The Cham Dance
Bored with usual work and daily routine??? Feeling to snap out and see the some nature’s beauty??? Yes, of course everyone deserves a get-a-way. A cool, pleasant, scenic place would be a best fit. You got it right!!! I am setting the mood to introduce you to the wonderful and holistic trip of the Leh-Ladakh Tour. The Leh-Ladakh Road Trip is famous for bikers and road travellers. The Leh-Ladakh trip by means of road is best if the tour is through the Manali to Leh highway. This highway remains open for only five months in a year but has the amazing sightseeing places all through the way. Apart from sight-seeing, the main and the best tourist attraction of Leh and Ladakh is the dance form called ‘Cham’. This Cham dance is associated with the Tibetan Buddhism.
Legend behind Cham
The word ‘Cham’ literally means ‘dance’ in Tibetan local language. As told by the people of Leh-Ladakh region, Cham is a very vibrant and colourful dance. The history of this dance dates back to 8 th Century and is known to be started by Guru Padmasambhava. The then King of Tibet, Trishong Detsen requested Guru Padmasambhava to help him get rid of the evil spirits which were not allowing the construction of the Samye Monastery (currently located in Tibet). As per the legend, the evil spirits used to destroy the construction in the night which was done that morning. To address this situation, Guru Padmasambhava then drew lines on the ground that invoke tantric powers and danced using tantric mudras (hand gestures) to please gods. This ritual was successful in driving away the demons.
Places to witness Cham
Though Cham, has taken its origin in the Tibetan region, it traveled through the borders of Bhutan to enter India. This dance is a prominent tradition in the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. All the Buddhist monasteries following the Tibetan culture perform this dance. The North- Eastern States of India like Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Jammu & Kashmir and West Bengal are the regions which are the house for these lovely monasteries. But to be more specific, the belt of Manali to Leh-Ladakh has some of the most famous ones like the Hemis Monastery, Thiksey Monastery, Diskit Monastery, Alchi Monastery, Lamayuru Monastery, Spituk Monastery, Matho Monastery etc.
All of these Buddhist monasteries wide spread over this Leh-Ladakh Road trip route are the some of the Indian centers for this traditional dance of Cham. This dance is performed only by the Buddhist monks who are called as lamas, during festivals of these monasteries. The calendar of each monastery is different which differ dates of their annual festivities. Mostly these take place between the months of January to August, thus standing out to be the best tourist attractions in this region.
Attractions of Cham
The main attraction of Cham is the beautiful and vibrant coloured masks which the lamas wear during the performances. Amidst the music produced by the long horns, drums and cymbals, Cham is performed by the initiated lamas to depict the stories of saints and gods fighting over the evil. The Cham performers usual carry elaborated costumes and masks made up of clay and cloth pieces. The dried masks are then paints with multitude of colours portraying various emotions and expressions like anger, fear, happiness, evil, ego etc. These masks are also at times coated with metals for certain characters.
The Cham dance masks are usually three or four times bigger in size than a normal human head. With the sharp edges and other structures there is quite a possibility to have bruises for the lamas wearing them. To avoid this, the lamas drape their forehead and neck with cotton pads of layers of cloth.
Besides masks, the lamas also wear robes which are bright coloured. They also wear ornaments for showing few characters in the dance. These robes and aprons are generally made of silk and have different patterns on them. When the dancers perform to the tranquilizing music these robes flying in the air or make an umbrella effect around their waists giving a very real feel of the depiction.
All the dance costume is wore over the usual dress of the monks. The normal costume consists of the mask with long broad sleeved gowns with short triangulated capes known as tippet. The mantle is generally decorated differently for different characters. The colour of the dress is also significant as it imports some iconography.
Significance of Cham
Cham, being an art of cleansing the evil spirits, slowing paved its way into the Indian Himalayan region monasteries mostly is the Leh-Ladakh region. The dance is only reserved to the lamas and is not documented due to its tantric powers. It is passed from one generation monks to the next generation monks only. It initially it was performed only in the hidden parts of the monasteries but as of today it’s can also be viewed by the large number of tourists.
There are different forms of Cham which are performed during different occasions all around the year. As spoken earlier, the Cham that narrates the win of good over evil is a highlight to the Tibetan New year celebrations. Many of the Cham forms feature exorcism of evil spirits. A very common scene of these exorcist narratives of Cham is the capture of evil spirits of human effigy made of dough, wax, yak butter or paper.
The dancers who dress up as various deities, demons, heroes and animals act and dance as though they have been possessed by the souls of the characters. This Tibetan traditional dance is considered to be a form of meditation by the monks. As layman for the dance form and gestures, the people also consider this dance as blessings from the gods to protect them and wipe out the evil influences.
Preparations for Cham
The dancer lamas – who perform this dance, have to meditate lasting from few days to weeks before the performance to invoke the protective deities within themselves. On the day of performances, the lamas feel the deities within and perform reciting sacred chants and gestures. These chants and gestures are from the tantric Buddhist studies which attract and capture the evil from the world.
For the lamas, this dance is a way of abolishing the evil from the world. This is a way of saving the word from the evil influences. This form of dance shows the path of liberation to the monks. We can witness this if we can make our way into the monasteries and stay with the monks.
Cham in Leh-Ladakh Festivals
The ritual of Cham, is a very common aspect of all the monasteries in the Leh-Ladakh road trip regions. In Ladkh, Cham is performed during the various celebrations Tshechu (the new year), Guru Padmasambhava’s birth anniversary etc.
Hemis festival, which commemorates Guru Padmasambhava’s birth anniversary is celebrated in the annually in the Hemis Monastery, in Ladakh. This is the most joyous occasion and is lighten up with the performance of Cham Dance or locally called as the Mask dance. This is a two day festivity which is a very promising event which attracts viewers from all over the glode.
Hemis Monastery is located 45 km from Leh and is tucked on the western banks of river Indus. The only way to get there is by car or a by a bike from Leh. This is one of those monasteries in Leh-Ladakh region which offers stay inside the monastery.
Cham at Hemis
The Hemis festival takes place for a whole two days generally in the month of July. This is the most happening festival of the whole Ladakh area. This brightens up the place in preparations for the festival, it’s just not the locals who are involved in this festival but also thousands of people around the globe come to witness this festival and the fascinating fiesta the Cham dance.
The two day itinerary of festival is described below
On the day one, Ladakh starts the dazzling festival with some rituals performed by the head priest of the monastery. This can be witnessed from the courtyard of Hemis monastery. They bring out a huge idol of Guru Padmasambhava into the courtyard and adorn it with decorations. This is ritual is followed by the Ladakh’s most pulsating dance performance of ‘Cham’. The performers first seek the blessings of the head of the monastery and then gather around the flagpole at the center of the courtyard to perform. This continues till the dusk.
Ladakh remains as energetic as it is all through the first day of the celebration. The Cham performance again commences with a small opening ritual. The melodious music which has the cymbals and drums along with human voices bring in mystic vibes. The dance starts with a slow tempo and gains momentum gradually.
During the course, people destroy the clay sculptures of demons which were discussed earlier. Finally the black hat dancers smash the sculptures and throw the broken pieces in four different directions showing the end of negativity.
Other festivals with Cham Dance
Apart from Hemis monastery, there are many more monasteries which perform the Cham dance in the Leh-Ladakh region. You can be a part of Cham Dance in Lamayuru Monastery. This is situated in the Srinagar-Leh highway which is 15kms from Fotu la. The Yuru Kabgya festival of this monastery is dedicated to Yama, the God of Death and Guru Padmasambhava, who is considered the second Buddha. This festival takes place in months of June and July which has the extravagant Cham dance performed by the lamas.
The Phyang Monastery located in Ladakh, 15 km away from Leh is another prominent place for the Cham dance. The Cham plays an important part of the Phyang Tsedup Festival, dedicated to Jigten Gombo, the founder of Dringumpa Monastic Dynasty. This festival is celebrated between the end of July and August months.
Spituk Gustor festival and Stok Guru Tsechu Festival of the Spituk Monastery in Leh are home for a magnum experience of Cham. The Spituk Gustor festival celebrated in the month of January is for the world peace and well-being while the Stok Guru Tsechu Festival celebrated in February is for removing the evil spirits by receiving the spirits of deities.
The Thiksey Monastery located 19 kms from Leh in Ladakh also stages Cham as a part of the Thiksey Gustor Festival. ‘Gustor’ means ‘sacrifice’ and is celebrated during the month of November.
Matho Monastery or Matho Gonpa located 26kms from Leh in Ladakh hosts the Matho Nagrang Festival in the month of February. This is the only one belonging to the Sakya School of Tibetan Buddhism. The Matho Nagrang Festival is two day festival which is popular for two oracles, one being the lamas spending one full month of meditation before the festival in preparation for Cham and the second being the predictions made by them about future happenings.
Ladakh Festival is also a famous stage for the Cham dance. This is celebrated every year in Leh and its villages. It takes place in the Polo ground of Leh which has many events like archery, polo and other cultural events from the villages.. Among them the most significant is the one when Cham dance is performed. This is celebrated mostly during September before the tourist season closes.
The Leh-Ladakh Road trip is a life time experience and should be a part of everyone’s bucket-list. Now with this interesting Cham dance information, the Ladakh tour should be considered as the top most priority in the list. Keep in mind to clash your trip with one of these lovely festivals which will make your tour loaded with memories. But just you keep you informed never forget your full photographic equipment as it is worth capturing every moment of these extravagant moments of the Leh-Ladakh Road Trip or the Cham dance experiences.
Why waiting, book your tickets right away to tick off the Leh-Ladakh road trip off your bucket-list.
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10 thoughts on “The Cham Dance: A Ritual Dance By Tibetan Monks”
I really loved reading this x
So happy to hear that!
So interesting! Xx
Glad you enjoyed it!
Great article. Thanks 🙂
Glad you enjoyed it!
Very interesting. I lived in a boarding school in Dalhousie, India. I was there from 1969 to 1972. At that time there were a lot of Buddhists Lamas and their people living in the area. I never saw or heard of the Cham Dance. This is my first introduction to it.
Glad you found it interesting and I haven’t seen it either but I would love to see it someday!
Thanks. You are the first person who gives likes on my first post. Thanks.
You’re very welcome!