The Peling Tsechu at Buddha Dordenma

 

Excited chatter cuts the warm morning air as locals, decked out in their finest celebratory dress, climb the long and winding road up to Buddha Point. Food vendors hawk their breakfast wares: momos, Bhutanese tea, and thukpa. Public buses, free for the day, travel the route up and down from the point, shuttling festival-goers up the mountain.

After sharing tea and snacks with a friendly family, the MyBhutan team hops on a bus to the peak — packed to the gills with folks of all ages, from giggling toddlers to elegant elders in traditional attire, adorned with jeweled pins and heavy necklaces strung with turquoise, red coral, and sacred dzi beads. At the top of the hill, we pour out with the crowd into radiantly colored masses, orienting to the sounds of crashing ceremonial cymbals and booming drums.

Presiding majestically over the festivities, the 169-foot tall golden statue of Buddha Dordenma towers overhead against azure skies and emerald mountainsides — an enormous reminder of the holiness of this place. Encircling the base of Buddha are the twenty-one forms of Tara, a Himalayan goddess of enlightened compassion, nurturance, and receptivity. These various expressions stand and offer flowers, representing the many ways that the divine manifests to care for beings.

Weaving through throngs of locals, we near the epicenter of the crowd at the feet of the Buddha.

Here, monks in maroon robes pound a steady beat on massive drums. Others blast earth-shakingly deep tones from long, telescoping dung horns and finger sweet ritual melodies on smaller brass trumpets.

Dancers, exploding with color, leap and spin through the air. They are outfitted in full regalia today — saffron, ruby and sapphire brocade; ornate serpentine designs sewn in deep greens; full headdresses with peacock-feather crowns and beaded veils. In some dances, they sport fierce masks designed to vanquish harmful spirits. Their vibrant yellow skirts billow to reveal tiger skin patterned shorts as they launch high off the ground. Midair, the dancers snap their wrists, striking sharply percussive notes on damaru drums.

Impossibly regal, these dancers embody a sacred union of masculine and feminine: powerful athleticism with delicately precise twirls, ferocious masks with flowery fabrics, wild intensity with inner stillness.

The onlookers flaunt their most glorious gho and kira, and monks and lamas (Buddhist teachers) pepper the audience. Children frolic delightedly while families chatter, sharing snacks and refreshments.

The Peling Tsechu celebrates Pema Lingpa, a great Bhutanese master in the Nyingma tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism. Pema Lingpa, born in the 15th century, was a terton — an exceptional spiritual practitioner who revealed ancient hidden treasure teachings. These treasures, called terma, were concealed hundreds of years prior by yogis, to be uncovered and taught at the time when they would most benefit the world.

The most famous story of Pema Lingpa occurred at Mebar Tsho (Burning Lake) in central Bhutan. He stood before onlookers with a lit butter lamp, and declared that he was going to retrieve a terma. They would know that he was a true terton, he said, if he emerged with the lamp still burning. With that, Pema Lingpa plunged into the depths of the watery gorge. After some time, when those present were sure he must have drowned, he surfaced — with a holy relic, a chest containing his terma, and his butter lamp still burning brightly.

Today, the Peling Tsechu compiles many sacred dances from the Pema Lingpa tradition, bringing together practitioners from across the kingdom who embody the essence of his teachings through movement. Every motion, color and detail is perfectly coordinated, rich with significance: the dances, passed down through the centuries, contain the inner meaning of these wisdom teachings.

Bhutan is one of the few remaining strongholds of this tradition, a true pure realm still present in the modern world.

In this pristine Himalayan atmosphere, citizens of the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon still remember what is truly meaningful: love, wisdom, and the brightness of the human spirit.

 

Learn more about other festivals here: https://mybhutan.com/explore/festivals

STORY BY HARRISON RAPPAPORT

PHOTOGRAPHY BY MATT DESANTIS

StoryHarrison Rappaport