November 11 is Crane Festival Day at Gangtey Monastery in eastern Bhutan. The main performers are school kids who enact a special crane dance: this is hands-on environmental education. The Bhutanese ethic for compassionate conservation of nature is evident as it celebrates the annual Gangtey Crane Festival.
Bhutan is famed for its religious festivals—or tsechu—that go back hundreds of years. But there’s one that goes back only 20 years. The Gangtey Tsechu, or Crane Festival, takes place annually on November 11, staged in the courtyard of Gangtey Monastery, about 7 hours’ drive east from Thimphu. The Crane Festival is a modern variation that combines traditional dance—mostly performed by monks—with new choreography performed by school children. The festival was initiated by the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature in 1998 to draw attention to the endangered black-necked cranes, whose roosting grounds at Phobjikha were being encroached upon by farmers. The festival is dedicated to environmental education, with a narrative that cranes and humans can co-exist.
The black-necked cranes of Tibet were the last of the 15 crane species to be described, after they were found near Lake Kokornor on the remote Tibetan plateau in 1876 by Russian naturalist Nicholas Przewalski. They nest in various parts of the plateau and choose diverse winter migration locations across Asia. The festival celebrates the annual arrival of black-necked cranes near Gangtey Monastery, staying to roost until February, when they return to Tibet. The birds circle the monastery three times on arrival, before heading for nearby wetlands. These birds are regarded as symbols of good luck, beauty, grace and longevity—they actually live up to 30 years. In Bhutan, the auspicious crane is revered by Buddhists as a ‘lyab-bja’–meaning ‘heavenly bird.’ And flying at such high altitudes, it is indeed close to the heavens. The cranes are celebrated in folk tales, poetry, song and dance—and painted into frescoes on monastery walls. The people of Phobjikha Valley plant their winter wheat only after the cranes arrive.
Exploring Phobjikha’s Wetlands
The valleys around Gangtey Gompa are heavily forested, with small-scale farming of potatoes and buckwheat in terraced fields. Life is delightfully rural—a great place to slow down and take long walks, indulge in some mountain-biking, or go horse-riding. Low-key eco-tourism is on the rise here, with innovative programs that include homestays–where you can assist with milking and making cheese, textile-weaving, or indulge in a traditional hot-stone bath. And then, there is bird-watching, of course.
The prime place to ramble is Phobjikha Wetland Reserve. Here you can visit the Crane Visitor Centre—which acts as a small nature museum and as a spot to observe black-necked cranes in the valley through viewing scopes. Staying right at the centre is Karma the crane—who will not be returning to Tibet after the annual migration to Bhutan. This young crane was mauled by a feral dog, and its wings cannot provide enough lift for flying. Karma pecks at a mirror reflection for company.
In the distance, you can hear the wild cranes—noisier at dusk and dawn. Bird-watchers can access a blind on the opposite side of the valley to get a closer look at crane behaviour with binoculars and long lenses. Pairs of cranes interact—bowing, jumping and flapping wings in courtship rituals. During the day, as they fly off to find food in the valley—insects, fish, rodents, berries–you can see pairs flying in perfect formation. A few days before Gangtey Crane Festival, about 50 birds have arrived. At the height of the season, by late November, that number can swell to over 300 cranes. Bhutan is a birders’ paradise, with over 670 species identified. Among them are rare species like the white-bellied heron and the satyr tragopan.
At the Rehearsals
Days before the festival, elaborate preparations are underway. At a monastery, monks are rehearsing moves for sacred masked dance. At the local Bayta School, boys and girls aged 9 to 14 dress up in crane costumes, practicing for their performance. This is hands-on environmental education, as the school-kids mimic the movements of the cranes, with somewhat comical results.
Education in Bhutan promotes great respect for the environment. Indeed, glowing pride in the environment is the basis for trekking and nature tourism—Bhutan’s greatest tourist draws. Spiritual beliefs that sustain environmental protection are heavily imbued in Bhutanese culture—a mix of traditional Bon and Tibetan Buddhism. Bon adherents, being animist, believe that guardian spirits reside in the mountains, the trees, the rivers and lakes. And that these spirits must not be disturbed through misconduct—or pollution. Offerings are made to spirits and deities to ensure the success of crops.
Excitement builds at Gangtey Monastery as the big day arrives. Bhutan’s spectacular monasteries are marvels of medieval architecture that have preserved lost art-forms derived from Tibet. The crowd packed into the courtyard is mostly Bhutanese, dressed in their finest robes. Off to one side is a small pavilion with VIP seating for visiting dignitaries, who wear ceremonial white scarves reserved for entering temple precincts.
After initial speeches, the dance performances get under way. A stand-out are the majestic masked dancers—all monks. The hand-made masks depict real and mythical creatures. The dances re-enact myths, legends and moral tales: the mesmerizing dancers move slowly across the stone-paved courtyard, occasionally making acrobatic leaps into the air. A circle of women perform the ‘Thrung Thrung Karmo’ dance–in praise of black-necked cranes–gracefully waving their arms like wings.
But they are not the stars of the show. The stars are the young students from Bayta School performing the black-necked crane dance. These students stand about the same height as an adult crane. They bob their ‘beaked’ heads, flap their ‘wings’ with glee, and comically mimic crane movements. As the pace picks up, they run across the courtyard in choreographed moves—adding their own vocals to the bugling of real black-cranes on the music track for this dance. And it is with this exuberant choreography seared into the memory that visitors leave the charming world of Gangtey Monastery behind.