Punakha Dromchö: A Celebration of Victory

Every year, men of Wang Tsochengyé (ཝང་ཚོ་ཆེན་བརྒྱད་) or the eight great blocks of Wang, take up the role of pazap (དཔའ་མཛངསཔ་), or noble warrior, and reenact war scenes from the era of Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel (ཞབས་དྲུང་ངག་དབང་རྣམ་རྒྱལ་; 1595-1651). Punakha Dromchö (སྤུ་ན་ཁ་སྒྲུབ་མཆོད) was first performed in 1639 by Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel to hoodwink the Tibetan invaders. It is an annual festival introduced by Zhapdrung to commemorate the victories over the Tibetans. During the festival, the pazaps, dressed in battle gear, showcase a battle scene of this distant past recalling the days when in the absence of a standing army, men from the eight tsochen the eight great blocks of Thimphu came forward and managed to expel the Tibetan forces out of the country ushering in a new-found internal peace and stability.

Besides recreating the war scenes, there will be a demonstration of Norbu Chushani (ནོར་བུ་ཆུ་ཤགས་ནི) or immersion of relic into the Mo River. The Tibetan invaders were hiding and watching from Jili Gang, a hill above the Punakha cremation, waiting for the perfect moment to forcibly take back the relic that Zhapdrung brought along with him in 1616. Zhapdrung knew that the Tibetan army only wanted one thing-the Rangjung Kharsapani (རང་བྱུང་ཁ་ས་པ་ནི), the self-created image of Chenrezik (སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས). The next day Zhapdrung walked to a big tree beside the Mo River bank, and he dropped the relic into the river. The Tibetans had come all the way to get the relic, and now that it seemed to be lost, the deceived Tibetans went home thinking that there is no longer any purpose to fight with the Bhutanese. Yet the Zhapdrung did not throw the real relic into the river. Instead he hid the original in his sleeve while he threw a decoy into the river.

The eight great gewog of Wang—Kawang, Chang, and Mewang in Thimphu Dzongkhag and Baap, Kabjisa, Shengana, Toewang and Toeb in Punakha—contributed 136 pazaps, including a zimpons/makpons (གཟིམས་དཔོན་/དམག་དཔོན་) or generals and eight gups (རྒཔོ་བརྒྱད་), as Zhapdrung’s representatives during the war. Pazaps were selected based on requirements and an individual’s interest. Tsokpa (ཚོགས་པ་), the chiwog representatives, elect three pazaps. Each gewog select seventeen pazaps alongside a zimpon/makpon and eight gups who act as the representatives of Zhapdrung and guide the warriors in battle.

Punakha Domchö starts with an esoteric ceremony of Gönpé Wangchen (མགོན་པོའི་དབང་ཆེན) for seven days. After the conclusion of Gönpé Wangchen, the gups, pazaps and zimpons gather at the Punakha a day before dromchö to set up camps and to take a ritual bath near the Mo River. The gewog leaders used to collect rice from people. That was called Güpi Kamtré (རྒཔོའི་སྐམ་ཁྲལ), or dry-tax for local leaders. They would also arrange food to be served during the three-day dromchö event. But dromchö preparation has now become much easier with government sponsorship. Today, pazaps get a Nu.2500 allowance.

Pazaps wear red fabric where the lower part is folded like a gho. The pazaps wear black jacket and khamar kabné (ཁ་དམར་བཀབ་ནེ), or a scarf with red and white panels. They also wear tsoklham (ཚོགས་ལྷམ) or traditional boot, a heavy iron helmet (ལྕགས་རྨོག) with flags and a patang (དཔའ་རྟགས) or sword. The zimpön wear the finest battle garb, a gho with magnificent patterns, a white skirt, with dhar nyenga (དར་སྣ་ལྔ) or scarves of five colors woven across their chests.

The gups wear red robes, symbolically transforming into monks until the end of the dromchö because they act as the representatives from the dzong that Zhapdrung selected and sent as warriors to guard each clan.

After the dromchö, local leaders collect garb from the pazaps, count them, fold and lock them inside metal boxes that will not be opened until the next dromchö. Punakha Dromchö is a three-day extended pazap festival. On the first day of dromchö, after the zhukdrel pünsum tsokpa (བཞུགས་གྲལ་ཕུན་སུམ་ཚོགས་པ) and marchang (མར་ཆང་) ceremonies, His Holiness the Jé Khenpo (རྗེ་མཁན་པོ), the representative of the Zhapdrung, reads out the Zhapdrung’s edict (ཞབས་དྲུང་བཀའ་ཤོག) to the pazaps: “I have placed my trust in people of Wang Tsochengyé, and together we have to defeat the enemies from Tibet through craft and shrewdness”.

On the second day of the dromchö, the pazaps wake up early and circumambulate Punakha Dzong three times before gathering near the lake. There, the zimpön demonstrate through actions and songs how to fight the enemies.  On the final day, eight pazaps perform the groundbreaking ceremony in front of the Jé Khenpo at the courtyard. Four of the eight zimpön performed bé cham (a type of war dance performed with drawn swords, invoking the protection of a particular deity) at the Kabgön, where Zhapdrung had his quarters, offering their promises to defeat the enemies. Pazaps then left the dzong in groups, shouting battle cries. The eight generals rode their steeds and move out through two doors, one at the front and the other at the back, and take positions in four directions around the dzong.

In the meantime, the pazaps kept entering through the front, exiting the back door and entering the front door again in what looked like an endless procession. This was Zhapdrung’s trick to make the Tibetans believe that there was a huge army awaiting them. This act is followed by a religious procession where hundreds of monks with high red hats of the Drukpa Kagyü (འབྲུག་པ་བཀའ་བརྒྱུད) order leave the dzong complex, amid sounds of trumpets and drums. The procession stops at the Mo River bank, where Jé Khenpo, wearing a black hat and an apron decorated with the fearsome head of Gönpo (མ་ཧ་ཀ་ལ), perform the lü chok (ཀླུ་ལུ་མཆོད་པ) and throw a handful of oranges into the Mo River symbolizing the precious Rangjung Kharsapani relic.

The Jé Khenpo represents Zhapdrung, believed to have performed the same ceremony on that very spot in the 17th century. After the symbolic immersion of the relic, the pazaps return with triumph. At the foot of the stairway leading into the dzong, the zimpöns are pulled off their horses and carried in triumph up the stairs into the courtyard where the day of victory ends with celebrations. The zimpöns again perform bé cham (རྦད་འཆམ) in front of the Jé Khenpo at the courtyard and pazaps receive a command from Gyalpö Sungkhorp (རྒྱལ་པོའི་སྲུང་འཁོརཔ).

Dromchö is a special ceremony for the people of Wang Tsochengyé. It has special significance to the people and the region that fought some of the greatest wars. It is because of this reason that people of Wang Tsochengyé celebrate the dromchö and receives jinlap (བྱིན་བརླབས) or blessings and religious strings from His Holiness the Jé Khenpo every year. Today, the people of Bhutan remember the way the Zhapdrung saved the relic and Punakha Dzong, and the won the war against the Tibetan armuy.



Sonam Chophel is a researcher at Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research.



Collection Bhutan Cultural Library
Visibility Public - accessible to all site users
Author Sonam Chophel
Year published 2018
Rights ཤེས་རིག་དང་ལམ་སྲོལ་གྱི་དོན་ལུ་ཕབ་བཟུང་ཞུས། ཤེས་རྒྱུན་ལས་སྡེ་ལས་གནང་བ་མེད་པར་བསྒྱུར་སྤེལ་འབད་མི་ཆོག། For educational and cultural use only. Reproduction is strictly prohibited without permission from Shejun.
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