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Buddhist Mask Dances: Ritual Dance by Tibetan Monks

Festivals of Darjeeling and Sikkim

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

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

Origin of Mask Cham (dance)

The origins of the Tibetan Buddhist Mask Dance date back to around the 6th century; Ancient Indian literature tells of Ger’s sacred dance performed by the Dakinis when Kalachakra’s lesson.  Cham is part of a Tantric ritual. Tantra was developed in ancient India, in the region of modern-day Pakistan.  Many cham elements to their roots in Hinduism and the Bon tradition (Tibet’s spiritual tradition before Buddhism). The Cham dance tradition depicts the tale of what Guru Padmasambhava did to eradicate evil spirits that obstructed Samye Monastery’s construction 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 colourful brocade costumes and elaborate masks. The Gods and Deities of Tibetan Buddhism are summoned before the performance. The dance is influenced by tantric traditions and is done for the betterment of all sentient beings.

The dance focuses on chanting, hand gestures, and the deities’ invocation while concentrating on negativity deletion. The performance acts as moral lessons for the laypeople while narrating stories of their legendary gods. It also familiarizes the laypeople with 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 monastery’s musical instruments’ tune. The hand gestures represent different aspects of the tale. There is also some comic relief to lighten the sombre sequences when performers jump into the scene in skeleton costumes and other characters by performing acrobatic and comic feats.

The Cham performance can last from 2 days to over 15 days, right from deities’ invocation 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 Cham dance’s main attraction for many non-Tibetans is the multitude and diversity of the colourful masks. The Masks represent the embodiment of the wrathful deity. The mask drives terror and great fear into the hearts of the evil forces. However, it also provides tranquillity and peace to Buddism practitioners seeking enlightenment through prayer and meditation. Antique masks are considered very special and powerful. They are revered with pilgrims praying before them, especially on a 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 centre of gravity, sharp-edged corners.

The Cham performers all wear brightly coloured robes, aprons, and ornaments traditionally made of bones. Antique costumes are rare due to time, rodents, insects wear and tear. However, along with a broader selection of modern accessories, the silk and brocade will soon make for a more extensive collection of modern colourful, flowing costumes to be reproduced. In addition, the old decorations made from animal or human bones can now be designed from various 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 or embroidered colourfully.

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