Cham: Mesmerizing Buddhist Mask Dance

Cham dances being performed by the monks of Shechen Monastry, Boudha, Kathmandu ⓒ Shechen Monastry

Dressed in vibrant colors with mesmerizing masks, monks of Buddhist monasteries perform dances known as cham. These dances are performed in Buddhist monasteries of Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and India. This dance is commonly known lama in Nepal. There are different types of cham dances depending on the lineage of the monasteries and places. As many mask dances and rituals, this dance is also performed depending on the waxing and waning of the moon.

These dances originated in Tibet and have influence of the Bon religion and shaman culture. This dance is believed to eradicate diseases and negativity in the community and village, but also influence good harvests. According to the Tibetan legends, after the introduction of the Buddhism in Tibet, the king wanted to build Buddhist monasteries, but the spirits of the Bon religion created obstacles. A well-known Buddhist tantric from Uddiyana (presently the Swat region) known as Padmasamvaba was called on for this purpose. He performed a vajrakilaya dance to pacify the local spirits stirred by Bon magic and were not happy with the Buddhist monastery. After clearing the obstacles through the Padmasamvaba’s cham dance, the monastery was built in 706 CE. Now four school of Tibetan Buddhism (Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelug) use cham in their rituals.

Cham dances performed by the monks of Shechen Monastry, Boudha, Kathmandu ⓒ Shechen Monastry

Even though Padmasamvaba is credited as the first cham dance, there have been contribution from many spiritual lamas to further develop cham dances. Many stories on improving the dances tell stories of lamas seeing dances in the dreams in which they remembered all the choreography and taught to the disciples. This transference of the knowledge from masters to apprentices still continues. Some Dalai Lamas have contributed to the cham dance. A few to mention here are  the Fifth Dalai Lama (Gyalwa Lobsang Gyatso, 1618–1682), who not only described the dance minutely in chams yig but also constructed Potala Palace that became a Tibetan Buddhist center. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, (Thupten Gyatso; 1876–1933), who fled to Mongolia during the British invasion, had vivid dreams. Based on those dreams he created a cham known as white man from Mongolia. Now after the dispersion of Tibetan Buddhists all over the world, cham dances are also widespread along with them. But the cham dances differ according to the school of Buddhism and also the dates of the dances.

Cham dances can be performed only by initiated monastery monks. Even if they have initiation weeks before the start of the dance, the monks practice these dances and undergo associated rituals. Depending on the type of dance, they will have a set of masks and the clothes. Cham dances feature various characters, most of which fall under the following types: 1) God of the Tibetan pantheon; 2) tramen, goddesses or witches; 3) ging, low ranked gods; 4) mahakalas, or wrathful protectors; 5) clown and jokers called stsaras; 6) mythical characters; and 7) humans. Cham dances are purification processes in which the demons enter through ritual and remain as a deity. These dances used to be performed in secrecy, but now everything is open.

Various musical instruments create devotional and symbolic music for the dances. Even human thigh bones were used as musical instruments to remind the performers about mortality and impermanence. The function of music and dances in Tibetan religious ceremonies is always directed towards attaining enlightenment.