed.
Jambay Lhakhang Drup
Legend has it that in the 7th century more than a hundred temples were built in a day, each marking a place where the body of a giant demoness was pinned to the earth so she couldn’t interfere with the spread of Buddhism. Two of those temples are in Bhutan. Jambay Lhakhang in the Bumthang district of central Bhutan is one of them.
The first night of the festival in this ancient temple, is called Jambay Lhakhang Drup. The spectacular ceremony is highlighted by a sensational sacred fire ritual and midnight ritualistic naked dance. Then, for the next five days many traditional dances are performed, including the Black Hat Dance, the Dance of the Four Stags, and the Dance of the Heroes.
Handicrafts, religious objects and food prepared by the local people are for sale throughout the days of the festival.
Held in the remote eastern part of Bhutan in a small but charming temple below Trashigang, this festival celebrates Guru Padmasambhava’s victory over the evil spirit Myongkhapa. Myongkhapa had escaped from Samye monastery in Tibet and concealed herself in a rock where Gomphu Kora stands today. After three days of meditation, Padmasambhava vanquished the demoness and drove her from her hiding place.
Today thousands of devotees from all over eastern Bhutan dressed in their best clothes and jewelry come to circumambulate the monastery, chanting mantras to the Guru. A unique quality of the festival for the visitor is the mix of people who come to worship, including the Dakpa Tribe from distant Arunachal Pradesh in India. For the devotee, the uniqueness stems from the circumambulation of the temple, an opportunity to cleanse one’s sins before, as they say, “It is too late.”
For the younger Bhutanese there’s another draw to this celebration: It’s the festival where wedding proposals are often made and accepted.
Honoring a victory is always a cause for celebration and remembrance. In the 17th century, local Bhutanese militiamen successfully ousted Tibetan invaders and this unique festival in Punakha, preceding the more traditional Tsechu festival, honors that victory.
The Drubchen begins with a Serda, or procession of soldiers and Bhutanese militia or “pazaps,” dressed in ancient battle gear. Following the procession, there is a dramatic reenactment of the 17th century battle.
Following the Drubchen, one can stay on in Punakha, the winter home of the Je Khempo or Bhutanese religious leader, and see the more traditional Punakha Tsechu Festival. Tsechu was instituted recently to help reinforce Buddhist teachings in the area.
The Trashigang Tsechu is special because of the charm of the monastery, the variety of attendees and the fact that its location in eastern Bhutan is less overrun by tourists.
Here, at the largest festival in the eastern part of the country, villagers, nomads (the Brokpas) and pilgrims from areas along the Indian border gather once a year in the courtyard of the cliffside, 17th century Trashigang monastery fortress to watch the monks perform their sacred masked dances.
One can see the monks in their dress, the locals in their best Bhutanese silks, and the tribal people in their traditional dress. In addition to the usual religious dances, the people do folk dances and sing during the three days of festivities.
On the final day a giant appliqued hanging of the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche is unfurled as the sacred dances continue.
Haa Summer Festival
Not all Bhutan festivals are religious. Each summer since 2011, nomadic people from throughout Bhutan gather in the Haa Valley to celebrate their culture with feasting, drinking the locally made brew, singing and dancing. Haa is a recently opened area of Bhutan that is an easy, two-hour drive west of Paro.
The festival highlights include sporting events, where celebrants show their skills at archery, horse riding, javelin throwing and other feats. The summer festival is also a unique opportunity to see craftspeople displaying their wares and sample traditional foods.
The bonus: the Haa Valley offers some of the most beautiful hiking in Bhutan, and during the summer, you are likely to spot the rare white poppy among other wild flowers.