Festivals (or tsechus) are big family and social occasions in Bhutan – people dress in their finest clothing and jewellery (usually in shades of coral and turquoise), they pack picnic lunches and stay at the festivals all day.
The festivals themselves are known for being rich and happy expressions of the country’s ancient Buddhist culture. They are held in honour of Guru Rimpoche, the saint who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century.
Monks spend weeks before the festival preparing themselves through deep prayer and meditation. They perform special masked dances that are inspired by enlightened people in history; the Bhutanese believe that watching these mystical dances is essential for gaining enlightenment themselves.
The Bhutanese people use the festivals to pass on values, mythology and spiritual beliefs through the dance dramas performed. Many of them finish with a rare display of a giant silk applique thangkha (painting) of Guru Padmasambava or another important Buddhist deity.
The most popular festivals, particularly amongst tourists, are ParoTsechu and Thimphu Tsechu. There are two reasons for this – firstly, they are located in Bhutan’s west (only an hours drive from the airport); secondly, they take place in spring and autumn (the best times to visit the country).
This festival is held during spring; the dates usually fall in early April. Early in the morning on the final day of the celebration, the monks will display a gigantic thangkha of the Guru Throngdel inside the dzong. The artwork is considered so sacred that simply seeing one is believed to cleanse the viewer of sin.
This festival is held during autumn, beginning on the 10th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. A number of dances are performed, such as the Zhanachham and Shaw Shachi. Equally as important are the Atsaras, who are similar to clowns except are believed to enchant evil forces and prevent them from causing harm.
In past years, it was recommended that you book accommodation at least 6 months in advance if you wished to participate in one of the festivals. These days, however, it is much easier to get accommodation closer to the date.
Just keep in mind that experienced tour guides tend to be in high demand during these times, so if you’re able to travel for one of the less popular festivals (such as KurjeyTsechu or WangdueTsechu) this could be best.
If you’re unable to catch the festival itself, remember that preparation starts weeks before the celebration commences. Be sure to visit the dzong, as you might be able to catch the monks practicing and preparing their material for the festival. This also gives you the opportunity to actually speak to the monks.
If you are interested in visiting Bhutan for one of the festivals, get in touch with the Viktorianz team. We are more than happy to tailor a tour that allows you to take in the celebrations, as well as see plenty of the country.