Cham Dance: A Sacred Ritual Dance in Buddhism


Buddhist monks use traditional Tibetan instruments to play music during Cham dance, which teaches compassion for all beings.

For centuries, dance such as the cham dance (Buddhist mask dance) has been a spiritual tool in India and neighboring countries, providing a way to connect with the divine and navigate the complexities of life. The interplay of physical movement, emotion, and subtle energy in dance is believed to help individuals achieve a state of mindfulness and meditation, enabling them to negotiate the spaces of samsara with skillful means.

In many cultures, dance is seen as a representation of the chaos and beauty of existence, with the dance of creation embodying the play of subtle elements in the process of creation. The dance of Shiva (a Hindu deity) is a perfect example, reflecting the back-and-forth churning of the vast ocean of samsara (the material world) and the interplay of good and evil arising from the pride and envy between gods and titans.

Dance has a rich history, evolving as a response to the challenges of primitive existence and the uncertainties of an ever-changing world. It helped primitive survival clans bring order and harmony to their existence and mitigate fears of the wrathful facets of nature through mystical movements. Dance has been used to safeguard and protect primal existence, to connect, heal, and grow both individually and as a community, and to pass on a rich body of curated knowledge for generations to come.

Other purposes include fertility rites, acknowledging the movements of stars and cycles of seasons, and imparting important life lessons through dance dramas depicting myths, archetypes, and folk tales. In ancient India, dance and drama were used to teach spiritual lessons to those who were not allowed to read the Vedas (ancient scripture), embedding cultural programs with tales to prime people towards obedience to rulers and understanding their place in the caste system. Through the ages, dance has become an archetypal human symbolic imitation of the world, providing a means of realizing one’s innate experiences and reflections.

History of Cham Dance

Cham Dance and its history

Cham dance has its roots in India, where it was performed at a spiritual gathering called ganachakra, which translates to “circle of knowledge.” This practice was particularly prevalent in the regions of Kashmir and parts of Afghanistan, which were centers of Tantra and Shaivism. The Vajra dance is an effective tool for practitioners of Tantra, as it incites and invokes energies, elevating them to higher states of consciousness. The dance form originated in North India, especially in Kashmir, Bihar, West Bengal, and Nepal, and eventually made its way to Tibet as part of the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition. The Cham dance is a fusion of the Tantric dance from India and elements from Tibet’s ancient Bon religion, which was deeply immersed in animism. As Tibetan influence expanded in the region, Tibetan monasteries emerged through the patronage of kings, bringing the Cham dance back to the Indian subcontinent to places such as Bhutan, Sikkim, Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh, where Vajrayana (one of the routes of enlightenment) remains the primary spiritual path.

According to various sources (Nebesky-Wojkowitz 1976; Kohn 2002; Pearlman 2002; Rinpoche 2016), there are several legends associated with the origin of the Cham dance in Tibet. One of the best-established legends states that the Indian tantric adept Padmasambhava first performed the Cham dance around 760–770 AD. The Tibetans hold Padmasambhava in high esteem, calling him Guru Vajradhara, or the Guru who holds the adamantine sceptre of skillful means and also refer to him as Guru Rinpoche or the Precious Guru (Gyaltsap and Dargye 2011).

Legend has it that King Trishong Detsen of Tibet invited Guru Rinpoche to subdue the hostile forces that were obstructing the establishment of Samye Monastery. It is said that every night, the work done during the day would be destroyed by the spirits opposed to the Buddhadharma. Guru Rinpoche drew energy lines (Tib. thiks) to block these opposing forces from crossing over, safeguarding the construction site. He then put on the Janaka dress and performed various tantric mudras on the ground with five colored beads, invoking Chamara, the primary deity of Cham. This form of Cham dance, performed by Guru Rinpoche, is known as the Vajrakilaya, or Dance of the Dagger. The Vajrakilaya Cham was intended not only to subdue the opposing forces but also to convert them into dharmapalas or dharma (cosmic law and order) protectors (Tib. cho-kyong) in support of the Buddhadharma. Even today, Guru Rinpoche’s dance is performed in the tenth month of the Tibetan lunar calendar. After Guru Rinpoche’s intervention, Cham spread rapidly across Tibetan monasteries and became an inspiration for the spread of Buddhadharma.

Some texts report that the sequences of Cham were first revealed to Guru Choswang  (1221–2270 AD) by Guru Rinpoche in a dream where he saw eight amazing faces. On waking up, Guru Choswang drew all eight faces and cast them into masks. Monks were then made to wear these masks and move in deliberate ways. This form of Cham dance is known as the Eight Manifestations of Padmasambhava (Ricard 2003). Thus, the Cham dance evolved in Tibet as a spiritual dance form, appearing in mystical dreams and visions.

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Where to See Cham (Buddhist Mask) Dance?

Cham Dance in India

Cham Dance in India
Sani Festival, Zanskar valley, India

In India, there are many ancient Buddhist monasteries nestled in the breathtaking Himalayas where cham dances are performed. Ladakh, known as “Mini Tibet,” boasts a rich heritage steeped in Buddhism and is considered one of the best places in India to experience this type of dance. Hemis Monastery, with its vibrant Hemis Festival, is a must-visit, as are the Lamayuru, Phyang, Takthok, Karsha, Spituk, Stok, Thiksey, Chemrey, Matho, Nubra, and Deskit Monasteries, each celebrating their own unique festivals. And for a truly immersive experience, the Ladakh Festival in Leh and its surrounding villages is a spectacle not to be missed.

Cham Dance in Mongolia

Cham Dance Festival in Mongolia
Tsam Dance in Mongolia

Mongolian Buddhists have taken the ancient and mystical art of tsam (cham) to new heights, with larger-than-life masks, elaborate costumes, and grand outdoor celebrations that pay homage to their nomadic roots. The Tsam festival in Mongolia is a fascinating blend of tantric and shamanic traditions that merge seamlessly through dance. The influence of shamanism is deeply rooted in Mongolian culture and has absorbed various elements of tantric practices long before Buddhism arrived in the country. The festival is a multi-layered phenomenon, making it difficult to distinguish the different strata that comprise it.

During the festival, an open space in Urga is transformed into a mystic charnel ground with seven concentric circles drawn in chalk and a pyramid made of dough, crowned with a skull, at the center. The festival begins with the citipati, two figures dressed in skull masks and skeleton costumes who represent the Lords of the charnel grounds. Their dance rituals and mantras transform the pavilion into a sacred place where rebirth is extinguished and higher knowledge can be attained. Other characters, such as the White Old Man and Khashin Khan with his eight sons, play their roles in the standard Tsam repertory.

The festival continues with the appearance of demonic masks and dancers who banish evil and drive it into a doll made of fast-rising dough, called the lingka, while delivering the soul from the grip of demons. The festival concludes with a Lama (superior teacher) wearing a stag mask who tears apart the lingka with his sword. The dramatic effect of the lingka expanding during the ceremony is a sight to behold for the audience.

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Cham Dance in Bhutan

Cham Dance in Bhutan
by Arian Zwegers via Wikimedia Commons

In the remote kingdom of Bhutan, nestled high in the Himalayas, the ancient art of Cham dances has survived for centuries, largely untouched by outside influence. This danced yoga of Tantric Buddhism is a fundamental expression of Bhutan’s religious culture, passed down from advanced Buddhist masters through mystical visions. Even the tiniest village boasts a set of Cham masks, and festivals featuring several days of dancing are held throughout the country.

But the Cham is not merely a form of entertainment; it brings Buddhist mythology to life and is an integral part of the country’s ritual calendar. And while sacred dance has largely disappeared in Western cultures, in Bhutan it is a living tradition, demonstrating the connection between visual arts and sacred movement.

The courtly monastic style of Cham, adapted by Zhabdrung, founder of the Bhutanese nation-state, is unique to the region, with its roots in ancient agricultural and martial practices. However, the Zhanag Nga Cham, also known as the Black Hat Drum Dance, is even more distinct: descended from a cult of sorcerers that predated Buddhism in Tibet, the movements of this Cham derive from ancient rituals of white and black magic. Only performed by the highest-level dancers in the Drukpa Kagyu order, it is a powerful expression of Bhutan’s spiritual heritage.


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