Thursday, July 2, 2009

4 Days of Monlam Festival (Tibetan New Year). Day 4: CHAM DANCE Part 1 Preliminaries.

Note: See the introduction to this series about the Monlam Festival in Tongren, China on the March 20th, 2009 post: "4 Days of Monlam Festival (Tibetan New Year). Day 1: Procession of the Buddha Maitreya at Niantog Monastery".

Day 4
Cham Dance-Theater at Rongwu Monstery.

The Cham Dance is a ritual dance performed only in Tibetan Buddhism (1), with different versions of the same subject (exorcism) throughout the Tibetan region, extending from Nepal, Bhutan and north of the India to Mongolia, passing by today's Tibet. I call it dance-drama because it has elements that we westerners recognize as drama and dance, even when Tibetan religious tradition calls simply "dance" an event that uses music and movement but also tells a story through characters. I know in specialized circles these acts would be called "performative acts" or "representational acts" but I prefer to call it “Dance-drama”

The ancient Tibetan region of Amdo, today Tongren, is a highly respected region in Tibetan Buddhism because it is the birthplace of the current Dalai Lama (in exile in Dharamsala, India), and covers the whole of the Chinese Qinghai Province. Amdo, with a dry and cold climate, is full of mountains, valleys, and has a deeply religious and rural population, mostly illiterate and miserable (except for the Chinese-Han immigrant population and some privileged ones). It is politically known because in May 2008 there were strong anti Chinese rule protests comparable to those that occurred in Lhasa. The region is purely Tibetan even as it is ruled by China and is part of China.

Cham dance in Repkong has its own special style, and it is not necessary to be a scholar to find out, anyone can see any Cham dance from Nepal or Bhutan or from the Lama Temple in Beijing (2) and the differences between all of them are evident.

The ritual is performed as the climax of the events of Tibetan New Year Festival (Lunar year in Tibet) on the last day of celebrations, and is performed by a select group of monks especially prepared for it. Some speak about this “preparations” as a direct transmission of esoteric secrets from master to disciple, secretes transmitted through dance.

Tibetan Cham dance possibly has a shamanic origin, very important for the spiritual health of its people, but it no longer causes any kind of trance in its participants nor in its spectators; however, it remains of particular religious importance in the community and, of course, it works for the economy (tourism) and for the preservation of a cultural and artistic traditional jewel.

It is an interesting “performative” event and, in my experience, comparable with those indian events of pre-hispanic origin in Latin America: its movements, its dramatic choreography and its costumes and masks are very similar.

The external evolution from a shamanic act to an almost a theatrical performance, however, appears not to have given rise to a radical change in its inner structure. They (the monks) have not changed the duration and dramatic structure to make it more accessible to the public, even when it is possible that a few dances lasted for days centuries ago, its current duration is approximately 4 to 6 hours under full Sun light, enough to make any contemporary spectator run away; its music as well as its monotonous movements are still the same, and no one receives any explanation whatsoever about what it is about. That’s why I consider it a unique opportunity for any Performance researcher or any simple tourist.

Slide show: Cham dance-drama performed at Rongwu Monastery. Feb, 2009.

Narration of the event.

Due to the length of the dance and the amount of material I got, I split my description of the event in four parts written in four posts within this blog, making it somewhat more accessible in many details.

I must repeat (once again!) that I am not a scholar of performative acts nor a connoisseur of Tibetan Buddhism, but I think I have a sharp eye and a theatrical spirit (come on, I made the trip to this remote Tibetan-Chinese region to see this!) and both help me depict what I saw in a singular, if not special, way. You may or may not follow my written description, it is your decision, but the photos and video (edited in a chronological sense of events) are the raw document, pure, so, jewels to be seen.

My advice then is to follow the text description first and then watch the video for the first description, moving to the next afterwards. I know that this and the other 3 posts coming in this series are not for a quick sitting in front of the screen, so I’d also like to advice a little bit of patience and a slow reading to enjoy them better.

Part One: Preliminaries

In the cold morning of February 9, 2009 Rongwu Monastery showed a thin but continuous river of people coming to the final day of celebrations of the Tibetan New Year, coming from all neighboring regions, each one of the pilgrims prostrating themselves three times ( or more) in front of the huge golden Buddha statue in the middle of the main square, then continuing their journey around the monastery, praying while going in and out of each temple.

At 10:30 a.m. everything was calm. At the main temple’s square there were a few groups of villagers and several young monks; near the entrance of the temple I saw a sort of metal bracket with two images of skeletons with their arms and legs wide open, and I later understood it was a support for large Tibetan horns.

Inside the temple, many novice monks sat waiting for their ritual breakfast, a piece of stale bread and tea, while some of their major monks were walking doing some special preparations. We could enter to the temple and observed some of these ritual movements, like carrying incense and walking with sticks through the corridors, lighting candles, clapping rhythmically, some were familiar acts but some were totally incomprehensible for our cultural and religious background. We stopped taking pictures inside the temple, they were there for a ritual and we were there seeing everything, it was not respectful; nevertheless, some Chinese, never prudent as they usually are, entered the temple hall and took pictures and video in front of the monks as if they were statues or “objects” for their amusement.

I thought dancer-monks outside the temple were more important than these hundreds having breakfast inside and left the temple looking for any kind of preparations before the ritual.

I saw a triangular wooden structure with three spears with banners on the top in front of the square’s entrance, opposite to the temple’s door; in the middle of this wooden structure there was a triangular table with three small heads on each corner: one, a kind of skull, another one, painted green, and a third one, a pink-tinted head. I explained myself those small heads as the three states of the body: healthy, ill, and dead. Almost at the half of the square area there was a wooden platform with a painted image of a man with his body open as if by a knife; several skulls were painted on the sides of the platform looking towards the spectators.

When I asked the guide about the meaning of what I was seeing, he only repeated some information learned by heart, that the dance was about demons and served as an exorcism, so everything I was seeing was about death and beyond. It was clear that this should be an initial meaning, but what about today? Is it just a ritual which has lost much of its meaning like many rituals of the Catholic church, or does this celebration keep its spiritual functionality? I insisted asking about its effect on the villagers, whether it remained spiritually strong, but my guide, a Han Chinese, with no major contact with these festivities and ethnic group, was very limited when answering certain questions.

It is possible that the dance and its objects had already lost all religious sense for the villagers, but I’d rather think that those monks perform an exorcism-dance creating a kind of good feeling for the coming year, as an amulet, without requiring any extra participation from the people-spectators. So, simply seeing this dance creates a good omen for the next lunar year; they were only, as we were, spectators, the difference being, maybe, that they were not critical or nor looking for any kind of entertainment, they were there because it was important for having a good spiritual life. I was anxious about the people’s reaction ¿Would they sing during the performance? ¿Would they shout or speak to the characters? Lots of excitement and thoughts, but I choose to keep a healthy wait with silence.

The group of dancer-monks then were the clue of the importance of this day; religious dancers, dedicating a large part of their year practicing and learning about the meaning of their movements, meanings unavailable to outsiders like me. At this moment of the day they were still dressed in their typical red robes, but this time wearing a special kind of shoes: white leather, a strip in the center with some motifs in coloured fabric, two small peaks on the edge, a very small heels with an elevation something like 2 centimeters, a type of shoes that I had not seen in any other previous events.

Unlike the other days our group of dancer-monks were more concerned about defining the "space" of the performance; for it they had a bag of lime and wondered about the exact dimensions of the square to draw a circle (two, in fact). After some minutes of deliberation the circles were drawn with lime, and spectators could take their place outside those circles, and stay there until the time of the performance. The monks also painted a series of rectangles at the base of the stairs leading to the main temple and that seemed to be a reference for each of the characters in the dance.

Two monks came out from the temple (but prayers were still going on inside) carrying a wooden pyramid-type object with a skull on the top; the skull had a kind of cloth knot as ears (or wings?) and a flame on its head, as if it were an "enlightened death" or a "spiritual death." They placed it on the table of the three heads and returned to the temple.

We then heard the horns located on the roof of the main temple and a great excitement in the audience could be felt; it seemed that the dance would begin.

Video 1: Cham Dance-Theater. Preliminaries. Rongwu Monastery. Feb 9, 2009.

(Part 1) Tibetan Cham Dance Performance at Rongwu Monastery: Preliminaries. from Gustavo Thomas on Vimeo.

(1) We have to take care not to confuse this with other dances called “Cham dance” too, called by coincidence of sound, and because of the transcription to our alphabet from a Tibetan word. Some call this dance, to differentiate from others, “Tcham”.
(2) You will find several Buddhist Cham Dances on YouTube or searching on Google. It's better if you search "Cham dance" and add the word "Tibetan" or "Buddhist."

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