Myth, belief and festivals are some of Bhutan’s most defining characteristics. Excitingly, they all find common expression in the country’s huge and extraordinary religious occasions, powerful celebratory times of elaborate costumes and social get-togethers that combine prayer and fun.
Tshechu: A Local Celebration, Region by Region
Of all the traditional festivals in Bhutan, Tshechu is the biggest, a vivid manifestation of rich and colourful Bhutanese culture. During Tshechu, the Bhutanese celebrate the triumph of good over evil and honour Bhutan’s patron saint, Guru Padmasambhava, the 8th-century sage credited with introducing Vajrayana Buddhism to the country. It is a time for the community to come together for two to five days of religious rite and cultural display. Locals dress in their most expensive attire and ornaments and then observe the holiday through a mix of fun, feasting, socialising, prayer and reverence.
While the core reasons for celebrating Tshechu are identical throughout Bhutan, over the years each dzongkhag or district festival has evolved, many adopting signature characteristics and incorporating diverse regional influences and traditions. Not wanting to miss out on other regions’ celebrations, the Bhutanese often prolong the party by travelling to the Tshechu in other areas. The most popular regional events are the Tshechu in Paro and the Tshechu in Thimphu, where the biggest thongdrel (tapestry) of Guru Padmasambhava is showcased to the crowds. These Tshechus are known to draw thousands of people, including tourists and locals, and pave the way for cross-socialization among Bhutan’s various regions.
The Cave of the Gomphu Kora
Located in eastern Bhutan, the temple of Gomphu Kora is approximately 24 kilometres from Trashigang Town and is one of the most revered monasteries in Bhutan. The temple is a tribute to a sacred cave found on the site and formed out of the rock face: gomphu means ‘meditation cave’ while kora translates to ‘circumambulation‘ – the act of walking around a sacred object.
The history of Gomphu Kora dates back to 8th century and is imbued with myth and mystery. Legend has it that an evil spirit called Myongkhapa escaped from Tibet when Guru Padmasambhava was preaching about Buddhism in the Himalayas. Myongkhapa followed the course of the current-day Kholongchhu stream and buried himself inside a rock where Gomphu Kora stands today. The Guru followed the spirit and meditated for three days inside the rock cave until finally defeating it. From then on the cave became a sacred destination.
Over the years, the monastery has become an important pilgrim site and numerous great scholars and religious personalities have travelled to see Gomphu Kora. The monastery is so famous for the circumambulation that occurs here that there’s a familiar folk song saying “Go around Gomphu Kora today for tomorrow may be too late.”
Guru Padmasambhava is believed to have said that devotees will flock to Gomphu Kora throughout ages to celebrate the triumph of good over evil. The annual Gomphu Kora festival is held between the 13th and 15th of March, when the entire eastern part of Bhutan comes alive. Locals don their finest clothing and head out to celebrate a glorious and mythical past through prayer and jubilant festivity. The three-day event draws people from many corners of Bhutan, and even from Arunachal Pradesh in India.
Circumambulation at Chorten Kora
The Chorten Kora festival is another widely popular and animated festival that involves circumambulation.
The Chorten Kora festival draws one of the biggest congregations in eastern Bhutan all year. It brings out colourful aspects of Bhutanese culture such as mask dances, the rich textiles and brocades worn by the locals and the triumphant atmosphere of the festival itself.
Located in Trashiyangtse, the easternmost part of Bhutan, the Chorten Kora is one of the oldest monasteries in Bhutan, built in 1740 by Lama Ngawang Loday in honour of his uncle Jungshu Pesan. It so closely resembles the Boudhanath Stupa near Kathmandu, Nepal, that many say it is a replica. History has it that Chorten Kora was also constructed to subdue the demon that lived where it stands today, while village lore tells of a young girl from Tawang believed to have been a dakini – or tantric female deity – buried alive inside.
At Chorten Kora, two important annual rituals are Dakpa Kora, ordered every year on February 28 and witnessed by thousands of people from Bhutan and neighbouring areas in India; and Drukpa Kora, the circumambulation of the chorten, on March 15, in keeping with Gomphu Kora.