Updated: Apr 8, 2019
Sitting snug between the powerhouse nations of China and India, is the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan. Known for its symbolism, tributary fortresses, and cliff side 'Dzongs' (monasteries). It's conifer forests, wide open prairies, and plains, soaring mountains, glacial valleys, and fluttering prayer flags; Bhutan is also the setting for some of the most vivid, spirited, and emblematic theistic festivals in the world. Known as Tshechus, these symbolic characterful festivals bring those from Bhutan’s varied and remote settlements together, to celebrate and preserve Bhutan’s unique cultural heritage, via elaborate masked dances known as Chams. Each Cham is its own fable, each fable conveys a moralistic tale, and each tale is meant to guide sentient beings on their journey to enlightenment.
The 3 Best Festivals in Bhutan
Haa Valley Summer Festival:
In Haa Valley, where the rare white poppy blooms, July brings a hum of anticipation and activity. Showcasing the nomadic herding culture of its highlanders, Bhutan’s Haa Summer Festival is a chance for visitors and natives alike to participate in an unusual amalgam of sport and religion. Here you may join the locals in a spot of archery, ‘Khuru’ (darts) or ‘Soksom’ (javelin). Try some of Haa’s traditional dishes, ‘Hoentey’ is a sweet dumpling filled with turnip leaves, yaks cheese, and a little ginger. ‘Khule’ is a bitter buckwheat pancake best eaten with curry, and ‘Puta’ is a sweet noodle garnished with chilli powder and amaranth seeds. Enter the festivals mountain bike race, which starts in Chuzom, passes through Chele-la Pass, and ends in Haa. Wonder through the many tents stuffed with ancient artefacts, household items and traditional handicrafts. Watch local tribesman give it their all in very spirited 'tugs of war', or in the fascinating but puzzling to westerners’ entertainment of ‘Lozey’. Best described as a comedic battle of wits, Lozey is the competitive tradition of singing or speaking in verse, on subjects such as love, the passage of time; or life’s lessons and challenges, the winners being those who get the loudest laugh or most applause. The highlight of the Haa summer festival, as with most festivals in Bhutan must surely be the ‘Chams’ (masked dances). Haa Summer Festival is fast becoming synonymous with a particular cham depicting Kubera, the god of wealth and protector of the world. Cymbals crash, drums beat, and dancers whirl, all in a bid to receive Buddhas blessings and wash away sin.
Duration: 2-3 Days
Without a doubt the most popular spring festival in all of Bhutan is the Paro Tshechu. Held annually since 1644, this is a festival charged with history, theatre, legend, and myth. It seems the entirety of Bhutan descends on the famed Rinpung Dzong, translation (Fortress on a Heap of Jewels) to celebrate the ‘Lotus Born’, also known as Guru Rinpoche, he who first brought Buddhism to Bhutan. All come dressed in their finery to socialise and witness the many masked 'Chams' of Bhutan. Paro Tshechu is the place to see the dazzling ‘Dance of the Stag and Hounds', also known as (Shawo Shachi Cham). This 'Cham' dates to the 11th century and tells the story of a fierce hunter who was humbled and led to enlightenment by the great Yogi Jetsun Milarepa. Here you'll also be treated to a legendary 'Cham' known as the ‘Dance of the Courtiers’, also known as (Boe Cham), which depicts the journey of the soul after death. Performers leap and prance, dressed in their multicoloured flamboyant costumes of brocade and silk. Accompanied by song, trumpeters, and flautists, the differing sounds believed to attract divinities, bring blessings, and banish evil. Be warned, though already a hive of activity, crowds will once again swell on the very last day of this gloriously colourful festival. This is the day the monks of Rinpung Dzong unfurl Paros much lauded, 56ft high, 350-year-old silk thangka, its intricate designs commemorating the deeds of the much-loved Guru Rinpoche.
Duration 4-5 Days
Unlike any other festival in Bhutan, Punakha Drubchen sets itself apart with its large-scale re-enactment of Bhutan’s bloody 17th century battle with Tibet. Sporting full ‘Pazap’ (warrior) combat gear complete with swords, local military men illustrate just how Bhutan’s courageous ‘Pazaps’ though outnumbered, cowed the might of the Tibetan army and forced them to withdraw. This Tshechu is held at the auspicious Punakha Dzong, situated between the life-giving Pho chu and Mo chu rivers. The Mo chu in particular plays a central part in the re-enactment, and hundreds line its banks to watch. A festival devoted to deep meditation, empowerment, and ridding the world of evil, the ‘Cham’ to look for is the menacing ‘Dance of the Black Hats’, also known as (Shanag). The dance depicts the grisly assassination of the Tibetan King Langdarma. In 842 A.D, King Langdarma connived to bring Buddhism down, and reinstall a pre-Buddhistic religion known as 'Bön'. It is said the monk Pelkyi Dorje, disguised as one of the king’s dancers, and secreting his weapons within the flowing black robes, was able to enter his court and get close enough to slay him, allowing Buddhism to once again flourish.
Duration: 4-5 Days.
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