Experiencing the Punakha Festival in Bhutan
Witnessing a festival in Bhutan is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Venetia Stanley was lucky enough to attend the Punakha Tshechu on her recent trip to this magical country.
The Punakha Tshechu (or ‘festival’) takes place each February or March inside the incredible Punakha Dzong, the ancient capital of Bhutan. The event is scheduled for the first month of the lunar year and ends with the Serda, which is a colourful procession that re-enacts an episode of the war against Tibet in the 17th century. It is unique for being the only festival with a procession like this. Our brilliant private guide explained its cultural and historical significance, location and how important it is to the locals who gather in their masses to watch, enjoy and pay their respects. As well as being a really fun and exciting day out for the Bhutanese, the tshechu also provides devout Buddhists with an opportunity for pilgrimage and prayer.
After a hearty breakfast at Six Senses Punakha, we were dressed in traditional Bhutanese dress, kiras for women and gho for men. I wore a dark-orange-hued kira with a brooch to pin everything together, which is an art in itself! We drove down from the lodge to the Punakha Dzong, and immediately saw huge throngs of festival-goers heading towards the fortress, all dressed in their smartest ghos and kiras, with even the smallest children in immaculate dress. The colours everywhere were completely mesmerising, and everyone seemed to be in good spirits, chatting and laughing, as they congregated towards the entrance of the Dzong.
Our guide navigated us through the crowds, weaving in and out of the smiling locals, and found a place for us to sit with the most amazing views of the spectacle and the chief abbot of the monk body. We learnt how the religious dances performed during the tshechu are called cham and there are a large number of these throughout the three days. Participants wear spectacular costumes made of bright-yellow silk or rich brocade, often decorated with intricate patterns and symbols. The festival’s magnificent dance displays were performed by monks clad in vibrant masks and beautiful brocade clothing, and interspersed with serenades and readings from Buddhist scripts. Many others came by, posing for photos in exchange for a small donation.
Lots of friendly people came up to talk to us, commenting on our dress and asking our impressions of the celebrations. We were so pleased to have made the effort to dress up, as they seemed to genuinely appreciate it. Bhutan’s festivals are a big draw for international visitors, with many planning their trips around them. They provide a fascinating insight into the daily life, culture and history of this magical kingdom, and experiencing the Punakha Tshechu was undoubtedly a real highlight of my trip.