BHUTAN'S MASKED BALL


Paro Tsechu, a week long festival in Paro town, comprises of religious dances, ceremonies, chants, and lots of blessings. Eating, shopping, and drinking local spirits go hand in hand with religious activities. 



The tsechu, literally meaning, "the 10th day"  occurs in either March or April -- depending on the Bhutanese Buddhist lunar calendar. 



The celebration commemorates important teachings and life events of the Guru Rimpoche, believed by devotees to be the 2nd incarnation of the Buddha, as well as the man who popularized Buddhism in Bhutan around 700 CE.


Domestic and international tourists flock to Paro town to enjoy a celebration of horn-blowing, drum-beating, dzongka-chanting, and trance dancing rituals.

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Festival goers gather at the festival grounds just above Paro town's administrative and monastic fortress, Rinpung Dzong, on the first day of the celebration. 

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Masked dancers perform a trance dance inside Paro Dzong. Bhutanese buddhists believe that after death, one will see a series of strange characters as they make their way to the land of the dead. It is believed that if one familiarizes themselves with these creatures in their living life, they will not be frightened by them later in the afterlife. 
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A woman wearing a silk embroidered rachu makes her way through the crowd. The traditional scarf not only adds a colorful touch to her dress but also fulfills the mandatory requirement to enter the festival grounds. 
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Youths walk to the festival grounds inside Paro's fortress. While visiting any dzong, all Bhutanese citizens are required to wear the national uniform -- authorities strictly enforce this dress code at each entrance. Footwear, however, is seldom questioned.

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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.  

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Young volunteers act as crowd control and a helping hand for the elderly.

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During the second day's festivities, a masked man who represents human error and folly is seen running around the courtyard. Frightened by masked dancers, he tries to escape from them, but is captured each time. His wicker basket drops, and out of the hole emerges a severed cow's head. In Bhutan, killing and eating animals is a sin; this man's carnal evidence is a warning to the people of their fate if they cause negative karma.

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The crowd is a kaleidoscope of color.
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During the festival, 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 event with their family and friends.

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Children dressed in their best kira enjoy sweets as they walk up to the festival grounds.
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A young boy plays a game of hidden tug of war with mischievous monks inside the dzong
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Throughout the week, Bhutanese and international tourists crowd the dzong's open roof sanctum to enjoy mesmerizing dance performances.

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A festival attendee wears her finest kira, the national dress for women in Bhutan. Though the festival's events are deeply rooted in ancient religious custom, Paro tsechu is often referred to as Bhutan's annual fashion show. A single kira or gho, the male equivalent, can cost over USD $1000.
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Beautifully ornate murals depict scenes from ancient Bhutanese texts and folklore inside the main altar at Paro Dzong
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A man grabs a blessed thread tied around his neck as the crowd makes way for masked dancers running out of the courtyard.

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Father Chimmi carries his youngest on his back in a traditional cubnay (baby carrier) while his wife ensures their daughter's head stays protected from Paro's high altitude rays.

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'Backstage,' geylongs, (young monks) wait patiently in costume.
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Guns are some of the most popular toys 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.

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Local tour guides greet one another as they enter and exit the festival grounds. The event is a favorite amongst international tourists -- most hotels in the valley are sold out months prior to the tsechu.
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A massive crowd flanks the courtyard in hopes of catching a good seat to enjoy the mesmerizing cham dance. Most of the dances are performed by monks or village lay-monks who 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.  
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A community policeman keeps order as thousands of buddhist devotees queue for a blessing on the last day of Tsechu. The event, Throngdrel, is the final ceremony during the festival and is revered as the single most important event of the Bhutanese calendar. 
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During Throngdrel, the last day of the festival, attendees line up in anticipation of receiving a blessing near the base of a 350-year old, four-story tapestry, as early as 3am. Bhutanese buddhists believe that by just looking at the ornately decorated textile, they will be cleansed of all sins. 

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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 --by early morning the religious textile is rolled up and taken away from the festival grounds until the following year.
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A woman burns offerings while a monk chats on his mobile phone in front of the dzong.

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The red-masked Atara, acts as a joker to keep the crowd alive and excited throughout a long performance.

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A final batch of attendees walk to the grounds to receive last-minute blessings on the festival's final afternoon.

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