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Guide to the Tshechu in Thimpu



The small land-locked Asian ‘land of the dragon,’ in the eastern Himalayan mountains bordering India, China, Nepal, and Bangladesh, Bhutan has always presented a restful sanctuary in a frenzied world. The first carbon-negative nation with more than 70 percent of the kingdom thickly forested, it continues to nurture its delicate ecosphere in the technology-laden 21st century. 

Bhutan’s stupendous nature-blessed grassy brilliance neatly combined with sapphire skies, translucent streams, and white hilltops continues to enamour eager travellers across the globe. Although the kingdom opened to foreigners only in the 1970s it has successfully retained its storied traditions, authentic crafts and cuisine, and spiritual Buddhist influences. Numerous dzongs or fortresses and monasteries lie like speckled jewels across the leafy-carpeted landscape, and often the only sounds emanating over great distances are of flapping, colourful prayer flags strung across verdant vales and highlands. History-seekers rejoice in visiting Bhutan as it is equally celebrated for its abundant culture. Legends, myths, demons, chants, and saints comprise an intrinsic slice of Bhutanese society and are deeply ingrained in the psyche of the populace, peacefully coexisting with the leap into modernisation. 

Tshechu – Visual Art Commemorating Bhutanese Ethos

The mesmerising splendour of the kingdom’s natural backdrop is augmented by its enriching cultural practices. Although beautiful in any season, Bhutan’s rich customs are gloriously highlighted and showcased during the festive spell. Multiple religious, colourful festivals or tshechus are celebrated in different parts of the nation, during the course of the year. The celebrations are distributed amongst all of Bhutan’s districts and are held in dzongs and monasteries, on the tenth day of a month, following the Tibetan lunar calendar.

History of Bhutanese Tshechu: Bhutanese folklore narrates an account of the origination of the tshechu by Guru Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, the illustrious Buddhist master instrumental in the spread of Buddhism in Bhutan, in his inaugural visit to the nation-state in the 8th and 9th centuries. His prime motive for a stopover had been to restore the then-king’s health in return for the ruler’s promise to promote the principles of Buddhism in the province, largely replacing the prevalent Bon practices and animist rituals of the period.

The revered saint organised the first tshechu in Bumthang performing a sequence of dances or chams, manifesting each of his eight avatars through eight dances. The chams, depicting the glory of Buddhism were played out in front of frightful demons and spirits who were ‘conquered’ through the dance ritual and mantras, eventually becoming protectors of Buddhism. The enactment essentially signified the victory of good over evil. Since the larger population was mostly illiterate and printing was expensive, dance became a vital tool to broadcast Buddhist teachings, conveying the principal message of peace to the people, whilst also dispensing blessings through spiritual leaders. Over subsequent centuries, multiple cham dances have evolved and have been created by several other saints and teachers of Buddhism such as Terton Pema Lingpa and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel.

Thimphu Tshechu – Flushed in Bright Flamboyance  

The capital city - and the largest - Thimphu, often serves as a primary base station for a visitor, offering the first glimpse of the marvel that unfolds in the tiny nation. One of the most historic tshechus is held here and Bhutan’s capital dons a special dose of color during this period. Impressive in magnitude, scale, and colour, it holds an effortless appeal to a holidayer in search of a profound purpose blended with graceful locales. 

Logistics: The fastest way to reach Thimphu from India is by air to Paro Airport - the only international airport in Bhutan. Taxis are easily available from the airport and the 70-odd-minute drive to Thimphu is smooth and scenic. For those seeking a more pastoral adventure, trains ply from Kolkata to Hasimara, a mere seventeen kilometres away from the Indo-Bhutan border. One can hire a taxi to Phuentsholing, after which services of either buses or cabs can be availed for a six-hour journey to Thimphu. 

Tshechu Schedule: Held over a period of three days in autumn, usually in September or October, (beginning on the tenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar) the tshechu is celebrated amidst massive fanfare in Thimphu’s central monastery, Tashichho Dzong, and is attended by thousands of people across the kingdom. Residents attend the festival in their richest garbs to socialise and seek blessings.

History: The annual festival is celebrated to commemorate the birth of Guru Rinpoche, the festival was introduced in 1867 by Gyalse Tenzin Rabgay, the fourth Druk Desi, or secular ruler of Bhutan. Initially consisting of only a few dances, the tshechu experienced adjustments in the 1950s with the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, launching newer cham dances by lay monks, adding extra animation and colour to the festival. 

The days preceding the revelry are marked by intense prayer and meditation in addition to a one-day festival called the Thimphu Drubchen or Thimphu Dromchoe. It dates back to the 17th century when it was introduced by Kuenga Gyeltshen believed to be a reincarnation of Jampel Dorji, son of Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyel, the founder of Bhutan, after the chief protective deity of the country, Pelden Lhamo, appeared in front of him. Sacred dances dedicated to the deity are routinely performed during the drubchen.

Key Highlights: The Thimphu tschechu is marked with ritual unmasked and masked dances, or chams, which are the climax of the festivities. Similar to stage theatre, monks and lamas are enrobed in the finest and brightest silks and costumes wearing masks of animals and different manifestations of Guru Rinpoche, performing the lively dance impersonating deities and protectors. Reciting religious stories to spectators, momentous events from Guru Padmasambhava’s life are staged depicting the triumph of light over darkness. Equally important in the festival, is the role of jesters or Atsaras, who, through their wit, captivate wicked forces, preventing them from causing injury and damage during the tshechu. Citizens treat the dance forms as sacred and observing the performances is considered as a route to enlightenment. The revered art form is considered an offering to the Gods to bring prosperity to the people, and cham dances are always accompanied by music using traditional Tibetan musical instruments such as cymbals and drums. The unfurling of a huge thangka, a Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton or silk depicting a Buddhist deity, down the side of the dzong, takes place in the early morning hours of the last day of the tschechu. 

The concept of tshechu travels beyond the broad canvas of mere spiritual significance and is a moment to offer gratitude to the Gods for better days ahead. It serves as a confluence of social bonding among people from far-flung and isolated communities. Neighbourhoods gather and congregate dressed in their finery, celebrating together. Festivals also lead to brisk commerce with markets sprouting near the location of the festival selling crafts and traditional cuisine. The Bhutanese believe that attending a tshechu at least once in a lifetime is obligatory, however, families often participate annually. In modern times messages of social awareness and health information are disseminated through skits performed by astaras. 

Etiquette: The Bhutanese take immense pride in their customs and honouring the same is expected from travellers and foreigners. It is advisable to follow accepted dress and speech protocol during a religious festival, such as avoiding skin-tight or revealing clothing, removing caps before entering shrines, and speaking respectfully and softly in sacred sites.

Places to Explore in Thimphu

Tashichho Dzong: Popularly referred to as the ‘Fortress of the Glorious Religion’ or ‘Fortress of Auspicious Doctrine,’ the Taschichho Dzong has been the seat of the Royal Government of Bhutan since 1962. Situated on the western bank of the Wangchu river in the capital city of Thimphu, the unique and imposing edifice presently houses the throne room and offices of the king, the secretariat, and other important ministries. It also serves as the summer residence of His Holiness. Surrounded by manicured lawns and a rainbow of blooms in spring, the dzong boasts of an illustrious history with thirty temples and shrines.

Initially constructed in the 13th century by Lama Gyalwa Lhanapa, founder of the Lhapa branch of Tibetan Buddhism, it was re-purified in the 17th century by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the unifier of Bhutan, and established as the nerve centre of the Drukpa Kagya school of Tibetan Buddhism. The dzong was rebuilt and expanded several times over the years after it was destroyed by numerous fires. The modern two-storied fortress - one of the finest specimens of Bhutanese architecture - with pillars and tiered golden roofs was erected by Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, the third king of Bhutan, in 1962 after the capital of Bhutan was shifted from Punakha to Thimphu. Presently only the central utse or central tower, the Lhakhang Sarp or new temple, and the goenkhang, or protector temple, remain from the earlier dzong

National Memorial Chorten: Commonly referred to as ‘the most visible religious landmark in Bhutan’ the chorten or ‘seat of faith’ was built in 1974 to memorialise the third Druk Gyalpo or Head of Kingdom of Bhutan. It does not preserve human remains but only holds a photograph of the Druk Gyalpo in a ceremonial dress.

Located in the heart of the city the white building with its golden spires and bells, and red prayer wheels, has four entrances (with only one entrance open to visitors). Richly decorated with carved artwork, paintings, and sculptures, the Tibetan-style stupa is a regular seat of worship with the residents performing ritual circumambulations daily and lighting butter lamps.

Dordenma Buddha: The colossal Shakyamuni Buddha, atop a mountain overlooking the Thimphu valley, is a bronze statue, gilded in gold, and is one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world. The towering 169 feet high statue is located amidst the ruins of Kuensel Phodrang, the palace of the thirteenth administrative ruler of Bhutan. Its construction was concluded in 2015 and the statue houses over a hundred smaller Buddha figures inside it which replicate the bigger sculpture. It was built to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Legend dictates that the gigantic statue fulfils two age-old oracles tracing back to the 8th and 12th centuries when guru Sonam Zangpo correctly forecasted a massive statue of Buddha in the area bestowing blessings, peace, and happiness on the whole world. Furthermore, the figure is mentioned in the teachings of Guru Rinpoche.

Karbandi Monastery: One of the oldest monasteries in Bhutan, the Karbandi gompa lies quietly nestled amidst a garden of tropical plants, flowers, and prayer flags. Sitting at a height of 400 metres surrounded by cone-bearing trees, with a breathtaking view of the Phuentsholing Valley, about 250 kilometres from Thimphu, it was built by the Royal Grandmother, Ashi Phuntsho Choedron, in 1967. The shrine is thronged by barren couples in the hopes of having a child. Paintings with scenes from the events of Buddha’s life and figures of the founder of Bhutan and Guru Rinpoche can be seen in the monastery.

The nooks and crannies of the Bhutanese kingdom, especially around its modern-day capital city, are replete with fables, history, tradition, and spirituality. Supplementing that, the ever-smiling and helpful citizenry with their unhurried pace and profound respect for their culture, guests, and environment, add an extra golden sparkle to one’s Bhutanese sojourn. Participating and attending a tschechu delivers a lens for an absorbing experience, with an ideal blend of ancient vestiges of a storied legacy in contemporary settings. Contact Offbeat Tracks to create a multi-hued immersive tour of the tschechu in Thimphu, for you to revel in the mysteries of Bhutan’s heritage.