a Bhutan blog by Kara Fox


Death and Life

Monks acting as aids to the Lord of Death sway during the 'the Judgment of the Dead' dance at the annual Paro Tsechu in Bhutan. Commonly referred to as the Bardo, the dance depicts scenes and ideas from the Buddhist book of the dead. Bhutanese buddhists believe after death, humans are set to wander in an intermediary state known as bardo. Once they have crossed the bardic purgatory, they must face judgment by the Lord of Death. The Bardo dance serves as a physical representation of the fate of those who have sinned and those who have been virtuous and is one of the most well attended events at Paro's annual Tsechu.



Thousands queue up on Throngdrel, one of the final rituals of Paro Tsechu. Throngdrel, revered as the single most important event of the Bhutanese calendar, draws thousands of Bhutanese buddhists to the festival grounds on the last day of Paro Tsechu each year. Attendees stand in line in anticipation of receiving a blessing near the base of this 350-year old, four-story tapestry, as early as 3am. Bhutanese believe that by just looking at the ornately decorated textile, they will be cleansed of all sins. Above, a community police keeps the order while holding a bunch of incense. 
While people wait in line for their turn to get blessed near the throngdrel, others sit to watch a ritual of horn-blowing, drum-beating, dzongka-chanting dancing.
Above, Sonam and Angay pose for a snapshot in front of the throngdrel. The direct rays of the sun are not allowed to shine on the tapestry; therefore by early morning the religious textile will be rolled back up and taken away from the grounds until the following year.  

Everyone enjoys being seen in their finest costume as the sun rises over the Paro valley.

A woman burns offerings while a monk chats on his mobile phone.
As the early risers depart, the next batch of festival goers walk up to the festival grounds above Rinpung Dzong.


Tsechu, Part Two

During Paro Tsechu, monks play the role of masked dancers and life-like figurines. When they are not depicting ancient Bhutanese folktales and religious scripts, they can be seen enjoying the festival with their family and friends.

The first day of Paro Tsechu is held in the Rinpung Dzong. All subsquent days of festivities are enjoyed on the grounds above the dzong, just under Paro's National Museum.
Local tour guides greet one another as they enter and exit the festival grounds. The event is a favorite amongst tourists -- most hotels in the valley are sold out months prior to the tsechu.
Community police stand as a barrier between the massive crowd and the masked dancers. 

Festival goers crowd the stands in hopes of catching a good view of the mesmerizing dances below.
Hundreds of monks embody the roles of heroes, animals, deities and other religious figures to recreate the stories and teachings of Guru Rimpoche. The dances are accompanied by enchanting and equally rattling music made by local gongs, bells, horns, drums, and conch-shells.  
A row of gho.

The crowd is a kaleidoscope of color.
A monk divvies out "holy" water to locals after the dances finish. The water, blessed by a head monk is filled with over 20 natural herbs and tastes distinctively of eucalyptus. Buddhists drink a portion of the water from their hand and spread the remainder to the top of their heads. 
Chilip Andy, a yoga instructor and fan of the gho, enjoys hanging out with his new friends. 
Ironically, guns are the most popular toy bought during tsechu time. Before, during, and after the daily events unfold at the festival ground, children can be found shooting rubber pellets from plastic guns.
Above, Parops leaving the festival walk to town along the perimeter of the King's Paro palace. 


Paro Tsechu 2013

Tshering, a local resident and tourist guide, walks up to Paro Dzong in anticipation of the festival events about to unfold on the first day of Paro Tsechu, 2013. The 5-day long festival is an annual event that celebrates the teachings and life events of the Guru Rimpoche, believed by Buddhist Bhutanese to be the 2nd incarnation of the Buddha.
Though each one of Bhutan's 20 dzongkhags, or districts, hosts its annual Tsechu, the festival in Paro is the most well-attended country-wide. It is understood that many people spend their whole year's wages during Tsechu time. Because of this, retailers set up special sales and make shift shops near the festival grounds to accomodate a large festival going crowd throughout the week. Above, a woman from the remote Laya district entices a local Paro resident to buy handicrafts from her region.
Children dressed in their best kira enjoy sweets as they walk up to the festival ground.
At the Dzong's entrance, old friends meet. Above, a monk spits the remnants of his dolma, a beetlenut and limestone combination. Though dolma is not officially allowed in government offices, administrative centers or monastic bodies, the rules are never strictly enforced.  
A farmer from Geneka, 20 kilometers east of Paro town, poses for a portrait near the blossoming peach trees. 
Children play in a rock garden near the Dzong's entrance. The rock garden also hosts a small pool with two mermaid statues that bring an old Bhutanese folk tale to life.
Festival goers walk around the interior of Rinpung Dzong
Though the festival's events are deeply rooted in Buddhist Bhutanese custom, Paro Tsechu is often referred to as a Bhutan's best fashion show. A single kira or gho can cost over $1000 USD.
Some visitors take refuge from the harsh altitude sun...
...while others head straight for the main event.
Inside the Dzong's main courtyard, the first day of Paro Tsechu's dancing is revealed. 
Young volunteers act as crowd control and a helping hand for festival attendees. A large queue of religious pilgrims anticipating a special tsechu blessing flank the main temple's entrance.
Many sit around the courtyard's perimeter to watch the hypnotic dance. All performers are seasoned monks.
The Atara, seen above, acts as a joker to keep the crowd alive and excited throughout the long performance.
Some enjoy the festival from the shaded steps.
These ladies don't mind the heat -- they've got great seats. 
Bhutanese buddhists believe that after death, one will see a series of strange characters, such as the masked figures above. It is believed that if one familiarizes themselves with these masked creatures in their living life, they will not be frightened by them later in the afterlife. 
Horns and cymbals are the soundtrack for the masked dance. Above, a local Paro resident enjoys the festival from the loudest seat in the house.
There is no entry fee or age requirement during Tsechu.
A young boy plays a game of hidden tug of war with mischievous monks above.
Beautifully ornate murals depict scenes from ancient Bhutanese texts and folklore on the Dzong's walls.
A young girl adjusts the sleeve of her wangju, a long undershirt as she leaves the Dzong.
Paro Dzong and its surrounding grounds, seen above, will stage all Tsechu events for the remainder of the week. 


Thimphu Night Out

Phuntsho Wangdi, aka “DJ Pee,” is a straight-edge, buddhist deejay at Thimphu's hottest nightclub, "Space 34." DJ Pee has been a crowd favorite, spinning a mashup of house, hip-hop, and R&B every weekend since 2008.
Thimphu party goers such as Sonam, above, get down on the dance floor. The club has recently relocated and expanded its space for its growing clientele.
A mix of Bollywood remixes, English pop, and American hip-hop are favorites among the youths.   


Three Generations

Angay, age unknown, prays with mala beads, a hand held prayer wheel and her friends at the Chorten Memorial in Thimphu.
Phuntsho Wangdi, 29, stands near the large prayer wheels after making a round of prayer.
Aloo, 5, plays with a new friend while her parents circle the chorten, or shrine.


First Snow

Hidden behind a cloud of midst. Taksang, Bhutan's revered pilgrimage site appears as just another spec of snow resting on the mountains surrounding the Paro valley.
As soon as the first flakes of snow hit the ground each year, the Bhutanese government will declare a national holiday, allowing workers time to leave the office to enjoy the first day of powder. Above, local youths start a snowball fight in the remains of the Drugyel fortress.