Fujisan's Kyareng

Monday, June 27, 2011

Cham; The Tibetan Religious Dances

Cham is a sacred dance unique to Tibetan religious culture. It is practiced and performed by the monks of almost all the monasteries of the five major schools of Tibetan religious orders on special auspicious events. Given the scarcity of material on this aspect of Tibetan religious culture, I thought it prudent to share what little I could grasp of cham in Bonpo settlement in Dolanji.

Although, written records are scarce about the origin of cham, the fact that some of these dances involve the manifestation of the ancient mountain gods and goddesses fortify the explanation that the dance has its origin in Bon, the native religion of Tibet. The dances, especially performed during the Year end and the New Year are sacred dance rituals by the deities of the religious order to ward off evils of the year and to bless the people with good health and prosperity in the coming new year.

The masks, costumes, and the movement of the performers may look similar, but it differs among the religious schools. The performers represent the great saints and the guardian deities of the respective schools. These dances are performed during the religious festivals, birth anniversary of the founding teachers, 29th day of the Tibetan yearend, New Year etc.

The dances, however, are not performed or viewed for entertainment purpose; they are revered and observed as an essential annual sacred event where the people and the deities of the land congregate to fortify, and to harmonize the cosmic and spiritual energy between them and the land. Ancient kings have had these sacred dances performed during the enthronement with a purpose of notifying the deities, receiving their blessing, and establishing harmony with the deities of the land to enhance, and to seek legitimacy to their secular authority to rule,(tib:ngathang,wanthang).

In 2009, I was fortunate enough to get a chance to participate in the Cham event of the Menriling Bon monastery in Dolanji. It was performed on 29th day of the 12th Month of Tibetan calendar (tib: nyishu-gu) at the monastery ground. The whole set of dance was known as "Sherab Gucham", Nine dances of wisdom.

People sat around the ground in groups and in families. It was a sunny day with a clear blue sky. In the center was a sangbum (a conical cement structure, where fire is made with the sang materials to purify the environment). Dried junipers, and sang materials (herbs and incenses) was burning inside the sangbum sending cloud of holy aromatic smoke in the sky. With the powerful blare of dungchen, a long brass trumpet, and the intermittent clash of cymbals, the performers dancing to the music of dungchen and cymbals descended majestically from the monastery's staircase to the ground in pairs.

In Sherab gucham, there are ten main performers as follows:

The first to appear from the monastery were Sigyal and Mijig, they were in blue mask. They came one after another. Sipa Gyalmo, mother of the universe, is the main protector deity of Bon religion.

The next came two in red mask, they were Tsenhorpa and Apije. This Tsenhorpa could be Tsengod Hurpa or different, both of them are Bon deities.

The third two in white mask were Gyalpo Nyibang Se and his consort Menmo.

The fourth one in blue mask was Gyalpo Zamnyon, emanation of Zambhala, deity of wealth and prosperity. One in white mask was Gyalpo Shetra, he is said to be the protector deity of Menri monastery.

The fifth two without mask were Dragseng and Targo. Dragpa Senge in a monk-like attire is said to be the emanation of some Kagyu lama in a spirit form. Targo Gegan has a round circular hat (of Shanak type). He is the eldest of the seven brothers of Targo, mountains spirit, popularly known as Targo chedun rog-gye, five brothers and eight comrades of Targo. It is said that the Targo Gegan received his Genyen dhompa (religious ethical vow) from the Lord Shenrab Miwo, the founder of the Bon religion.

After the completion of the main cham dance, Dhogpa, a ritual to expel the evils and to block bad lucks was conducted. This was followed by a Dro, a group dance by the deities to celebrate the victory of good over the evils. I was told that by evils, here we have to understand it as the five mental delusions of ours - attachment, pride, ignorance, anger, and jealousy.

Dro dance is followed by Meri dance, a dance of fire-mountain. The meri dance was done in a crisscrossed way; in fact, an intricate maze of symbolic fire-mountain was woven through dance to confuse the evils from coming back to the region. I was told that when practicing this dance, performers have to dip the sole of their shoes in water, to verify that their dance steps were correct to form the required illustration of fire-mountain.

After the meri-dance, the deities retired to the inner sanctum of the monastery just like the way they came out. The monks, who performed the cham dance had to do shagpa (expatiation, seeking forgiveness) after the ceremony in the monastery. This shagpa is done to expiate to the deities for any disrespect conducted during the ceremony, and to all the sentient beings, who might have been adversely affected because of the ceremony.

Then came the blessing and the Jethag (Je means bad spell, thag means thread or rope)ritual. His Holiness the 33rd Menri Trizin, Lungtok Tenpai Nyima, the Chief spiritual leader of the Bon community blessed the crowd and performed Jethag rites. Two thin strings in red and blue colors were passed to the whole gatherings around the ground, so that everyone was connected through the two strings rolled on their ring fingers. Menri Trizin walked around the gathering and cut the connecting strings, so that the people are left with two strings on their ring fingers. This signifies the release from the Jethag of Lhasin degye [spell-thread of the eight malignant spirits], and the five mental delusions(tib:Nyonmong gi dug nga).

A long queue leading to the Trizin was formed, who stood near the sangbum with a Chabtrue vase with his attendants. The vase contained scared water to cleanse the people of all impurities. People threw their strings in the Lu-basin, Menri Trizin conducted chabtrue ritual, sprinkling of water over the devotees for purification. The lu-basin along with the dhogpa, the people's strings, and the drops of chabtrue water were later thrown far away from the monastery's precinct.

While the monks were performing the shagpa inside the monastery, the general public performed Lhagyal ceremony at the ground. Lhagyal ceremony is a typical Tibetan ceremony done at the end of a religious or social gathering to pray for the victory of good over evils, by offering Tsampa in the air and shouting 'ki ki so so lhagyalo'. This was how Sherab gucham was performed on Feb 23, 2009 at Dolanji.

1.Jadhur Sonam Sangpo, a former Bon deputy to the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile.
2.Rene de Nebsesky – Wojkowitz, Tibetan Religious Dances, Paljor Publications, New Delhi, 1997

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