Bhutan is a country of festivals. The festivals in the Dragon Kingdom of Bhutan are rich and happy expressions of its ancient Buddhist culture. The most important are the religious dance festival, known as Tshechus, which are held in different regions, at specific times during the year. The festival of sacred dances is held annually in the different Dzongkhags. Tenzin Rabgye, the 4th Temporal Ruler, established the tradition of Tshechu in 1670 on the 10th day of the 8th month of the Bhutanese calendar to commemorate the birth anniversary of Guru Rinpoche, the Indian sage who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century. The dates and the duration of the festival vary from one district to another but they always take place on or around the 10th day of the month according to the Bhutanese calendar.
The dancers take on the aspects of wrathful and compassionate deities, heroes, demons and animals. The dances known as cham, bring blessing upon the onlookers, instruct them in dharma (Buddhist teachings), protect them from misfortune, and exorcise evil influences. The Tshechu is a religious festival and by attending it, it is believed one gains merits. Deities are invoked during the dances. Through their power and benediction, misfortunes may be destroyed, luck increased and wishes realized. It is also a yearly social gathering where the people come together to rejoice dressed in their finery. The Tshechus are celebrated for three to five days.
Some important Dzongs(fortresses) have a festival called Dromche, held in honour of Yeshe Gompo (Mahakala) or Pelden Lhamo (Mahakali) – the two main protective deities of the country.
These sacred masked dances and sword dances and other rituals are performed in the courtyards and temples or the Dzongs and monasteries. The origin of the most of the dances can be traced beyond the Middle Age and are only performed once a year. Each dance has its own significance and is performed by monks and villagers dressed in bright costumes.
The Tshechus are rich form of oral history tradition where Bhutanese pass on values, mythology and spiritual beliefs through the dance dramas. Many of the Tshechus culminate with a rare display of a giant silk appliqué Thongdrol (religious appliqué) depicting Guru Padma Sambhava or some other important Buddhist deity. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas possess indiscernible virtues which permit them to liberate from sufferings even those who fall straight into hell after having committed as grave a sin as killing their parents and breaking the vow to their clerical brothers and lamas.
There, people have only to think, to touch, to taste, to smell, to listen, and to see the support of the body (statue), speech (books), and mind (chorten) of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas.
This is called liberation by the mind, by touch, by knowledge, by taste, by smell, by listening and by seeing.
The people who know virtuous and unvirtuous deed, because of their devotion and faith in the support of body, speech and mind of the Buddha, have created the Thongdrel, a mere sight liberates the individuals. In this mundane world there is nowhere to be found a more superior treasure.
People’s deep faith and devotion makes these festivals a special occasion. At the same time, it is also an opportunity to join hundreds of Bhutanese taking part in an important religious and social occasion that often exudes a carnival atmosphere.
The colourful ceremonies, religious theatre and exorcism ritual are the most striking testimonies to the deep-rooted faith of Bhutan’s society.
The most popular for tourists are those held in Paro in spring, Thimphu and Bumthang in Autumn and Punakha in Winter.
Festivals are religious events. The ground where they are held is purified and consecrated by lamas (sages), so when you are watching a festival, you are in essence, on the perimeter of an outdoor religious ground. The conduct of the onlooker should be governed with this in mind. The dancers, whether monks or laymen, are in state of meditation. They transform themselves into deities which they represent on the dance ground. They generate a spiritual power, which cleanses, purifies, enlightens and blesses the spectators.
With this in mind, it should be clear that obtrusive, disrespectful or discourteous behavior is out of place. The dance ground is not a place to eat, drink or smoke, talk or laugh loudly at inappropriate times, flash cameras or intrude on the dance space. Common courtesy should rule one’s action when photographing dances or onlookers.
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.
Please bear in mind the some past actions of unthinking visitors have caused shock and dismay to the local people. Any recurrence of such unfortunate events may lead to future restrictions on attendance at festivals. We hope that our tour members will always display courtesy, sensitivity and respect to the people of Bhutan who have welcomed them to attend these beautiful and sacred events, and will visibly demonstrate their respect by dressing as well as their circumstances permits on such occasions.