Punakha Festival – the mother of all festivals

After a hearty breakfast at our hotel overlooking Punakha Valley, we drove down to Punakha Dzong (1,200m ASL) for the Punakha Festival. Completed in 1638, the fortress is the second oldest (after Simtokha) and second largest one (after Trongsa) in the country.

The dzong

The first Bhutanese dzong-like structure was built in 1153, but Simtokha was the first to combine administrative with monastic capacities) and all of the older dzongs have had their architectural substance largely replaced over the centuries. Without any doubt Punakha Dzong is one of the country’s most magnificent buildings. Until 1955 it was the seat of the national Government, then the capital was moved to Thimphu.

 

Confluence of male and female river

You reach the dzong via a wooden bridge over one of the two rivers that surround it. It is the Mo Chhu, the female river, which made its way all the distance from Tibet just to form a union with the Pho Chhu, the male river, at the Dzong, to become the Puna Tsang Chhu, which we were going to follow to Wangdue Phodrang the next morning.

River dolphins and Himalayan trout

Much later it crosses the Bhutan–India border and flows into the holy Brahmaputra. River dolphins are known to have made it into Bhutan from this majestic river, the 9th largest in the world, which originates on the northern side of the Himalaya in Tibet. Unfortunately it is less of them each year and never further than the lowlands close to the border. Because the Bhutanese are not willing (or allowed) to kill any animals, the rivers are all brimming with Himalayan trout.

 

 

 

 

Three days of dance

We arrived early, but the dancers had already started and the courtyard and balconies inside the courtyard were filling up quickly. Each dance or sequence of dances involved its own unique colourful traditional costumes and accessories like weapons, shields, baskets, or instruments. And each dance was very different from the others in terms of choreography.

 

 

 

Sometimes just two or three dancers were shooting across the wide-open performance floor, fast like bullets, in frantic movements, at other times groups of twenty and more dancers would dance very harmoniously in a large circle, perfectly coordinated. This was hands-down the best traditional festival we have ever seen anywhere in the world.

 

 

In most countries “traditional” festivals involve the destruction of actual traditions and exploitation of locals for the fake entertainment of paying tourists. Not so in Bhutan with its sustainable tourism policy. There were no more than 15 other non-South Asian tourists (and perhaps ten from India and neighbouring countries; East Asian tourists, who would often make up the majority of tourists, were completely missing because of Covid-19). Nearly everyone was a local, proudly dressed up in their most elaborate costumes. Our guide told us how to tell from the costumes who was part of the aristocracy or a top government official. There were also several octogenarian visitors from Northern Bhutan and Tibet, who have very distinct costumes and especially headgear.

 

 

 

 

Quick tour of the dzong

We could have easily stayed all three days of the festival, but after two and a half hours, we did a one-hour tour of the dzong. The architecture is mind-blowing in its beauty and sheer size. A number of times a man in a demon costume holding a large wooden phallus brushed past by us while chasing screaming children. The older boys were definitely amused and above it. The youngest girls, no older than four, felt the full terror, no doubt. Well, in Austria where I spent many pre-Christmas periods as a child, the little kids are exposed to Krampus, a devil-like creature, half man, half beast, who looks much meaner than those quirky demons with willies. And we were told that Krampus will physically punish us for our bad deeds, not just point a wooden stick at us. Unsurprisingly, locals clearly outdo Europeans in terms of civility.

 

 

Main temple

The main temple contains beautiful “naïve-style” paintings of Buddha’s life and three giant statues. The central one is of the actual Buddha. One is of Guru Rinpoche (more about him in our post about Tiger’s Nest), who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8t Century. And one is of Ngawang Namgyal, 1st Zhabdrung Rinpoche, or simply Zhabdrung. The latter was a Tibetan lama wo lived from 1594 to 1651 and unified Bhutan as a nation-state.

Things to do nearby

When you are in town, don’t forget to also visit nearby Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten, just a few miles up the road. You pass by a very long suspension bridge on the way. You can read about our visit and little hike in our main post about our stay in Bhutan (check “Day 3”). Thank you Bhutan Norter for the trip of a lifetime.

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8 Comments

  1. What an interesting experience for you. I really like the fact that they do sustainable tourism and it’s not fake entertainment like you see in so many places.

    1. Thank you for the kind comment, Wendy. Yes, that low-impact, high-value approach really seems to work very well for them. Hopefully this approach will also make it easier for them to rekindle the industry post-Covid.

  2. I read this post with a bit of regret … although Ive been to Bhutan three times, but I have never seen a festival. I had plans to got in Nov 2019 but ended up canceling. Thanks for sharing these pictures.

    1. Thank you, Gaz. Fingers crossed you’ll be back a fourth and fifth time. Personally, I wouldn’t mind visiting this country once a year every year. 🙂

  3. What a colourful festival! And it’s interesting that there were only a handful of tourists there. I bet it felt like a really authentic experience.

    1. Thank you, Gilda. I have to say, Ellie’s really done a great job with the photography… She still sometimes zooms in on her iPhone or forgets to clean the lens, but those Punakha pics are something else haha.. 🙂

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