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Bhutanese Bathing Culture

Traditionally, Bhutanese take two types of long holiday from their work: either a pilgrimage or an extended bathing retreat. Bathing (ཆུ་སྦང་ནི་) as a form of ablution (ཁྲུས་), has a deep spiritual significance as discussed under throesol (ཁྲུས་གསོལ་). However, it is for both the perceived spiritual and medicinal values of some water sources that many people travel long distances to bathe for longer periods of time.                 

There are three main types of water sources which are sought for their therapeutic and healing effects: tshachu, menchu, and drupchu. The most popular water sources are the tshachu (ཚ་ཆུ་), or hot springs. Bhutan has a number of well-known hot springs including in Gasa, Koma and Chupho in Punakha, Dur in Bumthang, Nai in Kurtoe, Dunmang in Zhemgang, and Gelephu. The hot springs are not only considered as medicinally potent but are also considered sacred water sources blessed by holy beings, particularly the eighth century master Guru Rinpoche. Important lamas throughout history, such as Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651), were recorded as having spent long periods in hot springs to recover and/or prolong their health.

Although not as popular as the hot springs, two other types of water sources are also common. Drupchu (གྲུབ་ཆུ་) springs are considered to be filled with blessed water, often extracted from a cliff by a holy person. They may or may not have medicinal value but they are attributed great spiritual power to bless and liberate the anyone who ingests its water from suffering. The springs are often found near a very holy site and associated with the founder of the site. The Kurjey drupchu, for example, is located next to the Kurjey temple and believed to have been blessed by Guru Rinpoche.

Menchu (སྨན་ཆུ་) medicinal springs are found throughout the country. Although they may not be associated with a religious person or attributed spiritual power, menchu springs are said to have strong medicinal ingredients which have healing power if a person bathes in them. Particular tshachu, menchu and drupchu springs are often said to have specific benefits. Some springs are said to be good for some illnesses (rashes, eye infections, joint pain, etc.) while others are said to have power to heal other physical problems. Personal preference can also play a role in the choice of a particular water source.

Many people travel in groups to spend time in the springs during the winter. They make preparations for the bathing holiday in advance by brewing alcohol and gathering the necessary food and bedding before they travel to the springs and set up their camps. Today, many hot springs in Bhutan have shelters built for visitors. Wooden bath tubs have also been made in most hot springs that are regulated by a caretaker. People are made to follow certain procedures and rules to keep the tubs and water clean. Visitors are made to take showers before they enter and they are not allowed to scrub or put soaps in the main tubs. Because main source of the hot water is considered sacred, people are not allowed to walk over it or sit on it. Often a shrine is set up at the site from where the water flows out of the ground.

Most hot springs are located in rough terrain near a river and share similar geological and topographic features. Many have suffered repeated landslides, changing the landscape around the spring. While some are accessible by a motor road, others lie at many days walking distance. There is a widespread folk belief that the hot springs have been extracted and blessed by Guru Rinpoche. Thus, when people take long baths, they say prayers and also drink small amounts of the water as a blessing although today medical experts are advising people to not consume the sulphurous water. Many also believe taking baths for long periods in the spring is an important psycho-physical intervention. Thus, they consult an astrologer for the auspicious date to start the soak, or check if their year of birth and other astrological features are harmonious for a long session in the hot springs. Many also believe children grow faster having baths in hot springs. So, they bring even very young children to hot springs.

People judge the quality or beneficial power of the hot springs by checking if their silver ornaments, such as rings, turn blue or dark. Some hot springs are very hot while others are mild. In order to avoid fainting or to gain strength to bear the heat, people eat very nutritious food and have parties. Bathing sessions in springs are great social events both in the bath tub and outside. People chat and tell stories and jokes although initial meetings are often sombre. The Bhutanese generally drink drupchu as a blessing and do not heat it up for bathing. Menchu springs, however, are great spots for bathing. Unlike at a hot spring, people bring firewood and large vessels to heat up the water. The bath tub is generally fixed and available at the site.

The culture of hot water bathing thrives in Bhutan today with better travel facilities and economic conditions. These rank among the most favourite cultural holidays in the country.

 

Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.

Bhutanese Bathing Culture
Collection Bhutan Cultural Library
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Descriptions of the three types of water sources used for bathing in Bhutan: tshachu, menchu, and drupchu.

Author Karma Phuntsho
Editor Ariana Maki
Year published 2017
Subjects
Places