Festivals in Bhutan

Festivals in Bhutan

Festivals in Bhutan are of different kinds and are celebrated throughout the kingdom. Among these, the” Tshechu” is the most famous Festivals in Bhutan among the people inside and outside Bhutan. Festivals in Bhutan is one of the main attractions for the tourists coming to Bhutan.

“Tshechu” means the tenth day in Bhutanese calendar. These festivals in Bhutan are celebrated in the courtyards of the dzongs (fortresses) in all the dzongkhags (districts) in the honor of Guru Rinpochhe, who brought Mahayana Buddhism in Bhutan in the eight century. It is said that the Great Guru performed these great events in the tenth day of the Bhutanese calendar transforming himself into different forms to subdue the demons. This has a great religious importance to the Bhutanese.

It is celebrated with mask dances and traditional dances and it often ends with “Wangs” (blessings), where the people are blessed by Lamas and “Mewangs” (blessing by fire), where people jump over a fire. The Bhutanese believe that these festivals and the “Wangs” wash away their impurities of sins. Besides, in most of the festivals Thongdrols (meaning – being relieved from sins on sight) are displayed. These thongdrols are very large thangkhas (embroidered painting)

People come in their best dresses. Women wear the best jewelries and they pack the best food. Besides all the religious importance, this is also a time for people to interact with each other, to see and to be seen.

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Lhuentse Festival
Festival Type: Religious
Venue: Lhuentse Dzong, Lhuentse

Lhuentse is one of the eastern most dzongkhags in Bhutan. The district is also the ancestral homes of our Kings and constitutes of a number of important monuments. The Lhuentse Tshechu is celebrated in the Lhuentse Dzong. This dzong was built in 1552 as a small temple by Ngagi Wangchuk. It was later developed to its present state by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. Among the many unique festivals celebrated in this district including the Cha and Ha festivals, which is celebrated to honor the deities and to prevent misfortunes, the most important festival is the Lhuentse Tshechu. This festival draws a large numbers of people from nearby communities who come out in their best for the celebrations. The colorful attire of the Kishuthara, for which Lhuentse is famous for, the rich ornaments are among the most appealing visual aspects. The festival is celebrated with mask dances and blessings from High lamas and sacred relics.

Trongsa Tshechu
Festival Type: Religious
Venue: Trongsa Dzong, Trongsa

The Trongsa Tshechu is held in Trongsa dzong in Trongsa. Among the many festivals celebrated in the dzongkhag, Trongsa Tshechu is the grandest is the three day annual Tshechu. The festival is celebrated with the performance of mask dances, the unfurling of the sacred Thongdrol, the receipt of blessings from high Buddhist Priest or Lamas and receipt of blessings from the sacred Nangtens, which is opened only during the last day of the festival. Despite all these the festival also brings people from all walks of life together.

Nga Lhakhang Zhi OR Nalakhar Festival
Festival Type: Religious
Nga Lhakhang, Bumthang

Ngaa Lhakhang is located in the Nalakhar Village in the Choekhor Valley of Bumthang. Nalakhar is one of the less visited beautiful small villages in Bumthang. A feeder road connects the village and it takes approximately 1 Hr to reach the village. Nalakhar Festival is celebrated in Ngaa Lhakhang in Nalakhar village.

Festival Name: Trashigang Tshechu
Festival Type: Religious
Venue: Trashigang Dzong, Trashigang

Trashigang Tshechu is celebrated in the courtyard of the Trashigang dzong. Trashigang being the largest district, every village has its own annual festival, however the Trashigang Tshechhu is the highlight and the main festival in the district. The festival is held between 7th to 11th days of the tenth month of the Bhutanese calendar.

The actual festival is celebrated only for three days, however the preparations begin 2 days prior. On the first day of the festival monks perform the “thrue” (ceremonial ablutions) and on the second day rehearsals are done. The proper Tshechu begins on the third day. On the fourth day the Thongdrol of Neten Chudrug (Sixteen Arhats) is unfurled amidst a flurry of mask dances. On the final day, the old Thongdrol of Guru Tshengyed is displayed. The unfurling is accompanied by the performance of Guru Tshengyed Chhams.

The festival is attended by people from the whole of Trashigang Dzongkhag and also the nearby districts such as Samdrup Jongkhar, Pema Gatshel, Trashiyangtse and Mongar. The semi- nomadic people residing in the valleys of Merak and Sakteng and the Khengpa community also come to witness the festival.

Festival Name: Mongar Tshechu
Festival Type: Religious
Venue: Mongar Dzong, Mongar

The Mongar tshechu is celebrated in Mongar Dzong in Mongar. People from all over the region as far as Trashigang and Lhuentse come to attend the festival. A lot of unique dances indigenous to the region are also performed.

Festival Name: Prakar Duchhoed
Festival Type: Religious
Venue: Prakar Lhakhang, Chhummi, Bumthang

Prakar Duchhoed is the annual festival is celebrated at the Prakar Lhakhang in Chhummi gewog in Bumthang. Several kinds of mask dances are performed during the festival. The festival is celebrated to honor Lama Thukse Dawa, one of the sons of the 15th century Buddhist master, Terton Pema Lingpa. Lama Thukse Dawa who was one of the greatest Buddhist masters to be ever born in Bhutan.

Festival Name: Jambay Lhakhang Drub
Festival Type: Religious
Venue: Jambay Lhakhang, Choekor, Bumthang

Jambay Lhakhang, located in Bumthang is one among the 108 Buddhist temples built in the 7th century by the Tibetan King Songtsen Goempo and is one of the oldest temples in the Kingdom. The 108 temples were built because the King was destined to build 108 temples known as Thadhul- Yangdhul (temples on and across the border) in a day to subdue the demoness that was residing in the Himalayas. Chakar Gyab renovated the temple in 8th century.

In the 19th century, Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuk constructed the Dus Kyi Khorlo (Kala Chakra- Wheel of Time) inside the temple. This was done to commemorate his victory over his rivals Phuntsho Dorji of Punakha and Alu Dorji of Thimphu after the battle of Changlimithang in 1885.

The Chorten lhakhang was built by Ashi Wangmo, the younger sister of the second king of Bhutan.

The name of the temple is derived from one of the main relic of the temple, Jowo Jampa (Maitreya).

Jambay Lhakhang drub is one of the most spectacular festivals observed in Bhutan. The highlight of the festival is the fire ritual that is held in the evening where crowds gather to witness the ritual together with the naked dance. This is done to purify sins and portend a good harvest.

Festival Name: Thimphu Tshechu
Festival Type: Religious
Venue: Tashichhodzong, Thimphu

Thimphu Tshechu is one of the biggest festivals in the country. It is preceded by days and nights of prayer and rituals to invoke the gods.

The Thimphu Tshechhu is performed at the Tashichhodzong in Thimphu. Thimphu Tshechu was instituted by the fourth Desi Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye in 15th century to commemorate the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava.

The highlights of the festival are the Guru Tshegye Cham or the dance of the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpochhe, the cham of the Ging and Tsholing and the Rigma Chudru cham or the dance of the sixteen fairies.

Festival Name: Tamshing Phalachhoepa/ Tamzhing Festival
Festival Type: Religious
Venue: Tamzhing Lhakhang, Bumthang

Tamshing Festival, locally known as Tamshing Phala Chhoepa is celebrated in Tamshing Monastery in Bumthang.The Monastery was built in the year 1501 by terton Pema Lingpa. This monastery follows the Pelling tradition of Pema Lingpa and belongs to the Nyingmapa Sect . The festival is celebrated in the Monastery for its cultural significance and its direct connection to the famous Treasure discoverer, Terton Pema Lingpa. This monastery is headed by the Venerable Lhalung Sungtrul Rinpoche.

Festival Name: Wangdue Tshechu
Festival Type: Religious
Venue: Tencholing Army ground, Wangduephodrang

Wangdue Tshechu is celebrated in Wangdue. The Tshechu is well known for the Raksha Mangcham or the dance of the Ox. It concludes with the unfurling of the Guru Tshengye Thongdrol.

Previously, the Wangduephodrang Tshechu was celebrated in the Wangduephodrang Dzong, since the destruction of the Dzong by fire in the year 2012, the festival is being held in the  Royal Bhutan Army ground, located a few kilometers away from the town.

It is said that during the construction of a bridge across the Punatshangchhu river, all the foundations laid during the day time was destroyed at night by a mermaid. This carried on for a while until Zhabdrung introduced the Raksha Langgu chham in order to distract her. The mermaid, disguised as a ordinary human went to witness the dance, taking the chance people hurried their work and completed the construction of the bridge. In his regards the Raksha Langgu chham during the Wangdue Tshechhu is considered one of the most important and interesting mask dances performed.

Other Mask dances are also performed during the festival which deals with afterlife wandering souls and dances in paradise. Pa Chham is said to be the dance of paradise. The Pa Chham was introduced by Pema Lingpa, who had seen these dances while he visited the Paradise in his dream.

Festival Name: Kurjey Tshechu
Festival Type: Religious
Venue: Kurjey Lhakhang, Bumthang

Kurjey Tshechu coincides with the birth anniversary of Guru Rinpoche. Different kinds of mask dances are performed during the festival apart from traditional and folk songs and dances.

Kurjey Lhakhang (temple) is located in Kurjey in Chhoekor valley in Bumthang. It is a 15 minutes drive from the main Chamkhar town in Bumthang.

Legend has it that, Sindhu Raja (King of Bumthang) invited Guru Rinpoche to subdue some evil spirits that had been plaguing the land. Guru Rinpoche visited Bumthang and meditated in a cave that resembled a pile of Dorjis (stylized thunderbolt used for Buddhist rituals) and subdued the evil spirits. The imprints imprints of the Guru’s body remained in the rock face. Thereafter, the name came to be known as Kurjey meaning – “Imprint of the body”.

Kurjey Lhakhang consists of three temples. From the three temples, the oldest temple was constructed in the year 1652 by Minjur Tenpa the first Trongsa Penlop (Governor of Trongsa) on the site where Guru Rinpoche meditated. The second temple, which is the most sacred temple was founded by Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck in 1900 while serving as the 13th Trongsa Penlop.  The temple is sacred as it was built in the site where Guru Rinpoche left his body imprint. The third temple, which  houses the images of Guru Rimpoche, King Thrisong Detsen and Pandit Santarakshita was sponsored by the Queen Mother Ashi Kezang Choden Wangchuck and was built in 1900s. In front of the temples are Chortens dedicated to the first three kings of Bhutan.

The Kurjey Tshechu which is observed in the temple grounds is an important occasion not only for the local people of Bumthang but for all Bhutanese. The festival brings together tourists and Bhutanese from all over as it presents the perfect occasion to not only receive blessings by witnessing age-old mask dances but also to enjoy this unique festival in Bhutan.

Festival Name: Nimalung Tshechu
Festival Type: Religious
Venue: Nimalung Dratshang, Chhummi, Bumthang

Located in Chummey Valley in Bumthang, Nimalung Dratshang is at an approximately 15 minutes drive from the road that branches off from Chummey Village. The Dratshang was co-founded Dasho Gonpo Dorji and Doring Trulku Jamyang Kunzang, the third mind reincarnation of Terton Jigme Lingpa in the year 1935.  During the visit of Doring Tulku to Bhutan, he met Dasho Gonpo Dorji during the funeral ceremonies of Dasho Jamyang, the father-in-law of the Second King Jigme Wangchuck and immediately thought of laying the foundation of a Lhakhang and along with Doring Trulku he decided to open a monastic institution to uphold the school of Buddhism enriched by Kuenkhen Longchen and Jigme Lingpa.  This is a two storied temple decorated with murals of the Nyingmapa and Drukpa traditions and its main relic is the statu of Guru Rinpochhe. There are also paintings of Guru Rinpoche and his disciples, the lineage of Terton Pema Lingpa, and several masters affiliated with the monastery.

Nimalung tshechhu is one of the most important festivals in Bhutan, held at the Lhakhang. During the festival a  nine meters high and twelve meters wide Guru Rinpoche Thongdrol (large Scroll Painting) is unfurled. The Thongdrol was donated by Lopen Pemala was consecrated in June 1994 in the presence of a large crowd of villagers by Lhalung Thuksey Rinpoche, the mind reincarnation of Pema Lingpa. A series of mask dances are also performed during the festival.

Festival Name: Paro Tshechu
Festival Type: Religious
Venue: Paro Rinpung Dzong, Paro

Paro Tshechu is one of the most popular and biggest religious festivals in Bhutan.  On the first day, all mask dances are held inside the courtyard of the Dzong. In the subsequent days, the courtyard outside the dzong hosts the festival. The festival was first initiated by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel and the Ponpo  Rigzin Nyingpo with the consecration of Paro Rinpung Dzong in 1644. The five day festival is observed in the honour of Guru Padmasambhava.

The festival programs for the day are as follows:

Day 1.

  • Dance of the Lord of Death and his Consort (Shinje Yab Yum)
  • Dance of Lords of Cremations Grounds ( Durdag )
  • Dance of Black Hats ( Shanag)
  • Dance of Drum from Dramistse (Dramitse Nacham)
  • Dance of Eight kinds of Spirits (Degye )
  • Religious Song (Chhoeshey)

Day 2. 

  • Dance of the Lord of Death and His Consort (Shinje Yab Yum)
  • Dance of Black Hats with Drums (Shanag Nga Cham)
  • Dance of three kinds of Ging with Sticks (Gynging)
  • Dance of Lord of Cremation Ground (Durdag)
  • Dance of three kinds of Ging with Drums (Driging)
  • Dance of three kinds of Ging with Drums (Ngaging)
  • Dance of Stage and the Hounds (Shawa Shachi) 1st part

Day 3. 

  •  Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds (Durdag)
  • Dance of Terrifying Deities (Tungam)
  • Dance of Heroes with six kinds of Ornaments (Guan Drug Pawo) Kyacham
  • Dance of Novel man and Ladies Lencham
  • Dance of Stag and Hounds (2nd part) (Shawa Shacha)

Day 4.

  • Dance of Lord of Death and His Consort (Shinje Yab Yum,)
  • Dance of four Stags (Sha Tsam)
  • Dance of Judgment of the Dead (Raksha Mangcham)
  • Dance of the Drums from Dramitse ( Dramitse Nga Cham)

Day 5.

At around 3:30 – 4 am the unfurling of the Thongdrol is unfurled from the main building overlooking the dance area. Thongdrol means ‘liberation on sight’ and is a very large Thangka (religious pictures) usually embroidered rather than painted. This is done before sunrise and most people rush to witness the moment as it is believed that our bad karmas are expiated simply by viewing it. With the showing of Thangka, Shugdrel Ceremony is performed.

  • Dances of the Heroes (Pacham)
  • Dance of Ging and Tsholing
  • Dance of the Eight Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche (Guru Tshen Gye)
  • Dance of the Sixteen Fairies
  • Religious Song (Chhoeshey)

End of Paro Tshechu

Festival Name: Gomphu Kora Festival
Festival Type: Religious
Venue: Gomphu Kora Lhakhang, Trashigang

Gomphu means ‘meditation cave’ while Kora translates to ‘circumambulation’. The monastery is popular for the circumambulation festival where people go around the temple day and night. Gomphu Kora is situated 24 kms from the Trashigang dzong in Trashigang in the eastern Bhutan. The name Gomphu Kora (Gomphu – “Meditation Cave”, Kora – “Circumambulation”) is derived from a cave in the place. It is said that in the 8th century, an evil spirit named Myongkhapa escaped from Samye in Tibet and concealed himself inside a rock where Gomphu Kora stands today. Guru Rinpoche meditated for three days inside a rock cave in this place and subdued the evil spirit. Gongkhar Gyal, grandson of Lhasay Tsangma, built a small shrine at Gomphu Kora around the 10th century A.D. In the 14th century, Terton Pema Lingpa, visited Gomphu Kora and enlarged the existing shrine. It was renovated and enlarged in the 15th century by Yongzin Ngagi Wangchuk, the grandfather of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. He also inscribed murals on the walls of the temple. The biggest attraction of Gomphu Kora is the circumambulation of the Gomphu Kora temple. People from all over the eastern districts come to the place to worship ad reaffirm their connection with the past lives.

Festival Name: Chorten Kora
Festival Type: Religious
Venue: Chotren Kora, Trashiyangtse.

The Chorten Kora Festival is one of the most popular festivals in eastern Bhutan. Kora’ means circumambulation. The biggest activity of the festival is circumambulating the Chorten Kora, which makes it different from many other festivals in Bhutan. Chorten Kora is one of the most important stupa in Trashiyangtse built in the year 1740 by Lama Ngawang Loday, the nephew of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. The stupa was built to subdue a demon believed to have been living at the site where the chorten is now located. Modeled after the famous Boudhanath stupa in Nepal and was consecrated by the 13th chief Abbot of Bhutan Je Sherub Wangchuk. It was built in order to enable pilgrims to visit the temple in Trashiyangtse instead of making a trip to Nepal.

Legend has it that a young girl from Tawang, believed to have been a Dakini agreed to be buried alive inside the Chorten. For this reason a ritual known as Dakpa Kora is organized every year where hundreds of people from Arunachal Pradesh known as the Dakpas make it to Chorten Kora to circumambulate. Dakpa Kora is held on the 15th day of the 3rd month and the Drukpa Kora (circumbulation by the Bhutanese) is held on the 30th day of the 3rd month corresponding to 15th March every year.

Festival name: Punakha Tshechu
Festival Type: Religious
Venue: Punakha Dzong, Punakha.

Punakha Tshechu is one of the most popular festivals in Bhutan. The unfurling of the thongdrol of Guru Rinpoche is the attraction of the festival. It is believed that the sight of the thongdrol liberates oneself and cleanses him of his sins. As all the tshechhu festivals in Bhutan, Punakha Tshechhu is celebrated in the honor of Guru Padmasambhawa. The festival is observed by mask dances performed by the monks and the laymen clad in colorful brocade attire and permeated by chants and reading of Buddhist scripts. The festival is culminated with the unfurling of a huge cloth thangka (a sacred scroll, depicting Padmasmabhawa and imagery form Buddhist pantheon.) The festival was first introduced in the year 2005 by the 70th Je Khenpo Trulku Jigme Choedra and the then Home Minister His Excellency Lyonpo Jigme Yoedzer Thinley. The festival plays an important role in preserving Bhutan’s rich culture and traditions and also provides devout Buddhists with an opportunity for prayer and pilgrimage.

Festival Name: Punakha Drubchen , one of the unique festivals in Bhutan
Festival Type: Religious and Historical
Venue: Punakha Dzong, Punakha

Punakha Drubchen is one of the oldest festivals of the district. This is a detailed dramatization of how the local Bhutanese militia duped and defeated an invading Tibetan army and forced them to withdraw.   Punakha Drubchen, was introduced by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to commemorate the victory over the Tibetans, when Bhutan was invaded several times by Tibetan forces seeking to seize a very precious relic, the Ranjung Kharsapani. Since then Punakha Drubchen became the annual festival of Punakha Dzongkhag.

Unlike most of other festivals in Bhutan, Punakha Drubchen is unique. It hosts a dramatic recreation of the scene from the 17th century battle with Tibetan army. The ‘pazaps’ or local militia men dressed in traditional battle gear recreate 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.

Detailed Festival program of the Punakha Drubchen

Day 1.

  • Arranging of  camps
  • Reading out the Code of Conduct.
  • Handing over the dresses to the Kabji Gup

Day 2.

  • The pazaps will go for bathing in procession following the age-old tradition.
  • Handing over dresses to the Gups.

Day 3.

  • The gups will present themselves to the Je Khenpo.
  • Co-inciding with the performance of ‘Shenje Phag’ in the Monk’s Assembly Hall, the pazaps along with their respective gup and Drungpa will make their way into the Dzong carrying their Tsendhar or flag.
  • Drubchen Mask Dance program.
  • ‘Zhugdrel Tendrel’ program inside the temple of eight pillars for the pazaps.
  • The pazaps will return to their respective camps after the talk by the Je Khenpo.
  • Zhugdrel Phunsum Tshogpa.
  • Singing the ‘Lenma’ or ballad and performance of ‘Bhed’ or Victory Dance.

Day 4.

  • Kabjips will fire in the air in the as a wake-up call with a victory walk over to Changyul.
  • Zhugdrel Tendrel & performance of ‘Bhed’ or Victory Dance.
  • Taking gruel inside the camp and making offerings of wine.
  • As i) Kabjips ii) Toep iii) Chang and iv) Kawangpas proceed in the above order across the Mochu Bridge to assemble near the side of the dzong, each individual makes an attempt to be the first person to offer betel nut to whoever they meet first.
  • Forming two lines they will walk around the dzong singing ‘Lekso’ hauling victory, firing in the air and after similarly completed going round the Dzongchung Chorten or miniature Dzong they will proceed to Zomphakha grounds where each will carry out his duty.
  • Dasho Dzongdag will serve the welcome tea.
  • Four of the ‘Lenma’ performers will perform the dance.
  • Drungpas and the Penlops will perform ‘Bhed’ or victory dance.
  • Witnessing the indoor mask dance.
  • Making wine offerings in the area.
  • Checking whether the things are as per the list.
  • Offering songs to Je Khenpo from the base of the flag at the entrance to the dzong.
  • Traditional sports Competition such as, Shot Putt, Carrying sand bags, Sawing timber,  Tree climbing.

Day 5.

  • ‘Torbuel’ or making offerings.
  • The pazaps will enter the dzong and tie their Tsendhars or flags on pillars.  After the prayer ritual is over, the preceptor to the ‘Dep’ or governor will read out the ‘Chayig Chenpo.’
  • Singing ‘Lenma’
  • Holding one’s own ‘Chogdha’ or arrow of victory in the hands, each individual will do an explanation or description of it.
  • The four Drungpas will enter the temple of eight pillars or ‘Kagayma Lhakhang’.
  • Continuing performing the ’Bhed Dance’ at the base of ‘Machen Tshelshing’ or the ‘Orange Tree of the Great Mummy’ they will proceed outside from the upper entrance of the dzong towards the place called ‘Norbu Chu Shaksa.’
  • The pazaps who make exit from the lower entrance to the dzong will go to Changyul and pretend.
  • After enactment of the throwing of gem into the river they will make a return in ritual procession. This will be followed by the performance of the ‘Bhed Dance’ by the four ‘Penlops’. The teacher of the’Lenma’ will sing the ‘Lenma’ in a long-drawn melody.
  • Handing out of scarves, ‘Jinlab’ and religious strings by His Holiness the Je Khenpo.
  • Sports Competition such as Wrestling and Tug of war and giving out prizes.

End of Punakha Drubchen.