The Masked Dances of Bhutan
Planning a trip to Bhutan? Must be mesmerized already when reading about Gross Happiness Index, the Tiger Nest Monastery, the Buddha Dordenma ? And wait, I am sure the tour operator must have asked you to add Dochula Pass in your itinerary too. Great, good going. Well, let me add just one more item in your Bhutan itinerary – The Tshechus (Save the pronunciation, it is as ‘shay-choos’)
The Tshechus, the what?
Tshechus are annual religious Bhutanese festivals that are held in each district of Bhutan. Tshechus literally means the ‘tenth day’, as it is celebrated on the tenth day of a month in lunar Tibetan Calendar. However, the exact month of tshechus varies from place to place. The following link gives dates of tshechus lined up for 2017. I planned my Bhutan trip in 2016 as per the dates of tshechus and was able to attend the celebrations in Thimpu and Haa Valley.
Well, so why Tshechus?
Tshechus are one of the most authentic ways to experience the living culture of Bhutan. The festivals provide a great opportunity to interact with the locals. All Bhutanese try to attend a festival at least once in a lifetime, and for many, it is an important annual family affair where they consider it a blessing to be able to watch the dances. Locals gather in their finest, most colourful Ghos and Kiras (the traditional Bhutanese male and female attire respectively). The Dzongs (forts) where the festivals are usually held become more like picnic spots for the locals during a tsechu. So attending a Tshechus will give you a close contact with the local people and will give you much insight into Bhutanese lifestyle, beliefs and more.
And what exactly happens in a Tshechu?
Tshechus are celebrated in honor of Guru Rimpoche, the saint who brought Buddhism to Bhutan. ‘Cham’ (masked) dances are at the center of each tshechu. Each mask dance performed during a Tshechu has a special meaning or a story behind it and many are based on stories and incidents from the life of Guru Rimpoche. Mask dances like the Guru Tshengye (Eight Manifestations of Guru), Shaw Shachi (Dance of the Stags) are the most popular. It is believed that merit is gained by witnessing these festivals. The dances invoke the deities to wipe out misfortunes, fight the evil, and bless with good luck.
Attending a tshechu in Haa valley, I was given a local version of Tshechus, telling that these are the masked dances of the devils. It is believed that after death when you are on your way to heaven, there will be devils along the way who will try to lure you to hell. But if you witnessed these dances at the tshechus, you will be able to identify those devils, dodge them and safely make it to heaven. (I am sure heaven must have adopted Gross Happiness Index too by now. :p )
Convinced? So, let’s get going.
Again, refer to the dates of Tshechus from the link shared earlier. If you do now wish to attend a tshechu, plan your trip around those dates. Travelling to Bhutan, I took the air route, from Delhi to Paro. And wait, did I tell you that this is one of the best flight routes that you will ever take. It takes you along the upper Himalayas, and you will get to fly right over Mt.Everest and Mt.Kanchenjunga.
Landing in Paro, I had my accommodation and transport arrangement done through this fantastic friend Nima, who also runs a tour agency. Do connect with him, he is a lovely chap. To attend the first tshechu I proceeded to Haa Valley which is 70kms from Paro, through the Chalela pass (the highest motorable pass in Bhutan). The Indian Army maintains a military base in the valley because of its close proximity to China. In Haa, I met another local named Ugyen, who has an awesome HomeStay facility, which will give you a super authentic Bhutanese experience. When at the home stay, do try the local home food. (You have to try ‘Ema Datshi’ meaning chilly and cheese, which is an exotic Bhutanese dish, and can very well be the national dish of Bhutan. By the way it is like mega hot, and definitely not for the faint hearts)
Paro to Thimpu is a 55 kms chilled out road journey. Make in time for the Thimpu Tsechu at the Thimpu Dzong and witness this celebration at its peak grandeur. Thimpu Tsechu is the biggest tsechu celebration in Bhutan. To attend the Thimpu tsechu you should leave early in the morning because it gets heavily crowded. And that’s why, to be honest, I preferred watching the tsechu at Haa valley, which allowed me to see the dances much up close.
Best Time to Visit: Spring-Summer (Mar-July). Avoid rains, you don’t want your views to be spoiled by clouds and mist.
Food: Bhutanese food is spicy. They usually have buffet system at most of the restaurants. Food can get very bland for vegetarians. Although, you will find Indian food everywhere. But carry sweets/chocolates if in case you have a sweet tooth.
Connectivity: I personally did not buy any local sim for the trip. Most of the hotels have wi-fi, and you can get back to your hotels at end of your day to pass on all your Bhutan updates to family and friends.
Currency: I Bhutanese Ngultrum = 1 INR. Bhutan very much accepts Indian currency (But that’s before demonetization in India), so better to have Bhutanese currency exchanged at airport.
- Nima, Best Bhutan Co.Ltd : +97502341230, email@example.com
- Janka Resort, Paro : +97508272352
- Ugyen Home Stay, Haa Valley : +97577211852, firstname.lastname@example.org
So, there you ‘Go’