Cham - A Quantum Physical Trance Dance
The whole set up looks sinister, fear-inciting. A sacrifice is expected. Men carrying skullcaps & daggers, some dressed as skeletons, others in daemon masks, dance to a cacophony of blown horns, beaten skins and percussion.
But this event is the antithesis of scaremongery. It's about the removal of fear - or rather the empowerment over fear.
The men behind the masks are monks. Their aim is to capture negative energy - evil spirits, general bad juju - and absorb them from the Earth so they may be tamed and addressed by the dancers. Thus the Cham Dance is an act of self-sacrifice - not in the sense we usually think of the term, but in the sense of severing the ego to alleviate fear, pain & suffering. Perhaps it's more part-suicide than self-sacrifice. It is an act of Chöd.
To explain further would be beyond my scope, and to explain fully would require a book, as the nuances of Cham are as hard to get your head around as any other Bon Tradition, and the Tibetan Culture has so many rich beliefs entwined within the ritual. These days they are mostly referred to as Buddhist. Indeed, some say the Cham represents the triumph of Buddhism over Bon. To me it's merely a transference - akin to my own culture's melding of Pagan Yuletide into Christ's birthday. Though the underlying ideal of 'Peace to all Mankind' is universal to all those beliefs, and the ultimate reason for the dance.
Although, I should make clear, the Cham isn't actually a dance, it's more a meditative flow. It's a Tantra. The structure of the movements, most of which are slow and monotonous, have been passed down through the generations, many thought to have originated, along with the characters, in the dreams of Tertöns (discoverers of rituals and scriptures).
The characters themselves are mostly representations of deities in the forms of animals, both living and mythical.
In truth, having been suppressed by the Cultural Revolution and distorted by time & distance, the ritual is probably a ghost of the original.
Still, they bear the same ego-severing purpose. They are certainly not intended for entertainment, nor as a tourist spectacle, but as a cohesive spiritual force:
"Part of the reason we do this performance is to show that, through the positive state of mind, collectively, in the community, we can bring positive change not only to human beings, but to everyone sharing the environment"
- Geshe Lobsang Tenzin (speaking to Religion & Ethics Newsweekly)
This event was photographed at Pel Lhagong (Tagong Monastery) in the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, with thanks to the cooperation of the monks and the people of Tagong. This feature is open to comment and anyone wishing to expand or correct the information provided is welcome to contact me. I hope you enjoy the gallery:
The day before the ceremony: A monk refines his moves during rehearsals as others look on (above). The monastery is decorated (below)
People gather to observe the ceremonies (above/below). Cham dances were once secretive, and to this day not all dances are performed before laypersons. It is thought to be most fortuitous to witness the ritual so, when it is performed publicly, the faithful will travel to the monastery from throughout the region.
First the ceremony is blessed (above), and the musicians take their places (below)
The stage is set. The first to enter the arena are the Chitipati, the Dancing Skeletons. These characters serve as a reminder of our mortal existence, the transient nature of our flesh and thus act as motivation for the audience to make the most of their lives.
The Wrathful Deities (above), the defenders of Buddhism, appear one at a time, sixteen in all. Terrifying in appearance, with crowns composed of 5 human skulls representing the transference of the 5 deadly sins (ignorance, anger, desire, jealousy, ego) into merits. The notion is to prepare the audience for what they will face in the afterlife - what will test them and ultimately protect them if they are worthy. Familiarising oneself and becoming accustomed to their grotesque images transcends initial fear...