One of the most popular festivals in Bhutan is the Tshechu festival. Tshechus are celebrated around the country to commemorate Guru Rinpoche, the saint who introduced Buddhism in the country. Festivals are important religiously and culturally.Most of the festivals are celebrated in honor of some Gods or for a start of an important event. Tshechu festival and the losar, Bhutanese new year, are the two most popular festivals.
In Bhutan, the most celebrated festival would most definitely be the local tshechu. Derived from the Dzongkha term meaning the ‘tenth day’, it is conducted on and around the auspicious tenth day of a selected month (according to the lunar calendar), once every year. Most of the festivals last from three to five days.
Religion and social life are so intrinsically linked in the culture that some festival or the other appears to be taking place somewhere in Bhutan throughout the year.
This festival is celebrated to commemorate the great deeds of the 8th century Tantric Master Guru Padmasambhava. Essentially a religious affair, though, a tshechu is also a social event.
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People gather at the local dzong or Lhakhang dressed in their best gho and kira with packed lunches and make merry. The high-points of such festivals are the masked dances performed by both monks and laymen according to steps meticulously choreographed by Buddhist master in the distant past.
These dances are loaded with religious symbolism that the non-Bhutanese will find hard to comprehend without a guide’s explanation. The numbing clash and blend of colors as well as the symphony of traditional gongs, horns, cymbals and drums, however, make tshechus especially memorable auditory and visual experiences.
For the Bhutanese, though, no tshechu is complete without the atsaras (clowns). Performing seemingly lewd but symbolically philosophical antics, these clowns pass on divine blessings and ensure that smiles and laughs do not run short.
The atsaras are not the clowns as they are perceived to be at the tshechu festival; they were supposed to be the acharyas, the learned ones, who pass on wisdom to the viewers through their jokes, often verging on vulgarity. The dances are performed to honor the ‘guru’, and also to bless onlookers and to teach them the Buddhist dharma in order to protect them from misfortune and to exorcize all evil. The dancers take on the aspects of wrathful and compassionate deities, heroes, demons, and animals. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal and Pema Lingpa were the main composers of many of the dances.
The best-known tshechus are those of Paro and Punakha, are held in spring, and that of Thimphu, which is held in the fall. An auspicious event of many of the tshechus is the unfurling of the throngdrol from the main building overlooking the dance area.
This is done before sunrise and the most people rush to witness the moment. Throngdrols are large thankas or religious scrolls that are usually embroidered rather than painted.
The word itself means ‘liberation on sight’. It is believed that bad karmas are expiated simply by viewing it. Parotshechu is one of the most popular festivals. The festival culminates in the spectacular display of the four-storey high, 350-year old throngdol depicting the eight manifestations of ‘Guru’.