The Chham Festival of Bhutan
Dance and music play a very important part in the cultural life of the people of Bhutan. Each village and community has a rich tradition of dance which marks the passing seasons, communal occasions and shared experiences. We will look at the significance and the place of Chhams( Mask Dances) performed during the festivals through the history of the people of Bhutan.
Just like the building of the Dzongs and the setting up of the Chhoesi system, the dances have had a similar part to play in helping to unite the people. Through these dances, the ordinary people come to know their place in the history of the country. Chhams are usually performed during Tshechu festival.
The chhams were composed mainly to convey religious messages to people. Some were composed by Guru Rinpoche while others were created by Tertoen Pema Lingapa, Zhabdrung Rinpoche and other great saints. During the mask dances, the deities of the tantric teachings are invoked and through their power and blessings, misfortunes are removed. All evil spirits and demons which are preventing the spread of Chhoe (the doctrine) are suppressed so that the doctrine of Lord Buddha may flourish and bring joy and happiness to all beings.
Mask dances are performed by monks as well as by laymen. The following are some of the dances performed during the Tshechu festival.
The dancers of Zhana Chham wear wide tall black hats, traditional boots. The dancers assume the appearance of Neljorpas (Yogis) and this way they subdue the enemies of the doctrine. This is done in order to lead the beings or spirits to Buddha’s teaching. This dance is also performed as a ground purification rite during the construction of Dzongs, Lhakhangs and Chortens. The aim is to pacify the evil spirits of the ground and to take possession of the site from them.
The practices carried out during the dance are so special that just by seeing them one is purified. All obstacles to belief and understanding are removed. Because of its importance Zhabdrung Rinpoche used to perform this ritual himself.
The Tungam Chham
The dancers of Tungam Chham wear beautiful brocade dresses, traditional boots and a terrifying mask. The dance has a very deep symbolic meaning. A ritual sacrifice is carried out. The dances represent the gods. They draw in and encircle the evil spirits and capture them in a box. The chief dancer then destroys them by stabbing them with a Phurba (Ritual Dagger). The dancers therefore, not only save the world from the evil spirits but also free them from evil deeds.
Tungam Chham shows the terrifying form of Dorji Dragpo (Fierce Thunderbolt), Guru Rinpoche assumed in order to subdue the enemies of the doctrine.
Ging Tsholing Chham
This is a dance which combines two groups of characters namely Ging and Tsholing. The Tsholing dancers have long colorful brocade dresses and wear terrifying masks. The Ging dancers wear Tagshams(Tiger Skin Skirts) and terrifying dark blue (male) and red (female) masks with flag on top. Each Ging dancer carries a Nga (Drum) in his left hand and a drumstick in the right.
Ging Tsholing Chham was performed for the first time by Guru Rinpoche in order to subdue the demons that were preventing the construction of Samye monastery in Tibet. Guru Rinpoche, through his magical powers, transformed himself into various fierce forms of the protectors of the doctrine. He thus was not only able to subdue the demons but also secure their helps in constructing the monastery. These transformations of the Guru are manifested in the Ging and Tsholing chham.
During the Tshechus festival, Ging Tsholing is also performed to purify the area just before the display of Guru Tshengye and their retinue. Shrill whistles are sounded to chase away the evil spirits. The Ging dancers tap the spectators on the head with their drumstick to chase impurity out of them. The Tsholing dancers, after having destroyed the evil spirits symbolized by an image in black box, are chased away by the Ging. The Ging dancers stay behind and perform the dance of victory by beating the drums.
Guru Tshengye Chham
Guru Rinpoche assumed various forms in order to help all living beings. The dance of Guru Tshengye depicts his eight main manifestations. The display of the glorious deeds of the great Guru during the dance strengthens the faith of the spectators.
The Guru Tshengye Chham begins with the appearance of Guru Dorji Drolo. The other manifestations follow him at regular intervals. All the eight manifestations wear long brocade dresses and individual masks. Guru Rinpoche himself finally enters the scene attended by other members of the retinue. He is accompanied by his two main consorts, namely Khando Mandarava on his right and Khando Yeshey Tshogyel on his left. The fairies or attendants are symbolized by children wearing white masks.
Guru Rinpoche takes his seat on the throne while his manifestations perform individual dances in turn and on completion, sit in a row near the Guru. The spectators, during the dance, prostate to Guru Rinpoche and receive blessings. It is also a sacred occasion for some of the spectators. They receive new name for their babies from the Guru.
The retinue also consists of Ringa Chudrug (sixteen fairies). They wear beautiful brocade dresses and carved bone ornamental aprons. They sing and dance in front of Guru Rinpoche and his manifestations. The annual Tshechu usually ends with Guru Tshegye dance.
The Paccham dancers are dressed in knee length yellow skirts and Ringa (golden crowns) and they do not wear masks. They carry a Drilbu (a small bell) and a Tangte (a small drum) in each hand. This dance tells how Tertoen Pema Lingpa, in a vision, in the paradise of Zangdopelri. He saw this dance being performed by Pawos and Pamos who were leading the dead believers to the presence of Guru Rinpoche. Pema Lingpa introduced the same dance on earth in order to lead the devotees and followers to the paradise of Guru Rinpoche after their death.
Drametse Nga chham
Drametse Nga chham is performed by sixteen dancers, each wearing a mask representing either an animal or a bird. They have a Nga in their left hand and a drumstick in the right hand. They wear knee length yellow silk skirts.
Around the end of the fifteenth century, Lam Kuenga Gyeltshen, one of the descendants of Pema Lingpa, left Bumthang accompanied by his sister, Ani(anim) Choten Zangmo. They arrived and settled at Drametse in eastern Bhutan.
Kuenga Gyeltshen, in his vision during the meditation, arrived at Zangdopelri and met Guru Rinpoche. There, in his vision, the attendants of Guru Rinpoche transformed themselves into deities resembling the faces of different animals and birds and performed a dance.
Kuenga Gyeltshen watched the dance and established the tradition of this dance at Drametse. The dance is, therefore, popularly known as Drametse Nga Chham.
This dance is performed by four dancers wearing knee length silk skirts and stag masks. Guru Rinpoche subdued the Lung Lha (God of Wind) who was causing suffering to the people of the world. He rode on the Lung Lha’s stag and restored peace and happiness in the world.
Shazam Chham is, therefore, performed in gratitude to Guru Rinpoche for this.
Durdag Chham is the dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds and is performed by four dancers. They all wear white costumes and white skull masks.
According to the Buddhist belief, there are eight Cremation Grounds where Chhochongs (protectors of religion) live. Among the Chhochongs are the Duthrod Dagmos(Lords of the Cremation Grounds) who are bound by the oath to protect the doctrine from the demonic enemies.
Raksha Marchham or the dance of the Judgment of the Dead is based on the Bardo Thoedroel(Book of the Dead), a text hidden by Guru Rinpoche and rediscovered later by Tertoen Karma Lingpa in the fourteenth Century. According to the Bardo Thodroel, when living beings die they wander in the Bardo (state between one’s death and rebirth). The Buddhas during the period manifest themselves into different forms and assemble to carry out the justice on the dead beings according to their deeds in their previous lives. While appearing in front of Shinje Chhokigap (Lord of Death) those beings who have lived their lives according to the doctrine are rewarded. On the other hand, sinners and non-believers of the doctrine have to pass through the frightening Bardo. For their sins, they face rebirths in different Nyelwa (hells) where they are tormented by the terrifying deities. These sinners have to endure their sentence until they are purified of all their sins and finally gain proper rebirth. The sentence may be spread over hundreds of years depending on the type of sin.
The judgment given depends on the different life styles in their previous lives. The judgment by the assembly of Buddhas is dramatized through the Raksha Marchham dance. The Buddhas manifest themselves into Shinje Chhoekigap, Lhakaap(white god), Dre Nagchung( black demon), Raksha Lango (the Ox-headed Justice Minister) and other deities wearing masks of different birds and animals.
Raksha Marchham is considered very special and it is believed that a person is partly purified from his or her sins every time he or she witnesses the dance. The main purpose of the dance is, to remind people to lead good lives so that they are delivered from the terrifying Bardo and are able to have happier times in their next lives.