The Shazam (ཤ་རྫམ་) or Stag dance is one of the well known dances in Bhutan which fall within the category of sachag (ས་བཅགས་) or dance of establishment of founding. The dance symbolizes the exorcism of negative forces and the purification and consecration of the venue for spiritual practice. The dance includes four dancers wearing masks of deer and holding swords. It is often performed as the first piece of dance in the day during a festival although this dance is now being adapted and performed for commercial purposes outside the traditional venues and events.
The culture of stag dance is common in many other parts of the Himalayas. In Tibet, the dance is often performed by a single dancer, who wears a large stag mask and heavy silk robe, and performs the ritual of ‘liberation’ (སྒྲོལ་བ་). While the Shazam dance in Bhutan also carries the same symbolism of tantric practice of ‘liberation’ of demonic forces and consecration of the space, it has only four dancers, who do not openly carry out the act of ‘liberation’ or ‘ritual killing’. The ritual of ‘liberation’ is one of the most esoteric and powerful practices of Vajrayāna Buddhism, which combines the altruism of Mahāyāna Buddhism to rescue all sentient beings from suffering and negative states of the mind and the exceptional expedient methods of secret tantras to do so. It even advocates using violent and terrifying methods out of ruthless compassion in order to tame unruly beings. Thus, in a ritual of ‘liberation’, the tantric master takes up a terrifying form externally to subjugate demonic forces and transform the negative energy into a positive one. Through the ritual, the consciousness of the target is said to be miraculously liberated while its ordinary personality is destroyed.
According to the Bhutanese dance scholars, the Shazam dance represents Padmasambhava’s taming of the king of western wind gods (ནུབ་ཕྱོགས་རླུང་ལྷའི་རྒྱལ་པོ་) who were in conflict with the gods of the north and causing a great turmoil and misery in the world. Padmasambhava is said to have tamed the god king and taken over his vehicle, which is a deer. However, nothing more is known about this story, and stag dance is also known in the Bon religion in Tibet. Thus, nothing definite can be said about origin of the stag dance, which is performed in a group in Bhutan. The use of the mask of stag in a dance which depicts the ritual of ‘liberation’ is almost certainly based on the idea of the stag-headed deity in the Buddhist tantras. The priest takes on the form of this deity through visualization and prayers and symbolically subdues the malevolent forces in a festive ritual. While the general origin of the stag dance is unclear, the introduction of the stag dance to Bhutan might have taken place from Lhodrak Karchu monatery in southern Tibet. The first Namkhai Nyingpo reincarnation, who was the lama of this monastery close to the Bhutanese border to the north, is said to have retrieved a hidden treasure of a mask of a stag and started a tradition of a white stag dance in his monastery.
The Shazam dancers wear the dorji gong (རྡོ་རྗེ་གོང་) adamantine shoulder cover and also the trab (ཀྲབ་) sash forming a cross over them for their torso. They wear a skirt of silk scarves of different colours, which are hung from a belt with the mentse designs covering the outside layer. They also wear pants with leopard stripes and skirts with tiger stripes underneath. They dance bare feet, regulated by the chief musician, who plays a pair of large boerol (བལ་རོལ་) cymbals off the dance stage. They wield swords, which signify wisdom, in their right hands and have nothing in their left. The mask of stags they wear have long antlers.
Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of numerous books and articles including The History of Bhutan.