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The Pomp and Circumstance of Bhutan’s Punakha Warriors Festival


March 30, 2019

Karma Dorji

With thoughtful itineraries honed since 1999, we unveil the depths of Bhutan's happiness philosophy, the daily physical adventures through the beautiful Himalayan landscape complemented by the intimate and in-depth cultural experiences sensitively curated for you every day. 

Through the eyes of a select few informed leaders we saw the dilemmas of a culture: A hitherto sheltered nation discovering the arguments for and against remaining a cloistered society in this 21st Century. I loved the adventure, and I loved the discovery. Unlike anything else I have ever experienced!

Lola W., California 



The annual dances of Bhutan's Pazaap warriors help preserve a vital fragment of the kingdom's rich cultural history © Karma Dorji / Bhutan Himalaya Expeditions

Soon, the yellow flash of abbots’ robes and a reflected gleam from signature round-rimmed glasses alerts us to the arrival of Bhutan’s highest spiritual figure, His Holiness the Je Khenpo, chief Buddhist cleric in all the kingdom. With the highest dignitary taking his seat, the massive medieval courtyard inside the fortress (Dzong) fills up quickly with festival attendees wearing their Sunday best. Among the audience are inhabitants of all the neighboring valleys of Punakha, state guests, prominent officials, government ministers and members of the kingdom’s royal family. Once all the VIPs take their seats in the upper viewing area, the festival kicks into high gear.

An explosion of fireworks startles the crowds, followed by bloodcurdling battle-cries, shouts, whoops and whistles. Enter the main event: Punakha’s Pazaap Warriors. Once in their lined formations across the flagstone courtyard, the warriors begin a striking display of martial power. Blades slice the air as shields rise to meet the blows. Faces twist fiercely, bodies turn and whirl. Drums beat, feet leap, turn and land in a strenuous ballet interpreting the historic encounters of warriors past, and recounting the origins of this unique warriors’ guild.

Holy Tooth!

The story concerns a holy Buddhist relic, the Rangjung Kharsapani, a miraculously arisen tooth-statue—yes, a holy icon carved into a tooth!—representing Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Brought from Tibet by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the 17th century hierarch of the Drukpa or “Dragon” school of Buddhism, who later unified Bhutan, the relic sparked a series of military clashes with Tibetan soldiers over its possession. Enter the Pazaap warriors who swore fealty to the Shabdrung — a term of reverence that means “At Whose Feet We Kneel” — and promised to defend the holy relic with their lives.

Each time the Pazaaps repelled the Tibetan forces, they returned with more reinforcements. The battles for the tooth relic grew increasingly intense until, with no end in sight, the Shabdrung and the Pazaaps devised a clever ruse to end the hostilities.

During a break in the fighting, the Bhutanese side formed an elaborate procession of monks and warriors from the fortress to the banks of the Mochu river, next to the dzong, and pretended to throw the holy object into the water. Watching from the other side of the river, the Tibetans thought the relic was lost forever. So they turned and left. The Bhutanese, meanwhile, had cleverly locked away the holy tooth in one of the highest towers of the dzong, where it remains to this day. In time, it became one of the kingdom’s most fiercely guarded national treasures, a raison d'être for the newly minted warriors.

The festival reaches a climax with more whoops and yells, followed by the reed-like music of the pipes. The yellow-robed figure of the chief guest rises, followed by his retinue of monks and ceremonial standard bearers. Then His Holiness leads the procession out of the courtyard and down the stairs to the banks of the river, reenacting history. Bhutan’s spiritual leader throws something round and shiny into the river (I’m told it’s an orange), symbolizing the history-making feint we described earlier.

Later, we meet the warriors in person in one of the inner courtyards of the dzong. They seem less intimidating now as they sit around joking, laughing, and teasing each other in the sun. They smile, showing teeth stained red by chewing too much Beetlejuice. Won over by promises of hand-delivered photographs, they line up for pictures.

A young boy mimics the proud stance of a line of rugged present-day Pazaap warriors, who are still chosen by locality, height, strength and other physical attributes
A young boy mimics the trademark stance of present-day Pazaap warriors, who are still chosen by locality, height, strength and other physical attributes © Karma Dorji / Bhutan Himalaya Expeditions.

Like their ancient forebears, they have heavy spiked brass helmets with protective coverlets that run down the sides and backs of their heads. They have lightweight shields of woven cane and ceremonial ones fashioned from tough animal hide. Their scarlet knee-length ghos are made from a heavy mix of yak hair and wool. In a pinch, I could easily see it doubling as a blanket. Wrapped around their shoulders and their necks are rough lengths of heavy raw silk that the young men say can stop a full frontal blow from a broadsword. And yes, they’re wearing swords; swords over two-feet long, swinging, swashbuckler-style, from their waists.

Later, leaving me with instructions on where to deliver the photographs, the warriors go home. One by one they hurry down the long, shadowy passages on either side of the fortress, as generations of Pazaaps before them have done and, hopefully, will for many more generations to come, if this colorful commemoration of their unique role in Bhutanese history survives into the future.

Three young Bhutanese warriors relax as a young monk looks on at the Punakha Festival.
A young monk with a trio of Pazaap warriors, brothers who will walk very different paths in life. © Karma Dorji / Bhutan Himalaya Expeditions

Join us for the annual Pageant of Warriors, one of the hand-selected Signature Journeys we offer each year.

THE PLAINTIVE CRIES of reed pipes rise skyward, followed by a blast of sonorous long horns. Then, the hollow ‘boff’ of large, ritually decorated skin-drums, punctuated by the clamor of hand-held brass cymbals. A fitting fanfare for the rugged commanders wearing gleaming brass helmets and bright ceremonial attire atop the stout festooned horses led by ceremonial monks. Others stride, in a grand procession more like a hero's welcome than an annual religious ritual.

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