Bhutan is one of the most religious countries in the Tibetan Buddhist world. And like in all Buddhist nations, festivals have a special place in the hearts of its residents. Most of the Bhutanese festivals commemorate the deeds of the Buddha, or those of the great masters of the past associated with one Buddhist tradition or another.
Bhutanese culture is characterized by religious celebrations. Its people love socializing, attending festivals, joking, playing, and doing all the things that help them to be in the spirit of celebration. Religion and social life are so intrinsically linked in the culture that some festival appears to be taking place somewhere in Bhutan throughout the year. Among these festivals, one of the most recognized and attended by the masses is the Tsechu festival ('Tse' means 'date' and 'Chu' means 'ten'; i.e. '10th day'). This festival is celebrated to commemorate the great deeds of the 8th century Tantric Master Guru Padmasambhava.
'Guru Rimpoche' or simply 'Guru' as he is referred to, introduced the Nyingma school of Buddhism into Tibet and Bhutan. Each 10th day of the lunar calendar is said to commemorate a special event in the life of Padmasambhava and some of these are dramatized in the context of a religious festival. Most of the festivals last from three to five days - of which one day usually falls on the 10th day of the lunar calendar. It is not just the time for people to get together, dress up and enjoy a convivial light hearted atmosphere, but also a time to renew one's faith, receive blessings by watching the sacred dances, or receive 'empowerment' from a lama or Buddhist monk.
An auspicious event of many of the Tshechus is the unfurling of the Thongdrol from the main building overlooking the dance area. This is done before sunrise and most people rush to witness the moment. Thongdrols are large Thangkas or religious pictures that are usually embroidered rather than painted. The word itself means 'liberation on sight.' It is believed that bad karmas are expiated simply by viewing it. Spring is one of the best times to visit Bhutan; it is also at this time that the local inhabitants of Paro celebrate the spring festival, one of the most popular festivals. Monks as well as laymen dressed in brilliant costumes and wearing masks of both wrathful as well as peaceful deities, re-enact the legends and history of Buddhism in the Dragon Kingdom. The festival culminates in the spectacular showing of the four storey high, 350 years old Thangkha (Buddhist religious scroll), - celebrating the deeds of Padmasambava, who is credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan.
The Wandgue and Thimphu Tsechus are in the fall and they too are most impressive. These festivals are very popular with western tourists. The festivals in Bumthang and East Bhutan attract fewer tourists and those who want to get a more authentic flavor of Bhutan's cultural and religious extravaganza will be well rewarded.
Apart from its religious implications, the Tshechu is also an annual social gathering where people dress in their finest clothing and jewellery. A small fair may be organized outside the Dzong for those looking for variety entertainment. Locals attending the festival enjoy a picnic lunch with an abundance of locally brewed alcohol. After the festival they traverse west to east along Bhutan's lateral highway enjoying the great biodiversity, ranging from conifer forests to banana trees and cactus plants. Along the route one catches glimpses of various birds and wild animals, and experiences the ancient tradition and culture of the Bhutanese way of life.
The dances that are performed at this event honoring the 'Guru', known as Cham, are performed to bless onlookers and to teach them the Buddhist dharma in order to protect them from misfortune and to exorcise all evil. The dancers take on the aspects of wrathful and compassionate deities, heroes, demons, and animals. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal and Pema Lingpa were the main composers of many of the dances. It is believed that merit is gained by attending this religious festival. The dances invoke the deities to wipe out misfortunes, increase luck and grant personal wishes. Onlookers rarely fail to notice the Atsaras or clowns who move through the crowds mimicking the dancers and performing comic routines in their masks with long red noses. A group of ladies perform traditional Bhutanese dances during the intervals between mask dances.
No one should visit Bhutan without going to a Tsechu. Since most monasteries stage their own Tsechu at different times of the year to honor Guru Rimpoche, there's a festival almost every week. Western tourists flock to the larger of these events such as the ones at Paro, Wangue and Thimphu, and hotels and flights are sold out months in advance to organized tourist groups. Anyone who wishes to visit Bhutan during these festivals should plan and make their tour arrangements well in advance. The dates and duration of the Tsechu festivals vary among dzongkhags (Districts) but they always fall on or around the 10th day of the month in the Bhutanese calendar.