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24 August 2015 / leggypeggy

Dance, drama, music, fashion, religion—Bhutan’s Paro Festival

Rinpung Dzong in Paro

Rinpung Dzong, location of the Paro Fesitval

It pays to know something about the events calendar of any place you plan to visit. When we asked about an itinerary for Bhutan—you have to visit the country through one of their approved tour agencies—the first plan had us travelling east to west.

We didn’t really care which direction we travelled, but it also had us arriving in Paro about six days after their annual mega-important religious festival ended.

How about we go the other direction? I suggested.

A budding photographer, Paro Fesitval

Et voila! We entered Bhutan from the west and ended up in Paro for the last two days of this incredible festival that honours Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, the saint who brought Buddhism to Bhutan.

So what made the Paro Festival so special for us?

For starters, I managed to hike up the bloody great hill to the top level of the Rinpung Dzong (fortress) where the main festival activities were playing out. You’d think it would have prepared me for the next day’s long haul up to Tiger’s Nest Monastery. It didn’t, but I digress.

Thousands attend the Paro Festival

Thousands attend the Paro Festival

Once I made it to the top of the fortress, also known as a dzong (as usual Poor John was miles ahead of me), I was gobsmacked by the fashion, performances and sheer number of people. Literally thousands of people attend each year.

So I’ll start with the fashion.

Paro Festival fashion

Bhutan has a colourful and distinctive national dress that goes right down to footwear for the men. With the exception of the elaborate costumes we saw in Papua New Guinea, I have never seen such fabulous clothing on both men and women. And virtually no skin exposed—have a look at a Papua New Guinea post to compare!

Bhutan’s national dress is governed by a dress code, which has been imposed in modern times. Citizens must wear it as they go about their business in public during the day and for all special occasions. When the code was originally imposed, some people—mostly tribal residents and Tibetans living in Bhutan—were so opposed to this ruling that they left the country.

I always felt a little sorry for Tek, our guide for most of our 15 days in Bhutan, when he had to wear this get-up. day in and day out. as we travelled. It’s stylish, but not all that warm when the weather is cold.

Men wear a gho at Paro Festival

Men wear a gho

The men wear a gho, a knee-length robe that is tied at the waist by a belt known as a kera. The traditional boot, called a tshoglham, is usually made of silk and does not seem to be compulsory. That said, I reckon the robe is knee-length so they can show off their boots.

Women wear a kira, an ankle-length dress that clips at the shoulders, and a flashy, lightweight jacket known as a tego.

Both sexes add a special scarf when visiting dzongs and other administrative centres. Men’s scarves vary in colour depending on their status or rank—the king wears yellow, I know this because I saw the king at the festival—while women can wear any colour.

King of Bhutan in yellow scraf

The king leads the way, draped in his yellow scarf

I was completely stunned when Tek said that some ceremonial outfits cost as much as $2000, especially if they include silk and gold threads. That’s some serious money in an economy that’s not oozing wealth.

Luckily many people can weave their own clothes to keep costs down (stay tuned for a post about a fabulous hand-woven kira that I bought).

Of course, we arrived in our very best camping clothes—it was all we had. A few foreigners outdid themselves with full traditional dress. And were rewarded for their efforts. On his way out of the festival, the king stopped for a lengthy chat with a foreign woman who was wearing traditional Bhutanese dress.. We were directly opposite her at the time, but our camping clothes didn’t muster a comment from him.

But festival attendees weren’t the only one who were all dolled up.

The drama performers—monks and professional actors—know all the right moves and wear wonderfully elaborate and colourful costumes and masks.

Their dances act out stories and incidents from many decades ago. Some honour the life of Padmasambhava, remember he’s the man who founded Buddhism in Bhutan.

We missed the first two days of dances. Not sure that’s a big loss because we made it to the last two. Based on the descriptions, I think the dances of all days are rather similar, so I hope it’s totally okay to miss one or two days of them.

thangka or thongdroel at Paro Fesitval

But we were there to see the thangka or thongdroel draped on the side of a building. It’s a sacred, religious picture scroll, or tapestry, that is exhibited for a few hours on the last day of the festival. It covers the entire facade of a building and is considered one of the most sacred blessings in the whole of Bhutan. We didn’t get up early enough (3:30am) to see the moment it was unfurled, but we were there before it was rolled away later in the morning.

More about the religious festivals (or tshechus)
Bhutan’s religious festivals (also called tshechus) take place all over the country, but the four-day events in Paro and Thimphu (the national capital) are considered the best.

Tshechu, which means ‘10th day’, celebrates the 10th day of a month of a lunar calendar. In Bhutan, the month observed varies from place to place and temple to temple.

It is believed that everyone must attend a tshechu and witness the mask dances at least once in their lifetime in order to receive blessings and wash away their sins.

festival dancers Paro

There are almost 20 different mask dances. Each dance has a special story behind it, and many are based on stories and incidents from as long ago as the 8th century and during the life of Padmasambhava.

The dances are creatively named with titles such as Dance of the Terrifying Deities, Dance of the Four Stags, Dance of the 21 Black Hats, Dance of the Eight Manifestations ofPadmasambhava and Dance of the Heroes.

I have to admit that I couldn’t figure out the meaning of the dances we saw, but I loved the colour, movement and energy. It seems that there are at least four dances per day, and these are televised live during the festival.

And if your head is spinning after all this whirling around, drop by my cooking blog for some cookies and milk.

dancing at Paro Festival

dancing at Paro Festival 2

39 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. neha(guddu) / Aug 24 2015 4:32 pm

    wow……..colorful……beautiful…..

    Like

  2. Jamie Dedes / Aug 24 2015 4:39 pm

    Wonderful!

    Like

  3. suchled / Aug 24 2015 5:47 pm

    Very beautiful and quite spectacular.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Aug 24 2015 6:13 pm

      And a lot of fun to be in the midst of it all.

      Like

  4. Sy S / Aug 24 2015 6:39 pm

    Nice photos of the Paro Festival, interesting to read about it… colorful like you said and beautiful outfits the people wear… but $2,000, the cost of an outfit for a few people is a tad too much.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Aug 24 2015 7:39 pm

      I was stunned to hear the amount some spent on their wardrobe.

      Like

  5. jeanettev2014 / Aug 24 2015 7:54 pm

    Lovely Peggy! Thank you for sharing. You made me laugh about making it up the hill. Look forward to seeing the dress you purchased. $2,000 dollars for an outfit is a lot.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Aug 24 2015 8:25 pm

      Thanks Jeanette. My purchase isn’t exactly a dress. It’s an elaborate piece of fabric. I’ll try to post about it soon.

      Like

  6. anna / Aug 24 2015 8:21 pm

    Thats some beautiful colours right there! How amazing to witness this! Thanks for sharing.

    Like

  7. afterthelasttime / Aug 25 2015 3:18 am

    How wonderful, Peggy! These are. Awesome photos and of course a terrific narrative from you.
    I’m insanely jealous as Bhutan is on my bucket list as they say.
    Thank you so much!

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Aug 25 2015 6:50 am

      You are most welcome. We felt lucky to be there.

      Like

  8. JunkChuck / Aug 25 2015 11:09 am

    And this is one of the many things about living out portions of my life in the blog ether–I travel the world from my desk, with you and so many others as guides. I LOVE your blog–thanks so much for sharing your travels with us.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Aug 25 2015 12:07 pm

      Wow, thanks for the compliment. Most appreciated.

      Like

  9. Michael / Aug 25 2015 11:22 am

    These are amazing!

    Like

  10. Michael / Aug 25 2015 11:28 am

    Reblogged this on Michael's Origins and commented:
    These are the most amazing Photos, location of the Paro Fesitval

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Aug 25 2015 12:05 pm

      Most appreciated.

      Like

      • Michael / Aug 25 2015 12:07 pm

        You are very welcome, that post was too good not to reblog and share.

        Like

      • leggypeggy / Aug 25 2015 12:11 pm

        You’ve put a big smile on my face.

        Like

  11. Jane / Aug 25 2015 12:37 pm

    Wow! Amazing clothing! I look forward to seeing pics of your new hand-woven kira. Well done on hiking up the “bloody great hill” too. Great pics of something quite unique. 🙂

    Like

  12. tailorsmeasure / Aug 25 2015 4:13 pm

    So cheery and bright. Bit different to our usual dreary office blacks (although I must admit I do love black too).

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Aug 25 2015 11:34 pm

      I wear a lot of black too. Merino camping tops are mostly black and anything I spill on myself doesn’t show—except toothpaste! 🙂

      Like

  13. Vicki / Aug 25 2015 4:25 pm

    What stunning national dress (and I wear black nearly every day, basically, because I am in mourning for my old self 😀 ).

    I must say you’ve made some excellent photos depicting both the dress and dancers. Thanks for sharing, Peggy.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Aug 25 2015 11:34 pm

      Thanks so much Vicki. The dancers were hard to catch in focus, even with a fast shutter speed.

      Like

  14. luckyjc007 / Aug 25 2015 8:19 pm

    This makes you really appreciate color! They are beautiful! Just think what a dull world it would be if everything was in black and white.color makes me happy. These people look very happy!

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Aug 25 2015 11:32 pm

      They say Bhutan measure the Gross National Happiness.

      Like

  15. dougstuber / Aug 26 2015 3:38 am

    Isn’t Asia full of color and exciting rituals? American football pales by comparison.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Aug 26 2015 7:59 pm

      Asia outdoes itself on these gigs. As for American football, you should see a game of Australian Rules Football—no padding, short shorts and sleeveless t-shirts. They say a player can run up to 25 kilometres in a game.

      Like

  16. Ralph / Aug 26 2015 8:04 am

    That is so cool. We have to go there. My family lived quite a few years in China but never quite made it this far into Asia, a big mistake. Great photography.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Aug 26 2015 7:40 pm

      Thanks Ralph. Bhutan is definitely worth a visit.

      Like

  17. Good Food Everyday / Aug 27 2015 4:02 pm

    amazing amazing photography !

    Like

  18. The Sock Mistress / Aug 28 2015 10:28 am

    What a fabulous experience and your photos are amazing. I love the colours of the outfits. Beautiful.

    Like

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