Introduction to Religious Festivals, Ceremonies & Rituals in Bhutan


Almost each village in Bhutan has its religious festival and the date varies slightly in the Western calendar as Bhutanese follow the lunar calendar. Religious festivals either dedicated to Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), or to local saints and deities, have different names. However they are characterized by prayers and songs, and in most cases by religious dances called cham.

Dancers, either monks or lay practitioners, wear spectacular costumes made of yellow silk or rich brocade, often decorated with ornaments of carved bones. For certain dances they wear masks which may represent animals, fearsome deities, skulls, manifestations of Guru Rinpoche or just plain human beings. The masks are so heavy that dancers protect themselves from injury by binding their heads in strips of cloth which support the mask. The dancers then see out through the opening of the mouth.

Dances can be grouped into three broad categories:

– didactic dances, which are dramas with a moral (the Dance of the Princes and Princesses, the Dance of the Stag and the Hunting Dogs, the Dance of the Judgement of the Dead);

– dances that purify and protect a place from harmful spirits (the Dance of the Masters of the Cremation Grounds, the Dance of the Stag, the Dance of the Fearsome deities, the Dance of the Black Hats, the Dance of the Ging and the Tsholing, the dances of the Ging with sticks and the Ging with swords);

– and dances that proclaim the victory of Buddhism and the glory of Guru Rinpoche (all dances with drums, the Dance of the Heroes, the Dance of Celestial Beings, the dance of the drummers from Drametse, the Dance of the Eight Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche).

In between religious dances, village men and women entertain the audience with folk songs and dances..

A fixed feature of these festivals are the atsara, the jokers, whose bawdy jokes, antics and blessing of women with a wooden phallus make the people roar with laughter. However the atsara are also social critics.

During certain of these festivals a large banner which “liberates by sight” (thongdroel) is displayed while others festivals may have a fire ceremony which purify the community.

Miscellaneous ceremonies and rituals:

Several smaller ceremonies and rituals are performed either by monks (gelong), lay practitioners (gomchen) or non-Buddhist specialists depending on their purpose.

They may be roughly classified into;

– Community ceremonies and rituals such as teachings and blessings by respected lamas, the changing and hosting annually of the village prayer-flags for the prosperity and well-being of the community, the consecration of buildings, community prayers and fasting, as well as worship of the local deities.

– Household ceremonies and rituals including offerings to the house altar-room, reading of sacred texts, changing and hosting annually the house prayer-flags, inviting important lamas to perform a special ritual, exorcisms on sick people and cattle, rituals for wishing for the recovery of sick patients, prosperity and well-being of the household, long life, or regaining fortune/chance as well as rituals for purification and death.

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