Bhutan is as unique a country as is any other country, with some features that set it apart from others. The government’s official position is that Gross National Happiness (GNH) is more important than Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Another unique aspect of this small kingdom is that it allows only a certain number of tourists inside its borders every year. No wonder it is one of the last remaining Shangri-Las in the world. And then there are the festivals of Bhutan. Held throughout the year in some region or the other, mostly in and around its ancient monasteries, the festivals of Bhutan have become an integral part of its tourist attraction. Bhutan festivals are invariably colorful and can continue for quite a few days. Here are a few of them.
Chhukha Tshechu (Chhukha, April 13-15)
South western Bhutan is used to have a large population of people of Nepali origin. It still does, although it has dwindled somewhat now due to some stringent measures taken by the government to remove those who were not considered to be Bhutanese. Known as Lhotshampas, they are mostly involved in agricultural work as well as in providing various services. The other major ethnic group here are the Ngalops. Being a beneficiary of good rainfall, the area is well-forested and its ecology is pretty interesting. There’s an important monastery here by the name of Jabar Gomba that has five mountains all around it that are considered to be auspicious in nature due to their resemblance to the five religious hats worn by Bhutanese lamas (priests). The annual three-day festival of Chhukha Tshechu is held in the monastery’s premises, a monastery in which lies a sacred dagger (phurba) that’s used in religious rituals. It’s supposed to be something special considering that it’s believed to have flown here all the way from Tibet in ancient times. The Chhukha region itself is considered to be a holy site, having received the blessings of the revered Lama Drakpa Jantsho around the seventeenth century, who established the monastery as a sign of his favor. You’ll get to know about quite a bit of the country’s history during your Bhutan tour if it includes a festival or two, that’s for sure.
There’s another monastery around here called the Tshamdrak Gomba which was also established in the same century by Lama Ngwang Drakpa. Inside, you’ll find some rare artifacts like the 100 ceremonial drums as well as a huge slab of stone believed to have been put there by the guardian deity of Haa, that is, Ap Chundu. While you’ll certainly enjoy the festival if your travel to Bhutan takes place around mid April, it being as colorful as the other Bhutan festivals with plenty of dances and songs and drinking and feasting, you might also take some time out to visit the Chhukha and Tata hydropower dams that provide substantial revenue to Bhutan’s exchequer. This way, you’ll also get a better idea of the country’s modern history during your Bhutan tour.
Tour of the Dragon (Thimphu-Bumthang, September 6)
This is an annual event that’s looked forward to eagerly by adventure seekers, an exciting modern day Bhutan festival, one could say. A one-day cycle race, it is mountain biking at its best, taking you across some 268 kilometers of rugged terrain through the mountainous regions of the Dragon Kingdom. Said to be the most challenging of all cycle races in the world, participants have to cycle over four high mountain passes, the highest of which is at an altitude of 3340 meters. The starting point of this demanding race is Bumthang (2610 m) in central Bhutan from where the course goes along the Bumthang River for some distance before going uphill some six kilometers passing a forest of blue pines and reaching the first pass, Kiki La at 2870 meters. From here, it’s an easy ride downhill to Nangar on a gentle road through Chumey and then a gentle climb up to Gaytsha at 2950 meters. After that, it’s again downhill for some seven kilometers to Bong Bridge before climbing again for about five kilometers through another forest full of conifer and rhododendron trees. The next pass to be crossed is Yotong La (3430 m) from where it’s all downhill for almost 30 kilometers, right down to Trongsa (2150 m) cycling below the imposing Ta Dzong.
Now, there’s some seven kilometers of gentle descent before arriving at the Bjee Zam bridge (1900 m) and then a climb of about six kilometers through another forest to reach a spectacular view point. Then on, it’s a 10 kilometer ride along the cliffs and through a forest, passing the headquarters of the Jigme Singye Wangchuk National Park at Tshangkha. After some hard climbing, you reach Tashiling. Now it’s not much of a climb for the next 20 kilometers, more of gently undulating hills. Eventually, you come to the village of Chendebji (2430 m). From here, the road goes upwards, passing Nikachu Bridge at Chazam and Rukubji before arriving at Longte, a smallish settlement. The next pas you come across is Pelel La (3430 m). Once more, you get an easy ride downhill before reaching Wangdue Phodrang. From here, you cycle to Metshina (1410 m) and then a hard climb onwards and upwards for about 38 kilometers to another pass, Dochu La (3150 m). Then again, it’s time to take it easy, cycling down to Thimphu (2330 m). All said and done, this is one way to go on a Bhutan tour that’s pretty awesome.
Thimphu Drubchen (Thimphu, Sept 28-Octobter 2)
This festival is held in the capital, Thimphu, to celebrate the birth of Guru Rimpoche, and is the biggest Bhutan festival. It’s an ancient festival that was established in 1867 by Gyalse Tenzin Rabgay, the fourth temporal rules of the kingdom. Held over three days, Thimphu Tshechu is held in the courtyard of the Trashichho Dzong. You’ll get to see some exotic dances with fantastic names like Tungma Chham (dance of the terrifying deities), Durdag (dance of the lord of the cremation grounds), and Zhana and Zhana Nga Chhams (dance of the 21 black hats). Once upon a time these were the only dances performed, and that too exclusively by monks, which certainly must have added to the flavor, although it must be said that Bhutan festivals as a whole are all full of gaiety and fun.
In the 1950s, Boed Chhams (masked dances) like the Guru Tshengye (eight manifestations of the Guru) and Shaw Shachi (dance of the stags), were added to the program. Another interesting thing about the dances is the presence of Atsaras who provide comic relief to the performances with their clowning antics, although they are really believed to be the dupthobs who provide protection. The three-day tshechu is preceded by a one-day festival known as Thimphu Dromchoe which was established by Kuenga Gyaltshn in 1710, and takes place three days ahead of the Thimhu Tshechu. You can be assured of a fun-filled week during your Bhutan tour if you are fortunate enough to witness such Bhutan festivals around this time.
Prakhar Duchhoed (Prakhar Lhakhang, Bumthang, November 7-9)
Bumthang, in central Bhutan, is a region rich in culture and spirituality. It was in Bumthang that Guru Rinpoche first began his crusade to introduce Buddhism into the country. As a result, the area became a favored spiritual site for many other Buddhist sages and so one will find plenty of ancient monasteries here containing numerous sacred artifacts. And, of course, there are many festivals as well. One such, the Prakhar Duchhoed, takes place at the Prakhar Lahkhang in Chumey Valley. This festival is celebrated to honor the Treasure Discoverer, Pema Lingpa’s, son Lama Thukse Dawa, It dates back to the fifteenth century and includes a rare display of a giant silk thangka portraying Guru Padmasambava. While in the Bumthang region, you’ll also be getting to see some pretty famous sites such as Jambay Lhakhang (7th century), the most ancient of all monasteries in Bhutan; Tamshing Lhakhang, a very important Ngyingma monastery; and of course, the famous Trongsa Dzong that was built in 1648 A.D. by the rulers of Bhutan who originally ruled from Trongsa.
Nalakhar Tshechu (Ngaa Lhakhang, Bumthang, December 6-8)
Another festival held in the Bumthang region in the winter is the Nalakhar Tsechu which is held every year for two days at Ngaaa Lhakhang in a remote village called Nalakhar. Bhutan certainly has a lot of festivals; some are big and can go on for weeks altogether, while some are celebrated on a smaller scale. No matter the scale of the event, one can rest assured that all Bhutan festivals are sights to behold, spectacular and colorful in content and delivery. Yes, if you are planning a Bhutan tour, keep a lookout for Bhutan festival dates as well.
Note: It would be a good idea to confirm the dates with your travel agent.