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Festivals in Bhutan - Ura Yakchoe Festival
Located at an altitude of 3200m in breathtakingly wonderful province called Bumthang and surrounded by forests of spruce, pine, larch, fir, juniper, bamboo, rhododendron, the fascinating and one of the largest clustered village of Ura in central Bhutan exudes charm through its traditional farm houses, Buddhist temples, stupas and fluttering prayer flags.
Ura is named after Guru Padmasambhava, from the land of Ugyen (Oddiyana) who is credited to have brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century. He is said to have first passed through this village on his way to the court of Sindhuraja in Chagkhar. Since then, the village use to be called Urbay, the hidden land of Ugyen and people in neighbouring valleys still call Ura by its ancient name. It is however the second coming of Guru Padmasambhava that the village remembers and celebrates through Yakchoe, the grand annual festival of Ura.
As per local legends, Ura community once prayed to Guru Padmasambhava to cure them of an epidemic leprosy. Guru responded to their call by appearing in form of mendicant at the house of an old lady, who was busily spinning wool on her terrace. The lady invited the mendicant to lunch, but he mysteriously disappeared when she had finished making buckwheat pancakes. Thoroughly perplexed, she sat down to spin her wool only to discover to her astonishment a statue of the Buddhist deity Vajrapani sitting in her wool container.
There are two versions of the story about how the statue subsequently reached the house of the Gadan Lam, a descendant of Tibetan Saint Phajo Drugom Zhigpo. Some say it flew there after three nights in the old lady’s house while according to others, the statue was presented to the Gadan Lam through a village consensus.
When the statue of Vajrapani reached Gadan, a nine-headed snake rose out of the place that is now known as ‘the nine-headed snake’ (puguyungdhogo) and slithered out of the valley. Leprosy, the disease spread by the serpents, was eventually overcome by the blessing of Vajrapani, the subjugator of the subterranean world. The Yakchoe is a commemoration of this important event and an offering in gratitude.
Fascinating as it may be, this account of the festival’s origin does not explain the name Yakchoe. It may well be the case that the festival has an animistic Bon origin before it was turned into a Buddhist ceremony. Even today, an archaic ritual using the Bonpo liturgical text for fumigation is performed on the third day of the festival by one of the priest dressed as a Bonpo.
Today, the Yakchoe has become an elaborate affair. It formally begins on the 12th of the third Bhutanese month with a procession from Gadan to Ura. The Vajrapani relic and the Gadan Lam are received by Ura’s priests in a long procession which trails through open fields and meadows, over streams and brooks and past chortens and mani walls, all of which provide a magnificent backdrop to the event.
Having arrived in Ura, the gomchens perform their dance tests and a religious ceremony dedicated to Vajrapani, which begins with the ritual of exorcism. This religious ritual continues for several days in early mornings and late evenings, while several masked, religious dances alternated by folk dances occupy most of the daytime. The festival ends on the fifth day with the distribution of blessings accumulated by the religious ceremony and the tour of the relic through the village before it is brought back to the old lady’s house.