Tshechu in the Dzong

Religious ritual and culture are embedded in the minds of the Bhutanese, reinforced through structures built into the countryside. Chortens and white prayer flags as memories of those now gone, mani walls along religious paths to be circumambulated in ritual, prayer wheels to be turned in every other village – not to mention the various temples, monasteries and dzongs which dot the landscape – all embody the ritualistic experience.
For those living under the protection of the Wangdue dzong, the annual Tshechu celebration was an inherent part of life. For Gyelmo as a child, the Tshechu at the dzong was seen as a time for fun, for an opportunity to dress up in pretty clothing and spend time with her friends. As an adult, her perception of the festival has changed. She enjoys it as a social event, an opportunity to see family and friends she has moved away from, and also feels a connection to its religious aspects. She attends the Tshechu faithfully each year, either at Thimphu or back at Wangdue, accompanied by her children or friends.


The heart of the Tshechu is the chaam, a ritual Buddhist dance. The Bhutanese believe that watching these sacred dances lets them attain a higher spiritual plane. The dances are said to have originated with Guru Rinpoche, who was himself a tantric and understood the power of movement. Many of the dances depict stories of myths and legends that persist to this day. At first glance the dances themselves are repetitive, but they grow hypnotic when watched over a long time. The trance-like rhythm of the dancers follows an arrangement of percussion instruments, pierced by the notes of a trumpet like instrument. Dressed in elaborate costumes and headgear, they move in unison, their pace steadily picking up to end in a crescendo. Most of the dances follow this pattern, and are rituals to be observed rather than participate in.


The courtyard of the dzong receives the crowd for the Tshechu, all of them dressed in their best. The balconies at every level of the dzong are lined with faces watching the chaam, mesmerized by the swirls of red-clad monks. The movements make them seem almost part of the architecture, and the sounds of bells, whips and mani wheels complete the experience. Food is carried in picnic baskets, and meals are eaten in the grounds of the dzong. The power of belief and ritual still brings huge crowds to the dzong, and it is typical to see visitors taking blessings from the monks, worshipping at the temples inside and catching up with family from around the country. Even with an imposing edifice, the dzong creates meaningful public space in its details.


Gyelmo takes her three children to the Tsechu to share this essence and culture with them, and hopes that they will value it as she does. The Tsechus at the dzongs are still the formal gathering events for the Bhutanese, whether in the village or the town. It remains to be seen how much relevance they will hold for the generations to come. Will the Tsechus adapt to the newer culture creeping into Bhutan, or will they become tourist attractions, merely generating revenue while ceasing to hold meaning for the young people of Bhutan?


This Post Has One Comment

  1. Sandeep Basrur

    Truly wonderful stories, Natasha! I thoroughly enjoyed reading all of these. You must have taken very detailed notes during your trips, and such beautiful photographs too! Have you thought of writing a more detailed travelogue on Bhutan? Many Thanks for this, and I look forward to more! Sandeep

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