Spiritual music, whirling dances and colourful wooden masks; a Bhutanese festival, or Tsechu, is completely unique. When planning a trip to Bhutan, it’s well worth taking into account which festivals are on when so you can visit one during your travels. As a foreigner you’re able to move around the festival pretty much as you wish so you can get some fantastic shots of the action. Although you can’t always approach the dancers there’s a good chance you’ll be harassed by one of the local clowns wielding a wooden phallus!
For many, Tsechus are the highlight of the Buddhist calendar in Bhutan. When the rainy season is over and the harvest is brought in, the austere rural life for normal Bhutanese people is interrupted by these colourful religious festivals. Throughout the country, Tsechu celebrations are staged in large and small dzongs with multiple masked dances being performed, each with its own style and its own story.
Longhorns are blown and cymbals beat by enthusiastic performers, while clowns hop around entertaining the crowds. Everyday clothes are exchanged for the most special gho or kiira (traditional robes) and the finest jewellery, kept by the family for special occasions. Witnessing the Tsechu and its explosion of colour is a unique experience. You’ll even get to take part if you’re up for it!
Outside the monasteries and dzongs, celebrations continue but with a slightly less religious feel. The alcohol flows freely and gambling games are played in street stalls. Everywhere there are stalls selling local food, Chinese rice bowls and hip, modern clothing. Archery tournaments are sometimes staged alongside the celebrations as Bhutanese rarely miss a chance to play the national sport. The mood is upbeat and the people embrace the opportunity to celebrate and share stories with friends and family.
If you head to the valleys of Punakha in February/March, you might just catch the Punakha Domchoe. This unique 5-day festival recreates a dramatic 17th Century battle scene and includes masked dances, armour-clad performers, monk processions, exploding firecrackers and costumed warriors.
This is a very popular Tsechu festival which begins in Paro Dzong in March/April. Prepare for a kaleidoscope of colour as you’re treated to four days of ritual dancing, plus the unfolding of ornate paintings conveying the different manifestations of Guru Rinpoche.
Thimpu’s Tsechu is one of the most celebrated festivals in Bhutan taking place in September/October, drawing in large crowds of spectators every year with performances by monks dressed in decorative costumes and masks. The culmination of festival constitutes the unfolding of a huge cloth thanka, a sacred scroll, a drawing and imagery from Buddhist pantheon.
Jambey Lhakhang Drup
October is the most popular time of year to visit Bhutan with warm temperatures and clear mountain views. So, if you’re planning your trip to Bumthang at this time, you could coincide it with the Jambey Lhakhang Drup which has run from the 15th to the 18th of the lunar month. This festival is celebrated with Cham dancing and bonfires which commemorate the building of the 7th-century temple.