Festival For The Ages

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
Trip End Oct 06, 2013

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Flag of Bhutan  , Tongsa,
Sunday, December 23, 2012

After dodging our way through a few more neighborhoods of Jen N's phallic symbols we arrived in Trongsa and immediately headed to the Dzong to take in the opening day of the .... Festival. Since it was a rare winter festival, there were very few tourists, and because of the Blessing taking place in Punakha there weren't all that many locals attending so it felt like we had the place to ourselves. There is no doubt, however, that this festival was for the locals- it was almost as fascinating to watch the coaching that older generations (who had seen this festival for many years running) were giving the youngsters. The festival itself is a series of loosely choreographed dances (apparently some of these dances could go on for days- as DH knows, I'm a bit of a dancing machine but I can't imagine spinning around for hours with the same tune playing!) with a cast of characters that retell Buddhists stories and legends through dance as a fun way of teaching

Trongsa, the sacred and the temporal heart of the country, is another vertigo challenging mountain drive from Panaka. Situated in central Bhutan, it was 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.   The dzong was built in 1648 and 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 kings were able to effectively control the whole of the central and eastern regions of the country from here.

We had intentionally scheduled our trip to Bhutan around one of the most important festivals of the year. Festivals or Tshechu (“tenth day”) are Bhutanese festivals held every year in various temples monasteries and dzongs across the country. The Tshechu is mainly a religious event celebrated on the tenth day of a month of a lunar calendar corresponding to the birth day of Guru Rinpoche (Guru Padmasambhava, the founder of Buddhism in Bhutan- he used to convert opponents of Buddhism by performing rites, reciting mantras and finally performing a dance of subjugation to conquer local spirits and gods). He visited Bhutan to aid the dying king Sindhu Raja and performed a series of such dances to restore the health of the king- the grateful king helped spread Buddhism in Bhutan. Apparently this guy had thing for birthday parties and therefore the month of Tshechu varies from place to place and temple to temple.
These multi-day birthday parties are large social gatherings where people from neighbouring villages come together to witness the religious mask dances which are moral vignettes based on incidents from the life of the 8th century Buddhist founder and to receive blessings from lamas. It is said that everyone must attend a Tshechu and witness the mask dances at least once in their life to receive the blessings and wash away the sins. Every mask dance performed has a meaning or a story behind it. The dances are performed jointly by monks and village men- because tsechus depend on the availability of masked dancers, registered dancers are subject to fines if they refuse to perform during festivals. The focal point of the tsechus are the sacred Cham Dances, which are banned in neighbouring Tibet- the dancers take on the personas of wrathful and compassionate deities, heroes, demons, and animals in order to wipe out misfortunes, increase luck and grant personal wishes. 

We were all geared up to watch this very sombre event steeped in tradition... but someone clearly forgot to warn us about the clowns. The Atsaras or clowns move through the crowds mimicking the dancers and performing comic routines in their masks with a variety of distorted facial features. They progressed quickly through the standard clown repotriore of gags and giggles and started getting a little rough with each other and the viewing audience, but topped it all off with a wide variety of simulated sex acts that would make Marlene S blush (the crowd, including small children, were laughing with enthusiasm- apparently there is a much more relaxed view of sex in Bhutan). DH, who now has a clown phobia, kept mumbling something about these not being the clowns she remembered from her Scarborough circus days. A very serious group of ladies that performed traditional Bhutanese dances during the intervals between mask dances were particular targets of these mayhem creating clowns.

I've attached far too many festival photos but, believe it or not, it's just a fraction of the thousands I took?? For the anti-photo types, take heart- my camera is making death-bed noises and my laptop hard drive is just about full.

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Marlene S on

Unbelievable! Blushing is an understatement, but still fun to watch! (That doen't sound right, even to me!!)

Rita on

What? No trip climbing the Himalayas. I'm disappointed :)

Elaine & Doug on

Your photos certainly capture thr colour & vibrancy of the Festival and while some readers may be discomforted by the overt display of genitalia and the over-the-top antics of the clowns, the Bhutanese's healthy attitude regarding sex puts many of our 'enlightened' societies to shame!

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