Cham is a type of sacred dance unique to the Indo-Himalayan Buddhist culture. It is an extension of the Buddhist practice of visual offering of aesthetic movement, the mudra expression of enlightened spirit and of the artistic and entertaining expedience of passing a spiritual message.
Thus, cham comes in many varieties with different purposes. Some cham dances, such as the Rigma Chudrug cham dance representing the sixteen offering goddesses, are a display of beautiful movements as an offering to enlightened beings while others, such as the operatic Shawa Shakhyi dance of the Stag and Hounds and the Pholey Moley dance of the Handsome Men and Beautiful Women, are artistic and entertaining works performed to convey moral and spiritual messages. Many cham dances, such as the Zhanag or Black Hat dance are enactments of past events or tributary gestures to remember an event. The dance of the state deities in Punakha Dromchoe was introduced by Zhabdrung to show gratitude to the deities for protecting Bhutan. Many temples have their own unique cham dance to serve the needs, taste and aspirations of the local people and to honour the local deities. There are some dances, such as ter cham, which are considered esoteric and reformed in very private or secretive circumstances and others, which are performed for open public viewing.
A great majority of the cham dances, such as the Shinje Yabyum dance, deals with the physical display of the inner enlightened mind. They are extensions of the mudra gestures in being expressions of the spontaneous flow of enlightened energy. Like in the case of Shinje and Trochu dances, the mask faces and dancers represent the enlightened deities and their movements different forms of enlightened activities. For instance, in the tripartite Peling Gingsum dance, the deities in the form of Juging spirits with sticks, first do the study to identify the main existential enemy – the ego. They are followed by the Driging deities with swords to ritually slay the enemy and finally, the Ngaging spirit with drums appear to celebrate the victory over the enemy that is our own ego.
Some cham movements are powerful physical gestures and postures, which can trigger inner spiritual experience to overcome our negative thoughts and emotions. They spark off the experience of non-dual awareness of the true nature of mind. Many of cham dances also involve holy masks and costumes which have spiritual power invested in them by past lamas. These further help enhance the spiritual experience of the dancer as well as the viewers. Thus, cham has a strong liberative role in helping people progress on the path to enlightenment and freedom from suffering. It is often known as thongdrol or that which liberates upon seeing.
The main reason why our monasteries, temples and dzongs host cham dances and why people go to watch them is because cham has the power to help people reach enlightenment. This does not mean that people will automatically or suddenly get enlightened but viewing a cham dance will help connect people to a moral message, practice of offering or to the awareness of enlightened deities and gradually lead them to enlightenment. For instance, watching the Mangcham, people think of death, the law of karma, rebirth and the process of liberation.
When one watches cham, one should understand the significance of the cham and know that cham is a representation of inner enlightenment being displayed to trigger more spiritual and enlightened experience among the viewers. So, it should not be viewed purely as an entertainment but as an entertaining path to enlightenment.
Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, founder of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel in a series called Why we do what we do.
Subjects Tibet and Himalayas