Bhutan’s religious festivals mainly take place during the spring and autumn months, the dates of which are fixed according to the Bhutanese lunar calendar. Celebrations may range from complex rituals to the protective deities to simple recitation or chanting of prayers and offerings to the ubi-quitous mountain gods. The best known and most elaborate of the festivals is the tshechu, held in honour of Guru Rinpoche and commemorating his great deeds. Tshechu means Tenth Day, when the good deeds of Guru Rinpoche are believed to have taken place though, in practice, not all tshechu fall on the tenth day of the month. Chaams or religious dances are performed at tshechu to teach the precepts of Buddhism, to subdue evil spirits or celebrate the greatness of Buddha. Performed by monks or laymen, depending on the occasion, the dances wear extravagant costumes and carved masks. The performers are usually accomplished athletes as well because some of the dances last over an hour and involve much leaping and rotating. A holy celebration is not complete without atsaras, clowns who wear expressive masks, make ribald jokes and mock the dancers to get the public roaring with laughter. An important thsechu might include the display of a large appliquéd thangka, called a thongdrol, which usually represents Guru Rinpoche and his Eight Manifestations.
Festivals for the Bhutanese are a combination of both the spiritual and the social. Apart from dances and rituals as a vehicle to impart Buddhist teachings, there is also the chance to meet family, friends and acquaintances, to show off new clothes and jewellery and perhaps forget the hard grind of daily chores. For visitors, it’s a chance to watch the colorful spectacle of Bhutanese dancing, praying, eating and drinking in a uniquely convivial atmosphere where humour and devotion mix astonishingly well. Participating in a festival is one of the best ways to appreciate the essence of the Bhutanese character.