September 28, 2021

Celebrating Tshechu In Gangtey Valley

There is a certain time every year when Bhutan comes alive in a vivid display of colour, music, dance and motion.  This is a time when Bhutanese from all walks of life down tools, put on their finest, most elaborate clothes (exquisite hand woven kiras for women and ghos for men) and gather together for a day of joyful celebration. These festivals, or tshechus as they are known in Bhutan, provide opportunities for people from surrounding villages to come together, to dance, to be happy and to share in spiritual teachings and rituals.

Each year Bhutan’s 20 dzongkhags or districts hold their own annual tshechu, gathering together for a spectacular day of dancing, music, blessings and spiritual teachings, accompanied by the clash of cymbals and meditative beat of drums. They are usually celebrated between 3-5 days and often conclude with the unfurling of a giant thangkha (hand-painted religious scroll) with the Bhutanese lining up alongside to receive special blessings.  These festivals are important social and spiritual events in the Bhutanese calendar and are held annually in the courtyards of temples, monasteries and dzongs across the country. They mark the arrival of Buddhism in Bhutan and honor Guru Rinpoche, who was born on the tenth day of the sixth Bhutanese lunar month. In fact, the word tshechu translates as ‘tenth day’.

Monks are integral to tshechus and will spend weeks in advance preparing for the event with prayers and meditation as well as practising ancient, sacred dances known as cham. These are masked dances and are the highlight of any tshechu, telling the story of the teachings of Buddha and the dharma through movement and music. They focus on three themes – dances with moral stories, dances that purify and protect people from destructive spirits and dances that celebrate the triumph of Buddhism and Guru Rimpoche. The Bhutanese believe these dances provide many blessings, luck and prosperity and are a path to enlightenment for anyone lucky enough to witness them.

The dancers are decoratively adorned in brightly coloured costumes and with energetic dancing accompanied by blaring horns, booming drums, and clashing cymbals, whirl and leap around the courtyard of the monastery. While the monks spin and swirl in mesmerising circles, their brocade skirts twirling in flashes of vibrant colour, groups of Atsaras or clowns, entertain the crowds with practical jokes and other antics, often brandishing a large wooden phallus to ward off evil spirits!

Gangtey Lodge Bhutan
Gangtey Lodge Bhutan
Bhutan

Last year, for the first time in the history of Bhutan, tshechus across the country suddenly became closed-door events, with the gathering of large crowds prohibited amid the pandemic. Courtyards across the country that would be otherwise jam-packed with spectators, were closed to the public and health protocols were strictly followed by mask-dancers and the monastic body alike. While these protocols remain in place for the festivals this year, events are now being live-streamed on social media and broadcast on local television to help ease the disappointment.

In Gangtey, festivities are now underway with the tshechu taking place in the large courtyard of the historic Gangtey Goenpa monastery, from the 18th-20th September. Like every tshechu, the dates of this three-day annual festival are set according to the lunar calendar and therefore change every year and over those three days mountains of food will be generously offered by those attending. This particular tshechu culminates in a special blessing for the people of Gangtey Valley called the Nguedrup Langwa which is a blessing of spiritual wisdom and power. Later on, as the day winds down and the celebrations finally come to an end, villagers will pack up their food, finish their picnics and fold away their finest clothes until next year, when it will happen all over again.

And this time, we dearly hope, in person.

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