Dance of Shinjé Yabyum

One of the most common sacred mask dances performed during the religious festivals in Bhutan is the Shinjé Yabyum (གཤིན་རྗེ་ཡབ་ཡུམ་) dance. The dance is often the first mask dance performed for a given festival’s programme. Although known as Shinjé Yabyum, or male and female lord of death, it represents the male and female Yamāntaka (གཤིན་རྗེ་གཤེད་) deities. Yamāntaka, is the destroyer (antaka, གཤེད་) of death (yama, གཤིན་རྗེ་), not the lord of death, and is among the most well-known wrathful deities in Vajrayāna Buddhism.

Vajrayāna Buddhism claims to have expedient means to pacify and enlighten those sentient beings deemed too unruly to gain benefits from the peaceful teachings of exoteric Buddhism. One of the ways to tame and convert negative forces to follow the positive path to enlightenment is to do so by force, by channeling compassion to assume a wrathful appearance. Thus, there are a wide range of wrathful and terrifying Buddha figures known as herukas (ཁྲག་འཐུང་). Yamāntaka is one such deity. Mañjuśrī, the Buddha of Wisdom, is said to have taken on the ferocious form of Yamāntaka in order to overcome the malevolent forces of death. In order to overcome ordinary prejudices of seeing only human and celestial figures as enlightened, and to indicate that enlightened energy can manifest in myriad forms for the benefit of sentient beings, and further, that enlightenment is possible even in animal forms, Mañjuśrī manifested as a wrathful bull-headed deity trampling on a bull, which symbolizes the lord of death.

Yamāntaka is a common tantric deity accepted by all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Based on an associated tantra, the practices constitute a major cycle of the Sarma (གསར་མ་) or new schools. In the Nyingma (རྙིང་མ་) tradition, Yamāntaka is one of the eight heruka deities, who are the main topics of the esoteric teachings called the Eight Pronouncements (བཀའ་བརྒྱད་). Yamāntaka is associated with the enlightened body of the Buddha.

The Shinjé Yabyum dance is a display of Yamāntaka, performed by two dancers wearing red bull masks, silk robes, vajra shoulder covers, and traditional Bhutanese leather boots. They each hold a sword symbolizing the wisdom that cuts through ignorance. The dance is accompanied by a musical orchestra constituted of a cymbal and long horns. During the entry and the exit chapters, oboes are also played. The dance is performed at the beginning of the festival dance programme so that Yamāntaka and his consort demarcate, purify, and bless the ground for the performances to come. Vajrayāna rituals including sacred cham require the stage to be cleansed of negative forces. Thus, the female and male wrathful forms of Mañjuśrī chase evil forces and bless the ground as sacred space. This action of delimiting the ground is called sachag (ས་བཅག་), or establishing the ground. The dance is also performed as a piece during the dance tests (འཆམ་རྒྱུགས་), which the dancers perform without wearing masks. The dance is often performed by the dancers who are next to the two chief dancers, these being the first and the last dancers.

During this dance, the master clown often appears to make fun of the two bull-masked figures, pretending they are bullocks and he is a ploughman. The movement of the dance, like most other cham, alternate between slow and peaceful motions and fast violent movements.


Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.