Mask Dance (Cham)
Classical dances in Bhutan are reflected in the religious mask pageants and ritual dances. With the introduction of Buddhism in the 8th century AD by Guru Padmasambhava from Tibet, ritual and mask dances gained roots in the Bhutanese system as part of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. With the birth of the great Terton (treasure revealer) Pema Lingpa in the 15th century, the mask dances in Bhutan took firm roots and gained an impetus as part of the Bhutanese cultural life. The Ter Cham (treasure dances) and Pe Ling Ging Sum were the most famous of the dances that still continues to this day. In the 17th century with the arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal from Tibet, the mask dances further gained importance. Many new dances were introduced. The Puna Domchoe was introduced in Punakha Dzong as accompaniment to the prayers to the protector deity Pel yeshey Gonpo (Mahakala). Je Kuenga Gyeltshen, the reincarnation of Jampel Dorji also introduced a dance in honour of Pelden Lhamo (mahakali) in Trashichhodzong. Some of the celebrated dances are Zhana cham or the Black Hat dance, the Degyed cham or the Spirit dance, the Shinje cham or the Yamaraja dance, the Durdag cham or the Dance of Shamashan Lord and the Guru Tshengyed or the Dance of the Eight manifestations of Guru Padmasambhava.
The religious dances are symbolic and have a common theme to destroy or trample the evil spirits. The swords of the dancers symbolize cutting through ignorance while the drums drive away all malevolent evils and demons. Witnessing the dances is believed to remove sins and take one closer towards attaining nirvana or enlightenment.
Dances are performed annually in all important Dzongs, temples and in monasteries and usually lasts for three to five days. The occasion is known as Tshechu as they are normally performed on the 10th day of the months and is an occasion for the village people to gather round and partake in the festive occasion. Dressed in their finest clothes the village people and their families mix around and be a part of this grand spectacular occasion reveling in their packed lunches and ara.
Some of the different types of mask dance (cham) are as given below:
This dance was created on a legend of Drogoen Tshangpa Jarey’s subduing of a guardian deity of a lake in Tsari Mountain. The deity of that lake was not allowing the pilgrims to visit the lake. So Drogoen Tshangpa Jarey went to open the access and the deity turned itself into a giant frog blocking the way to the lake. He jumped on the frog and danced on it, thus subduing it and establishing it as the guardian deity of that place. The access to the lake was opened to the pilgrims by Drogoen Tshangpa Jarey.
2. DRAMITSE NGACHAM: The Dance of the drums from Dramitse
Dramitse Ngacham is one of the most colorful and sacred dances performed throughout Bhutan during festivals in honour of Guru Padmasambhava.
The dance features sixteen masked male dancers wearing colorful costumes. The dancers consist of Singye (snow lion), Chungmo (female garuda), Jarog (raven), Druel (snake), Druk (dragon), Ugpa (owl), Yak, Tag (tiger), Zig (leopard), Phag (pig), Phowamarky ( Bat), Lug (sheep), Chi (dog), Dom (bear), Ra (goat) and Lango (ox). The dance is performed in two sequences. It has calm and a contemplative part that represents the peaceful deities and a fast and an athletic part where the dancers embody wrathful deities. This type of appearance aims at subduing the evil spirits.
It has both religious and cultural significance as it is believed to have been originally performed by the heroes and heroines who are the followers of Guru Rinpoche in Zangthopelri (the copper mountain abode). The dancers carry drums in their hands and the beating of drums is a symbol of victory in Buddhism. This dance also manifests the life of Bardo (intermediate state). They display the frightening atmosphere of life after death. It is said that we will meet with the same creatures after our death and these dancers familiarize the public with different faces. This dance is sacred and people watching it is believed to be freed form rebirth in lower realms.
There are many versions about the introduction of the Dramitse Ngachham. Most historians say that the dance was first introduced by Khedrup Kuenga Gyeltshen in Ogyen Thechog Choling monastery. This man was said to be a brother of Ani Choten Zangmo who settled at Dramitse after naming the place. Khedup Kuenga, while undergoing a retreat had a vision of three beautiful women who had the heavenly form, dressed in silken clothes with precious gems. These three heavenly bodies guided him to the abode of Guru Rinpoche where he witnessed celestial heroes and heroines performing a dance. After this incident, Khedrup Kuenga introduced the dance according to the prophecy made by Guru in his vision. The nineteenth century versions of the Dramitse Ngacham say that dance was also introduced in other parts of Bhutan by the end of nineteenth century.
Today, the dance has evolved from a local event, centered on a particular community into an art form, representing the identity of the Bhutanese nation as a whole. Drametse Ngacham was also proclaimed as the masterpiece of the world intangible heritage in November 2005.
3. DURDAG: The Dance of the Shamashan Lord
Durdag is known as the dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds. On the external edges of a symbolic mandala where the assembly of the secret Tantric deities reside, there are eight large cremation grounds. Living in these cremation grounds are numerous lords (Chhokyong) who are bound by an oath to protect the religion. Among them is the Lord of Cremation Grounds. Because of a promise they have accepted before and from which they cannot be diverted even for one instant, these Lords render powerless the assembly of demonic enemies who have violated their oath of not harming the Doctrine. They offer them to the gods of the mandala and reduce them to a mere name.
4. GEN-DROOG PAWO: The Dance of the Heroes with Six Ornaments
Gen- Droog Pawo cham is known as the Dance of the heroes with six ornaments because they carry six types of ornaments while performing the Cham. These instruments consist of five kinds of bone ornaments on their body and they also carry Drilbu (small bell) and Damaru (small drum) as the sixth ornament. Even though this type of demonstration seems a common entertainment dance, it has deeper meanings according to religious conviction. According to Mantrayana teachings, it is said that the sound of the drum makes the sleeping god wake up from the sleep of ignorance. This dance also illustrates the high tantric deities coming to set free the sentient beings to the final accomplishment of all sufferings by their physical gestures. They also perform the dance of mahamudra and sing the song about the essences of Mahayana Buddhism in a harmonious way. As they appear and come bravely and confidently without hesitation, they are called Pawos or the Heros.
5. GING TSHOLING CHAM
On the occasion of the consecration of the Samye Monastery in Tibet, Guru Rimpoche initiated this dance to show the people of Tibet the Zangtho Pelri, his realm.
The dance depicts the paradise of Ugyen Rimpoche from where all the incarnations of Ugyen Rimpoche, essence of all the Budhas, are sent to the Three Worlds. In the middle of a great palace is seated Ugyen Rimpoche. On his right the holy men are Tibet and India are seated in a row and on his left the learned men (Pandits) from Tibet and India. In all the intermediate zones are the 108 ‘Treasure Discoverers’ (terton) who are his incarnations, and also his twenty five disciples, including the king of Tibet Trisongdetsen.
In the centre of a rainbow, the assembly of tutelary deities (Yidam), heroes (pawos) and fairies (Kandoms), peaceful and terrifying, as if by magic, sing, dance and spread from the clouds three kinds of offerings. It is these offerings that grant both the ordinary and extraordinary realisation.
All the protectors of the religion, male and female, in their fierce form, are guarding the four outer doors while the four Guardian Kings of the directions command an army of eight classes of spirits. These subdue all the demons who create obstacles to the Doctrine of Buddha. All these wonders have been personally observed by the ‘Treasure Discoverer’ Pemalinga.
Besides, a long time ago in Tibet, in order to introduce Buddhism, King Trisongdetsen built a large monastery in Samye. Ugyen Rimpoche, by showing hi magical powers through incarnations, subdued all the demons who were preventing its construction. Thus he fulfilled a religious commitment to the King.
These incarnations are manifested in the Ging and Tsholing Dance: the inner dance called the Ging Dance is performed by the assembly of heroes (Pawos), tutelary deities (Yidams) and fairies (Hansoms) as well as the various terrifying deities. The outer dance called Tsholing Dance is performed by the protectors of the religion with their retinue of eight classes of spirits. This dance, which brings blessings, is performed in order to remove all obstacles to the Doctrine as well as to bring happiness to all sentient beings. When the Ging and Tsholing performed this miraculous and agitated dance, they discourage the external demons and demonstrate clearly their magical powers by which they can overcome the demons.
This dance is clearly a dance of purification before the arrival of Guru Rimpoche. People whistle to chase away the bad spirits and Ging hit everyone on the head with their drumsticks to chase away impurity from the body. The Tsholing, after having destroyed the evil spirits symbolized by an effigy in a black box, are chased away by the Ging who stay alone and perform a dance of victory by beating their drums.
6. PELING GING SUM
The origin of the happiness of all beings in the Three Worlds is the religion of Buddha. To conceive this religion one must first listen to the teachings, and then practice by meditation. Any kind of beings who create obstacles to the doctrine, human or non-human, who have wicked powers and bad thoughts are called Jungpo Nyulema. There are many magical formulas to subdue these spiteful spirits. On this subject, the great “Treasure Discoverer” Pemalingpa in Zangdopelri, saw the dance of the Three Kings of ‘Ging’, all emanations of Guru Rimpoche. This was the blessing, which explained how to subdue the Nyulema to Pemalingpa.
Peling Ging sum conprises thre differnt dances which are Jug ging, dance holding stick; dri ging, dance holding sword; and nga ging, dance holding drum.
Although all the Nyulema who created obstacles to the religion fled around the Three Worlds, the Ging with the sticks can find them with the hook, beat them with the stick of wisdom and tie them with the noose of compassion. The lords of the Cremation grounds bring the box, which contains the mind and the body of these demons. Then the Ging with the swords, purify the atmosphere from such deeds as robbery, the killing or the separation of one’s tutelary deity (yidam), which are caused by the Ngulumas. The Ging with the swords send their minds in the paradise of pure consciousness while they use, as sacrificial offerings, the flesh and blood of the demons.
After these demons have been vanquished, the Ging celebrate by beating their drums, the sound of which is believed to propagate religion. This dance is performed to bring good luck and happiness to all living beings. These dances are considered as blessings and are connected with religious ceremonies. Those who master the practice of the two degrees of meditation must explain the doctrine that will result in the attainment of merit and the suppression of the black demons.
7. PHOLEY MOLEY
Pholay Molay is dance of the noble men and ladies (Pholay-men, Molay-ladies).This dance is performed today in most tscheus for the reason that this dance is based on folk tale of king Norzang in Northern India. This dance is performed very eloquently and the performers wear rich cloths and jewellery. It is performed in a kind of drama like way unlike the other mask dances.
It is similar play rather than a dance. Pholay and Molay speak to each other in significant dialogues. Their act is very expressive and it is communicative to the spectators. It is an enactment of the old story about the king and a queen in northern India.
In the past there lived a king called Norzang in the kingdom of Ngaden who had five hundred queens. In the same country was a hunter’s son who had the spirit’s noose of a serpent. He got this noose from the serpent as a gift for saving his life. It was said that nothing escaped from the noose. One day this boy caught a beautiful daughter of the king of Driza (demi-god) with his noose. Her name was Yidthroma and she was gifted to the king Norzang by the hunter’s boy. King immediately fell in love with her because of her charisma and good looks. Meanwhile the other queens in the court became very jealous for they were ignored by king. They decided that they should do something and asked the help of the court priest, Hari. This man had the power of black magic. Hari by his black magic was successful in creating terrible dreams and disturbed the sleep of the King’s father. On consulting the priest, the dream was interpreted as the bad omen.
The priest said that the kingdom would be invaded from the north. He forced the king that he should send an army to attack the country in advance and also threatened that if he fails the country would fall under other’s rule. So the old man out of panic sends his son Norzang to lead the force. However Yidthroma and Norzang cannot bear the separation. Although they love each other extremely, they cannot go together in a war. So as a token of his love, the king leaves back his white turban, under clothing and a ring. The king was successful in defeating the northern country as they were not at all prepared.
Back home, the queens and the priest tried to kill Yidthroma. However they were not successful in killing her because she flew to heaven with the power of precious gem. When the king returned from the war she also returned to the earth. As they have defeated both the external and internal enemies, they lived happily.
The dancers consist of two princes, two princesses, an old couple and the clowns. Two princes go for the war and two princesses are left under the care of old woman. After the princes are gone away, the clowns try to flirt with princesses and corrupt the old woman. Princes are outraged by the behaviors of the princesses after their return. So the princes cut off the noses of the princesses. Old man too cuts off the nose of old woman. The doctor is called to replace the noses. A humor is added when the doctor uses the stick to replace the nose because the old woman smells horrible. Finally the princes and princesses get married.
It is said that the king Norzang got help from deities of his life as well as from protective spirits. The kelcham illustrates how the king got this help from them. These dancers wear knee-length yellow skirts, masks of the animals and carry a sword in their right hands. The dance depicts king Norzang and his army during the war.
The cutting of the nose depicts the conflicts between husband and wife. This incidence in the performance also means that love alone is not enough in the world. Everything in the world is fake, even beauty like love is not truth. Attractive wives and good looking man, who even cannot bear the temporary separation, have to fight and quarrel later because of the unbalanced nature of human mind and the changing bodies. The performances are based on the religious point of view, surrendering ourselves to the world of temptations and desires would only lead to unhappiness and sufferings both in present and future lives. It also depicts another important aspect of life, nothing is permanent. The real meaning of our happiness lies in devoting to the Three Precious One. This dance teaches us lessons on how to live a good life with unwavering love and faith in ourselves.
8. RAKSHA MANGCHAM
Raksha Mangcham was introduced by Terton Karma Lingpa in the 4th century. When the beings die, it is believed that they wander in transitional state (bardo-between death and rebirth) waiting to be liberated. So the Buddhas appear assuming both serene and wrathful appearances, to liberate these souls. But the beings that did not have faith in Buddhism in their lifetime are not able to see these Buddhas as their redeemer but as terrifying enemies and run away from them and they end up being in transitional state for a long time. However, Buddhas through their various manifestations do not stay indifferent and perform good deeds for the beings until the cycle of rebirth is complete. Raksha Lango (Ox-headed) symbolizes the Justice; Phag Gochen (wild hog-headed) keeps account of the goods and evil deeds of all the beings. Chung Gochen (garuda-headed) holds a hammer in one hand, symbolizing the obliteration of the evil and in another hand he holds a curved sword. Seng Gyei Gochen (Lion-headed) holds an iron chain in one hand and noose in other hand, symbolizing the bond of love and mercy respectively. To illustrate the need to eradicate selfishness and the importance of merging Method with wisdom Domgyi Gochen (Bear-headed) carries a sword in one hand and a gut noose in other hand. Images of all sinful and righteous deeds are reflected in the mirror of fate held by Drulgyi Gochen (snake-headed). Trel Gochen holds scales to weigh sins and virtues. In this cham one can see the judgement being made against Digchen Nyalwabum, a sinner and Khimdag Palkyed, an honest man. This cham in general depicts how virtuous people get liberated and sinners punished for their evil-doings. Onlookers can easily comprehend that the righteous and religious people will be liberated to better realms after death. And while in bardo they can identify that the terrifying apparitions are actually the saviors.
The whole scene of judgment of the dead is enacted through this cham. In this dramatized performance of mask dances, all the ethics of a fair trial is shown in accordance with the principles of natural justice. Principles such as bringing of the accused before a judge, right to a legal counsel, incessant hearing, making the charges known, and producing evidences, prosecution of crimes based on facts and evidences. Perhaps Bhutanese Criminal Laws has its source and origin in this Cham. In this cham the trial begins with the production of the accused, by the name of Nyalbum in front of Raksha Lango. Nyalbum is given a hearing in the presence of all the Gochens, and this depicts a fair and public trial. In this trial Lha Karpo is the Defence Counsel and Due Nagpo, the Prosecutor. Due Nagpo, the prosecutor submits the report of crimes committed by Nyalbum. He is accused of crimes against people, animals, property and environment, deception and libel. Due Nagpo requests the Lord to punish Nyalbum by sending him to hell for all his wrong doings and not to show him any compassion as it would override the views of the public. The presence of Lha Karpo as the defence counsel for Nyalbum affirms the right to fair trail in the court of the Lord of Purgatory. Lha Karpo submits his views, justifying the crimes committed by Nyalbum. The crimes having been committed in ignorance and out of mitigating necessity, on Nyalbum’s behalf Lha Karpo pleads to liberate Nyalbum through compassion. The lord of purgatory having heard both Lha Karpo and Due Nagpo and the trial conducted in the open and in presence of all the Gochens, gives articulate judgment based on the facts and evidences. He pronounces the accused guilty of the crime and holds Nyalbum responsible for the consequences of his own wrong doings, tells him he has to suffer for it.
9. ZHANA CHAM: The Black Hat Dance
This dance has a double meaning: it celebrates the assassination of the Tibetan King Langdarma in 842 A.D. by a Buddhist monk wearing a black robe. The monk had hidden the bow and arrows in the folds of his long sleeves. The Black Hat Dancers assume the appearance of yogis who have the power of taking and recreating life. They subdue and lead to the field of Buddha those who are unwilling to be led. They accomplish this by manifesting external anger while being completely at peace within. Five fiendish enemies, which represent sins, disappear in the sphere of emptiness with the appearance of the Black Hat Tantrists.
This dance can also be referred to as “Gar” dance. It is derived from a different tradition of the tantras. The Black Hat Dancers who perform the ritual for the earth firstly build a mandala and then cut the demons into pieces. Thus they take possession of the earth in order to further protect it and they dance the step of a thunderbolt to imprint their power on it. (The Thunderbolt step is the particular step in the religious dances). To draw the mandala, they practice the “Tantra without superior” (it is a text called Lamey Gyu) that is not known in the Hinayana (small path of Buddhism). Because these practices are so sacred the very act of seeing them purifies and dissipates the mass of mental obscurity accumulated during ages (kalpa) and the inner and outer obstacles are pacified. Because of this importance, Shabdrung himself used to perform this ritual.
10. ZHANA NGA CHAM
This dance symbolizes the victory of the Black Hat dancers over the malevolent deities who persecuted the beings and Buddhists. To celebrate their victory, the dancers beat the great drums of Buddhism. The sound of the drums represent the religion itself which has no visible form.
11. DE-GYAD CHAM: The Dance of Spirits
De-Gyad Cham is the eight groups (De-Gyad) of spirit owners. They control the three realms of the existence. They are heaven, earth and under-world. These eight groups consist of Lha (gods), Dud (devil), Tsan (demon), Gyalpo (ruling spirits), Shinjey (lord of the death), Mamo (fearful demon), Nodjin (a set of harm-giving spirits) and Sadag (demon of the Naga class).
The main function of this group of spirits owner is to harm and make human and other sentient beings undergo sufferings and pain. They do their best to create turmoil and confusion in the world. However, the guardian deity like Pal Yeshey Gonpo tries to control them in the form of chief of every De-Gyad. He also safeguards the precious teaching of Lord Buddha. This dance illustrates the fact to the public, so that people should instill unwavering faith in the protective deity and the teaching of Buddha. Happiness is returned to the earth after the dance and all the sentient beings and the gods rejoice.
These dancers wear animal masks and knee-length yellow skirts.
12. DRAMYEN CHAM
This is a cheerful dance to celebrate the diffusion of Drukpa lineage in Bhutan by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. As prophesized by Guru Rimpoche, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the reincarnation of Ugyen Rimpoche and of Thugje Chenpo, brought under his control the large ‘Southern Land of Four Approaches’ (an ancient name given to Bhutan) and blessed it. He protected his subjects like his children and introduced the golden yoke of civil law. He conquered many foreign enemies and was victorious in all directions.
He built Dzongs, temples, beautiful chortens, statues and religious books, and supported the faith of Buddhism. He imposed very strict rules upon the newly established monk body and also upon the Tantric College. He sustained the Three Jewels and the community of the monks who practiced the moral training: to listen, to think, to explain, to understand and to mediate the basic texts that are contained in the Three Baskets (all essence of the Buddha’s doctrine).
The generous donors who give offerings to the gods and gifts to the people believe in the result of their actions. Because of the power of their generosity, monks and laymen will be happy in this life and the life to come. This dance of the guitar is performed in a cheerful mood.
13. PA CHAM
This dance can be traced back to the time of Tertoen Pema Lingpa (the treasure discoverer) in 15th century. It is believed that Tertoen Pema Lingpa the great ‘Treasure-Discover’ Pema Lingpa arrived in the presence of Ugyen Rinpoche, at the summit of the Zangtho Pelri, in the middle of a marvelous palace of lotus beams which reflected the wisdom large and deep as the sky, without obstacles. There he saw Ugyen Rimpoche, the Lord who leads the beings of the three worlds, sitting among his assistants in the centre of a limitless mandala which was made of lines of rainbow beams. In the mandala, the assembly of the sages, of the tutelary deities, of the heroes (Pawos) and the heroines (Kandom Pamo) were dancing in the forms of various emanations of the peaceful and terrifying deities. All sorts of dances were performed and all sorts of harmonious melodies which are the sounds of the religion of the Great Path (Northern branch of Buddhism) were sung. Among this congregation, the assembly of the peaceful heroes and heroines is the most important. They are as numerous as the moving clouds in order to celebrate the deep and large religion and their function is to lead the believers who die into the presence of Ugyen Rimpoche.
14. SHAWA SHACHI
This cham is known as the dance of stag and hounds. It represents the conversion of the hunter Gonpo Dorji to Buddhism by the great saint Jetsun Milarepa. In 11th century when Jetsun Milarepa (1040-1123) was deeply meditating in a hermitage called Nyichangkurta on the border between Nepal and Tibet, a red stag comes running to him, its body soaked in sweat and two hunting dogs in its pursuit. Milarepa seeing the stag so scared, sings to it and the stag hearing the song forgets its fear and lies down to the right of Milarepa. Subsequently two hounds come chasing after the stag, Milarepa also sings to them and calms down their fiery temper, thereby the stag and hounds lie side by side near Milarepa. Then comes the Hunter Gonpo Dorji with a bow and arrow, who is shocked to see the stag and hounds sitting together. He is so enraged at this sight that he accuses Milarepa of using black magic to control the animals. He aims to shoot Milarepa with his bow and Milarepa sings to him the same song, thus calming Gonpo Dorji and converting him into Buddhism. It is believed that Gonpo Dorji thereafter became an ardent Buddhist and after he died he was reborn as the mind incarnation of Milarepa.
This dance-drama gives out a lesson that a sinner like Gonpo Dorji can also be enlightened by Dharma.
15. SHAZAM CHAM
In the 8th century there was a Wind God who created so much of trouble and unhappiness to the people. Guru subdued this wind god, thereby restoring peace and happiness. The Stag dance portrays the subjugation of the Wind God by Guru Rimpoche. As to mark his victory, Guru Rimpoche rode the stag that happened to be the mount of the God of the Wind, when he subdued the wind god and appeased all beings by establishing peace and happiness. It was the first incarnations of the Nam Nying (Namkhe Ngingpo) who revealed the treasure of this dance. It is believed that he found the effigy of the stag and created the stag dance. During this dance, the appreciation of the virtuous people is demonstrated to all the beings destined to be converted in the future. After all the agitators of the world have been overcome, happiness and peace will reign supreme.
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