Karma Dorji, Bhutan Himalaya Expeditions
Bhutan’s fascinating mask dances are exceptional opportunities to learn about Bhutanese culture and deepen your understanding of the profoundly rich Himalayan Buddhist worldview. Here’s our scoop on Bhutan’s top 10 mask dances and what makes them great experiences on any Bhutan travel itinerary.
10. The Dance of the Drums of Dramitse (locally, Dramitse Nga Cham)
The Dance of the Drums of Dramitse (pictured above), is among the primary ‘vision’ dances, or Chams, of Bhutan.
Recognized as a “Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage” by UNESCO, this dance features 16 performers wearing exotic masks representing real and mythic animals. Among them are the vulture-headed Garuda, the Dragon, the Snow Lion, Tiger, Bear, Pig, and Dog, each one representing a different form of enlightened energy. The dancers wear colorful silk skirts, stylized shoulder mantles, waist-length felt or brocade jackets, and crossed sashes front and back with decorative elements. The ritual music of skin drums—which the dancers beat with a long, curved stick in time to their steps—and monks playing the oboe, longhorns, bells, and hand-held cymbals, adds a rich and layered ambiance to the performance. The dance depicts visions of the heavenly court of Padmasambhava (patron saint of the Himalayas) described by the Buddhist sage Kunga Gyeltshen in the early sixteenth century. Today this regional dance from Dramitse in eastern Bhutan is a familiar crowd-pleaser at most state celebrations and annual Tshechu festivals across the kingdom.
9. The Black Hat Dance (Locally, Zhanak Cham)
Ceremonial Black Hat Dancers getting ready for their performance.
Bhutan’s answer to Istanbul’s whirling dervishes, the black hat dancers perform this spinning, mesmerizing dance with similar trance-like intensity. The flowing brocade robes, the blaring temple music, and the intricate ritual accouterments make this dance compelling. Although the dancers appear without masks, the vibrant costumes, the somber ceremony, and its deep religious significance for the Bhutanese make the Black Hat Dance a worthy candidate for our list. The gracefully turning dancers gather speed as the performance moves along, their graceful movements and secret hidden meanings purifying the space and generating the dynamic forces of altruism and spiritual liberation.
8. The Dance of the Stags and Hounds (locally, Shawa Shachi)
The Dance of the Stags and Hounds is a comic-lyric play drawn from a famous episode in the life of the tenth-century Himalayan yogi, Milarepa.
The Dance of the Stags and Hounds is an immensely watchable comic-lyric play with an uncomplicated plot progression. A proud hunter, his manservant, and their vicious hounds chase a frightened stag that seeks the protection of Milarepa, the great tenth-century Himalayan yogi, who gives religious teachings that cause the men to give up hunting and devote their lives to Buddhist compassion. The first act opens with the playful air of a Shakespearean comedy, with the hunter’s obtuse manservant and several jesters causing much of the laughter and the fun. The second half evolves into a lesson on Buddhist morality, sung in poetic verse, that devout Bhutanese Buddhists generally take to heart.
7. Dance of the Noblemen and Ladies (Locally, Pholek Molek)
The Dance of the Noblemen and Ladies is a morality play that is earthy, irreverent, and rustic in its humorous take on the follies and foibles of men and women.
Played in the vein of a comic farce—think A Midsummer Night’s Dream—this play-dance has two couples (each a nobleman and a lady) who arrive dressed in traditional finery and masks that emphasize the men’s good looks and the pleasing feminine qualities of the women. Other characters include a lascivious crone and an assortment of lewd clowns. The men leave for battle, giving tokens of remembrance and saying tender goodbyes to their wives. As soon as the men go, the clowns stir up trouble, seducing the wives with the rude older woman alternately helping and hindering their attempts to sleep with two young ladies. Confusion and comedy ensue. The men return to learn what has happened. They fly into a jealous rage and fight with the clowns. Finally, the gentlemen and the ladies reconcile. This improvisational, folksy nature of the comedy makes this performance fun to watch, so long as one doesn’t examine the plot too closely.
6. Dance of the Divine Sisters (locally, Achey Lhamo)
The Achey Lhamo is an ancient, rarely seen traditional mask dance from the far eastern horizons of Bhutan, including the valleys of Merak and Sakteng.
This rarely seen dance from Bhutan’s far-flung eastern regions of Merak and Sakteng makes our list for its fascinating origins and atmosphere.
According to legend, the great fifteenth-century spiritual adept, religious architect, and bridge builder Drubthob Thangthong Gyalpo gathered seven sisters together and taught them the Achey Lhamo dance. As they danced, Thangthong Gyalpo played on the skin drums and collected fees to help pay for a bridge to improve access in one of Tibet’s remote regions. In time the dancers became so popular that the people began calling them Lhamo, or goddesses. The name stuck and became Achey (Sisters) Lhamo (Goddesses). The staccato beat of the skin drums; the energetic, leaping dancers; the rudimentary masks fashioned from yak hair, wool, and animal skin all serve to heighten this dance’s primal atmosphere. It is among the handful of religious dances performed by the lay population rather than monks.
5. The Dance of the Fearsome Drums (locally, Ging Tsholing)
Athletic and vigorous, the fearsome Ging mask dancers of Bhutan are a thrill to watch.
As the dance’s local name implies, there are two sets of dancers in this performance. The Tsholing dancers, wearing fearsome masks, represent a class of wrathful deities who take on terrifying aspects to destroy negative tendencies. They wear red and maroon robes and make slow, graceful movements, brandishing long silken banners to summon evil influences in the world before dispatching them. The Ging, in similarly colorful masks, wear leopard print pantaloons and tiger-stripe skirts. In contrast to the slower, more graceful rhythms of the Tsholing, the Ging leap, whirl, and beat their drums vigorously as they run through the crowds, tapping on people’s heads with the drumsticks in a ritual spiritual cleansing. They chase fleeing spectators gleefully through the crowds and lean precariously out of tall windows and balconies while drumming vigorously, a fact that underlines their impressive stamina and prowess. Watching the two sets of dancers and their contrasting performance styles makes for an alternately meditative and thrilling experience.
4. The Dance of the Great Warrior King Gesar of Ling (locally, Gesar Ling Cham)
In the titular role of King Gesar of Ling, the Tang Rinpoche (a reincarnated senior Buddhist abbot in central Bhutan) wears a golden crown, royal robes, and carries multi-colored triangular flags symbolizing the auspicious colors of Himalayan Buddhist kings.
This dance presents a visually stunning performance of excerpts from the 12th century (oral) epic of the mythic Himalayan King Gesar of Ling. King Gesar and his warriors appear in shining armor, intricately carved breastplates, and royal brocades. Performers play battle scenes in period military regalia. There are the usual ceremonial temple music and chanting of the Buddhist sutras, but the martial drumming, the elaborate orchestration, and the vibrant costumes take center stage. Exciting interludes to the main feature include an energetic Tibetan Snow Lion Dance (Sengye Cham).
3. Lords of the Charnel Grounds (locally, Dhurdag Cham)
The Lords of the Charnel Grounds are a class of supernatural beings who aid one’s spiritual growth by destroying the human tendencies of clinging, ego-grasping and attachment-forming that are seen as obstacles to achieving Buddhist enlightenment.
A spectacular dance performed in white full-body costumes, the principal dancers appear wearing bony skeletal death masks. They rake long, ghoulish fingernails through the air as they backbend, spin, and dance with agility.
In Tantric Buddhism, the skeletons represent powerful spirits and deities who destroy negative human tendencies of fear, attachment, ego-grasping, and judgmental perceptions, which constitute obstacles to Buddhist enlightenment. In this view, the charnel grounds are transformational power spots because, in such spaces, one confronts the body’s impermanence to attain spiritual clarity. Thus a symbolic killing by the Lords of the Charnel Grounds toward the end of the dance represents the ego’s death. Stark and gripping, this dance is a palate-cleanser for the other color-saturated performances you may see at the same event.
2. The Eight Forms of the Precious Guru Padmasambhava (locally, Guru Tshen Gye)
Sheltered under silken parasols, the beatific Guru Padmasambhava (in a gold mask) arrives in a procession ahead of the Dance known as the Eight Forms of the Precious Guru Padmasambhava, or Guru Tshen Gye.
This dance is among the most anticipated events in what is usually a multi-day Tshechu festival celebration. It begins with Guru Padmasambhava, the great 8th-century spiritual hero and patron saint of the Himalayas. A senior monk playing the role appears on the scene bedecked, bejeweled, and escorted in a regal procession—including silken parasols, shining mystic banners, musical fanfare, crowds monks, and civilians. A reverent hush falls over everyone as the Guru, clad in royal silks, and wearing a beatific golden smile, makes his way through the crowd. The Bhutanese audience members strain to reach for a blessing from the Guru’s heavy golden hand. Making the moment powerful is the Bhutanese understanding that trained practitioners can channel divine presence through rigorous monastic practices, meditation, trance-work, and visualization.
Next, dancers embodying the Guru’s eight classical forms appear. They give superb performances in correspondingly impressive masks and costumes. The final dancer enacts the destruction of the hostile energies in the world. Finally, the Guru departs amid a crescendo of oboes, longhorns, cymbals, drums, fluttering flags, and banners, leaving a profoundly moved audience, some of whom appear tearful.
1. Judgment of the Dead (locally, Raksha Mangcham)
Performed on an epic scale, the Dance of the Judgment of the Dead begins with the towering Lord of Death's arrival.
This dance gets our top billing for spectacle, folksy humor, and spiritual depth. A towering, red-faced figure of the Lord of Death moves in an impressive procession around the performance grounds. Once he is seated, his animal-headed minions go offstage to bring, alternately, two recently dead men for their judgments. The first man in a dark, tortured mask appears dressed as a hunter. His name is ‘The Great Sinner Destined for 100,000 Hells.’ The second dead man arrives wearing a white mask and holding a prayer book in his hand, signaling his virtue. His name loosely translated means ‘The Householder who was a Propagator of Peace and Tranquility.’ Thus begins an object lesson in the karmic fruits of good and evil. A Dark Demon and a White Angel each seek to alternately condemn and save the souls of the two dead men. Ultimately, despite the angel’s best efforts to help the sinner, the condemned man’s lapses far outweigh his good deeds, and, consequently, the demon drags him away by his feet to the lower realms for his punishment. Fortunately for the man in white, his merits outweigh his sins, and he is escorted to the celestial realms with the angel as heavenly music plays overhead. This dance is an excerpted play drawn from the eighth-century classic Himalayan Buddhist text, the Bardo Thodrol, or Liberation through Understanding in the Between (popularly known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead). The voice-over narrations to the dance press the audience to practice kindness, compassion, and generosity while they still have time. They encourage the faithful to give up karmically burdensome habits such as killing, self-cherishing, and cruelty.
This dance leaves viewers with many stunning impressions and a profound reflection on the perils of an unexamined life.
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