Monday, August 24, 2009

4 Days of Monlam Festival (Tibetan New Year). Day 4: Cham Dance-Drama at Rongwu Monastery. Part 2, Beginning of the dance.

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 4Cham Dance-Drama at Rongwu Monstery.

Narration of the second part: Beginning of the Dance.
Read the introduction to this 4th day, see a video and read the preliminary story of the Cham dance at my July 3rd 2009 post.
The horns had sounded on the roof but also inside the temple. Monks began to leave the temple in their (now for us) common presentation, but this time there were only those who were going to participate in the dance, around one hundred, and the others remained inside or left the temple from behind and came back later as mere spectators.

The first to appear were three monks carrying two horns, carried on the front only by one, while the other two were holding the other extreme and playing them. A very curious and fascinating image. As expected the first monk placed the horn’s “mouth” on the pedestal of the skeletons, while the others continued playing. Behind them came some major monks with bells, and then all the other instruments, dozens of drums and cymbals.

Playing their instruments (in what would become in its monotony the only sound during all the performance) those monks musicians took their place where we Westerners would call "stage", exactly in front of the temple's main entrance. Their faces were looking toward us, so it seemed that the main space of the dance was where “the chorus work”, down the stairs, inside the circles marked in the square; of course I was using my imagination before anything happened. In reality they used both spaces, the stage in front of the temple and the big circle in the square, as any other religious theatre would do it.

Two figures in special costumes emerged from the temple. These two men gave the impression of being two "happy" skulls or "very much alive" dead men; they were wearing skull masks very similar to that image of "death enlightened" that I described in my last post (preliminaries of the dance), with the same flame over their crown and bow-shaped ears, their clothes oddly similar to a kind of harlequin costume, with horizontal stripes of colored cloth and some ruffles.

While I was just watching their movements, I discovered that there was no special physical preparation, technically speaking, so I did not expect wonders, nor amazing acrobatic jumps nor breathtaking aesthetic movements. The ritual here was still more important, the aesthetic result was an aggregate of our culture, yet not in theirs; what they were doing there had a specific religious purpose, they were not expecting our approval, they were not expecting a round of applause.In their very simple choreography those happy skeletons carried a wooden triangle and placed it on the central platform, that with the picture of a man with the opened body. That little wooden triangle contained some unidentifiable objects (from my position), objects that in later parts of the performance would become very important. The characters continued their movements-choreography, this time as if it would mark a space around the platform, with various crossings between them and surrounding it; at the the end of that part they literally went running into the temple.Once the dancing was over, the music marked a kind of rhythmic change by adding only the sounds of the horns; that was for a minute or two, and nothing else happened. Then came the first demon accompanied with the music of cymbals: with an imposing mask with horns that had flames on their ends, with crowns of flames on his head;an animal nose, an animal jaw, thick hair and a long black beard; wearing a colorful costume, made from fabrics and ribbons, with ties of different colors, a golden scepter or maybe an arm in his hand. His entrance was in a circular choreography, jumping at the same point but alternating legs, always dancing to the rhythm of cymbals.The entry of the demon seems of utmost importance, presenting an event that would trigger the whole future story: stopped by five of the leading monks, dressed in their stunning costumes and armed with a stick of incense and a dry rod, the demon was obliged to make its movements on the stage up the stairs, at the same level of the musicians; each of these movements was a kind of attack, like wanting to push and with what I can call climax and anticlimax, rising and lowering in level and in intensity, almost crouching in his circular movement or getting up to attack, while the monks stood impassively before him, blocking his pass to the main circle.

Apparently the dance attack by the demon was stronger than the intent to block of the monks; they opened the way and the demon could pass through; the music changed using both horns and drums, it was the end of the fighting and there was a climax. I cannot say that the demon defeated the monks, there were no evident actions or gestures on their part, they only changed their positions and performed their movements almost in an automatic displacement moving out to the first circle (the one drawn before the performance) in front of the spectators.A procession of dancing demons came out from the temple, 15 or 20 of them, all in pairs, and each one differently dressed and masked, each with their own additaments, with their own character attributes, some with swords, some with rosaries, others with knives, others with canes. The new dance had the same repetitive and circular line of movements, round and toward the vast space of the temple’s square.

I was totally fascinated, inevitably I got lost (forgetting the dance) because I was amazed seeing the brightness and colors of their costumes, because I was trying to observe all of the attributed objects that each of them had in their hands, and of course because of those wooden masks with their impressive features: faces of birds, animals and fantastic creatures, heavy masks with lots of hair, fabric and objects attached to them. Such color, such visual spectacle with so many dancers were a real pleasure for my eyes. Yes, I was totally fascinated and so too were the other foreigner spectators that day; as for the Tibetan people from Repkong I would not know, they watched attentively, but talked a lot among themselves, eating and moving from one place to another.

Video: Second part of Cham dance performance at Rongwu Monastery. February 9, 2009.

(Part 2) Tibetan Cham Dance Performance at Rongwu Monastery: Beginning. from Gustavo Thomas on Vimeo.

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