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

Ngenpa Gudzom is the most inauspicious day on the Bhutanese...

Ngenpa Gudzom literally means the meeting of the Nine Evils. (Ngenpa = Evil, Gu = Nine, Dzom = Meet)

Dec 10, 2021 11:43

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



Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is one of the 15 shortlisted films for Oscars 2022 International Feature Film Category

The Academy Awards, popularly known as Oscars is the most prestigious award within the film industry.

Jan 10, 2022 16:01

Bhutan experienced one of the heaviest snowfalls in a decade

On December 29, 2021, Bhutan experienced one of the heaviest snowfalls since Gasa’s record of 12cm in 2018.

Dec 30, 2021 16:47


Bhutan's transition into the age of digitalisation

Bhutan embraced the ICT sector and endeavour to build its economy around it.

Jan 13, 2022 12:07

Sighting a red panda in the wild is good luck

From becoming endangered to having a beer named after them, the red pandas are an icon of Bhutan.

Jan 03, 2022 14:46


Online businesses are becoming more and more popular in Bhutan

Even though the Internet was developed in the 1960s, the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan was only introduced to it in June 1999.

Jan 20, 2022 12:41

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


Outstanding individuals, schools and clubs awarded for their contributions to grassroots football

On December 22, 2021, the Bhutan Football Federation (BFF), a bronze member of the AFC Grassroots Charter,presented awards to unsung heroes...

Jan 11, 2022 14:15

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


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


Ngenpa Gudzom is the most inauspicious day on the Bhutanese calendar

Ngenpa Gudzom literally means the meeting of the Nine Evils. (Ngenpa = Evil, Gu = Nine, Dzom = Meet)

Dec 10, 2021 11:43

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


Bhutan undergo blackout period to curb COVID-19 transmission

Bhutan went into a “24 hours blackout” in 14 Dzongkhags with the detection of a positive community case on 15th January 2022. 141 new cases...

Jan 18, 2022 16:43

Bhutan to roll out booster shots next week for priority groups

Kingdom of Bhutan has thus far organized two vaccination campaigns in March and July 2021.

Dec 16, 2021 12:26

Subscribe to our newsletter

Never miss out on new happenings and news stories!

Download Daily Bhutan Mobile App

Connecting with us just got easier!