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Popular religious festival or Tshechu in Bhutan - Wangduephodrang Tshechu

Wangduephodrang Tshechu - Popular Festivals in Bhutan

The annual Wangduephodrang Tshechu was introduced by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal after the completion of the Dzong. It is a three-day festival of mask and folk dances and founded by the 4th Temporal Ruler of Bhutan, Mr. Tenzing Rabgye (1638-1696), to commemorate the birth of Guru Padmasambhava. The Tshechu features dance by monks and laymen and concludes with the unfurling of the Guru Tshengye Thongdroel where people throng to receive blessings. The Tshechu is particularly famous for the Raksha Mangcham or the Dance of the Ox. Wangduephodrang festival is well attended by people from Punakha and Thimphu as well and provides an occasion for merrymaking and revelry.


On 24th June 2012, a tragic fire led to the loss of Wangduephodrang Dzong and its reconstruction is currently underway. Until Dzong construction is complete, Wangdue Tshechu is celebrated at Tencholing Army ground.

Following is the sequence of dances in Wangdue festival:

Day 1

Dance of the Lord of Death and his Consort (Shinje Yabyum)
Costume: Brocade long dress, buffalo masks
The Bodhisattva Manjusri (Jampelyang) represents the body of wisdom of all the Buddhas. When he takes the appearance of the terrifying Lord of Death, he becomes the Lord (Je) of the Death (Shin) and thus is called Shinje. Being the Lord of Death, he is also the ruler of the Three Worlds which he protects. His wrathful buffalo face guards the four continents and blesses them before the arrival on earth of the God of Wisdom.

The Dance of the Four Stag (Shacham)
Costume: knee-length skirts, dear masks
Long ago when Ugyen Rinpoche was in this world, he subdued the King of the Wind (also the Lord of the North/West direction) who created much unhappiness in this world through his great power, by making the sentient beings and word tremble. Ugyen Rinpoche rode the stag, which happened to be the mount of the God of the Wind, when he subdued the earth and he appeased all beings by establishing peace and happiness.

As a blessing, the first of the incarnation of Nam Nying (Namkhe Nyingpo) who was Guru’s disciple, found the effigy of the face of a stag and so the dance of the White stag came into being. During this dance, the gratitude of the pious people is demonstrated to all the beings destined to be converted in the future. After all the allegations of the world have been overcome, happiness and peace will reign supreme.

Dance of the 21 Black Hats (Shana)
Costume: Large black hat, felt boots, colourful brocade long dress, no mask

The Black Hat dancers assume the appearance of yogis who have the power of killing and recreating life. In order to lead to the field of Buddha beings who cannot be led by peaceful means, they subdue these enemies of the doctrine through their external compassionate anger but internally they have an accomplished peaceful mind. They have the appearance of Tantrics who are good to beings through terrifying but really accomplished acts such as killing and expelling bad spirits. By the wisdom of their knowledge, the five poisonous sins disappeared in the sphere of emptiness.

This dance can also be referred to as ‘Gar’ dance. It is derived from the different traditions of the Tantras (texts of Northern buddhism). They say that with the help of gods who have meditated deeply upon the mantras (sacred formulas), the ‘Gar’ which are the gestures of the dancers’ hands are transformed into mudras (sacred mystic gestures) and their feet which pound the earth are forming a mandala (mystic geometric figure).


The Black Hat Dancers who perform the ritual for the earth firstly build a tantric mandala and then cut the demons into pieces. Thus, they take possession of the earth in order to further protect it and they dance the thunderbolt step to impress their power on it (The thunderbolt step is a particular step in the religious dances).

Dance of the 21 Black Hats with Drums (Shana Nga Cham)
Then when the Black Hat dancers have destroyed the malevolent enemies who persecuted the beings and the Buddhists, they beat the great drums of Buddhism. The sound of the drums represents the religion itself which cannot be represented in any other way because it has no visible form.

Dance of the Three Kinds of Ging (with sticks, with swords, with drums) (Peling Ging Sum)
Costume: The Ging are wearing knee-length skirts. For the dance with the sticks, they are wearing animal masks. For the dance with the drums, and for the dance with the swords, they are wearing colourful terrifying masks

At Wangduephodrang, the demon Nyulema (vernacular: Yulim) wears a yellow mask and appears with atsaras before the dance. The origin of the happiness of all beings in the three worlds is the religion of Buddha. To propagate this religion in the world, one must listen to the teachings, then practice thinking and meditating in the places of meditation. Any kinds of demons, human or non-human, who are creating obstacles to the doctrine and who have no fast powers and bad thoughts are called Jyungpo Nyulema. There are many means by way of magical formulas to subdue these malevolent spirits. On this subject, the great ‘Treasure Discoverer’, Pema Lingpa, when he went to Zangtho Pelri, saw the dance of the Three Kinds of ‘Ging’ who emanations of Ugyen Rinpoche are. This was the blessing which explained how to subdue the demons Nyulema by magic. The deep teachings of these dances appeared to Pema Lingpa.

Thus, although all the demons Nyulema who are creating obstacles to the religion are fleeing anywhere in the Three Worlds, the Ging with sticks can find them, thanks to their knowledge. They catch them with the hook of compassion, beat them with the stick of wisdom and tie them with the noose of compassion.

The Ging with the Swords purify the atmosphere from such bad deeds as robbery, killing or the separation of one’s self from one’s tutelary (Yidam) which are caused by the Nyulemas. The Ging with the swords send their minds in the paradise of pure consciousness, while they use as sacrificial offerings their body of flesh and blood.

After these demons have been vanquished, the Ging with the drums, dance with happiness. They beat the drums of the religion which is thus propagated.

This dance is performed to bring good luck and wish happiness to all living beings. These dances are considered as blessings.

Kyecham (accompaniment dance)
Costume: knee-length yellow skirt, bare-feet, animal mask sword in the right hand
When King Norzang left for the north, the protectors of the religion, guardians of the doctrine and the assembly of the King’s tutelary deities becomes his armed companions, thanks to their various magical powers and they openly accompanied him to war.

This is the classical explanation of this dance from whence it takes its name. However, there is another explanation which is closely related to the popular explanation of Phole Mole, the following dance. Kyecham and Phole Mole are inter-related.

The son of an old man and a pretty girl got married. They seemed to be a compatible couple, but during a fight he cut off her nose. First their love was so great, that they could not be separated but then they got attracted by somebody else because mind and body are not constant. This is a universal law which says that there is no real substance in the worldly components. Many people behave like this and bring upon themselves suffering in this life and in one to come.

Dance of the nobleman and the Ladies (Phole Mole)
This dance demonstrates the passion associated with love, attachment, infighting and jealousy and aims at controlling negative emotions and develop faithfulness to each other. Primarily a dance to entertain, this performance is based on Indian myth, meant to portray the love and jealousy that exits between couples irrespective of their social status. This dance also shows that love can bring happiness but eventually it gives rise to jealously among couples, friends and neighbours. Once the mind is tainted with jealousy, one is unable to see good in others and it makes one blind, further deluding the senses.

Dance of the Stag and the Hounds (Shawa Shachi)
Once the 11th century master-yogi Milarepa was meditating in a cave when a stag bounded up to him, terrified as two hounds and merciless hunter chasing him. The destitute stag has sought shelter inside the same cave in an attempt t escape from his death. Moment later, when the hunter, named Gonpo Dorje and his hounds arrived at the cave in search of stag, Milarepa said to them in a song, ‘there is plenty of time for hunting and taking life of others but no one knows of one’s own death, who knows your death may happen before this poor animal is dead’. Milarepa thus seeking to teach the ignorant hunter about impermanence.

However, the hunter was extremely annoyed an angry with Milarepa and shot his arrow towards the stag anyway. Without warning, both the bow and arrow were suddenly broken, and in the presence of Milarepa, the dog became relaxed and calm. Eventually the hunter also surrendered to the wisdom of Milarepa and followed the master’s advise for the rest of life. Later people called him Khilarepa instead of Gonpo Dorje. Therefore, this dance drama is performed in hopes of cultivating compassion and love for animals, demonstrating that even the mind of cruel men such as hunter may be turned towards Dharma. This dance signifies the need to cultivate compassion and love for all sentient beings in order to have a successful rebirth and possible enlightenment.


Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds (Durdag)
The dancers wear white skelton masks, long-sleeved shirts, trousers and red fingernails which symbolize blood from the cemetery. This action reminds the viewers of the impermanence of life while dancers portraying as enlightened beings who help liberate departed consciousness. It is believed that the dance helps removing obstructions and enable living beings to come closer to enlightenment.

Dance of the Terrifying Deities (Tungam)
Costume: beautiful brocade dresses, boots and terrifying masks
This spectacular and dramatic dance symbolizes the liberation by death of those who cannot led to the path of the Buddha through peaceful means. The core of the dance depicts the sacrificial killing.

First, the dancers representing the gods circle the bad spirits and ensnare them in a box. Then the main God, who holds the phurba (the ritual dagger), kills them. He thus saves the world from them and at the same time delivers them into salvation. This is the only way by which the men and the asuras (half-gods) who become enemies of Buddhism, can be converted.

Hence, Ugyen Rinpoche, who is the emanation of all the Buddhas, took the form of Dorje Dragpa, ‘Fierce Thunderbolt’ to liberate such bad spirits and usher them into the superior sphere of bliss. This incredible feat brought happiness o the human world and helped increase faith in non-illusionary acts.


Dance of the Raksha from the monastery of Dole (Dole Raksha Cham)
Costume: The Raksha has a black mask with horns and a yellow skirt
The 4th temporal ruler of Bhutan, Tenzing Rabgye (1680-1695) wished to do good to his subjects of Shar, Wang and They, therefore, he ordered a bridge to be made on the Wangdue river by a mason named Dragpa from the village of Rinchengang. In 1685, this builder along with the people of Shar, Wang and They began the construction of the bridge but what the men built during daytime, the demons destroyed at night. As the bridge could not be completed, the men wondered what to do. The 2nd Je Khenpo, Seunam Oezer (1672-1689) who was at that time residing in Wangduephodrang Dzong, had a dream, one night a black man appeared and told him, ‘the bridge cannot be completed now because the demons are creating obstacles. To find a solution to this problem, a new dance which had never been shown here before has to be performed, you will invite everyone to see it. At the time demons will also come to see it and their attention will be turned away from the bridge. After you have established the middle pillar of the bridge in the water, you will immediately perform the consecration. In this way the demons will not be able to do any more harm. Then the Je Khenpo remembered that during the construction of Wangduephodrang Dzong there had been a prophecy given by Yeshy Gompo to the Shabdrung. The Je Khenpo realized that this was also a prophecy from Yeshy Gompo. Immediately, he sent messengers to fetch the dancers, masks and costumes from the monastery of Dole. When the dances were performed in the Dzong, many villagers came to see the festival and the water-deity of Wangdue bridge also came with his retinue of demons. As their attention was turned away from the river, the pillar of the bridge was built in the water and the consecration was at once performed by Je Khenpo. At that moment, in the Dzong, all the other dances were finished but the Raksha dancer as if he was agitated by the protectors of the religion (Chhokyong), did not enter the dancers’ dressing room, and went on performing alone number of dances such as Bja Cham, Teucham, Gyucham, Kansi, Gosi, until the work on the bridge was completed. Once the construction of the bridge was completed, he disappeared without a trace. By the time, the villagers dispersed, and demons went back to their places, the construction was over, the construction ceremony was finished, and the demons were powerless. That is how the order of the 4th temporal ruler, Tenzing Rabgye was carried out and the bridge with three points of support built by the mason Dragpa was completed.

For the happiness of the Bhutanese people and in order to prevent the earth and water deities from doing any mischief, one mandala (diagram) dedicated to the Buddha Mitrupa (Akshobya) was placed in the middle of the bridge.

Dance of the Rakshas and the Judgement of the Dead (Raksha Mangcham)
The dance has its origin in the Bardo Thodroel (Book of the Dead), a text hidden by Guru Padsambhava and discovered by Krma Lingpa in the 14th century. The soul after death must face judgement before the Lord of Death. The trial begins with weighing of sins and good deeds of the accused during his life on earth; the guilty is sent to hell and the innocent goes to heaven. Legal principles such as Habeas Corpus (brining the accused before a judge in person), the right of being represented by a legal counsel, prosecution, defense and evidence are some of the principles in the Bhutanese criminal laws and jurisprudence drawn from the Bardo Thodroel.

Dance of the Drums from Dramitse (Dramitse Nga Cham)
The Dramitse Ngacham (Dance of the Drums from Dramitse) is a sacred cultural and religious mask dance which has its origin in Dramitse, Mongar in Eastern Bhutan. The dance features 16 masked male dancers wearing colourful costumes and ten other men comprising the orchestra. The dance is accompanied by traditional instruments consisting of cymbals, trumpets and drums, including the Bang-nga, a large cylindrical drum, the Lag Nga, a small hand-held circular flat drum and the Nga Chen, a drum beaten with a bended drumstick. Today this cultural treasure of Bhutan is on UNESCO World Heritage list.

Shawa Shachhi - Lencham: Dance of the Stag and the Hounds (IInd part)
In the first part of this dance (Day 2) the saint Milarepa encounters the stag and the hunter and his dogs in hot pursuit. This part depicts the conversion of the hunter, Gonpo Dorji, to Buddhism.

When Gonpo Dorji arrives at the spot where Milarepa has his dogs and the stag seated peacefully on either side, he thinks the sage has cast a spell on the animals. Gonpo Dorji, who is fierce, strong and frightening in appearance, is enraged at the sight. Saying, ‘you protect the stag and the dog, let us see if you can protect yourself from this arrow’, he lets fly a poisonous arrow.

In the next instant, Gonpo Dorji’s bow shatters, the bow string snaps, and the arrow turns towards himself. Gonpo Dorji cannot believe what he sees until Milarepa tells him: ‘Gonpo Dorji, your arrow is returned, now listen to my song’.

As the song wafts through the forest, Gonpo Dorji is filled with deep remorse for his past actions and confesses his bad deeds. He promises never to sin again and becomes a practitioner of the religion. In time he attained full realism.


At dawn, the ‘Thongdroel’, the thangkha which brings liberation by sight is displayed till approximately 8 A.M. A religious ceremony called ‘Shugdel’ is performed by monk body. The Royal Troupe of Masks and Folk Dances performs also in front of the thangkha dance called ‘Religious Dance with Guitar’ (Dranyen Choeshey). Afterwards, the thangkha is rolled and folded and is kept out of sight until the next festival.

The ‘Thongdroel’ is a huge wall-hanging, a thangkha’ which brings liberation ‘Drol’ by seeing it.

The ‘Thongdroel’ of Wangduephodrang is beautifully made and represents the eight manifestation of Guru Rinpoche. It was completed and shown first time in 1984.

The display starts at dawn and the monk-body perform ‘Shugdel’, a blessing and offering ceremony which takes place when five elements are joined together : an accomplished place, i.e., Bhutan, an accomplished master, i.e., Guru Rinpoche, an accomplished retinue, i.e., the monk-body, an accomplished time, i.e., when religion flourishes, accomplished offerings, i.e., fruit, flower, tea, incense, food etc.

All the official and the public go next to the ‘Thongdroel’ and touch it with their head, thus receiving a blessing. Later a dance is performed in front of it by the Royal troupe in the 17th century costumes: the Dance with Guitar.

Dance with Guitar (Dranyen Cham)
Costume: elaborate and heavy woolen clothes (traditional felt boots, long black skirt, brown coat) sword and circular head-dress. They are holding a guitar called ‘Dranyen’
Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal who is the reincarnation of Ugyen Rinpoche and of Thuje Chenpo brought under his control, according to a prophecy of Ugyen Rinpoche, this large Southern Land of Four Approaches (an ancient name of Bhutan) and he blessed it. He protects his subjects like sons by the heavy golden yoke of civil law. As, if he was crushing them under his feet, he conquered many foreign enemies and he was victorious in all directions.

He built marvelous temples and palaces and made beautiful chortens, statues and religious books, supports of the faith. He imposed very strict rules upon the newly established monk-body which forms the base of the doctrine and also upon the tantric college which is the essence of doctrine. He supported like the Three Jewels the admirable community of the monks who practice together the moral training; to listen, to think, to explain, to understand and to meditate the basic texts which are contained in the Three baskets (the Buddhist Canon), essence of the Buddha’s doctrine.

The generous donors who give offerings to the Gods and gifts to the people believe in the result of their actions. Because of the power of their generosity, monks and laymen will be happy in this life and the life to come. This dance of the guitar is performed in a cheerful state of mind during the festival.


Dance of the Heroes (Pachem)
Costume: knee-length yellow skirt and golden crown. The dancers hold a small bell (drilbu) and a small drum (Damaru)
The great ‘Treasure-Discover’ Pema Lingpa arrived in the presence of Ugyen Rinpoche, at the summit of the Zangtho Pelri, in the middle of a marvelous palace of lotus beams which reflected the wisdom large and deep as the sky, without obstacles. There he saw Ugyen Rinpoche, the Lord who leads the beings of the three worlds, sitting among his assistants in the centre of a limitless mandala which was made of lines of rainbow beams. In the mandala, the assembly of the sages, of the tutelary deities, of the heroes (Pawos) and the heroines (Kandom Pamo) were dancing in the forms of various emanations of the peaceful and terrifying deities. All sorts of dances were performed and all sorts of harmonious melodies which are the sounds of the religion of the Great Path (Northern branch of Buddhism) were sung. Among this congregation, the assembly of the peaceful heroes and heroines is the most important. They are as numerous as the moving clouds in order to celebrate the deep and large religion and their function is to lead the believers who die into the presence of Ugyen Rinpoche.

Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds (Durdag)
Costume: white skull masks, short shirts and boots
There are eight large cremation grounds at the periphery of the symbolic mandala where the assembly of secret tantric deities reside. In these grounds, dwell numerous beings who are bound by oath to protect the religion (Chhokyong). Among them are the Lords of the Cremation Grounds. True to the oath they have taken, these lords subjugate demonic enemies who violate the doctrine. They offer their vanquished foes to the Gods of the Mandala who reduce them to a mere name.

Dance of the Ging and Tsholing
Costume: The Tsholing wear long colourful dresses and terrifying masks. The Ging wear orange skirts, terrifying black and orange masks with a flag on top and hold a big drum and a curved drumstick
On the occasion of the consecration of the Samye Monastery in Tibet, Guru Rinpoche initiated this dance to show the people of Tibet the Zangtho Pelri, his realm.

The dance depicts the paradise of Ugyen Rinpoche from where all the incarnations of Ugyen Rinpoche, essence of all the Buddhas, are sent to the Three Worlds. In the middle of a great palace is seated Ugyen Rinpoche. On his right the holy men from Tibet and India are seated in a row and on his left the learned men (Pandits) from Tibet and India. In all the intermediate zones are the 108 ‘Treasure Discoverers’ (terton) who are his incarnations, and also his twenty-five disciples, including the King of Tibet Trisongdetsen.

In the centre of a rainbow, the assembly of tutelary deities (Yidam), heroes (pawos) and fairies (Kandoms), peaceful and terrifying, as if by magic, sing, dance and spread from the clouds three kinds of offerings. It is these offerings that grant both the ordinary and extraordinary realization.

All the protectors of the religion, male and female, in their fierce form, are guarding the four outer doors while the four Guardian Kings of the directions command an army of eight classes of spirits. These subdue all the demons who create obstacles to the Doctrine of Buddha. All these wonders have been personally observed by the ‘Treasure Discoverer’ Pema Linga.

Besides, a long time ago in Tibet, in order to introduce Buddhism, King Trisongdetsen built a large monastery in Samye. Ugyen Rinpoche, by showing his magical powers through incarnations, subdued all the demons who were preventing its construction. Thus, he fulfilled a religious commitment to the King.

These incarnations are manifested in the Ging and Tsholing Dance: the inner dance called the Ging Dance is performed by the assembly of heroes (Pawos), tutelary deities (Yidams) and fairies (Hansoms) as well as the various terrifying deities. The outer dance called Tsholing Dance, is performed by the protectors of the religion with their retinue of eight classes of spirits. This dance, which brings blessings, is performed in order to remove all obstacles to the Doctrine as well as to bring happiness to all sentient beings. When the Ging and Tsholing performed this miraculous and agitated dance, they discourage the external demons and demonstrate clearly their magical powers by which they can overcome the demons.

This dance is clearly a dance of purification before the arrival of Guru Rinpoche. People whistle to chase away the bad spirits and Ging hit everyone on the head with their drumsticks to chase away impurity from the body.

The Tsholing, after having destroyed the evil spirits symbolized by an effigy in a black box, are chased away by the Ging who stay alone and perform a dance of victory by beating their drums.

Dance of the Eight Manifestation of Guru Rinpoche (Gguru Tshen Gye)
The eight different forms that Guru Rinpoche assumed in order to convert different kinds of beings into Buddhism are represented in this dance.

Ugyen Rinpoche is the second Buddha and the incarnations of Avalokiteshvara (Thugje Chenpo), Lord of Compassion. When he was born the son of a poultry farmer, he vowed to guide all beings of the world, particularly those of Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet. That was why he came to these regions. When Buddha was about to enter Nirvana, he prophesized to his disciples: ‘Don’t be sad, I will be coming from the West’. Thus, he reappeared as Ugyen Rinpoche.

When the 100,000 fairies of wisdom were begging the Buddhas of the 10 directions to send somebody to guide all being, this was discussed at length and then all the virtues of their body, speech and mind were summed up in Ugyen Rinpoche. He came in order to guide the beings who live in the age of impurity.


His activities are beyond description, However, here is how he helped the beings of this continent through his eight manifestations:

  • He was born from a blue lotus on the lake of Danakosha in Oddhyana and was invited to become the son of King Indrabhuti. Then he was called Guru Tshokye Dorji, ‘Diamond Thunderbolt’ born from a lake’.
  • He renounced his kingdom and went to receive teachings from the Master Prabhati in the Maratika cave in Nepal. Then he was called Guru Shakya Senge., ‘The Lion of the Shakya clan’.
  • After listening to all the teachings of the Vajrayana, ‘The Diamond Path’ and after mastering the sciences of all Indian Pandits, he obtained full realization and was able to see all the Gods and tutelary deities (yidam). The he was called Guru Loden Chogsey, ‘Guru’ who wants to acquire supreme knowledge.
  • After the marriage with the daughter of the King of Zahor, he was condemned to be burnt by the King. Through his magical powers, he turned the pyre into a lake and converted the kingdom to Buddhism. The he was called Guru Padmasambhava, the one ‘born from a lotus’.
  • When he returned to Oddhyana, the evil chiefs there wanted to burn him. But the fire would not consume his body. So, the chiefs offered him the Kingdom and its subjects. Then he was called Guru Pema Gyelpo, the ‘Lotus King’.
  • When he was preaching to the fairies (Khandoms) in the eight cremation grounds, he caught the ‘life force’ of the evil deities and turned them into protectors of the doctrine. Then he was called Nyma Yeoser, the ‘Sunbeam’.
  • As five hundred heretic Masters were trying to destroy the Doctrine of Buddha, he vanquished them all through the power of his words. He brought down the thunderbolt which burned them. He was then called Senge Dradrok, ‘the one who speaks with a lion voice’.
  • When he was at Senge Dzong in Kurtoe and at Taktsang in Paro, he was in the form of Dorje Dragpo, the ‘Terrifying Thunderbolt’. He subdued all the evil spirits who hindered Buddhism and blessed them as guardians of the Doctrine. He was then called Guru Dorji Drolo, the ‘thunderbolt’.

The fairy who is standing on the right of Guru Rinpoche is Mandarava, the lady of wisdom. Ugyen Rinpoche made her his own emanation for the benefit of the beings to be converted in the Kingdom of Zahor.

The fairy who is standing at his left is Yeshey Tshogyel. She represents the goddess of knowledge, mother of all the Buddhas. She helped to establish Buddhism in Tibet for the benefit of all beings.  .

(Photo credit: Wangduephodrang Dzongkhag Administration)

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