Ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world, Bhutan is a dream for soul-searching travellers. Take a trip through the Kingdom’s food and festivals and contribute to its Gross National Happiness.
A local Bhutanese website has this message for any tourists looking to visit the beautiful yet reclusive country:
‘Bhutan Festivals are not pageants or entertainment events. They are not held as tourist attractions. They are genuine manifestations of religious traditions thousands of years old which outsiders are given the privilege of witnessing. We would like to see that privilege retained, without in any way impairing or infringing on the beauty and sacredness of the ritual.’
These three lines are all you need to know before you go visiting Bhutan. The kingdom, known as the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’, is located on the eastern edge of the Himalayas. Bhutanese culture is extremely rich, and the local people are extremely loyal to it. Ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world, the kingdom is also a carbon neutral country i.e it produces more oxygen than carbon.
The amazing Bhutanese culture is something everyone needs to experience and here are ten festivals that will help you with it.
Literally meaning ’10th day’, these festivals take place over different cities and the dates of the festivals differ according to the city it is bring held in. Padmasambhava, the great scholar, visited Tibet and Bhutan in the 8th century and 9th century. He used to convert opponents of Buddhism by performing rites, reciting mantras and finally performing a dance of subjugation to conquer local spirits and gods. These festivals are celebrated to commemorate the anniversary of his arrival in Bhutan. The most popular of all are:
1. Paro Tshechu
Paro Tsechu is one of the most popular festivals in Bhutan. Featuring dances performed by trained monks and laymen in amazing masks and costumes, the Tsechus are one of the best ways to experience the ancient living culture of Bhutan. A highlight of the Paro Tsechu is the unfurling of the silk Thangka – so large it covers the face of an entire building and is considered one of the most sacred blessings in the whole of Bhutan. The ‘Thangka’, is a religious scroll that is displayed for the public to see. The people believe that just glimpsing it you will be blessed with eternal peace, even in the afterlife.
2. Thimpo Tshechu
The Thimphu Tshechu was established by the 4th Temporal Ruler, Tenzing Rabgye (1638-1696) in 1670. This festival also provides a great opportunity to witness locals gathered in their finest Gho’s and Kira’s in a celebration of their culture and faith. Thimpu is the capital of Bhutan and this festival gives you a chance to witness sacred dances and rituals performed by monks and laymen in elaborate, colourful costumes. Join in with locals in a special occasion of celebration, blessings and socialising.
Though these are the most popular Tshechu, they are also the most crowded. And the real essence of Bhutan’s culture does not lie in the crowds. So if you want to experience Bhutan the way it deserves to be, you should head to the one that takes place in Punakha.
3. Punakha Tshechu and Drubchen
A Drubchen is another type of Bhutanese festival. Punakha is located in the western part of Bhutan is the winter home of the Je Khenpo, the Chief Abbot of Bhutan. 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. In 2005, locals requested the government to start up a Punakha Tshechu as well, in order to maintain Bhutanese traditions and thus Punakha Drubchen AND Tshechu are both celebrated with great fervour here.
4. Jhambay Lakhang Drup
Jambay Lhakhang is one of the oldest temples in the kingdom. It was founded by, Songtsen Gampo, a Tibetan King in the 7th century AD. The king was destined to build 108 temples in a day to the demoness that was residing in the Himalayas. The temple is one of the two of the 108 built in Bhutan. The festival held here every year is one of the spectacular events in Bhutan and the highlight of the festival is the fire ritual that is held in the evening where crowds gather to witness the ritualistic naked dance known as tercham.
5. Jomolhari Mountain Festival
The festival celebrates the culture of the communities living together with the natural wonders that surround them: one in particular, the elusive, yet elegant, snow leopard! This endangered cat thrives in the region; several camera trap photos and definite signs have established the region as one of the best snow leopard habitats in Bhutan. This endangered cat thrives in the region; several camera trap photos and definite signs have established the region as one of the best snow leopard habitats in Bhutan. The festival includes snow leopard themed folk songs and dances performed by the local people and schoolchildren.
6. Black-necked crane festival
The annual black-necked crane festival is organised to generate awareness and understanding on the importance of conserving the endangered black‐necked cranes to strengthen the linkages between conservation, economic welfare and sustainable livelihoods of the community. The festival includes cultural programs such as folk songs and dances (some with black-necked crane themes) and mask dances performed by the local people, crane dances and environmental conservation-themed dramas and songs by the school children. Celebrated at the courtyard of Gangtey Goenpa in Phobjikha valley, the festival reflects the environmentally conscious spirit of the country.
7. Haa Summer Festival
Set among pristine lakes and high alpine valleys, the Haa summer festival is a lively and uplifting celebration of traditional living-culture, nomadic lifestyles, unique Bhutanese cuisine, traditional sports and religious performances. Haa valley is located very close to the international airport at Paro. With it’s wild forests and rugged hills, Haa is an excellent location to enjoy some of the best hiking to be found in the Himalayas. Immerse yourself in this one of a kind experience by playing the local sports, sampling the delicious home-cooked cuisine and enjoying traditional songs
8. Nomad festival
Towards the northern frontier of Bhutan are several nomadic communities that add value and colour to the vibrant cultures and traditions of the country. Over a hundred highlanders from Bumthang, Thimphu, Wangduephodrang, Trashigang and Paro from these tribes participate in this festival. Dress like a Bhutanese highlander and try on an entire costume spun from yak hair, including the Brokpa black hat with five long fringes down the front or the conical bamboo Layap headgear. Ladies can wear the wide, beautiful hand-woven aprons decorated with colourful motifs of flowers and animals traditionally worn by women. They can even have their hair plaited and decorated with colourful ribbons in the traditional style of the region.
9. Kurjay Tshechu
The festival takes place at Kurjey Temple, located at Kurjey in the Chokhor valley in Bumthang district.Upon invitation, Guru Rinpoche visited Bumthang to purge the place of evil spirits. After subduing the evil demons, imprints of the Guru’s body remained in the rock face. The Kurjey festival 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 culture whilst basking in the natural beauty of Bhutan’s spiritual heartland.
10. Pema Gatshel Tschechu
Taking place in Eastern Europe, Pema Gatshel celebrates Tshechu for over a three-day periods. Local dancers come together and perform certain masked dances and these dances are believed to confer blessings upon the spectators and teach them the ways of the Buddhist dharma are performed during the festival. It is also an annual social gathering where people from all walks of life get together to celebrate and contemplate religion.