A highlight of the 15-day annual Punakha drubchen, popularly called as Punakha dromchoe, is the last 5 days, when Gups (local leaders) may be seen wearing monk’s robes.
While laymen adorned in maroon robes is an attraction for local spectators, there is an important symbolism behind the change in their garb. According to the Zhung Dratshang’s Tshugla Lopen, Samten Dorji, the 8 Gups of the Wang Tshochen-gey (8 great clans of the Wang area, comprising the present-day dzongkhags of Thimphu, Wangdi and Punakha) are the representatives of the Zhabdrung, who fought a fierce war with the Tsang Desi of Tibet in the 17th century.
“The Gups were then called dums and in charge of the pazaps (warriors), together with the zimpons or commanders,” said the Lopon. He said that, during the Zhabdrung’s time, most of his representatives were monks, as it was a dual system of government in Bhutan then. “So, they wear robes and abide by monastic rules during the last five days,” he said.
The Punakha dromchoe showcases the battle scene and peace pact, wherein Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel duped the Tibetan force by throwing the replica of the sacred Rangjung Kharsa Paney, the cause of the war, into the river on the last day. Today, battle scenes are re-enacted during the annual dromchoe by Gups and pazaps from the eight gewogs. This festival does not have as many mask dances as others, but it is unique for re-enacting the final victory of the Bhutanese over the Tibetan invaders.
Today, during the dromchoe, Gups keep control over pazaps and maintain discipline. Pazaps were powerful in ancient times and today are arrogant and try to dominate the public, said a Gup. The Gups keep an eye on them and scrutinise their every action.
Kabji Gup, Tshering Tobjay said that, if the pazaps are not supervised, they tend to quarrel with the public, referring to a case in 2000, when a group of pazaps beat up a man, leaving him with serious injuries.
The monk-Gups may not get as much merit as an ordinary monk, but most of them believe that being a monk, even briefly, will remove sins they have committed. Most of them say that being monk is a privileged opportunity to earn merit.
But, for Thimphu Chang Gup, Kanjur, following the monk path is spiritually nourishing, morally gratifying, and mentally rewarding. He said it could lead to “a good life” in the next generation.
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel introduced the pazap festival in 1646 to honour the two deities for their role in protecting the country from Tibetan invasions. Dromchoe is a festival dedicated to Pal-Yeshay Goenpo and Palden Lhamo, the guardian deities of Bhutan and its religion, after Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel’s victory over Tibetan invaders.