Bhutan’s Festivals: Mask Dances and Phalluses
If you ask any Bhutanese person when the best is time to visit their country, they won’t go on about the weather, cheap flights, or when fruits are in season. In fact, the answer seems to be unanimous and glaringly obvious to the locals: come during festival season.
Annual Temple Festivals in Bhutan
Each year, most every temple of any significant size in Bhutan holds an annual festival to cleanse the spiritual purity of the population, nullify evil spirits, and chase away bad luck. The festival is also a time for people in the community to meet, trade or sell their wares, and of course time for young love to blossom. And for little boys to get toy guns.
The general arrangement is like this. Monks designate the days for the festival based on tradition and auspicious dates, and these are declared local holidays. For between 2-4 days, people head to the temple or dzong (fortresses which also house temple) for at least one of the days to take in the events. Outside the temple, booths are set up to sell products and food, and sometimes even for carnival-type games.
Ceremonies start in the morning and run until evening. These will include music, dances, and ritualistic mask dances performed by both monks and lay dancers. Some areas also include sports competitions, local games, and educational displays as part of their events.
Bhutanese Folk Dances
Most festivals will begin with a welcome song and dance by local people, and professional dancers in larger centers. These are typically quick-tempo joyful dances with both men and women dancing in groups and in pairs. Men dance in traditional skin boots and wear bright sashes, while women their absolute best clothes. The result is lively and bright, yet also refined and modest.
Jesters and Phalluses
After a welcome song or two, jesters in cartoonish masks and bright trousers take the stage, or in this case, the courtyard. Their job is to lighten the mood and also to assist dancers with any costume problems. They invariably brandish large wooden phalluses, balls and all, for comedic effect. Phalluses are symbols of good luck in Bhutan and are often painted on houses and worn as amulets.
After a bit of playing with their wood, the jesters hang back while other dancers take over the space. However, they continue to play an important symbolic role, teasing the dancers to no effect and therefore demonstrating their spiritual concentration. It’s hard to see how the dancers manage to ignore bright red phalluses shoved in their faces, but such is the depths of their focus.
Ceremonial Dances in Bhutan
Contrasting with folk dances, highly ritualized ceremonial dances are the main focus of most festivals’ activities. These rituals are based in Vajrayana Buddhist traditions and it is believed that simply watching the dances helps the viewer to gain merit and cultivate a Buddhist mindset. Oddly, the dances are usually performed by monks, though some laypeople may also join if few monks are available.
The first dance is usually the Black Hat Dance, performed by monks wearing strange flowing costumes and, naturally, black hats. They beat drums and twirl to the blaring of horns and clanging of cymbals until, creating a hypnotic atmosphere. This dance is used to cleanse the area of bad luck and evil spirits.
Other dances are performed by masks dancers. Some tell folk tales, while others are tributes to nature and animals. In most, though, the masks represent supernatural beings devoted to the protection of Buddhism. Terrifying masks of the god of power and of hideous skeletons are meant to frighten demons away from devout people.
The masks and costumes are important religious artefacts charged with spiritual power and are therefore kept inside temples and protected for their cultural value. However, copies of the masks are made as souvenirs and are sold across the country.
Bhutanese Women’s Songs and Dances
Women dance slowly and sing both devotional and folks songs as expressions of culture handed down through the generations. In some areas, the performances are open and proudly displayed to tourists. However, in more remote areas, these songs represent important transitions to womanhood and are performed only by local women with links to the songs history. Their costumes, music, and dances differ across Bhutan so that while mask dances are fairly consistent between temples, women’s traditional performances create varied experiences.
Special Festival Events
Because there are so many festivals across the country, there’s no way to describe or even know about all of the quirks that are tied to local ceremonies. For example, at the opening to the Tamshing festival a special bonfire is held at night. An arch is constructed and boughs tied to it then lit on fire, while people run through the arch for good luck (unless the fire fall son their heads!). This is followed by a mask dance and then local solo song performances.
Like this example, these lesser-known festival activities are hard to find but goods guides will dig them out for you if possible.
Festivals are concentrated in the harvest season, October-December, when villagers are wrapping up work and are in a celebratory mood. Still, there are enough festivals throughout the year that any visit to Bhutan should be able to come across at least one. They’re not to be missed, especially if you need to build up some merit or simply an incredible photo collection.
This post is also available in: French