Buddhist Cham Dance is a ritual dance that is performed in various monasteries in the Himalayas – especially in regions like Ladakh. Every monastery follows its own calendar and celebrates its own Gustor festival. In fact, this is one of the key festivals of Ladakh. When I visited Ladakh in January, I attended the Gustor at Spituk Monastery that is very close to Leh.
Cham dance is a total antidote to what I understand of Buddha and Buddhism. It is a colorful dance performed by the lamas with strict rituals and rules – who are otherwise seen praying and living in monasteries located on hilltops. The Himalayan monasteries that are usually a quiet spot come alive with these festivals. Dressed in colorful bright elaborate costumes lamas move rhythmically with live music.
History of Cham Dance
It is an ancient dance tradition with origins probably in Tibet. A legend links the tradition to Guru Padmasambhava who lived in late 8th CE. It is said that the then king of Tibet Trishong Detsen called Guru Padmasambhava. He needed help to get rid of the spirits that did not allow him to build the Samye monastery. Spirits used to destroy everything that was built during the day every night. Guru performed the rituals to get rid of destructive spirits. This ritual over a period of time became elaborate. It is performed today as Cham Dance. This is a practice specific to Mahayana Buddhism.
Detailed research on Cham dances by Core of Culture believes that the dance may have existed long before this incidence of Guru Padmasambhava. It has definitely changed over the ages from being a secret tantric dance to a public performance.
Word Cham comes from hand gestures or mudras that are used extensively in these dances. Hand gestures carry a lot of meaning along with the costume and the symbols carried in hand. For example, a sword is meant to cut off ignorance.
Some historians believe that the tradition began during the lifetime of Sakyamuni or the historical Buddha. This theory places this tradition’s origin to 6th BCE.
The story of Cham Dance or Mask Dance
Watch the Video of the performance at Ladakh
The overall intent of the ritual is the destruction of bad spirits for the greater good of humanity. The interesting part is how it is done. Monks meditate and pray for a long time before the festival. On the day of the Gustor, they dress up in colorful brocades and ferocious masks, carrying symbolic items in their hands. They take the ferocious forms to terrify the bad spirits and push them out of the environment.
Secrecy of Cham Dance
Initially, these dances used to be secret dances that were performed by the lamas in complete secrecy. I assume because of the very tantric nature of the ritual, the practice may have been kept a secret.
Today, however, the dance is performed in full public view. All the villagers cover every inch of space in the monastery, leaving just enough space for the dancers to move. The cameras all around shoot the rituals for posterity. Technology takes the ritual everywhere through the ubiquitous screens.
These dance rituals are passed from Lamas to the next generation of Lamas. There is no written documentation of the same. Though, video recordings of today would serve as valid documentation for future generations.
Dealing with the spirits
The dancing lamas are supposed to be possessed by the spirits of protective deities. While dancing, they are a ‘Swaroop’ of these protective deities at that. I must admit I did not feel so from what I saw at Spituk Monastery.
Elaborate masks worn by the lamas during the dance are made of clay mixed with cotton. Masks are painted with natural colors before they are polished with precious metals. Each mask is a personification of a particular deity. For example, Mahakala wears a black mask and Vaishramana, the god of wealth wears a yellow mask. There are masks with animal heads like the deer head or buffalo head. In between, there are the clowns like figures who as per our guide represent followers.
I observed only male Lamas performing the dance. Even the literature I referred to mentions only male monks performing the dance. I must add here that some parts of the dance involve personification of deity couples and the deity comes down with his consort. Both roles are played by male Lamas.
Cham Dance of Gustor Festival at Spituk Monastery
I was fortunate to attend the Gustor Festival at Spituk Festival that is located just outside Leh on a small hill. We started the day by visiting the monastery that is at the pinnacle of the hill and demands a steep climb. However, the hike was pleasant with the views that you get, of the Leh City and the Leh Airport. On the way, we met many Ladakhis who were such a sport when it came to clicking their pictures.
Spituk Monastery, Leh
Inside the Spituk Monastery, in a room behind the main hall, the walls were painted every inch with the Buddhist’s stories, symbols, and iconography. Spituk monastery was built in 11th CE but the wall murals are from 14th CE. There were stucco figures of Upasika who I believe is a devotee along with White Chintamani, 6-armed Mahakala, Vaishravana, Vajra Bhairav, Sri Devi and Chamundi. And you wonder if the boundaries between Hindu pantheon of deities and Buddhist ones really exist?
After visiting the various temples in the monastery we reached the courtyard that was getting ready for the performance. The place was fast getting filled, thankfully we were asked to sit on the top behind a parapet where we could see the courtyard from the top. We would later see people watching it from the rooftop, from the various windows and from other sides of the courtyard.
Gustor at Spituk Monastery
The Festival began with the unveiling of the large Thangka that was hanging on the wall. It was slowly unveiled as if inviting the deity to come and witness the ritual and acknowledging his presence. Some of the monks played the music and then the tall staircase became a point of focus, as various monks wearing different masks and costumes descended from there. They came in small groups; a lot of them as couples performed their bit and went back. In between some monks tried to play light pranks with the crowds, in a bid to keep them entertained. By lunchtime, everyone opened their lunch boxes and started eating. The ritual took a lunch break too and it was time for us to go back to our hotel The Grand Dragon for lunch.
By lunchtime, outside the monastery, there was a fair-like environment. Behind the monastery, we could hear Tambola calls, and in front of it, there were shops of all kinds including a lot of eateries. We were almost squeezed between the crowds that suddenly appeared at the Spituk monastery. We had all plans of coming back after lunch, but the crowds told us that it would be virtually impossible for us to get back in, so we decided to stay back and do other things in Leh.
On crowds, it was as much a pleasure to observe people of Ladakh in the audience, as it was to watch the dance. Older people held prayer wheels in their hands and rotated it like second nature. The turquoise stones smile proudly from the necklaces of many women and the children were all so chubby and cute.
It was an experience to witness a Buddhist Monastery festival and be a part of the festivity there. Banners on the road called this festival ‘Kumbh Mela of the Himalayas’ and the crowds that we faced while coming down the monastery definitely gave us a feel of the Kumbh Mela and potential to lose a family and friends in it.
Most monasteries in Ladakh have their Gustor festival on different dates through the year, so check out the dates and time your visit to coincide with one of them.
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