Festivals in Bhutan are where colour and culture collide: the highlight of the social and religious calendar for much of the population. Bhutanese life is resoundingly traditional. Ancient customs and rituals are held in high regard, and much of modernity has not yet made a lasting impression. The resulting fervour with which the population celebrates religious events means that the festivals of Bhutan are a real showcase for artistic, faithful, theatrical and culinary heritage.
The Bhutanese word Tshechu means ‘day ten,’ as festivals throughout the country take place around the tenth day of the month. One of the biggest celebrations takes place in the capital, Thimphu, and it's a three day whirlwind of dance, costume, excitement and convivial socialising.
The Thimphu Tshechu is a particularly big deal for the population of Bhutan, as it is a very rural country and people spend much of their year involved in subsistence farming in what are often small and remote communities. The celebration is a brilliant moment of togetherness and respite when people put on their finery, head to the capital and really let their hair down.
Bhutan's Tshechus are understandably popular events for overseas visitors to attend, and they give a concentrated flavour of the big cultural themes of Bhutanese life, while also offering an insight into the intricacies of family and community relationships, preferred picnic foods (many Bhutanese pack portable feasts for the occasion) and clothing.
The central purpose of the Thimphu Tshechu is the Cham dancing. People pile into the Royal Dzong from the first light of morning to get the best seats, and the wait begins. The spectacle is quite astounding even before the dances begin, as the colourfully clad Bhutanese arrive in their finest attire, which is supremely colourful and special, with fine patterns and jewel colours as standard. Their jewellery is also very fine, with silver, amber and turquoise beads the favourites. Once everyone is settled into their place in a sea of colour, the dances begin. The programme of cham dances is complex, each recounting a story which pays homage to Guru Rinpoche, and often showing the triumph of good over evil. Only monks can perform these traditional dances, and often the splendour of the elaborately costumed and masked monks is accentuated by burning of incense, rumbling of drums, tinkling of bells and the tooting of horns.
Of the many different dances, the most well known include the black hat dance, which depicts the transformative power of the dance - representing the metamorphosis into tantric yogis; the Eight Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche, where the audience is taken on a spellbinding journey through all the Guru’s different forms; and the Dance of the Stag and the Hunter, which recounts the story of Gonpo Dorji and his dog who are hunting a stag when they encounter a yogi who converts them to Buddhism. The festival’s dances are a showcase for and reinforcement of Bhutanese Buddhist teachings, and anybody watching is thought to receive blessings and good karma.
The religious significance of the festival is paramount, and events are preceded by many days of prayer and worship. Bhutanese people believe that attending the festival’s holy dances will bring them merit. However, there is also an element of holiday spirit evident in Thimphu during the Tshechu. Street markets pop up selling all kinds of wares from the useful to the bizarre, and as well as gaining merit, people come to socialise and mingle in the busy streets and temples. There are hawkers selling festival foods, and other vendors set up games and fairground style activities in the streets of the town, which are pedestrianised for the occasion.
In 2017 Thimphu Tshechu takes place from Saturday 30 Sep to Monday 2 Oct; in 2018 it will start on Wednesday 19 September to Friday 21 September.
Being part of a celebration is an unforgettable way to connect with Bhutanese culture and people, and allows you to see the country at its most vibrant. There are many festivals throughout the year, so if you’d like to include on in your trip to Bhutan, ask our experts for details. In fact, with a few details from you, they can suggest a bespoke itinerary to suit you. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, call 0117 325 7898.