Cham Dance: The Masked Ritual

            Cham is a unique dance form found on the continent of Asia, in countries with land near the Himalayan mountain range. While the true history and origins of this form are hard to trace, it is deeply rooted and practiced in Tibet, Bhutan, India in Nepal. The word ‘chams’ is of Tibetan origin, and simply means “a dance.” This ancient ritual mask dance is most unique, perhaps, because it is danced exclusively by monks, and often performed outside of monasteries, or during multi-day religious festivals.

            The religious ties of this dance are varied, but it is mainly associated with certain sects of Buddhism, especially Tantric Buddhism. The first Cham performance occurred around 740-760 AD, when the Indian saint Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche) was invited to Samye Monastery in Tibet, the first Tantric Buddhist monastery, to banish evil spirits. He drew thiks on the ground, or lines that invoke tantric power and cannot be crossed by spirits. He began dancing, using tantric mudras (various body positions, but predominantly of the hands) and invoking the gods. From this successful performance, some say that Cham dance gradually spread to all other Tibetan monasteries. While mostly concentrated there, it eventually spread to Bhutan, where it is similar in strength, as well as to certain regions of India and Mongolia.
                  This dance form fits well into monastic life because it is a not just a movement style, but also a form of meditation and an offering to the gods. Stories say that the Cham dances that exist today were transmitted to Buddhist masters in highly detailed mystical visions or dreams.  There are five types of common Cham dances, and the introduction of a new Cham dance would be very rare. Variety does exist in the dances, depending on the sect of the performing monastery, that monastery’s traditions, the region of performance, and the religious holiday the performance occurs on. These dances often relay moral instruction, and transmit the legends and values of the Tibetan or Bhutanese culture. These dancing monks strive to embody deities in their movements, and ultimately are trying to achieve enlightenment. Even simply witnessing the dances as an audience member is said to bring one closer to enlightenment.
            Similarly, the garb Cham dancers wear represents various deities and demons, as well as animals. Dancers are robed in highly ornamented costumes of brightly colored silk, and wear elaborate masks to further suggest an alternate identity. Sometimes they dance holding ritual instruments. Other monks accompany them, in instrumental music ensembles, playing traditional Tibetan instruments. There is a leader present who keeps time with cymbals, while others play wind instruments or drums. Because these rituals are rich with religious significance and deep cultural importance, they are multi-faceted, and Cham performances can last several days. Within a performance, the rigor of the movement varies from slow spinning and hopping on one foot, to more full-bodied, dynamic expression. Spectators are no longer expected to sit, still and silent, for the entire length of time, and as Cham dances evolve in the modern world, performances are treated as an opportunity for social gathering.


             Both Tibet and Bhutan have strong methods of cultural preservation, and Cham still thrives today, even in its evolved form. However, because there is no written record of Cham, there is a danger of losing the ritual art form as the number of monks begins to decrease. This is a dance form that is passed from person to person with intense practice, but families in the Himalayan regions are getting smaller, and fewer children are joining monasteries due to economic instability. While this is a deeply spiritual, hypnotic dance form that deserves to stand the test of time, many scholars predict that Cham will fade within the next 100 years.


The following video shows an interesting glimpse of a modern-day Cham performance, during which children are laughing, and monks can be seen filming the dance.



— by Rebecca Puretz


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