Smithsonian Folklife Festival Presents “Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon”

June 25, 2008
News Release

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This summer, visitors to the 42nd annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival will have the rare opportunity to learn about the rich culture of the virtually unknown Kingdom of Bhutan. “Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon” will examine the fascinating culture, customs and history of this isolated mountain kingdom whose king initiated a unique government policy of “Gross National Happiness.” The country is situated in the eastern Himalayas and is bordered by China and India. In a mere few hundred miles, its geography changes from low-lying, steamy jungles to some of the world’s highest peaks.

Through live demonstrations, dance and musical performances, narrative sessions and a variety of hands-on activities, the program will explore Bhutan’s rich culture, which has been preserved, in part, through its relative isolation from outside influences. The program, which will feature approximately 140 Bhutanese artists, dancers, cooks, craftspeople, carpenters, farmers and representatives of monastic life, is the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of Bhutanese life and culture ever presented outside of the kingdom. The Bhutanese delegation will be led by His Royal Highness Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck. The program includes construction of an authentic lhakhang (Buddhist temple) at the heart of the Festival site that is one of the largest structures ever built for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

The Festival will be held Wednesday, June 25 through Sunday, June 29 and Wednesday, July 2 through Sunday, July 6 outdoors on the National Mall between Seventh and 14th streets. Admission is free. Festival hours are from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. each day, with such special evening events as concerts and dance parties beginning at 6 p.m. The Festival is co-sponsored by the National Park Service.

“The Folklife Festival is very proud to be able to share with its visitors the amazing country of Bhutan,” said program curator Preston Scott. “It is a historic year for the small kingdom. In 2008, Bhutan’s citizens held their first democratic elections, while also celebrating the 100th anniversary of the monarchy and the crowning of a new, young king. The depth and breadth of Bhutanese culture that will be seen at this year’s Festival is unprecedented in the United States.”

Music and Dance
Visitors will have the opportunity to experience all aspects of traditional and contemporary Bhutanese music and dance at the program’s main “Tsechu” stage. Bhutan’s Royal Academy of Performing Arts will present the country’s folk dances, while groups of monks will perform ritual dances from symbolic and sacred festivals of the Bhutanese calendar. Some of these dances, which incorporate colorful costumes and masks, date back to the 16th century and will be performed for the first time in Washington, D.C. Visitors will be invited to enjoy other types of music and dance that celebrate occasions of daily life, such as planting, harvesting, building, weaving and even animal care.

Zorig Chusum
Artisans will share with visitors the 13 traditional arts that are important to the people of Bhutan and the special techniques used to create them. The Festival provides a unique opportunity to see all 13 of these art forms together in one place.

Using natural pigments, thangka painters will explain the complex techniques that define the iconography reflected in traditional Bhutanese painting. Sculptors will demonstrate their art using special clay that comes from remote parts of the kingdom. Other artists will demonstrate weaving and other textile arts, woodcarving, pottery, bamboo crafts, incense making, calligraphy, blacksmithing, slate carving, gold-and silversmithing, sword making and a range of architectural arts. A variety of Bhutanese arts and other products will be available for purchase at the Festival Marketplace.

The heart of the exhibition area will feature an authentic Bhutanese lhakhang (temple) and other ritual structures and other examples of Bhutanese architecture that most visitors will see for the first time. Bhutanese carpenters, painters and other skilled artisans traveled directly from Bhutan to construct the lhakhang on the Mall beginning in early June. The lhakhang will be one of the largest, traditional buildings ever erected on the National Mall for a Festival. Much of the intricate carving and painting was completed in Bhutan earlier in the year so that the entire structure could be finished in time for the Festival. Most buildings in Bhutan are still constructed entirely by hand, including the milling of the timber used and the carving and painting of all of the decorative elements.

Religious Communities and Ritual Arts 
The kingdom’s isolation has allowed many of Bhutan’s Buddhist traditions to remain intact for more than 1,000 years. Himalayan Buddhism is practiced widely and influences most aspects of daily life in the monastic communities as well as in homes throughout Bhutan. Hinduism is practiced by the large ethnic Nepali community in southern Bhutan. Buddhist rituals often involve items taken from everyday life, such as water, food and natural materials collected from the environment. These rituals also involve handmade items that become beautiful art.

Festival visitors will be able to see demonstrations of the making of some of these ritual arts. Tormas, ritual cakes made from barley flour and hardened butter, are used to represent deities, serve as offerings or as enticements to expel evil. The dzoe, or “spirit catcher,” is made from twigs, colored thread and feathers that are woven into a web. The dzoe is believed to attract bad spirits that are caught in the web and then discarded. Mandalas are used in rituals as aides in visualization and may contain images painted on paper or walls, incorporated into building designs or made from sand.

Traditional Medicine
Bhutan, known in the Himalayas as “The Land of Medicinal Plants,” has a rich history of traditional healing practices. The program will include an exhibition of traditional remedies, and practitioners will be available to describe and discuss how Bhutan’s approach to medicine combines traditional and nontraditional treatments.

Most Bhutanese still practice traditional farming, making it a society where people live very close to the land that sustains them. A Bhutanese cooking area will showcase the preparation of ingredients and dishes derived directly from raw materials and the country’s staple crops of potatoes, chilies and maize. A traditional stove will allow visitors to see how the Bhutanese people prepare their favorite dishes. Also featured in this section will be the process of oil extraction and noodle-making, as well as demonstrations of how food is sometimes prepared for and used in a variety of rituals. Authentic Bhutanese foods will be served at the program’s main food concession.

Archery and Recreation
Archery is the national sport in Bhutan, as well as an enjoyable social event in most villages. The bows and arrows are made from bamboo, and small wooden targets are placed on either end of an archery field approximately 475 feet in length. Archery contests, usually featured at all major festivals, are colorful communal events that include cheerleaders who sing, dance and poke fun at rivals. Other recreational highlights include traditional darts, javelin, stone-tossing, wrestling and other athletics.

Narrative Stage, Family Activities and Related Events
Visitors to the “Four Friends Narrative Stage” can take part in discussions with participants and others knowledgeable about the life and history of Bhutan. The narrative stage area will provide opportunities for conversations and presentations about the Bhutanese concept of “Gross National Happiness”; cultural and religious identity; and Bhutan in the 21st century. The “Four Friends Narrative Stage,” which takes its name from the Bhutanese story of an elephant, monkey, rabbit and bird who worked together to reach the high fruit in a tree that they planted and nurtured, also will showcase the ways that the Bhutanese people are continuing to live in relative harmony with nature.

The “Treasure Hunt” tent will allow families to explore different aspects of Bhutan through hands-on projects, puzzles and informational signs. Throughout the program site, there will be places for kids to try on traditional clothes, take part in folk dances, make some Bhutanese food and more.

The Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries will screen several Bhutanese films June 26 and July 2 and July 3, as well as a series of lecture-demonstrations of Bhutanese music and dance.

“Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon” is produced in partnership with the Royal Government of Bhutan. Major donors to the program are the Bhutan Department of Tourism and the Dancing Star Foundation. Other donors include the Bhutan Foundation and an anonymous donor. Contributors to the program are the Frank W. Hoch Trust; the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation; Lawrence Small; and the Summit Fund of Washington. Additional support is provided by the Himalayan Youth Foundation; Eva and Yoel Haller; Friends of the Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan; the Sager Family Foundation; Exclusive Resorts; Butterfield & Robinson; Francis and Kathleen McNamara; New Tourism and The Harmony Project; The University of Texas at El Paso; and Aman Resorts.

About the Festival
The 2008 Smithsonian Folklife Festival will feature three programs. In addition to “Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon,” the other programs are “NASA: 50 Years and Beyond” and “Texas: A Celebration of Music, Food and Wine.”

The Folklife Festival, inaugurated in 1967, honors people from across the United States and around the world. With approximately 1 million visitors each year, the Festival unites presenters and performers in the nation’s capital to celebrate the diversity of cultural traditions. It is produced by the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The Festival’s Web site is

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