Attending festivals in Bhutan might just be the most stirring cultural event you will see. See the mask dance of Bhutan, full of color, outrageous masks and costumes and evocative music.
Watching these spellbinding mask festivals is an experience you will never forget. Furthermore, for us, it was the highlight of our trip to Bhutan. To be honest, I cannot think of a cultural event that compares to the opportunity of attending a festival and seeing the famous mask dances of Bhutan.
It’s not just the festival but also the venue making the experience so unique. The Kingdom of Bhutan holds many festivals inside their mighty and majestic dzongs. They are inspiring venues and of all the places to see in Bhutan, I can’t think of a better place to watch a festival than the Punakha Dzong, one of our favorites from our travels.
There is a lot of mysticism around the mask dances of Bhutan and the mask festival. So, what is it? First of all, it’s a lot more than a mask festival. It is the social event of the year for the Bhutanese. People go to extraordinary lengths and expense to dress and attend the festivals.
As a result, festivals in Bhutan are a stunning extravaganza of music, dance, costumes, social interaction and for the visitor an opportunity for people watching. It is simply amazing and therefore something that if possible you should time your travels to attend a festival.
Dzongs: Now and Then
Part of the magic of attending a mask festival in Bhutan is the location of the festival itself. Each region has its own set of festivals held in a variety of monasteries, temples and dzongs and they are spectacular.
So, no indoor theaters here! These magnificent spectacles are held in the open. As a result, you need to pinch yourself when sitting here in these magnificent structures. Some of the monasteries and temples are more than 1000 years old and the mighty dzongs are up to 400 years old. We attended the Punakha Drubchen Festival at the most famous of all Bhutanese dzongs, the Punakha Dzong. But what is a dzong?
Dzongs as Defensive Forts
Dzongs are surely the architectural highlight of Bhutan and they feature heavily in any Bhutan visit. The Bhutanese originally constructed dzongs as defensive forts against invading forces from Tibet. And they worked because marauding forces were unable to invade Bhutan. One of only a few Asian countries that can make this claim.
The design of a dzong contains many defensive features:
- a cantilever bridge across a stream or river;
- a narrow L-Shaped entry-way therefore making seizure almost impossible;
- a multi-storey building made primarily of stone;
- steep and narrow stairways into the heart of the dzong;
- narrow windows providing defending archers total protection from invaders; and
- at the top of the structure is an open area between the roof and the building proper for hundreds of archers to defend the dzong.
Interestingly the last defensive feature is also a feature of most Bhutanese housing.
The Use of Dzongs Now
Luckily for us, the Kingdom of Bhutan decommissioned the dzongs as defensive forts. Now, municipalities and monks use these mini cities for ceremonies, meditation, administration and living quarters. These impressive buildings are also are great places to see in Bhutan. They therefore feature heavily in any travel to Bhutan.
Some of the best dzongs are at Paro, Trongsa and Punakha. The Punakha Dzong was built in 1637 and is magnificently situated at the confluence of the Pho and Mo Chus (father and mother rivers). With a spectacular mountain backdrop, this huge fortress was the capital of Bhutan until 1966.
The Kingdom of Bhutan still uses Panakha Dzong for coronations of new Kings. And it holds an annual Bhutanese mask festival here.
Festivals in Bhutan
The Social Highlight of the Year for the Bhutanese
Now that we have set the scene, let’s talk about the social significance of festivals in Bhutan. It seems the whole population of Bhutan will attend at least one of these mask festivals and watch the famous dances of Bhutan.
Everyone, without exception, dresses in magnificent, traditional clothes, from grandparents right down to young children. The clothes are expensive and the Bhutanese may only wear them once a year to attend the local festival.
For the ladies, it is a chance to apply makeup and for some these are the only days of the year that occurs. For young men and women, it is an opportunity to meet your man or woman and hopefully form a lifelong partnership! Consequently there are many young people attending festivals in Bhutan and many find a husband or wife here.
So, watching the crowd was a lot of fun and almost as good as the dancing, masks and music.
What is the Mask Dance of Bhutan?
And the festival itself? Dancers, actors and musicians take the festival very seriously and put on a great show. It is clearly an honor to take part in the festival. So, the actors and dancers wear their hearts on their sleeves as they put all their energy into it. And is there a specific mask dance of Bhutan?
Not really. There is a series of dances, which form a program for each festival. Each dance tells a story or myth relevant to Bhutanese culture. At the end of the festival, attendees form a line to receive a blessing, a most amazing sight.
Attending a mask festival is surely the highlight of tourism in Bhutan, certainly from the cultural aspect. It is the best cultural event I have ever experienced and it is something I will never forget. We attended parts of all 3 days at the inspiring Punakha festival after only intending to spend 1 day there. It was so good we just had to return!
And the highlight? The young boy in the crowd who just couldn’t contain himself and rushed onto the stage area and performed his own solo dance effort in the middle of a dance from the performers.
Masks, Costumes, Music and Dances Display the Culture of Bhutan
The masks are a work of art and most dancers wear them. Ancient, religious and mystical beliefs are important in the culture of Bhutan. So, the masks, dances, music and costumes all reflect these beliefs. These famous dances in Bhutan relive some of the ancient stories (we might call them myths). So, watching the dances is just spellbinding.
And then there are the costumes. The Kingdom of Bhutan does a brilliant job at maintaining its culture. There are craft schools that continue to teach students in the old ways. As a result, these magnificently colorful costumes on display in the festivals of Bhutan, will never disappear. And that is a very heart warming thought.
The music is evocative. There are instruments on display I have never heard before and they are perfectly matched to the dances. At times, the music is thunderous and dramatic. So, the music is just as important as the other aspects of the festival.
And the dances? Most of the dances are dramatic and high energy. Some dances have a duration of 45 minutes or so. So, the stamina of the performers is impressive. But it is not all fast action. In addition, the program includes some quiet interludes where there is pleasant music and what we might describe as line dancing.
Want to see and hear why I think Bhutan mask festivals are such a highlight? Just watch this 90 second video:
The Season for Festivals in Bhutan
Be aware the festivals can be crowded and you sit on the concrete ground. So, it can lead to some slight discomfort. But the sheer majesty of the event outweighs this minor irritation. I didn’t see any unhappy faces be they locals or tourists.
There is a festival season which runs in Bhutan from February through to early July, (but there are some outside this time period as well). Festivals run between 1 and 3 days depending on the size of the venue and the importance of the festival. And a few are longer. In 2017 there are 57 festivals scheduled. In summary you have some options. Here is a calendar of the festivals in Bhutan for 2017.
In conclusion, festivals in Bhutan are an absolute highlight. So, do yourself a favor and try and time your visit allowing you to attend one. If you do want to see a festival plan well in advance, as accommodation supply is limited. You will love it!
Tashi Delek (Bhutanese for good luck or cheers. There are no words for goodbye)
We traveled as guests of Yangphel Adventure Travel. As always, all opinions are our own.