Bhutan Festivals

Bhutan Festivals

Tsechu and Festival Activities

Chorten Kora Festival

18th February
Chorten Kora is located in Trashiyangtse, the easternmost district of Bhutan. One can reach Trashiyangtse after two hours drive from Trashigang following the banks of Dangmechu and Kholungchu rivers.
The Chorten (Stupa) was built by Lama Ngawang Loday in 1740 in memory of his late uncle, Jungshu Pesan and also to subdue a demon that lived where the Chorten now stands. It is believed to be a replica of the Boudhnath stupa in Nepal and was consecrated by the 13th chief Abbot of Bhutan Je Sherub Wangchuk. Today, it is considered one of the most important historical Buddhist structures.
It was built so that pilgrims could visit the temple in Trashiyangtse instead of making a trip to Nepal. Further, a legend states that a young girl from Tawang, believed to have been a Khando (Dakini) agreed to be buried alive inside the Chorten. For this reason a ritual known as Dakpa Kora is organized every year where hundreds of people from Arunachal Pradesh known as the Dakpas make it to Chorten Kora to circumambulate.
Dakpa Kora is held on the 15th day of the 3rd month corresponding to 28th February and Drukpa Kora (circumbulation by the Bhutanese) is held on the 30th day corresponding to 15th March every year

Gomphu Kora Festival

13th - 15th March
The Great Circumambulation at Gomphu
Gomphu Kora lies in the heart of the agrarian belt of eastern Bhutan. It is 23 kilometres from Trashigang Dzong, the headquarters of Bhutan’s most populous district, and two kilometers from Duksum, a quaint hamlet consisting of a few shops.

Gomphu means “Meditation Cave” and Kora means “Circumambulation”. The name is derived from a cave formed out of a rock-face next to a temple that has been built as a tribute to this sacred site.

The story of Gomphu Kora goes back to the 8th century AD. Legend has it that an evil non-human spirit named Myongkhapa escaped from Samye in Tibet when Guru Padmasambhava, the progenitor of the Nyingma strand of Buddhism, was spreading the Dharma in the Himalayas. Myongkhapa followed the course of the present-day Kholongchhu stream and concealed himself inside a rock where Gomphu Kora stands today. The Guru followed the evil, mediated for three days inside the rock cave and finally vanquished it.

Several prominent religious personalities have undertaken pilgrimage to Gomphu Kora and the earliest was Gongkhar Gyal, grandson of Lhasay Tsangma. He built a small shrine at Gomphu Kora around the 10th century A.D. In the 14th century, Terton Pema Lingpa, visited Gomphu Kora and enlarged the existing shrine. It was renovated and enlarged in the 15th century by Yongzin Ngagi Wangchuk, the grandfather of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. He also inscribed murals on the walls of the temple.

The biggest attraction of Gomphu Kora is the circumambulation. “Go around Gomphu Kora today for tomorrow may be too late”, so goes a local song that entices devotees to visit Gomphu Kora. And like herds of stampeding buffaloes, the place comes alive, once every year from 23rd to 25th March, when people all over eastern Bhutan descend upon the narrow valley, dressed in their finery, to partake in the festivity, to worship and to reunite themselves with their illustrious past.

The sanctity of the three day religious festival equally draws the Dakpa tribe in neighboring Arunachael Pradesh (India) who endures days of travel on foot amid rugged environs with entire families in tow. Some say the Dakpas have done this for more than a millennium, beginning shortly after Guru Padmasambhava sanctified the place in the 8th century AD.
The Guru is attributed to have said that devotees will flock to Gomphu Kora for eons to celebrate the triumph of good over evil. There couldn’t be a more accurate prophesy.

Jampa Lhakhang Festival

10th - 14th November
Jampa lhakhang is located in Bumthang and is situated on the way to the Kurjie Lhakhang. It’s a ten minutes drive to the temple from the Chamkhar town.
Jampa Lhakhang is one of the oldest temples in the kingdom. It was founded by, Songtsen Gampo, a Tibetan King in the 7th century AD. The king was destined to build 108 temples known as Thadhul- Yangdhul (temples on and across the border) in a day to subdue the demoness that was residing in the Himalayas. The temple is one of the two of the 108 built in Bhutan. The other is the Kichu lhakhang in Paro, believed to have been built on the same day.

Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche visited the site several times and deemed it exceptionally sacred. Chakhar Gyab, the king of the Iron Castle of Bumthang renovated the temple in the 8th century AD.

The first king of Bhutan, Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck constructed the Dus Kyi Khorlo (Kala Chakra- Wheel of Time) inside the temple, to commemorate his victory over his rivals Phuntsho Dorji of Punakha and Alu Dorji of Thimphu after the battle of Changlimithang in 1885. Later, Ashi Wangmo, the younger sister of the second king of Bhutan, built the Chorten lhakhang.
The main relics include the future Buddha, Jowo Jampa (Maitreya) from whose name the present name of the temple is derived.

The lhakhang also houses more than one hundred statues of the gods of Kalachakra built by the first king, in 1887. Here, one of the most spectacular festivals is hosted called Jambay lhakhang Drup that lasts for five days beginning from 22nd October till the 26th. The highlight of the festival is the fire ritual that is held in the evening where crowds gather to witness the ritual together with the naked dance.

Kurje Festival

10th July
The temple is located at Kurje in the Chokhor valley in Bumthang district. It is a 15 minutes drive from the Chamkhar town.
The history of the temples at Kurje is associated with Sindhu Raja and Guru Rinpoche. Sindhu Raja invited Guru Rinpoche from Nepal to Bhutan. Upon invitation, Guru Rinpoche visited Bumthang and meditated in a cave that resembled a pile of vajras (dorjis). After subduing the evil spirits and demons, imprints of the Guru Rinpoche’s body remained. Thereafter, the name came to be known as Kurje meaning-imprint of the body. The present place of the Lhakhang remains as a blessed and historical site.
There are three main temples at Kurje. The oldest temple was constructed by the Minjur Tenpa in 1652 on the site where Guru Rinpoche meditated when he was serving as the first Trongsa Penlop (Governor of Trongsa).

The second temple was founded by Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck in 1900 while serving as the 13th Trongsa Penlop. This temple is the most sacred as it was built in the place where Guru Rinpoche left his body imprint.

The third temple was built in the 1990s. It was sponsored by the Queen Mother Ashi Kezang Choden Wangchuck. It houses the images of Guru Rinpoche, King Thrisong Detsen and Pandit Santarakshita and the Sixteen arhats or the Siddhis.

In front of the temples are Chortens dedicated to the first three kings of Bhutan. Kurje festival is an important festival for local people of Bumthang and also for the rest of the Bhutanese. Many tourists and Bhutanese come together to witness the colorful festival for blessing and appreciation of the different mask dances. One will not only get the blessings by witnessing the age old mask dances and traditional Bhutanese dances but also enjoy this unique culture while also enjoying the beauty of Bhutan’s spritual district.

Lhuentse Festival

2nd – 4th January
Lhuenste is one of the easternmost districts in Bhutan that borders with the autonomous region of Tibet. It is the ancestral home of our Kings and hosts a number of important and sacred monuments. The most important amongst others is the Dzong that sits majestically on a ridge overlooking the Kurichu river. A small hermitage and a temple was built in 1552 by Ngagi Wangchuk, and later enlarged into its present status by Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal.

Almost every village in Lhuenste boasts of festivals that are unique to other communities in Bhutan. Some notable festivals are the Cha and the Ha festivals that are celebrated to honor the deities and avert misfortunes. However, the important festival where people congregate in large numbers is the annual three day festival. The festival is normally celebrated in the month of November and besides the tshechus and the masked dances, one can also receive blessings from some of the important relics that is publicly displayed. The other aspect of the tshechu is the colourful attire of Kushithara that Lhuentse is famous for. One can come across various patterns of Kira and rich ornaments that are displayed.

Monger Festival

2nd - 5th December
Mongar in eastern Bhutan is largely known as the “Bastion of the Zhongarps,” after the illustrious Dzongpons of Zhongar that played significant role in the history of Bhutan. One can still see the ruins of the Zhongar Dzong next to the highway in Lingmethang before reaching Mongar. The main inhabitants are the Tshanglas and the Kurtoeps. They speak the tshanglakha and the Kurtoepaikha and are famous for wood carvings and extracting oil from lemon grass.

The new Dzong in Mongar was built at the initiative of the third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck in 1953. Today the dzong is the centre of administration where all important decisions are taken.
The highlight of the dzong is the annual three day tshechu that is held in the month of November. It is witnessed by people from as far as Trashigang and Lhuentse.

Nimalung Festival

8th - 10th July
Nimalung Lhakhang is located in Chumey in Bumthang. It is approximately a 15 minute drive from the road that branches off from the village of Chumey. The Lhakhang was co-founded by Dasho Gonpo Dorji and Doring Trulku Jamyang Kunzang, the third mind reincarnation of Terton Jigme Lingpa in 1935. Doring Trulku visited Bhutan from Kham in Tibet. He came via the Monlakarchung pass and met Jamyang Tshundru and his son Choney Pelden who invited him to Shugdra. They later became his disciples. Doring Trulku left Shugdra for Nyimalung. He set to read the text but couldn’t complete reading it a hundred times as he had to perform rituals after the demise of Dasho Jamyang, the father-in-law of the Second King Jigme Wangchuck.
It was during the funeral ceremonies that Doring Trulku met Dasho Gonpo Dorji, son of Dasho Jamyang. Gonpo Dorji, on becoming the new hereditary Dungpa (sub district administrator) of Chumey immediately thought of laying the foundation of a Lhakhang. Along with Doring Trulku he decided to open a monastic institution to uphold the school of Buddhism enriched by Kuenkhen Longchen and Jigme Lingpa.

The main relic of the two-storied temple is the statue of Guru Rinpoche. The monastery is decorated with murals of the Nyingmapa and Drukpa traditions. There are also paintings of Guru Rinpoche and his disciples, the lineage of Terton Pema Lingpa, and several masters affiliated with the monastery.

One of the most important festivals held at the Lhakhang is the Kaling Zhitro Drubchen. It was initiated by Doring Trulku and he was the first person to have started the rite in Bhutan. It is held on the first fifteen days of the first month of the Bhutanese calendar.

The festival is held every year in the 5th month of the Bhutanese calendar, where the nine meters high and twelve meters wide Guru Rinpoche Thongdrol (large Scroll Painting) is unfurled. The Thongdrol which was donated by Lopen Pemala was consecrated in June 1994 in the presence of a large crowd of villagers by Lhalung Thuksey Rinpoche, the mind reincarnation of Pema Lingpa. During the festival, a series of mask dances are performed.

Paro Festival

15th – 19th March
The Paro tsechu in spring is a major attraction in Paro district. People come from neighbouring districts to participate in the festivity. On the final day, the best time to go is early in the morning as the monks of the Paro Dzong prepare to display a giant appliqué thangkha, the Guru Throngdel, inside the dzong.

Day 1: (inside the dzong)
Dance of the Lord of Death and his Consort (Shinje Yab Yum)
Bodhisattva Manjusri – representing the wisdom of all Buddhas - takes on the appearance of the terrifying Lord of Death (Shinje). His wrathful buffalo face guards the four continents.
Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds (Durdag)
A dance that takes place in cremation grounds. The dancers wear skull masks and represent protectors of the religion who live in the eight cremation grounds on the periphery of the symbolic Mt. Sumeru.
The Black Hat Dance (Shanag)
The black hat dancers assume the role of yogis with the power to subdue and create life. The dancers wear brocade robes, wide brimmed black hats and aprons with the face of a protective deity. This is an important dance that is also used in purification ceremonies during the construction of dzongs, temples, chortens.
Dance of the Drum from Dramitse (Dramitse Ngacham)
A dance inspired in meditation. The dance is a vision of Guru Rinpoche and his celestial palace, Zangdopelri. Here, Guru’s attendants are transformed into hundreds of peaceful and terrifying deities. The dance originated in Dramitse Monastery in eastern Bhutan and is considered a Bhutanese heritage.
Dance of the Eight Kinds of Spirits (Degye)
A dance of the gods of the three worlds (sky, earth, underground). The gods protect the doctrines of the Buddha and subdue the spirits who make the world unhappy. Endless happiness is recovered. The dance is performed by the gods (believed to be incarnated in the dancers themselves) to renew faith and wisdom.
Religious song (Chhoeshay)
This commemorates the opening of the gateway to the pilgrimage site of Tsari in eastern Tibet by the founder of the Drukpa School of Buddhism, Tsangpa Jarey.

Day 2: (outside the dzong)
Dance of the Lord of Death and his Consort (Shinje Yab Yum)
Bodhisattva Manjusri – representing the wisdom of all Buddhas – takes on the appearance of the terrifying Lord of Death (Shinje). His wrathful buffalo face guards the four continents.
Dance of the Black Hats with drums (Shanag Nga Cham)
A dance to signify the victory of religion over enemies. The sound of the drum represents religion itself.
Dance of the Three Kinds of Ging with sticks (Gingsum)
A dance signifying the subjugation of demons that are obstacles to religions. It takes place in Zangtopelri, the heavenly palace of Guru Rinpoche.
Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds (Durdag)
A dance that takes place in cremation grounds. The dancers wear skull masks and represent protectors of the religion who live in the eight cremation grounds on the periphery of the symbolic Mt. Sumeru.
Dance of the Three Kinds of Ging with drums (Driging)
After the demons are vanquished, the gings with the drums dance with happiness. They beat the drums of religion and the dance is performed to bring good luck to all beings and to wish them happiness. This dance brings blessings to all who watch it.
Dance of the Stag and the Hounds (Shawa Shachi) – 1st part
The dance tells a favorite tale of Milerepa who converts a hunter to Buddhism.

Day 3:
Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds (Durdag)
A dance that takes place in cremation grounds. The dancers wear skull masks and represent protectors of the religion who live in the eight cremation grounds on the periphery of the symbolic Mt. Sumeru.
Dance of the Terrifying Deities (Tungam)
Dressed in beautiful brocade and terrifying masks, this is a deeply symbolic dance where a sacrificial murder is performed. Guru Rinpoche appears in a wrathful manifestation to save the world. The dance is meant to show all beings the way to salvation.
Dance of the Heroes with six kinds of ornaments (Guan Drug Pawo)
The heroes hold six ornaments – five rings of bone ornaments and a small drum and bell in their hands. By their gestures and the sound of their melodies, the heroes lead sentient beings from the wheel of reincarnation along the path of liberation.
Kyecham is an accompanying dance to the next dance. The kyecham dancers wear knee-length yellow skirts, and animal masks.
Dance of the Noblemen and Ladies (Pholeg Moleg)
A comical play that depicts the life of King Norzang. The play is full of bawdy and rustic humour as two princes and two princesses, and old couple and clowns enact a story of misbehaviour, deceit, and mistrust. The story ends happily with the princes marrying the princesses and reconciliation takes place as a lesson to life.
Dance of the Stag and the Hounds - 2nd part
This is a conclusion of the dance began on the second day. The saint Milarepa appears in a long white dress and converts the dogs, stag and the hunter with a song. The conversion is symbolised by the hunter and his dogs jumping a rope.

Day 4:
Dance of the Lord of Death and his Consort (Shinje Yab Yum)
Bodhisattva Manjusri – representing the wisdom of all Buddhas – takes on the appearance of the terrifying Lord of Death (Shinje). His wrathful buffalo face guards the four continents.
Dance of the Four Stags (Sha Tsam)
A dance that depicts Guru Rinpoche subduing the God of Wind who is believed to have created unhappiness on earth. Dancers dress as stags in yellow knee length dress and masks of the deer. The stag represents the mount of the God.
Dance of the Judgement of the Dead (Raksha Mangcham)
This dance is based on the Bardo (Book of the Dead). When beings die they wander in an intermediate state known as the bardo. They cross the bardo to meet their judgement by the Lord of Death. Also present is the white god and black demon who have been with every being from birth. The dance is like a play which depicts the judgement of a sinner and a virtuous man who goes to heaven. The rakshas are the helpers of the Lord of Death.
Dance of the Drums from Dramitse (Dramitse Nga Cham)
A dance inspired in meditation. The dance is a vision of Guru Rinpoche and his celestial palace, Zangdopelri. Here, Guru’s attendants are transformed into hundreds of peaceful and terrifying deities. The dance originated in Dramitse Monastery in eastern Bhutan and is considered a Bhutanese heritage.

Day 5:
The great thangkha (thongdrel) is shown early in the morning followed by the Shugdrel ceremony.
Dance of the Heroes (Pacham)
A dance to lead believers in the human world into the presence of Guru Rinpoche.
Dance of the Ging and Tsholing
Guru Rinpoche initiated this dance during the consecration of the ancient Samye Monastery in Tibet. The dance is a purification ceremony. People whistle to chase away bad spirits. The ging, dressed in orange skirts and a terrifying mask, use their drumsticks to hit everyone on the head to drive out impurity. The tsoling represent protectors of the religion and are dressed in long colourful dresses and terrifying masks.
Dance of the Eight Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche (Guru Tshen Gye)
This dance is one of the highlights for Buddhist practitioners. The Guru appears in eight different forms in a dance that is also a play
Dance of the Sixteen Fairies
After all eight manifestations appear, 16 fairies sing and perform two dances in front of the Guru. The fairies are Goddesses of Offerings who perform a dance to bring happiness. They are dressed in brocade dresses with carved bone ornaments. After these final songs, the manifestations go out in a long procession.
Religious Song (Chhoeshay)
This commemorates the opening of the gateway to the pilgrimage site of Tsari in eastern Tibet by the founder of the Drukpa School of Buddhism, Tsangpa Jarey.

Pema Gatsel Festival

2nd – 4th January
Pema Gatshel is one of the six districts in eastern Bhutan and one of the newly established Dzongkhags. Till its establishment as an independent Dzongkhag, Pema Gatshel was administered from Mongar, Trashigang and Samdrup Jongkhar. It borders Trashigang to its north, Samdrup Jongkhar to its south and Mongar to its east. Its major inhabitants are the tshanglas who are found living on agriculture and animal husbandry.

The district is known for numerous festivals and folk songs. The most notable folk song is the Ausa, a song that is sung during departures of family members, friends and relatives. Since the construction of the dzong in the early 1980’s, they also celebrate the annual festival over a three day period. The festival is witnessed by people from all walks of from who travel great distances to be a part of it. The festival is normally held in the month of November.

Thimphu Festival

6th – 8th October
One of the biggest festivals is the Thimphu Tshechu, held in the capital city. Before the actual tshechu thai is being witnessed by thousands of people from the capital city and the nearby Dzongkhags, days and nights of prayers and rituals are conducted to invoke the gods.

It was first initiated by the 4th Desid, Gyalse Tenzin Rabgay in 1867. It had only a few dances being performed and that too strictly by monks. These were the Zhana chham and the Zhana Nga chham (dances of the 21 black hats), Durdag (dance of the lords of the cremation ground), and the Tungam chham (dance of the terrifying deities).
Thimphu tshechu underwent a change in the 1950s, when the third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, introduced numerous Boed chhams (mask dances performed by lay monks). The additions has added colour without compromising the spiritual significance. Mask dances like the Guru Tshengye (eight manifestations of Guru), Shaw shachi (dance of the stags) are enjoyed because they are like stage theatre.

Equally important are the Atsaras, who are more than just mere clowns. The Atsaras are the dupthobs (acharyas), who provide protection. The dances and the jesting of the Atsaras are believed to have entranced the evil forces and prevented them from causing harm during tshechus. Modern Atsaras also perform shorts skits to disseminate health and social awareness messages. To farmers, the tshechu is also seen as a break from the drudgery of farm life. It’s an occasion to enjoy, get blessed and pray for health and happiness. The festival lasts for three days.

Thimphu Dromchoe

Besides the annual three day tshechu, Thimphu also celebrates a one day festival known as the Thimphu Dromchoe. The day long festival dates back to the 17th century. It was first introduced by Kuenga Gyeltshen in 1710, who was recognized as the reincarnation of Jampel Dorji, son of Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyel. The dromchoe is performed on 13th September.
The Dromchoe showcases the sacred dances dedicated to the protecting deity of Bhutan, Palden Lhamo. Legend has it, that the deity Pelden Lhamo appeared before Kuenga Gyeltshen and performed the dances while he was in meditation. Based on these dances, Kuenga Gyaltshen initiated the dance ceremony.

Trashigang Festival

2nd – 5th December
Trashigang is the largest district in the country and the bastion of the Tshanglas, the aboriginal inhabitant of the district. The dzong that sits majestically on a ridge overlooking the Dangmechu and the Gamrichu was built in 1651 and over the years has played crucial roles as the Administrative headquarter of the district. It also withstood some of the prominent Tibetan attacks that were launched in the 17th century from Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.

While every village has their own tshechus to celebrate annually, however the highlight is the three day tshechu that is held in the dzong from the 7th to 11th of the tenth month of the Bhutanese calendar that corresponds to the month of December. The tshechu is witnessed by the Brokpas, a semi-nomadic community of Merak and Sakteng, the Khengpa community, and people from as far as Samdrup Jongkhar, Pema Gatshel and Trashi Yangtse.

On the 7thday, the monks take the thrue or the bath and on the 8th have their rehearsals. On the 9th day, the tshechu begins. On the 10th day is unfurled the thongdrol of Neten Chudrug (Sixteen Arhats) together with different mask dances. On the final day, the old thongdrel of Guru Tshengyed is displayed with Guru Tshengyed Chhams.

Trongsa Festival

2nd – 4th Jaunary
Trongsa, the sacred and the temporal heart of the country is a two days journey from Thimphu. Situated in central Bhutan and once the seat of power over central and eastern Bhutan, both the first and second kings of Bhutan ruled the country from this ancient seat. All four kings were invested as Trongsa Penlop (“governor”) prior to ascending the throne. The dzong built in 1648, is a massive structure with many levels, sloping down the contours of the ridge on which it is built. Because of the dzong’s highly strategic position, on the only connecting route between east and west, the Trongsa Penlop was able to control effectively the whole of the central and eastern regions of the country from here.

Of the many festivals being held in various parts of Trongsa, the highlight is the four day annual tshechu being held annually where people from all walks of life congregate. The tshechu falls sometime in the month of December. Besides the mask dances, one can witness the unfurling of the sacred Thongdrol and receive blessings. People also receive blessings from the sacred Nangtens that is open during the last day of the tshechu.

Ura Yakchoe Festival

14th – 18th May
Ura valley in Bumthang is known for its famous dance known as the Ura Yakchoe. This festival that is held annually in the month of May is a festival where a sacred and an important relic is put on display for the people to receive blessings. Myth has it that one day an old woman while sitting outside her house had a visitor, a lama who asked her for a glass of water. When she came out with a glass of water, the lama had vanished leaving behind a sack. Out of curiosity, she checked the bag and found a statue that is now being displayed annually. This relic has been passed on from generation to generation and now it’s owned by the descendants of the woman.

Wangdue Phodrang Festival

4th – 6th October
Wangdue Phodrang in central Bhutan is known for the Lozeys or the ornamental speeches. Some of the notable lozeys are the sorrows of Gaylong Sumdar Tashi, who was sent as a monk and that of Pemai Tshewang Tashi who served as an official at the Dzong. The Dzong serves as the administrative centre and was built in 1639 by Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyel at the confluence of Puna Tsang chu.

The annual Wangduephodrang Tshechu was introduced by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal after the completion of the dzong. The three-day annual Tshechu is witnessed by people from Punakha and Thimphu and provides the people with an occasion to partake in entertainment and revelry. The Tshechu is known for the Raksha Mangcham or the dance of the Ox. It concludes with the unfurling of the Guru Tshengye Thongdroel where people throng to receive blessings.