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Cham: Sacred Dance of Bhutan

Bhutan is so isolated that since its unification more than 300 years ago, the Kingdom’s culture has remained largely untouched by outside influences. Cham is a form of danced yoga in Tantric Buddhism, an ancient ritual Buddhist dance and a fundamental manifestation of Bhutan’s religious culture. Performed throughout Bhutan, it is usually presented in festivals featuring several days of dancing. Even the smallest village has a set of Cham dance masks. These dances have been passed down in Bhutan for hundreds of years. They are created by advanced Buddhist masters, and according to tradition are often are often transmitted to these masters through mystical visions.

The Cham of Bhutan has been preserved largely intact. Many of these dances are associated with the ritual calendar of the Bhutan’s Tshechu festivals. This ancient art of a living culture demonstrates that the visual arts and traditions of sacred movement are two manifestations of the same cosmology; it brings Buddhist mythology to life. Traditional sacred dance has mostly disappeared in the West, although it once characterized the ancient cultures of Egypt and Greece. Dance in Western cultures is experienced primarily as entertainment, and is rarely performed as sacred ritual.

Cham originated in in the 8th Century when Padmasambhava, who introduced Tantric Buddhism to Bhutan, subjugated local deities obstructing the building of Samye Monastery in Tibet. Samye was the first Tantric Buddhist Monastery. Padmasambhava also established a style of monastic life that included Cham, uniting meditation and dance. Since that time, all sects of Tantric Buddhism have performed Cham.

In Tantric Buddhism the deities dance in meditation visualizations, in painting, in sculpture, in the Yogic Cham dances. Dancers embody the deities with all their hand and body movements. Understanding and using the deity dance as a means to enlightenment is the yoga called Cham, which is both a ritual and an exorcism. Identification with the deities in Cham rituals helps lead towards enlightenment, especially at the moment of death.

There are several Cham lineages that survive today in Bhutan. A lineage is a procession of person-to-person transmitted teachings and practices. These Cham lineages have all continued unbroken since being established in Bhutan 400, 500 and 600 years ago. Here two sects of Tantric Buddhism predominate: the Nyingma, or Old School, founded by Padmasambhava, who created Cham; and the Drukpa Kagyu, a branch of the Kagyu school that originated in the 10th century during the second flowering of Buddhism in Tibet.

The Treasure Revealer Dorje Lingpa (1346-1405) was the first Tantric master to establish a canon of Cham dances in Bhutan. These dances are understood as “treasures”, having come in mystical yogic visions to the Treasure Revealers during meditation. Decham depicts the cutting away of spiritual obstructions. It was performed by the villagers of Nabji.

The Drukpa Kagyu Sect was founded in Tibet by Tsangpa Gyare in 1161 and established in Bhutan in 1616 by Zhabdrung. These Cham are ritual dances of a courtly monastic style. Although they existed earlier in Tibet, these Cham date from the early 17th century when they were adapted by Zhabdrung, founder of the nation state Bhutan. These Cham no longer exist in Tibet.

Tum Ngam Cham: A subjugation dance of the State Religion dedicated to Padmasambhava. Subjugating evil is here symbolized by performing violent head movements while doubling the body over a ritual effigy placed in the center of the courtyard. This Cham was performed by the monks of the Drukpa Kagyu Sect.

Zhanag Nga Cham (Black Hat Drum Dance): A canon of Black Hat dances exists today descended from a well-established cult of sorcerers which predate Buddhism in Tibet. The dances were used secretly to pass down magic formulae. These Cham are distinct in that the movements derive from those used in ancient rituals of white and black magic. By comparison, other Cham choreography derives from ancient agricultural and martial sources. Zhanag Nga Cham is performed by the highest-level dancers in the Drukpa Kagyu order. This dance was recorded during the Thimphu Drubchen, an elaborate 14-day danced state ritual of magic in the Trashicho Dzong for the protection and prosperity of Bhutan.

The Treasure Revealer Pema Lingpa (1450-1521), Bhutan’s indigenous saint, a mystic visionary and prolific artist, introduced many choreographic and costume innovations. The Ging Sum are a set of three Revealed Treasure Dances, comprising a single choreographic vision. The Chams Jug Ging, Dri Ging and Nga Ging show the activities of Ging. Ging are “sky heros” supernatural beings from another spiritual dimension. The Ging Sum was revealed by Pema Lingpa in the late 15th century at Lhodrak near Bhutan in Tibet and maintained with authenticity for more than 500 years by the Tibetan monks of Lhalung Monestary who came to Bhutan as exiles in 1960, making the seat of Pema Lingpa, Tamzhing Monastery, their new home. The Ging Sum that Pema Lingpa taught at Tamzhing in 1501 was a version for farmers, which spread widely throughout Bhutan, and is performed with many variations today. Tamzhing Monastery proudly maintains both the monastic and bucolic versions of Pema Lingpa’s Ging Sum. These Cham were performed by the monks of Tamzhing Monastery, seat of Pema Lingpa.

Jug Ging: A Wand Dance wherein obstacles to enlightenment are identified by divination.

Dri Ging: A Sword Dance wherein obstacles to enlightenment are cut away. Cutting away the obstacles to enlightenment is symbolized by the dismemberment of a ritual effigy in the center of the courtyard.

Nga Ging: A Drum Dance wherein the spirits of obstructing powers are driven off and set free to pursue enlightenment themselves.

The Karma Kagyu, 4th Zhamarpa Lama (established in Bhutan 1470) Goenpo Bernak Cham is a dance from a mystical vision of 4th Zhamarpa Lama revealed in Tibet. Since the Zhamarpa Lama moved his monastery to Thangbi Bhutan in 1470, this Cham has been continuously performed there and nowhere else. Goenpo Bernak is a form of the protective deity Mahakala. Goenpo Bernak Cham has been kept alive by the lay monks of Thangbi Lhakhang, whose work includes the care of orphans. This Cham was performed by lay monks and villagers of Thangbi, augmented by guest dancers from Jakar Dzong, on Sept. 18, 2005. Goenpo Bernak Cham has an unusual ending in which the dancers exit by staggering backwards.

The Lama Namkha Samdrup (15th century), a Tibetan lama who established himself in Bhutan. Unique to the performance of the Namkha Samdrup Festival Cham are a rare set of militia training dances called Zhey. Namkha Samdrup did not create these Zhey, but his Cham festival preserves them. These Cham were introduced in the time of Bhutan’s unification in the early 17th century. Jiwai Lam Drang (“The Bird’s Nest” or “The Iron Chain”) is performed by the men of noble households of eight villages in Chhoekor Valley. The ancient dance manual for these Zhey was burned in a fire, and rewritten from memory by a teenage boy who had mastered all the dances. He is now 47 years old and one of two lead dancers. This Zhey dance of eight dancers is unique in that joined hands are never separated throughout the course of lengthy, winding choreography. The dancers literally weave themselves together.

The highlight of any visit is a masked dance festival, staged in the courtyard of one of Bhutan’s oldest temples. The slow-moving Tsechu, or festival, is celebrated for several days and brings Buddhist mythology to life, their version of the Christian Passion Play. The dance is accompanied by music played by monks using traditional Tibetan instruments. Dancers help purify the ground, protecting it from demonic spirits, followed by a procession of trumpets and cymbals, flags and banners, and finally blessings from monks, lamas and religious men. In swirling costumes of yellow silk, dancers wear crushingly heavy masks representing deities and animals. Young monks undergo a lengthy apprenticeship learning each precise step and position, as defined by saints of Buddhism. Dances can be instructive with a moral overtone, purify and protect, or proclaim religious victory, but they are long and tedious. Only clowns are allowed to mock their religion and are indispensable in distracting or joking with the crowd. Groups of young women sing and perform during the interlude. The festival epitomizes a country still steeped in mystery and myths.