Landlocked between India to the South and China to the North, this small Asian country has a cultural presence much larger than the country itself. Staying completely independent over its history, the Bhutanese people have a strong devotion to their faith, with almost 75% of its population practicing Buddhism. To represent and revel in this devotion to their beliefs, locals of Bhutan participate in many festivals—all throughout the year—to flaunt their bright and vivacious values. Every one of the departures of our Beautiful Bhutan small group tour is scheduled around a real Bhutanese festival or authentic festival performance. So check out some highlights below from the festivals we visit in one of the world’s happiest countries, then take the road less traveled and experience Beautiful Bhutan for yourself!
What are Teschu festivals?
All the festivals we have on our departures are called Tsechu festival (Tse-Date Chu–Ten). These festivals are celebrated to commemorate the great deeds of 8th century Tantric master Guru Padmasambhava who is credited in spreading of Mahayana Buddhism in the entire Himalayan region. So it is commemorated on the 10th day of every month (according to the lunar calendar) in different states.
These Tsechu festivals are dominated by ancient old religious Mask Dances that are performed by both monks and lay person in brilliant costumes re-enacting the legendary events, accompanied by blaring horns, booming drums, and clashing cymbals as they whirl and leap around the ancient old courtyard of a Dzong (Fortress) or in a small temple at a village. Crowds gather in their finest hand woven dress, brightly patterned for which Bhutan is renowned, creating an intensely colorful and exciting atmosphere that had remained unchanged in its traditional purity for centuries. Locals believe that by dressing in their finest is another form of offering that could bring them blessings, give them an opportunity to please the deities which in return bring them merit, luck, prosperity and also an occasion to see people and to be seen. The dance itself is believed to be the representation of the deities that are encountered during the intermediate period of death and rebirth.
This three day festival is thick with color, culture, and celebration. Tamshing Festival specifically commemorates the great Saint Pema Lingpa. This man was not only a Tibetan Saint, but also a “Siddha” of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. His title as a “Siddha” represents the fact that he has reached great spiritual and physical enlightenment within the Buddhist religion. Because Pema Lingpa was such an accomplished saint, it certainly is fitting that the Tamshing Festival is held each year in the heart of the courtyard of Tamshing Lhakhang, a temple that Lingpa constructed himself. Like many other Bhutanese festivals, the center of the celebration is marked by the authentic mask dances, known as “chams.” Choreographed prior to the Middle Ages, these dances were created by the Buddhist Masters and Saints to be passed down to the people—allowing their messages to be transferred to all generations of Buddhist people in Bhutan.
You have to drive to the picturesque village of Talo, centered around the Talo Monastery, to witness the Talo Festival. The main draw of the festival is the classical dance, Zungdra, performed by the Talo dance group. This dance is the main attraction of the three “Songs of Mani Sum” which are performed at the end of each day. This type of folk music accompanied by the Zungdra is endemic to this specific region of Bhutan, and absolutely integral to the expression of their culture and history. In fact ‘Zhung’ translates to ‘center, or mainstream’ while ‘dra’ is the word ‘music’. With extended and complex vocal lines, leading a simple, instrumental melody, Zungdra is actually more religious than one would initially think. Although this music is very popular and previously secular, the lyrics of this music often tells stories of Buddhist leaders, using allegories and chants, to describe their fallen lives.
This festival—running for three enthusiastic days—takes place at the Domkhar Lhundrup Choling temple, in Domkhar. Although the Domkhar Festival is a celebratory occasion, the event actually falls in line with the remembrance day for the fallen Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgye. This man is given a traditional and national Bhutanese holiday because of his time as a Tibetan, a Buddhist teacher, and a leader in the unification of Bhutan as a state. As noted earlier, Bhutan is one of the only nations in the world that has never been occupied or controlled by another, so the unification of all of the existing Bhutanese people was an extremely important event. Despite this, the festival mainly focuses on the birth anniversary of Bhutan’s Patron Saint Guru Rinpoche. This man also was a grand figure in Buddhist history, as he helped construct the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet. Because of this and his spiritual prowess, he is often referred to as “a second Buddha” throughout different areas in Bhutan and Tibet. Mixing a remembrance of death with a celebration of birth, this festival highlights the Black Hat Dance, the three Ging, and a Drametse performance, a set composed of sixteen male dancers and ten musicians.
Tangsibi Mani Festival
Next on our list is the Tangsibi Mani Festival. This four-day event occurs at Tangsibi monastery, in Ura village. The Tangsibi Mani Festival is held to bring peace and prosperity to the local communities, but is also associated with Terton Sherab Mebar, who is known as the “Treasure Revealer” in Buddhist tradition. Symbolized with bright triumphant colors, the Tangsibi Mani Festival highlights the vision of Mebar when he was sixteen. These visions not only included important symbols, but also remarkable spiritual knowledge and Buddhist teachings. All of Mebar’s revelations were later documented by his teacher, Karma Chakmé, and eventually were written in thirteen volumes of work at the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Finally, the Choejam Festival, celebrates the great religious figure Guru Gheowang, who came from Tibet and is said to have discovered the texts of the Vajrakila (phurpa) there! To honor him, a small sacred structure was built in the 60s by a lama who took the name of Choejam Lama. In addition to performing the blessings and rituals for the village community, he started a festival in the 10th Bhutanese month. As with other elaborate Bhutanese festivals, the community comes alive during the celebration and features dancers, religious ceremonies, and brightly colored costumes. Today, monks still perform ceremonial drumming and Buddhist chants as they perform the ritual dance of purification.
And just for our Friendly Planet Travelers: Bhutanese Festival Celebrations
Because festivals are such an integral and iconic part of the local culture, Friendly Planet travelers who are traveling in Bhutan when no scheduled festival is happening are in for a treat. We’ve worked with local partners on the ground to craft a unique Festival Performance right at your hotel! Through these Mock Festivals you can get a taste of what these incredible experiences are like complete with Bhutanese dances, brightly colored masks, elaborate costumes and more.