Behind the scenes at the Tsechu

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child monk with ritual mask

This weekend, we got a chance to look behind the scenes of a Tsechu.

This three-day religious festival includes masked dances performed by Buddhist monks.

It’s held once a year in each disctrict or dzongkhag in Bhutan.

For the Bhutanese, the Tsechu is the highlight of the year. Some of them walk for days from their remote Himalayan villages to be part of it.

A deeply religious festival for the Bhutanese

Not many Westerners have a chance to witness these spiritual gatherings. So we were very lucky to be able to attend the Tsechu in Punakha this weekend.

Punakha dzongPunakha is home to one of the most important and most beautiful dzongs in Bhutan.

The dzong is where the religious ceremonies of the Tsechu take place.

It’s the fortress-like religious and administrative center of each district.

The Punakha dzong is made up of many different buildings, courtyards, stairways and walkways.

Inside Punakha dzongWhile the religious dances were taking place in the main courtyard, I sometimes took the chance to stroll around.

I was practically the only tourist in these parts of the dzong.

Most of the other people there were Buddhist monks or Bhutanese visitors to the Tsechu.

On my strolls around the compound, I came across the halls where the monks were getting dressed for their religious dances.

Here, they put on their colorful costumes and elaborate headdresses.

Monks in costume for the Tsechu

monks waiting behind a curtain for the next spiritual danceThen the monks made their way to the edge of the main courtyard, where their ritual dance was due to begin.

They waited behind an orange curtain for other monks to give them the sign to go out onto the courtyard.

Meanwhile, on a balcony above, other monks had picked up their instruments to start the musical fanfare.

Monks playing traditional Bhutanese instrumentsThe inside perspective

Seeing them get ready and play their instruments was something that normal tourists weren’t able to witness from this perspective.

We were lucky that we’d gotten VIP passes allowing us on to the balconies surrounding the courtyard.

Our Buthanese hosts had been kind enough to organise these passes for us.

They could not have guessed how special they made us feel and how fascinating they made this Tsechu for us.

next to the reincarnation in the dining hall of Punakha dzongFor lunch, our VIP status got us entry into the dining hall reserved for monks, celebrities and the higher clergy. Here, we were treated to wonderful Bhutanese food.

One day, the 69th reincarnation of one of Bhutan’s past senior religious figures, Je Khenpo Gyedun Rinchen, sat next to us during lunch.

He’s about five years old and it was interesting to see how the senior monks who surrounded him treated him with the highest respect. There was hardly anything childlike about him. And even we could tell that he had a very special aura.

monk returning from ritual danceAfter lunch, it was back to the hallways and the courtyards, where some monks were just coming back from their masked dance.

This one is holding his heavy wooden mask as he walks back to the hall where he will change out of his brocade costume.

He is wearing a protective cap because his carved wooden mask is not padded.

The mask would otherwise bruise his face and the strings that are used to fasten the mask to his head would cut into his flesh.

child monk putting on ritual maskI feel very fortunate that I was able to be a part of this deeply spiritual ceremony.

And being allowed to look behind the scenes, to see the monks with and without their ceremonial masks, was an unforgettable experience.

Written by Thorsten

March 10, 2009 at 6:05 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Sounds like you guys had the chance to witness a very special ceremony. Beautiful photos!

    Greetings from Kampala!


    March 10, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    • Yes. It was unforgettable. Watch out for yourself. Want to see you make it back home safely.


      March 10, 2009 at 6:28 pm

  2. What a great insight you’ve got. And obviously you were allowed to take photos there. Thanks for showing us.


    March 12, 2009 at 6:34 pm

  3. […] Witnessing a tsechu in Bhutan is one of the most memorable things I have ever experienced. A tsechu is a sacred Buddhist festival that lasts four days. It’s the high-point of the year for the Bhutanese people. They come from near and far and meet at their local Dzong or monastery. […]

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