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Buddhist Mask Dances: Ritual Dance by Tibetan Monks

Dance in mask

The vibrant Masked dances performed by Tibetan Buddhist monks are also called “Cham” – Dance in Tibetan. It is presented in colorful costumes vibrantly with its roots in Tibetan Buddhism. The monks almost always perform the mask dances. The dances are religious rituals depicting tales of the destruction of evil spirits by the deities for the greater good of humankind.

The ceremonial dance or Cham is practiced all over the Himalayas, where Tibetan Buddhism is practiced actively. The Himalayan regions of Tibet, Bhutan, India, and northern areas of Nepal are the areas where these mask dances take place during unique festivals. The performance can be spellbinding to those attending the celebrations.

Origin of Mask Cham (dance)

The origins of Tibetan Buddhist Mask Dance date back to around the 6th century; Ancient Indian literature tells of the sacred dance called Ger that was performed by the Dakinis when Kalachakra’s lesson was taught.  Cham is part of a Tantric ritual. Tantra was developed in ancient India, in the region of modern-day Pakistan.  Many elements of cham points to its roots in Hinduism, and in the Bon tradition (the spiritual tradition of Tibet before Buddhism). The Cham dance tradition depicts the tale of what Guru Padmasambhava did to eradicate evil spirits that obstructed the construction of Samye Monastery in the 8th century. The mask dances are an integral part of Mahayana Buddhism.

The religious significance of Cham

The Cham is considered an act of cleansing of the evil forces. The dance is performed in colorful brocade costumes and elaborate masks. The Gods and Deities of Tibetan Buddhism are summoned before the performance. The dance is influenced by the tantric traditions and is done for the betterment of all sentient beings.

The dance focuses on chanting, hand gestures, and invocation of the deities while concentrating on the deletion of negativity. The performance acts as moral lessons for the lay people while narrating stories of their legendary gods. It also familiarizes the lay people to the kind of deities they will encounter during their 49 days of the transition period (called Bardo in Tibetan) between death and rebirth.

It is performed at monastic courtyards around a central prayer flagpole. The performers hold conventional instruments in their hands and dance to the tune of the monastery’s musical instruments. The hand gestures represent different aspects of the tale. There is also some comic relief to lighten the somber sequences when performers jump into the scene in skeleton costumes and other characters by performing acrobatic and comic feats.

The Cham performance can last anywhere from 2 days to over 15 days, right from the invocation of deities to the commencement. When the ‘Chams’ approaches its end, a climactic scene is enacted.

A sacrificial offering takes place by making a human figure made from dough made from roasted barley. It is cut ritually into pieces and scattered in the four essential directions. It represents the eradication of Buddhism’s enemy and purifies the human soul from the three evils of ignorance, jealousy, and hatred.

The mask dance gives an insight into the rich culture and heritage of Buddhism.

Cham Masks and Costumes

The main attraction of the Cham dance for many non-Tibetans is the multitude and diversity of the colorful masks. The Masks represent the embodiment of the wrathful deity. The mask drives terror and great fear into the hearts of the evil forces, and it also provides tranquility and peace to the practitioners of Buddism seeking enlightenment through prayer and meditation. Antique masks are considered very special and powerful. They are revered with pilgrims praying before them, especially on the special occasion or during religious festivals. The famous stone mask of Palden Lhamo, located in the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, is one such item. The Cham masks are about two to three times larger than a human head and are quite substantial. The dancers wear padded caps or folded towels to cover their forehead, sides of the face and neck to avoid chaffing and cuts because of the Mask’s weight, an awkward center of gravity, sharp-edged corners.

The Cham performers all wear brightly colored robes, aprons, and ornaments that were traditionally made of bones. Antique costumes are rare due to time, rodents, insects wear, and tear. However, the silk and brocade, along with a broader selection of modern accessories, will soon make for a more extensive collection of modern colorful, flowing costumes to be reproduced. The old decorations that were made from animal or human bones can now be designed from a wide variety of plastic or other material for easier acquisition and much faster to work with.

The monks wear the costumes over their usual dress minus the outer clothing. The dance costume consists of a gown with long, broad sleeves over which a short triangular cape called a tippet can be worn. It is a poncho-like mantle that is either decorated of embroidered colorfully.

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