Cham dances of Hemis: Of the skeleton, the deer and the black hat

Cham dances of Hemis: Of the skeleton, the deer and the black hat

Tibetan buddhist lamas dressed in mystical mask dance Tsam at Hemis Gompa, Ladakh, North India. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Hemis Gompa is one of the most important and wealthiest monasteries in Ladakh. Founded in the 17th century by Stagsan Raspa, the gompa (monastery) is closely associated with the royal family of Ladakh. Each year the Hemis festival (usually held in July) that was started by Gyalsras Rinpoche in the 18th century, is celebrated at the monastery and is a huge event, attracting people from all over the world. In ‘The Cham of Padmasambhava in the Monastery of Hemis (Ladakh),’ Mireille Helffer writes that it is celebrated on ‘the 10th day (tshe-bcu) of the fifth month of the Tibetan calendar in honour of [Guru] Padmasambhava’. One of the highlights of the festival is the Cham dance—an enigmatic and energetic mask dance. Cham dance is used in all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism—Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug—in their rituals as a sacred dance that is reflective of the Buddhist tantric practices.

In Tibetan Sacred Dance: A Journey into the Religious and Folk Traditions, Ellen Pearlman notes that ‘it was the Nyingma school that first established the Cham in Tibet, and that they had many different dances derived from visionary dreaming’.As the rituals spread across the region, variations of the Cham dance evolved at different monasteries. ‘There were various chams and commemorative dances which celebrated the birth of Tsongkhapa [a Buddhist teacher from the Amdo province of eastern Tibet who set up the Ganden, Sera and Drepung monasteries and was the uncle of the First Dalai Lama] and others which re-enacted historical events,’ Pearlman further wrote.

Though after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in the 1950s, much of the Cham literature were destroyed, records of some of the variations of the dances have survived. Scholars have studied these records and documented ongoing practices in monasteries especially during occasions such as the Hemis Festival to further their knowledge. It’s on the basis of such research that these variations in Cham have been written about, and here we look at five—the Skeleton Dance, the Deer Dance, The Black Hat Dance, The Old White Man from Mongolia and the Cham Gar—that are performed in various Buddhist monasteries across India, Tibet and Nepal.


Skeleton Dance (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Skeleton Dance:

The Skeleton Dances, also known as Citipati or Chitipati, originated from the legend of the Citipati, who were the members of the Vajrakilaya Cham dance that was started by Guru Padmasambhava at Samye monastery, the first, in Tibet in the eighth century. It is believed that the Citipati were protector skeletal deities who performed this dance. It is now performed—wearing masks and overalls that look like skeletons—at monasteries to commemorate them. Pearlman wrote that the skeletons ‘represent the disintegration of phenomena, including the body itself as well as the impermanent nature of various states of mind’.

Deer Dance (Photo: http://www.ichcap.org)

Deer Dance:

The Deer/StagDance, called Milarepa Cham, stems from the legend of the 11th-century Buddhist mystic Jetsun Milarepa, who tamed a dog in order to protect a deer that had entered his cave. The dance is believed to have originated at Tser Gontham, a Kagyu monastery by the Lhasa river in Tibet. The Deer Dance can be interpreted in different ways depending on the performance. If it is performed by a group, the dancers signify and represent ‘one of the many protector deities’ and rids the New Year of the negative forces. But when it is performed by one dancer, he represents the deer which was tamed and rescued by Milarepa.

Black Hat Dance (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Black Hat Dance:

The Black Hat Dance, or ZhanaNgacham, is associated with the legend of the ruthless Tibetan king, Langdarma, who destroyed numerous monasteries and executed Buddhist nuns and monks. It is believed that a Buddhist monk by the name of LhalungPelgyi Dorjeperformed a Cham dance in front of the king before striking him with an arrow. The performers wear a robe called phod-ka, and a long, black apron embroidered with ‘a border of skulls’.In ‘A Black Hat Ritual Dance’, Cathy Cantwell quotes the fifth Dalai LamaNgawangLobsang Gyatso, who said that the dance ‘derives from Indian Buddhism. He states that it is connected with the origins of the Tantra, and that moreover, it played a significant role in the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet: Guru Padma performed the dance to prepare the ground at bSam-yas [Samye] for the first Tibetan monastery’.

The Old White Man from Mongolia (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Old White Man from Mongolia:

The dance of the Old White Man, or TsaganEvgen (there are many spellings for this that are used), is perhaps one of the most recent additions in the 800-year-old history of Tibetan Dances, according to Pearlman. It is the only dance in which the performer is allowed to speak and it is believed that the dance is derived from a dream that the13th Dalai LamaThubten Gyatso had when he fled Tibet into Mongolia in 1904. During the performance, the dancer is dressing in a white gown and holds a walking stick in his hands.

Cham Gar (Photo: www.samyeinstitute.org)

Cham Gar:

The Gar is perhaps one of the few dances that are performed in secret by the lamas. Though it is a type of Cham dance, it is not for public viewing. The dance, compared to other Chams, is more tranquil and primarily consists of hand movements, while the other Chams are‘more wrathful and energetic, concentrating more on footwork. The Fifth Dalai Lama, speaking of the dance had said, that “when chiefly the hands move, this is called Gar, and when mainly the feet move this is known aschams”’.

(This article is part of Saha Sutra on www.sahapedia.org, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India.)