There are always festivals happening in every part of Bhutan throughout the year, many of which are derived from Buddhism and have their origin in the country’s rich and storied heritage. The most well-known festivals are the tsechus, celebrated by all 20 districts on different days. Among all the tshechus, the two most popular festivals, the annual Punakha Tshechu is held from 1st to 3rd March 2023 and Paro Tshechu will be held on 1st to 5th April 2023 respectively. Another special festival, Punakha Dromche has happened right before Punakha Tshechu, from 26th to 28th February 2023.
The two festivals in Punakha happen every year in the beautiful courtyard of the stunning fortress Punakha Dzong as the jacaranda flowers begin to bloom. Punakha district, located in the western part of Bhutan, about a three-hour drive from Thimphu, used to be the capital of Bhutan, and is the winter residence of the Chief Abbot of Bhutan. Punakha Dromche is a special and unique festival as it is the only festival in the country that dramatically reenacts a 17th century battle against the Tibetan army.
The festival features local militia men or ‘pazaps’ dressed in traditional battle regalia that is reminiscent of the time when in absence of an armed force, eight great villages or ‘tshochen’ from Thimphu and Punakha came forward and expelled the invading Tibetan forces who had come to take away the sacred relic, Rangjung Kharsapani. The battle reenactment is then followed by a demonstration of ‘norbu chushani’ or immersion of relic in the Mo Chhu river. To hoodwink the Tibetan invaders, the 17th century unifier of Bhutan, Zhabdrung Rinpoche is said to have dropped a decoy of the sacred relic into the Mo Chhu river. This demonstration by the river is watched by hundreds of people gathered in the Dzong.
On the final day of Punakha Dromche a massive copper bowl inscribed with scriptures is dragged into the centre of the courtyard. The bowl is filled to the brim with alcohol which is then blessed and distributed to the people attending the festival.
Following the dromche is the three-day annual Punakha Tshechu, also held in the courtyard of Punakha Dzong. Tshechus are the most popular festival in Bhutan. They are conducted on the 10th day of a month of the lunar calendar, which means every district celebrates their own tshechu on different dates. Punakha Tshechu, like all other tshechu is held in reverence of Guru Rinpoche, the tantric Buddhist Vajra master, and is one of the most popular tshechus in the country. It is attended by locals and foreign visitors, as well as people from across the country. The tshechu will feature various mask dances or ‘cham’ and traditional Bhutanese folk dances. People dress in their best festival attire and families bring picnic lunches to come and watch the festival. Tshechus are one of the most significant and visible manifestations of the Bhutanese culture, art and traditions.
Similarly, the annual Paro Tshechu is held at the beautiful Rinpung Dzong in Paro, the district where the country’s first and only international airport is located. The festival will feature various mask dances and traditional Bhutanese folk dances performed by both monks as well as locals. The main highlight of the festival is the unfurling of the immense embroidery of Guru Rinpoche (Guru Throngdrel) on the final day depicting the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche. The giant embroidery covers the entire three-story wall and many people queue up to view and get blessings from the throngdrel every year.
For adventure seeking travellers, Bhutan’s annual international marathon, organised by the Bhutan Olympic committee will be held on March 08 this year. The marathon will take participants through mostly rural places on hard pack dirt and pavements. The race will begin at 08:00 am in Gasa district at an elevation of 6,700m asl, descending into shallow lands towards Punakha and following the Mo Chu river with stunning views of monasteries, rice fields, villages and the khamsum Yulley Namgyal chorten. After crossing the 300-foot-long suspension bridge across the Pho Chhu river, the marathon will end at the picturesque Punakha Dzong. Both locals and foreigners participate in the marathon every year, making it one of the most thrilling adventure activities in the country.