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Joe Meredith

A guide to Bhutan's fantastic festivals

The best time to visit Bhutan is undoubtedly during one of its colourful annual festivals (tshechus). It’s a chance to gain greater insight into the deeply spiritual culture of this small Himalayan nation, revelling alongside the locals. Most of the major festivals in Bhutan have their roots in Buddhism – the majority religion – whose mythology is expressed through dazzling dances, tapestries, masks and music.

When to travel to Bhutan is therefore not merely a question of climate – though spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November) are favoured for their weather. It’s also a question of what the festival calendar has in store.

Read on for an overview of the main festivals of Bhutan.

Paro Tshechu

What does Paro Tshechu celebrate? Bhutan’s Paro Festival honours Guru Rinpoche, the religious teacher credited with spreading the Vajrayana traditions of Buddhism across the Himalayas.

What happens during Paro Tshechu? As spring blossom and wildflowers fill the Paro valley, so too do the sounds of drums, flutes and horns. Paro Tshechu features five days of music, dance and religious rituals, centred on the Rinpung monastery. Costumed performers, from masked dancers to jesters (atsaras), entertain the locals, who themselves are dressed in their traditional best. On the fifth and final day of this 17th-century festival, a vast tapestry – called a thangka – depicting Guru Rinpoche is unveiled.

Where is Paro Tshechu held? The festival is held in Paro, a historic riverside town set in the scenic valley of its namesake. This is the site of Bhutan’s only international airport; and its tallest building, the conical fortress of Ta Dzong, which houses the National Museum of Bhutan. Overlooking the valley is Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest), a must-see monastery that clings dramatically to a cliff.

When is Paro Tshechu? Spring, between March and April. The specific date varies each year based on Bhutan’s lunar calendar.

How long does Paro Tshechu last? Five days.

Thimphu Tshechu

What does Thimpu Tshechu celebrate? Also known as the National Festival of Bhutan, the Thimpu Festival was created in 1670 to commemorate the birth of Guru Rinpoche.

What happens during Thimphu Tshechu? Following days of prayer to invoke the gods, locals flock to the Tashichho Dzong monastery where they witness three days of lively folk performance and religious ceremony. Central to the festival are the chams – traditional masked dances. Each of these theatrical dances has a particular spiritual purpose and is meticulously choreographed. On the third and final day of the event, a thangka appliqué depicting Guru Rinpoche is unrolled to impart blessings on attendees. Norzin Lam – Thimphu’s arterial street – transforms into a makeshift market across the event, while Clock Tower Square hosts various performances.

Where is Thimphu Tshechu held? The festival is held in Thimphu, Bhutan’s largest city and its capital since 1955. Thimphu’s attractions include a variety of dzongs and other monasteries built in traditional Bhutanese style; the gilded bronze Buddha Dordenma, one of the world’s largest sitting statues of Buddha; and Memorial Chorten, a landmark gold-topped stupa.

When is Thimphu Tshechu? Autumn, between September and October. The specific date varies each year based on Bhutan’s lunar calendar.

How long does Thimphu Tshechu last? Three days.

Punakha Tshechu

What does Punakha Tshechu celebrate? Established in 2005, Punakha Tschechu is a celebration of Buddhist teachings, held in honour of Guru Rinpoche. It is staged immediately after the much older Punakha Drubchen festival, which features a recreation of a historic battle, so visitors may wish to time their holiday to Bhutan to experience both events.

What happens during Punakha Tshechu? Activities centre on the Punakha Dzong, Bhutan’s second oldest and second largest dzong monastery. Locals attend, clad in colourful traditional clothing – men typically sporting a knee-length robe called a gho, and women in an ankle-length dress called a kira. Carefully choreographed dances (chams), performed by masked folk dancers and monks alike, depict various important moments in Guru Rinpoche’s life and teachings. The highlight of the last day of the festival – as with most tshechus – is the unravelling of a large thangka tapestry of Guru Rinpoche.

Where is Punakha Tshechu held? The festival is held in Punakha, the former capital city of Bhutan. The 17th-century Punakha Dzong monastery – one of Bhutan’s largest dzongs – is undoubtedly the town’s main attraction. Other places of interest include the 14th-century monastery of Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang, staging ground of a legendary battle between a monk and a demon; and a number of pretty temples, notably Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. Nearby, the village of Ritsha offers rustic charm, while Jigme Dorji, Bhutan’s second-largest national park, promises natural splendour – and hosts its own low-key event, the Takin Festival, held in honour of the rare, ox-like takin that lives there.

When is Punakha Tshechu? Between February and March. The specific date varies each year based on Bhutan’s lunar calendar.

How long does Punakha Tshechu last? Three days.

Other Bhutan festivals of note

Black-necked Crane Festival

What? The Black-necked Crane Festival celebrates the bird of its namesake. This distinctive crane is native to the Tibetan Plateau and migrates to Bhutan during autumn, heralding the harvest season. During the one-day festival, local children perform a special costumed crane dance, and there are other folk performances to enjoy.

Where? The Gangtey Monastery in the Phobjikha Valley, where the black-necked crane migrates in autumn.

When? 11 November.

Thangbi Mani Festival

What? This popular, 10-day Buddhist festival in rural Bumthang features masked dances and purification rituals intended to bring blessings and a good harvest. The highlight is the fire ritual (mewang), which sees people leaping over flames as monks conduct purification rituals.

Where? The 15th-century Thangbi Lhakang monastery, situated in the Bumthang Choekhor valley.

When? Autumn, between September and October. The specific date varies each year based on Bhutan’s lunar calendar.

Jambay Lhakhang Drup Festival

What? Jambay Lhakhang Drup is a five-day religious festival held in one of the country’s oldest temples. The festival features folk music, a mewang fire ceremony in which locals dance between flames, and choreographed spiritual dances – including Terchham, a naked fertility dance.

Where? Jambay Lhakhang Temple in Bumthang. It is one of 108 seventh-century temples said to have been built in a day by Tibetan king, Songsten Gampo.

When? Autumn, between October and November. The specific date varies each year based on Bhutan’s lunar calendar.

Inspired to experience Bhutan’s festivals? Consider one of our tailor-made itineraries or tours to Bhutan.