What are the zhey dances in Bhutan?


There are a fixed number of steps in each dance, and each step has its own significance.

“Zhey” literally means “dance”, referring to a traditional folk dance of Bhutan. There is singing and dancing to tunes of rapid rhyme. Throughout the performance, the movements are rigorous and the dancers take firm steps as they gradually increase in pace. 

There are a specific number of steps to take, and each step has its significance.

Zhey is performed by only the men. 

The history of zhey dances

Legend has it that Tshangpa Jarey, the founder of the Drukpa Kagyu sect, wanted to build a Drukpa temple. But there was a demon in the form of a tortoise at the site, setting him back on the work. It was frustrating. Thus, he created a song and dance known as zhey.

In the song, he claimed to be the son of Pelden Drukpa and therefore unbeatable. With the zhey, he defeated the demon and completed the temple.

The great Lama Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal first fled to Bhutan from Tibet in 1616. Upon arriving at the northern border at Gasa, he was welcomed by the local Bhutanese, who performed zhey as a mark of their devotion.

And zhey has been a part of Bhutanese tradition since.

Variations of the zhey dance

Different districts in Bhutan have their own version of the zhey dance.

The basic themes of the zhey in different districts are more or less the same, but there are small differences like the dress code and dance steps. The 4 main zhey styles are:

  • Goen Zhey (Gasa)
  • Wang Zhey (Thimphu)
  • Nub Zhey (Trongsa)
  • Wochubi Zhey (Paro)

Apart from those 4 main districts, other districts have also developed their own zhey, although some are no longer practiced:

  • Ngayngbi (Bumthang)
  • Kabjisa Zhey (Punakha)
  • Do Zhey (Paro)
  • Kawang Zhey (Thimphu)

Zhey dance steps

Each zhey has its own characteristics — number of dancers, dance steps, dress code, etc — as we’ll see soon.

Included is a sample of the Goen Zhey dance steps. The other zhey, although not included here, have similar moves.

Goen Zhey (Gasa)

This is the original and oldest version of zhey, performed to receive the Lama Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal upon his arrival to Bhutan.

The significant verses of the song welcoming him are:
From the east, there always rises a sun; but the sun
that rises today is much warmer.
From Tibet, lamas have always come; but the lama
who comes today brings more blessings. 

Number of dancers: 21 
Number of steps: 13
Dance steps: 

1 -  Sa-chak, dedicated to the initiation.
2 -  Chak-tshelma, dedicated to commemorate spiritual teachers, deities, and ancestors.
3 -  Shar-pharley-thridu, dedicated to guests of the occasion. 
4 -  Tshopa-namyang-tshok, dedicated to the gathering.
5 - Norbu-dungkar, acknowledging the preciousness of conch in Buddhism.
6 - Tsel-sum-pa, dedicated to the three powerful forces: sky, sun, and rays.
7 - Zhuk-drel, dedicated to the excellence of the assembly line.
8 - Pa-tsha, dedicated to the usefulness of the cane.
9 - Chamshok, dedicated to the dance itself.
10 - Jachen-ngangpa, dedicated to the giant swan.
11 - Meto-kumud, offering of lotus and water to the deities.
12 - Thridu-nyima-jugjug, dedicated to the wellbeing of the spiritual teachers, deities, and ancestros. 
13 -  Chaluk-lekchi-chaluk-lek, concluding prayer.

Dress code: The lead dancer wears a chamok (helmet) and colourful scarf. Meanwhile, the others wear a kopak (headband) and a plain white scarf. Each dancer wears a red woolen gho (robe), black tego (undershirt), yuelham (traditional boots), and a pata (sword).

Wang Zhey (Thimphu)

Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal’s followers performed this dance when he just arrived in the Thimphu valley. 

Number of dancers: 12
Number of steps: 14
Dress code: Dancers are bare-headed. They wear gho made of raw silk which signifies the sovereignty and independence of Bhutan. They also wear a silk meyo (knee-length skirt) which points to protection against negative influence. Each dancer carries a kabney (white scarf) as a sign of respect to the Lama. On their foot is dralham (traditional boots made of leather and silk), which represent subduing the enemies of the country. Around their head is a headband of 5 colours, also made of silk, to signify spreading the Lama’s blessings to all mankind.

Nub Zhey (Trongsa)

The people of Jee village perform Nub Zhey for the local deities. The people of the village speak Zha ked, which led to the name of their zhey, Nub Zhey. 

Number of steps: 22

Dress code: The dancers wear a red gho which symbolises devotion to Buddhism. A blue tego signifies the medicinal herbs in the country. Meanwhile, they also wear a khamar (white kabney with a red/white/blue stripe down either edge) which represents the vow of adherence to the precepts. Ko Ilham (traditional knee-length boots) for the ability to bring all the eastern regions under control. Dungkar-gi along (conch shell finger ring) signifies victory over the invaders. Last but not least, a thoe (ring-like headband) for the Lama’s teachings.

Wochubi Zhey (Paro)

This version of zhey was introduced by the people from Wochu of Dzongdrakha monastery.

Number of steps: 18
Dress code: The dancers wear a headband made of green leaves, black tego, khamar, and yuelham. Their dressing symbolises a pigeon.

Witness a zhey!

Zhey is performed on special occasions like the tshechu or traditional ceremonies. 

Of course, there is nothing like watching a performance for yourself. So travel to Bhutan to witness:

- Goen Zhey at Gasa Tshechu 
- Nub Zhey at Trongsa Tshechu
- Wochubi Zhey at Paro Tshechu

Related Posts

What are the types of traditional dances and music in Bhutan?

In general, there are three classifications of Bhutanese classical and contemporary performance - Zhungdra, Boedra and...

Jan 17, 2021 20:27

What are the traditional sports of Bhutan?

The Bhutanese have a variety of traditional sports. Some test your aim and skills, whereas with others, it’s about pure...

Jul 13, 2021 11:15

Tshoglhams, the 'colour-coded' traditional boots of Bhutan

The colour of the traditional boots indicates the status of the wearer.

Nov 22, 2021 15:29

What is your birth mewa (birth marks)?

Mewa indicates a karmic relation from life to life.

Nov 16, 2021 14:42

How to make your own Bhutanese suja (butter tea) at home

All you need are 5 simple ingredients and 10 minutes of your time.

Nov 15, 2021 13:56

What's your element: water, fire, earth, wood, metal

Each of the five elements possesses its own attributes.

Oct 29, 2021 13:55



Restoration of Drukgyel Dzong is expected to be completed by June 2022

Drukgyel Dzong is one of the most popular landmarks in Paro.

Nov 18, 2021 13:35

Selling and buying of tobacco products are no longer illegal in Bhutan

Bhutan introduced a new law on tobacco. This new act permits the sales, distribution, buying, possession, and transportation of tobacco or...

Nov 09, 2021 11:23


The endangered majestic black-necked cranes are highly honoured in Bhutan

The Bhutanese believe that the cranes were sent from the heavens as avatars of their ancestors.

Nov 25, 2021 12:35

There is a yeti preserve in Bhutan that is bigger than the size of Singapore

Wondering whether there are yetis in Bhutan? There is even a corpse!

Oct 21, 2021 11:22


Yathra weaving, the uniquely Bumthang culture

Unlike other places in Bhutan, the people of Bumthang don’t do agricultural work. Instead, they weave yathra products. Traditionally, every...

Sep 13, 2021 17:06

What are the entrepreneurship programmes and initiatives available in Bhutan?

The Bhutanese government has introduced all kinds of initiatives to promote entrepreneurship. Even school kids are groomed to innovate,...

Jun 22, 2021 16:37


Bhutan's national women cricket team won ICC Women's T20 World Cup Asia Qualifier 2021 opening match

The United Arab Emirates is currently hosting the ICC Women's T20 World Cup Asia Qualifier. The two ICC Academy grounds in Dubai Sports City...

Nov 23, 2021 11:13

Paro FC reclaimed its champion title for BoB Bhutan Premier League 2021

Bank of Bhutan (BoB) Bhutan Premier League 2021, previously known as Bhutan Premier League (BPL), the top football tournament in Bhutan...

Oct 02, 2021 19:57


Bhutan banned mountaineering out of respect for the local spiritual beliefs

While there are many stunning peaks in Bhutan, mountaineering is prohibited in Bhutan.

Nov 29, 2021 11:51

My first Jomolhari Base Camp Trek experience, a journey within and beyond

Find out what to expect on a 5-day Jomolhari Base Camp Trek itinerary

Nov 26, 2021 15:01


Tshoglhams, the 'colour-coded' traditional boots of Bhutan

The colour of the traditional boots indicates the status of the wearer.

Nov 22, 2021 15:29

What is your birth mewa (birth marks)?

Mewa indicates a karmic relation from life to life.

Nov 16, 2021 14:42


Bhutan was the first South Asian country to vaccinate children against Covid-19

Bhutanese children aged 12 to 19 years old were vaccinated. Immunising the kids was necessary to achieve herd immunity.

Dec 03, 2021 11:20

Bhutan is leading in the vaccination race

“Bhutan is now a beacon of hope for the region, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has upended lives and devastated families." - Dr Will...

Jul 28, 2021 12:01

Subscribe to our newsletter

Never miss out on new happenings and news stories!

Download Daily Bhutan Mobile App

Connecting with us just got easier!