Whether you are visiting or living in Bhutan, you cannot miss the signs of faith that pervade every aspect of our nation and its people. Almost every house has a choeshom (altar room)with offerings to the gods, entire families will visit lhakhangs on religious days, and people of all ages can be seen carrying prayer beads while circling a chorten or temple.

Bhutan is known as the last stronghold of Vajrayana Buddhism, as it is practiced by 75% of the population. For those following this faith, a drubchen is an important practice of meditating to deities. According to Bhutanese scholar Karma Phuntsho, the word drub refers to cultivation and chen means offering. A drubchen is thus a ceremonial practice to “invoke the power and actions of the divinities.”

Thimphu Lhamoi Drubchen is a ceremonial practice that takes place over 15 days, to cultivate the blessings of the deity Pelden Lhamo. It usually takes place in the 7th month of the Bhutanese calendar, with the actual practice beginning on the 23rd. This drubchen was first instituted by Guenga Gyaltsen, considered an incarnation or son of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal.

(Image of Palden Lhamo)

In drubchen practice, practitioners visualise the deity and carry out activities such as prostration, offering, confession, chanting of mantras, performance of deities, visualization of light and channelling of spiritual energies. There are many stages of visualization but they can be generally classified as kyerim (generation phase) and dzogrim (perfection phase).

During the festival, the public shows their devotion by watching the Choe Kor in the morning, the Kuen Cham and Zhana Kuen Cham in the evening and Lhamoi’s Drubchen in the afternoon.

Witnessing these sacred dances is said to cleanse impurities and help us achieve our goals. Another benefit is for the country’s Kurim, where one receives blessings for the protection and prosperity of the country and its people.

(Dance during the drupchen)

This year marked the 310th annual drupchen and the only one in recent memory without a crowd of spectators, due to the global pandemic. Ministry of Health protocols were evident during the drupchen, as officials were strictly enforcing rules of hand sanitization, mask wearing and social distancing. It was an eerie sight to see an empty Tashichhodzong on the drubchen day, with only monks as spectators.

(Tashichhodzong during the drupchen with no spectators)

Yet, it is important to conduct the drupchen even without a public audience as Pelden Lhamo is a chief of Mamos spirits who keeps pandemics, diseases and famine at bay. This year’s drubchen was especially dedicated to the 5th King in honor of his 40th birth anniversary. Before it began, His Holiness the Je Khenpo and His Majesty offered prayers for the wellbeing of people and graced the physical preparation of the sand mandala.

In earlier times, people would wait eagerly for this annual event, taking great pains to prepare for and attend the drupchen. To receive an audience and blessings from Pelden Lhamo in the form of a mask dance was comparable to meeting a famous person and getting their autograph. This year as we watch the drupchen rituals on our television and phones, it is important to understand the cultural and spiritual significance of this sacred event.

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