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Dance with a message

Trisha Bhattacharya, June 9, 2013 : 20:02 IST

Pious art

Colourful: The mask dance, performed by Buddhist monks in Bhutan.
The word Vajrayana comes from the word ‘vajra’, which means sceptre in Hindu mythology.

Part of Vajrayana Buddhism, a form of tantric Buddhism, is a special Tibetan ritualistic dance, also known as ‘cham’, which runs wide and varied in its forms, themes and orientation, around the region. One of these forms is performed every year at the Padtshelling Monastery in Bumthang, Bhutan.

Tulku (name given to a reincarnated master or Lama) Drupthop Namgyal Lhendub established the Padtshelling Monastery sometime in the 8th century. In the courtyard of the monastery, the lamas or monks perform this dance in a variety of themes for lay people in a nine-day festival to mark the death anniversary of its founder. Villagers from around the monastery come to the festival to view these dances. Those witnessing the dance are said to be protected for an entire year, until they witness it again. The very performance of this dance is also said to bring happiness to the people in nearby villages.

Continuing charm

Despite several foreign influences over the years, this dance form still maintains its charm, monastical lineage and originality. Essentially celebrating the triumph of good over evil, this dance is not for entertainment, but is a display of martial arts techniques by the monks who dance in sync and with precision, as if in a meditative trance, building an epiphany of sorts. The underlying philosophy of this particular mask dance is the exorcism of human enemies and demons.

As part of a specific theme, and as per the old school of Lamaism, a Guru appears during the dance. One of the subjects or themes includes the subjugation of living evil or spirits, which carry harm to humanity. The dissipation of evil spirits, in this case, starts as soon as the dance begins. In one of the other variants, the Guru tries to subdue the evil forces, using gentler methods instead of being forceful, but only when these forces co-operate.

Monks or lamas in colourful robes, ornaments and masks dance to the background music of ritualistic sacred sounds. Some of the performances are solo dances, and some are in groups. The ultimate dances rise out of energetic movements, which are truly a result of the synchronisation of physical form with the reverberating sounds of a musical instrument (percussion instruments like cymbals), played live by the monks. This music gives the dancers a sense of direction and rhythm, which they follow with alacrity and presence.

Thumping their strong legs and feet on the ground, accompanied by swift arm movements, spinning, and short jumps in the air, the monk dancers dance wearing varied masks, and some, without. In one of the themes, they use eight kinds of animal masks, because animals are considered sacrosanct in Buddhism. These eight animals are those that lead the dead to the heaven, and include the cow, buffalo, lion, goat, reindeer and deer. Some of the other masks used during the dance are originals, and are several hundred years old.

Rich costumes


Dressed in bright yellows, oranges and some other colours, and accessories, the monks entrance the audience with their meditative dancing. They, at times, form lines and circles and dance in various story-like sequences to elaborate upon varied themes, demonstrating the effectiveness of this art form, expressing varying moods, emotions, skills and sacred goals associated with the traditions and beliefs of their culture.

Apart from the monastery, this dance is also performed for public viewing around the world, during other times of the year. What we see in cities, on stage, may only just be slightly different from the exact rendition in the monastery, but it can still transport you to another place, where the power of consistent discipline, focus, concentration and meditation fills the air.

Moving away from a stress-filled day and being a spectator of this pious dance can bring much peace. The power of these dancers is worth watching, as they skillfully manoeuvre martial arts into a flowing and strongly effective dancing technique.

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