A mystical dance unfolds in the courtyards of Vajrayana monasteries. Nestled within the sublime landscapes of Bhutan, Tibet, and the Himalayan regions of Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh, and Zanskar in India, these courtyards are epicenters of a centuries-old tradition of sacred dancing, called cham. In 2012, a team from Core of Culture, an organization dedicated to preserving dance heritage, embarked on a journey to meticulously document this tradition in Ladakh and Zanskar. Guided by His Eminence Rigyal Rinpoche, abbot of Phyang Monastery, their research delved into the depths of cham dance, revealing its integration with monastic architecture and Buddhist practice.
From meticulously preserved choreographic manuals, known as chams yig, to visual artworks embedded in ceremonial dances, the study painted an extensive panorama of this monastic dance tradition. The researchers noted the quantity of participating monks, the teaching methods used to transmit these ancient dances, and named and recorded each dance along with its attributes. They also scrutinized the dance courtyards in each monastery, producing a repository of information and photography from their fieldwork.
The dance courtyards, or chamra, are not just stages for performances. They are purposefully designed spaces within the monastic complexes, each one a testament to the symbiotic relationship between the dance and the architecture. Whether made of rough stone, hewn stone, or raw earth, these courtyards resonate with the rhythmic footsteps of the cham dancers, their vibrant costumes, and ferocious masks. Akin to the deep interplay between Greek tragedy and the amphitheater, or Japanese Noh and the Noh stage, cham dance is an art form that has evolved symbiotically with the courtyard.
Aligned with surrounding natural features—rivers, valleys, mountains, and the sky—these courtyards are designed to draw in beneficial energies. They serve as stages for moving meditation and visualization, wherein the cham dances, the architecture, and the environment converge to create a spiritually and energetically charged site. These courtyards bring shared symbolism to life, offering a place for community gatherings, religious rites, and social interaction, much like the civic purpose of Greek amphitheaters in Athens. Each dance ceremony, held within the walls as high as five stories, breathes life into the monastery complex and strengthens the community’s bonds of faith and camaraderie.
There is a remarkable parallel between these practices and those found in Bhutan, a nation whose cultural fabric is intricately woven with the teachings of Padmasambhava, or Guru Rinpoche, the “Second Buddha.” This revered figure is credited with bringing Buddhism to the Himalayas in the eighth century, along with the practices of tantric Buddhism, or Vajrayana, which included the sacred dance form of cham. As an embodiment of the mandala—representations of a perfect universe—cham dances hold a special place in Bhutanese culture, being performed at annual festivals known as tshechu. These festivals honor Guru Rinpoche’s teachings and activities, with many of the dances believed to be the same ones he performed as he overcame obstacles and converted enemies into protectors of the dharma.
Dance, in this way, transcends the boundaries of performance and becomes a vital part of spiritual practice, an embodied form of the sacred wisdom of Padmasambhava. As the dancers move in synchronization within the sacred space of the chamra, they not only put on a show but also evoke a spiritual superhero, manifesting the enlightened qualities of the deities that Vajrayana practitioners meditate upon. It is a dance that not only entertains but also educates and enlightens—liberating through the act of viewing.
By looking closely at the dance, the architecture, and the cultural context, the researchers from Core of Culture have brought to light the profound significance of cham dance in the Himalayan Buddhist tradition. This research can contribute significantly to our understanding of the interplay between dance, architecture, and religious practice, as well as the preservation of cultural heritage.