Monks of black hat cults subdue demons with a spinning dance; the demons lash back with an equally grand performance. The battle of colour and music rages on. Horns of monks from the temple ring hypnotically throughout the valley. The constant beat of the drum releases the parading demons and saints into their spinning trance. The colours, sounds, and anticipation of what will come next from the Royal Dzong gates adds to serene beauty of this spectacle. The Thimphu Tsechu is an event unlike any other, one you will likely not forget.
The grandest of all the festivals in Bhutan is held annually at the Royal Dzong in Thimphu. The Tsechu is a series of dances performed by elaborately dressed and masked (Cham) dancers in honour of Guru Rinpoche (Second Buddha). Many of the dances may only be performed by monks.
The festival dates seem to vary from year to year, but usually take place in between the last few weeks of September, and the beginning of October. The first few days of the festival are held in the temple itself, and it is often only open to locals only.
The Bhutanese believe that coming and watching this spectacular event will gain them merit. They come adorned in colourful (and expensive) traditional clothing and jewelry. Witnessing the vibrantly dressed locals is a sight in itself!
After the local’s only Tsechu occurs, another Tsechu is held throughout the next three days. During these three days there will be a display of numerous Buddhist folk dances. The dances commemorate Guru Rinpoche’s story in Bhutan. Each dance involves different parts of his story. Here are a few examples of some of the more popular dances:
Sha Na Cham (Black Hat Dance)
This dance, performed by monks only, represents the dancer’s transformation into a tantric yogi. It commemorates when the anti-Buddhist king Langdarma was killed in 842 AD by Pelkyi Dorji, another powerful monk. The dancers perform wearing large-brimmed black hats, yellow dresses, and aprons with a scary demon face, who is a protective deity, on them. Each dancer twirls while spinning in a uniform circle with the other monks. While spinning, they stomp the ground, flinging the colourful strings atop their head from the ground up.
Shawa Shachi (Dance of the Stag and Hunter)
More of a story than a dance, Shawa Shachi is based on the story of Gonpo Dorji, the hunter. This show is split between a comedic act and a very religious story of Dorji and his dog hunting a deer. The story follows the hunter’s pursuit of a deer who has taken shelter with a yogi named Milarepa. Milarepa converts the deer, dog and hunter to Buddhism with a song and symbolic rope which they must jump over. It’s hard to follow if you don’t have a guide, but ask anyone in the audience for tips. The deer is usually quite easily recognised.
Pacham (Dance of Heroes)
A dance based on the vision of Pema Linga. It is believed to take the people watching it directly to the presence of Guru Rinpoche. When the dancers enter they are not wearing masks. Instead they wear a traditional yellow outfit with a gold crown. They dance with bells and a small drum.
Drametsi Nga Cham (Dance of the Drametsi Drummers)
Based on the vision of Kunga Gyeltshen, who visits Nirvana and witnesses 100 wrathful and peaceful deities dancing. The dancers wear animal masks and carry a drum and drum stick. They dance in a hypnotic circle, spinning and beating the drum.
Guru Tshengay (Eight Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche)
This dance/drama depicts the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche. It starts with one of his wrathful manifestations, Dorji Drolo, who is famed for his scary red angry face. As the dance proceeds you will be introduced to some peaceful and some more wrathful forms.
Regional Songs and Dance
In between many of the dances regional folk songs and dances are performed. Often the music is live and strummed out on a traditional Bhutanese guitar known as the Dramyin. The folk songs usually consist of a tale about farming or welcoming new cultures. The dancers often double as singers as well. Some of the performances are massive with around 40 or 50 performers!
Witnessing the Dance of Demons and Saints
In the early morning mist, Sonam and I went to the festival grounds at the Royal Dzong. Sonam explained it was best we arrive before 7 am as it will get very busy. When we arrived there were already many people.
The locals were dressed in vibrant traditional textiles. Many of the women had amber and turquoise necklaces and silver Tibetan style jewellery. By 9 am the grounds were completely full. At this time the astara (clowns) come into the grounds to entertain the crowds.
Astara – The Bhutanese version of the clown. This big red-nosed man wields a large wooden penis which he often tricks you into shaking. The Astara, or the divine jester, often mocks the dancers and crowd, but is loved by all. Don’t be surprised if he takes notice of you!
The five Astara paraded around making the crowd laugh with their sexual humour. They even blessed the head of the religion with the giant wooden penis!
When the first dance began the monks from the inner temple entered the main grounds and began blowing the giant temple horns. The horns rang through the valley. First entered the black hat dancers, one of the most spiritual dances. A Holy man clad in silver and silk robes carried around an ornate silver bowl burning juniper. Behind him two similarly dressed men playing the Shawms, an instrument similar to a clarinet.
The scene was outstanding: The smell of juniper, the blaring of the horns, and the colour of the countless dancers’ twirling to subdue the demons. Look up into the crowd and you are only further mesmerized by the locals who all are dressed beautifully for the occasion.
Each dance finishes, only to be replaced by yet another amazing spectacle. It is hard to take your eyes away from all this colour. Each dance tells a new story of Saints and demons. The dancers fight the demons with song and trance-like movements.
These dances are not just amazing because of how visually stunning they are, but also of how spiritually they connect with the people of Bhutan. The locals surrounding us truly believe that these dances are building good Karma and that they will come out of this performance blessed by the dance itself.
The show ends around four in the afternoon. But the festival does not end here! Head into the centre of Thimphu where the streets are closed to traffic and become an all-out shopping frenzy. The stores put up booths on the streets selling old stock at a lower price. Vendors sell fair like foods and introduce you to traditional Bhutanese games like throwing the gigantic darts!
For me, walking around and just being a part of it all was a hug draw. The locals will be pleasantly surprised to see you here, and more than often welcome you with a smile and conversation.
Thimphu Tsechu Video
Photographing the Tsechu Tips
One thing that all the travelers have on their minds when they come to the Tsechu is getting great photos. Now this isn’t a hard task to accomplish, but there are some things you should know beforehand.
- Remember this is a religious festival; be respectful and know when it is acceptable to photograph people or performers.
- Always listen to your guide – he’ll let you know what is acceptable
- Come early if you want good seats! They go fast and are first come, first serve
- You are not allowed to walk into the main grounds where the dancers are dancing…. This is common sense
- If you want close up photos, place yourself strategically near where the dancer enter and exit the arena
- If you desperately want close up shots of the dancers performing, bring a telephoto lens
- Try moving around the grounds to get different angles – some places that seem not interesting could better than you think.
- Come for the festival and the spiritual meaning as your main goal and make photography your second reason.
Getting there with Druk Asia
Bhutan is a special country to visit. One of these reasons why is because it is so hard to get to. In order to enter Bhutan you are required to be on a tour. Most travelers will not like the sound of this, but depending on the tour company traveling here won’t feel like a “tour” at all. Druk Asia did everything for me to feel as if I was still traveling independently. Their tours offer a private car and guide for a similar price to a bus packed full of tourists are flexible and designed for those us not looking for a regular “tour” experience. IN my opinion, Druk Asia is the best company out there for anyone who is looking for a unique experience to Bhutan! Check out DRUK ASIA Here!
Location: Thimphu, Bhutan
Currency: Bhutanese Neu 1 USD – 66 NEU
Language: Dzogka – Kuzuzampo means “Hello!”
Tour Company: Druk Asia
Gear used: Sony A7, GoPro Hero 4, Lifestraw, Fjallraven Backpack, Nomad Solar Panel
Tips: Get there early! Try to ask lots of questions to understand the dances