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Bhutan Travel Guide

Bhutan Culture Unmasked—One Dance After the Other

Dive deep into the colorful and vibrant traditions of Bhutan, the tiny Buddhist kingdom on the edge of the Himalayas.

Tucked away between China and India, the “Land of the Thunder Dragon” only opened up to influences from the outside in the late ’90s. Travelers benefit from Bhutan fiercely protecting its culture and ancient traditions and can observe the religious dance festivals called Tshechus.

Since the 17th-century, these celebrations are held every year on the grounds of a monastery throughout the country. Don’t miss this cultural spectacle and start planning your trip to Bhutan now. The next Paro Tshechu Festival is going to take place from April 4-8, 2020. It always begins on the tenth day of the second Bhutanese lunar month.

INSIDER TIPGet very early to the monastery and you will see the locals arriving and it helps to get a good position for taking photographs. Once the main crowd has arrived and the people sat down, it is very hard to move around.


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With Love and Compassion

For five days the Buddhist monks wear colorful costumes and masks and perform the 1,300-year-old mystical chams, which is Tibetan for “a dance”. The monks meditate for days before the performances, gearing up to transform evil into a blessing for the world through dancing.

Listening to the rhythm of the drums and following the dancers every step mesmerizes the audience and makes a powerful karmic imprint in your mind.

INSIDER TIPMake sure to bring an extra battery for your camera and have your phone charged. The festivals are heaven for photographers and there are plenty of Instagram-worthy places.


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Hiding Behind the Symbolism of Masks

Often the performers wear masks made of hardwood and painted mostly red with yellow, blue, white and black. Check out the slightly terrifying Mahakala mask. It features five skulls, a “third eye” on the forehead, a large, open mouth with teeth carved out, as well as a beard.

The Mahakala mask shows an enraged deity who protectively wards off negative influences. The third eye symbolizes awareness and wisdom. The five skulls stand for the conversion of suffering into knowledge. The masked dancers mostly look through the nostrils of the large, upwardly curving nose.

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Conveying Powerful Stories Through Dance

The dances are grouped into three main categories. There are the dramatic dances that promote morale, dances that cleanse and shield sites from harmful spirits, and dances that celebrate Buddhist victories. The dancers take on the roles of both enraged and kindhearted deities, heroes, demons, and animals. Their movements tell stories about history and fantasy.

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The Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds

The Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds is performed by four dancers wearing skull masks. The white costume symbolizes the purity and detachment to physical forms and appearances. Shaking their hands in the air and stamping their feet on the ground, the dancers send for the dead spirits. The dancers perform back-bends and touch the ground behind them with the tip of their masks to call upon the earth-deity to witness their power.

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Good Luck Cha(r)m

Bhutanese people see dance as an amplification of their religious and social lives. In their eyes, the motion echoes deep devotion, tolerance, and harmony. People believe that by watching these dances, they can purify their souls and bring themselves good luck. It would seem to have an effect, as Bhutan is renowned as one of the happiest countries in the world.

INSIDER TIPShould you ever consider to join one of these masked dances, wrap your head with cloth strips to ease the weight of the mask.


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Black Hat Dance

The Black Hat dance or Zhanag is one of the most famous sacred cham dances without a mask. It chronicles the tale of the assassination of King Langdarma in the year 842 AD by a monk who hid his bow and arrows in the voluminous sleeves of his garment. The dancers are dressed in long silk robes which are tied around the hip and whirl elegantly when the performers present spinning moves. The gowns are made of different colors of silk brocade and covered by a dark apron with a wrathful face on it.

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Drumming Away

Music gives rhythm to the dances, and it brings out the singing. Cymbals lead the orchestral composition. The sound of the long trumpets announces the end of a dance and the Nga drum is the most important percussion instrument. It is barrel-shaped with a hollowed shell made up of a solid block of wood. The drum stick is a curved piece of cane.

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