Bhutan has a long tradition of colorful religious festivals. They are integral part of the cultural and spiritual life of the Bhutanese people. We wanted to witness this rich tradition for ourselves and planned our trip around a festival season.
Bhutanese believe that everyone must attend a religious festival and witness the mask dances at least once to receive blessings. The Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival in Bumthang was the only festival included in our itinerary, but we were fortunate to also observe the Dromchoe Festival in Thimphu and the Tsechu Festival in Wangdue. It so happened that these two extra festivals were taking place as were were visiting those places. We felt so lucky to receive blessings three times! Like all Bhutanese festivals, the 3-day Tamshing Phala Chhoepa Festival in Bumthang is celebrated to commemorate the good deeds of great Buddhist masters. This particular festival is held to honor the great saint Pema Lingpa and is held annually at the courtyard of Tamshing Lhakhang, a temple built by Pema Lingpa himself.
And like all Bhutanese festivals, the core of Tamshing Phala Chhoepa are the ancient traditional mask dances called “chams.” Most of the dances were created earlier than the Middle Ages. They were choreographed by the great Buddhist masters and saints themselves to convey spiritual messages to the people.
The dances re-enact significant spiritual events from the past and are mostly performed by monks in brilliant costumes. They take the roles of wrathful and compassionate deities, heroes, demons, and animals and are accompanied by blaring horns, booming drums, and clashing cymbals as they whirl and leap around the temple courtyard.
One of the atsaras liked bothering the audience. He asked money from the audience and then gave them blessings by patting their heads with a wooden phallus. (For more about the significance of phallus symbol in Bhutan, see this post.)
Bhutanese believe that during the mask dances, the deities of the tantric teachings are invoked and through their power and blessings, misfortunes are removed and sins are purified. They also believed to subdue evil spirits that prevent the Buddhist teaching from flourishing, thus, bringing joy and happiness to all sentient beings.
Monks helping monks get dressed for the next dance performance, the “Black Hat Dance.” It was the only dance without masks. The “Black Hat Dantce” was performed in the rain. Dancers represent Tantrists with supernatural powers. They are said to drive out evil spirits and purify the grounds with their footsteps.
We may not completely understood or relate to all the messages that the dance dramas conveyed, but we felt honored to experience this rich old tradition of Bhutan.
Most of all, we cherished our interactions with the locals during the festival. They gave up their prime spots for us so we could have a better view of the performances. They said that they observe the festival year after year but we may only have that one chance to do so. We were deeply touched by their warmth, hospitality and spiritual devotion.
- Religious festivals take place throughout Bhutan all year round. We visited in autumn (September) and many of the festivals fall around this season. The date varies each year as they use the lunar calendar. If you’re interested to plan your visit around festival time, click here for the festival schedule in 2014 and early 2015.