Nestled in the heart of the Himalayas, Bhutan is known for its rich culture and traditions, deeply rooted in the teachings of Buddhism. Among the most captivating manifestations of Bhutan’s unique heritage are the sacred Mask Dances, Chham. It is performed at local temples and monasteries during Tsechu festivals. These energetic and vibrant displays are a fusion of religious rituals showcasing a journey into the heart of Bhutan’s spiritual identity.
The mask dances in Bhutan are performed by dancers wearing colorful wooden or composition masks. They depict a variety of characters, including heroes, demons, death heads, animals, gods, and caricatures of common people. These dynamic performances are accompanied by special costumes and music and are supported by royal patronage.
History and Origin of mask dances in Bhutan
Mask dances in Bhutan have a rich and spiritual history dating back to the 8th century. It all began with Guru Padmasambhava, who introduced Tantric Buddhism to Bhutan and originated the Chham dance. The development of mask dances can be divided into three periods.
In the first period, Guru Padmasambhava introduced the concept of mask dances. The second period saw the contributions of Saint Pema Lingpa. He composed many dances that portrayed divine attendants and celestial beings preparing a path to heaven.
In the third period, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, a great person who founded the nation-state of Bhutan. He introduced mask dances as an integral part of the annual festivals in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. Since then, mask dances have been an integral part of the Tshechu, the annual festivals of Bhutan. They are performed as a symbol of respect for Buddhism and the saints.
Significance of the scared dances
The significance of mask dances in Bhutan goes beyond just entertainment and delves into the spiritual realm. Watching these sacred performances is a profound spiritual experience that offers the opportunity to purify one’s soul and attain liberation from worldly attachments. The dances also serve as a visual form of communication that conveys deep lessons about life, death, and morality. Today, with their growing popularity and frequent performances during festivals, they have become a prominent symbol of the Bhutanese national identity.
It is believed that attending a Tshechu, where the mask dances are performed, at least once in one’s lifetime, can wash away one’s sins and bring blessings. These unique and colorful events attract locals and travelers from all over the world who want to experience them.
The Colourful Festival of Mask Dances
The Festival of Mask Dances in Bhutan, known as Tsechu, is a colorful celebration. The performers don intricate silk and brocade robes and elaborate masks depicting saints, sages, deities, legendary figures, and animals. They are accompanied by a lively symphony of cymbals, drums, horns, conches, and bells. Tshechus bring communities together to enjoy religious performances, receive blessings, and socialise. The festival has a long history, dating back over a thousand years to the early days of Buddhism in Bhutan. Each district hosts the event annually, with dates set according to the Tibetan lunar calendar. It can last anywhere from three to five days and draw large crowds of both locals and foreign visitors
One unique aspect of Tsechus is the Atsaras. A clown figures wearing red wooden masks with hawkish nose, grin, and prominent phallus. These entertaining performers liven up the festival with their antics and help explain the meaning of the mask dances to audiences. The term Atsara comes from the Sanskrit word Acharya. Having a deep significance in Bhutanese culture, it represents the idea that people can be reborn in any form in the future.
Magical Mask Dance Performances
The magical performances of the sacred dances can be interpreted in three ways: externally as entertainment, esoterically as a representation of Bhutan’s unique wealth. And internally as a spiritual experience.
There are two main types of mask dances in Bhutan: the Boe-chham, which is performed by laypeople, and the Gyalong-chham, which is performed by monks. These performances are deeply spiritual and are considered a way to connect with the divine.
The dances are not just performances but also spiritual experiences where the dancers temporarily embody the divine figures they represent. Their steps are believed to have been inspired by celestial dances seen by meditation masters in deep meditative states. It is widely believed that performing these dances can purify a person of their sins. However, women are not allowed to participate in these mask dances.
5 best mask dances in Bhutan
1. Raksha Mangchham: Judgement of the Dead
It is a traditional Buddhist performance that depicts the judgment of two recently deceased men. The Lord of Death, with animal-headed minions, oversees the judgment of the first man, who is a sinner, and the second man, who is virtuous. The Dark Demon and White Angel each argue for the fate of the two souls, with the sinner ultimately being dragged to the lower realms for punishment, while the virtuous man is escorted to the celestial realms. The performance is based on the Bardo Thodrol text and aims to encourage the audience to practice kindness, compassion, and generosity. The dance offers a reflection on the importance of leading a virtuous life and avoiding negative habits.
2. Guru Tsen Gye: Eight Forms of Guru Padmasambhava
The Guru Tsen Gye is an important event in the Tshechu festival celebration, which honors Guru Padmasambhava, the 8th-century spiritual hero and patron saint of the Himalayas. A senior monk playing the role of the Guru appears in a regal procession, surrounded by music and banners, and is greeted by a hushed audience. The Guru’s eight classical forms are then embodied by dancers who give powerful performances in masks and costumes, concluding with the destruction of hostile energies in the world. The Guru then departs, leaving a deeply moved audience. The Bhutanese belief in the ability of trained practitioners to channel divine presence through monastic practices and visualization adds to the power of the moment.
3. Ging Tsholing: The Dance of the fearsome Drums
Ging Tsholing is a dance performance that involves two sets of dancers, the Tsholing and the Ging. The Tsholing dancers, dressed in red and maroon robes, represent wrathful deities and make slow, graceful movements with long banners. The Ging, dressed in leopard print and tiger stripes, leap and beat their drums energetically, cleansing spectators by tapping their heads with drumsticks. The contrast in performance styles of the two sets makes for an exciting and meditative experience.
4. Dhurag Chham: Lords of Charnel Grounds
Dhurag Chham is one of the traditional Mask dances in Bhutan performed in white full-body costumes and bony skeletal death masks. The dance represents the power of powerful spirits and deities in Tantric Buddhism, who are believed to destroy negative human tendencies and attain spiritual clarity. The dance symbolizes the death of the ego and serves as a stark contrast to the other colorful performances. The charnel grounds are seen as transformational power spots where one confronts the body’s impermanence.
5. Dramitse Nga Chham: The Dance of Drums from Dramitse
The Dramitse Nga Chham is a sacred dance performed during the Dramitse festival in eastern Bhutan and Tsechu. The dance features 16 masked male dancers in colorful costumes representing real and mythic animals. They include the vulture-headed Garuda, the Dragon, the Snow Lion, the Tiger, the Bear, the Pig, and the Dog, each of which stands for a different kind of enlightened energy. Ten other men make up the orchestra, who play instruments such as cymbals, trumpets, and drums. The dance is split into two parts, a calm and contemplative section, and a rapid and athletic section, with the dancers embodying peaceful and wrathful deities, respectively. The main performance takes place in the main courtyard after the dancers perform a prayer dance in the main shrine.
Babzo- the Art of Mask Making
Babzo is a traditional form of art in Bhutan that involves the carving of masks. The masks are typically made from wood, paper-mâché, canvas with clay, or a combination of these materials, but wooden masks are considered the best due to their superior presentation. Babzo has a strong connection to Buddhist tradition and the country’s abundant forest resources.
The process of making a mask is a labor-intensive one that requires a great deal of skill and training. It typically involves drying the wood for several months, shaping the rough form, and carefully carving the intricate design. The carvers usually avoid using hardwood because it is difficult to achieve the delicate facial details that are important for masks representing mythological characters in various forms. The process of carving a mask takes eight days, with the final touch of paint being added on the ninth day. Masks with horns take an additional two to three days to complete.
Bhutanese artisans have preserved their traditional methods of making wooden products, using manual techniques rather than relying on machines. This is one of the reasons why their products are relatively expensive due to the intensive labor involved and why they have remained largely unchanged for many years. Despite the availability of various imitations in the local market, Bhutanese artisans have continued to produce high-quality wooden masks that are an important part of their cultural heritage.
Mask Dances today
Mask dances are a vibrant and captivating aspect of Bhutanese culture that has become a major tourist attraction in recent years. Despite the growing interest from visitors, these dances hold significant cultural and spiritual significance to the Bhutanese people. Historically, mask dances in Bhutan were used by monks as a means of educating the public about their religion and history. Over the generations, the tradition has been passed down and remains unchanged from its origin. However, wooden masks from Bhutan have even become popular as decorative items in modern homes. People appreciate the beauty and craftsmanship of the masks, and they are often used to add a unique and exotic touch to living rooms, bedrooms, and office spaces.
The Tsechu festivals, where these dances are performed, are a must-see for any tourist visiting Bhutan and are a source of pride for the Bhutanese people. The art of mask-making and the traditions of the dances continue to flourish.