Religious festivals in Bhutan are joyful events, highly colourful and held in a dzong, or Bhutanese Buddhist monastery. Villagers come from afar to receive blessings, most bountiful when a thangka, a sacred image, is unveiled. It’s also a chance to meet family and friends and show off one’s finest clothes, often especially hand-woven for the occasion.
Tsechu, dromchoe, fire dance or naked dance, it’s a unique experience for any visitor. Checking festival dates when planning a trip is highly recommended.
Thangka Display in Buddhist Monastery, Tsechu and Dromchoe
According to tradition, tsechus are held once a year in honour of Guru Rinpoche who brought Buddhism to Bhutan. Lasting for several days, they include religious music and dance, performed by laymen and monks in spectacular costumes, lengthy Buddhist tales and light relief provided by medieval-style jesters. A giant thangka may be unfurled at dawn on the last day for special prayers and offerings.
Some major monasteries such as Paro also celebrate a dromchoe dedicated to protective deities. In Punakha, this includes a splendid procession re-enacting the 17th century war against Tibetans. Archery contests are often part of festival celebrations, complete with victory dances and lady cheerleaders, reciting poems to encourage their team or telling jokes to distract opponents.
Buddhist Festivals in Bhutan, Fire Dance and Drum Dance
The Fire Dance, also known as Thangbi Mani or Fire Blessing, takes place in the central valley of Bumthang. Following ritual prayers and incantations, two haystacks are set alight in a field and those who dare run through the flames to purify their soul. It’s a wild disturbing experience, as scary for onlookers as for those who take part. When the flames die down, it’s back to music and dance and picnics on the grass.
The Drum Dance originated in Drametsi, a remote monastery perched high on a hill in Eastern Bhutan. It is performed by men in yellow skirts and animal masks, beating drums as they move to celebrate Guru Rinpoche and the victory of Buddhism. It’s one of Bhutan’s most popular dances and can be seen at tsechus and other festivals across the kingdom.
Bumthang Naked Dance and Black Neck Cranes Festival
Once a year on a cold winter night, men from Jama Lakhang and nearby villages perform a naked dance to ward off evil and honour their all important life-giving organ. It’s a privilege to participate in this sacred but raucous dance, with plenty of humour and pouncing around. Men cover their faces but nothing else, spectators may giggle or try to guess who’s who and everybody has a good time. Photographs are not allowed.
In early November, the rare black neck cranes from Tibet return to their winter grounds in Bhutan, including the Phobjikha valley where they circle over the Gantey monastery before they land. Their arrival is considered highly auspicious and greeted with a special festival when masked men flap around to imitate the birds’ dancing gait.