Secluded in the eastern Himalayas between India and China but sparsely inhabited, Bhutan with its magnificent mountains, dense forests, delightful people, is the only independent country in the world where the tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism is the official state religion. The sacred mask and folk dances performed at the national and provincial capitals whether religious or secular have a religious base. The local temples and monasteries scattered all over the country are the centres for several festivals where the sacred mask and folk dances are performed annually untouched by external influence.
However, the religion of Bhutan before the advent of Buddhism in the 8th century A.D. was Bon, broadly a category of Animism, and it was entirely based on nature worship. Bonism had its own rituals which were directed against the eradication of demons and evil spirits who brought misery and sickness to mankind. With the impact of Buddhism most of Bon rituals got superseded or suppressed but some aspects of nature worship which Bonism professed were duly incorporated in the Mahayana Buddhism, thus the religion of Bhutan is essentially a system of Mahayana Buddhism, allowed by the process of evolution to develop and establish a distinct faith of the Land.
In the remote villages, traces of Bon impact can still be seen in the form of rituals to placate the local gods, to be shortly followed by dance entertainments. The Bon gods, at mundane level are considered powerful, and the different form of worships at different places of Bhutan have given birth to different customs, habitual pattern, manners, language to the inhabitant who remained landlocked and inaccessible to one another owing to its rugged topography.
The performing arts of Bhutan can be broadly classified into religious and secular dances.
Religious dances or mask dances are called Chham. The mask dances have developed in three phases. It was introduced for the first time by Guru Padmasambhava, the peerless tantric Master from the country of Odiyana, in the 8th century when he was invited by the ailing king of Bumthang Chhokhor, Sindhu Raja to subjugate the hostile deity Shelging Karpo. By means of his occult power, Padmasambhava manifested himself performing a miraculous dance and the unfriendly god was brought under his control. Shelging Karpo pledged to support the propagation of the doctrine of Buddha and the invalid king was recovered. Hence the sacred mask dance of Bhutan trace their origin in Nyingma order established by Guru Padmasambhava.
The second phase took place by the middle of the 15th century when the great treasure-reveler Pema Lingpa (1450-1521)introduced a set of new sacred mask dances, which are unique to Bhutan. All the dances introduced by Pema Lingpa are from the vision he had of the dances performed in the audience of Padmasambhava at Zangdog Pelri the copper-coloured celestial abode of Padmasambhava. Many of Pema Lingpa's compositions portray different sets of divine attendants and acrobats who prepare a path to heaven.
In the third phase, Zhabdrung Rinpoche introduced mask dances with Drukpa specialty like the Yang-thik Gar Sum, followed by dances of Mahakali which are the principal item at the grand annual Thimphu
The masks represent saints and sages, male and female protective deities and legendary personages. The performance of the sacred mask dances is preluded by religious music of cymbals, drums, horns, conches and bells.
The religious mask dance being sacred there is a taboo against expounding of the mystical significance of the mask dances unless one has mastered the Tantric sciences and received empowerments pertain to them.
All the sacred mask dances be it of clergy or laity are to be understood Externally, Internally and Esoterically and should not at any cost be considered on a par with other forms of entertainment. It would be unbecoming on the part of anyone to speculate and profess to be an expert in the understanding of the subtle nature of Bhutanese sacred dances.
The rich cultural heritage of Bhutan attracts host of foreign tourists and official guests. Breaking all canons we try to comply with the request of the guests whereby we have to curtail the length of time taken by each sacred dance. People often express sentiments for performing sacred mask dance as mere cultural programme to the guests. To this effect the permissibility other than during festivals is being deliberated.
<Secular Dances and Music>
The origin of Bhutanese folk music, therefore is attributed to Lhamo Yangchenma the Goddess Swaraswati according to the Buddhist text expounded by Guru Chandragaumi. Lhamo Yangchenma is the tangible manifestation of the intangible vowels which have direct link with the voice and vocal music. The word Swara in Sanskrit means tune or melody.
This indicates that different folk music in different parts of the country was prevalent from a very long time.
Thus the introduction of the folk dance predates that of the mask dances. The Buddhist text Prajnanama Mula Madhyamakha reads that since there is no element of existence which comes into manifestation without condition, therefore, there is no element of existence which is not devoid of real independent existence. If there is happiness, there is also suffering and naturally the feeling in the mind seeks an outlet through voice in the form of a song. The rhythm of the song is complemented by the rhythm of the body in the form of gestural movements and facial expressions depending upon the theme of the song. Given the law of interdependent origination, and Bhutan's topography it was unlikely that Bhutan did not have any form of expression prior to the advent of Buddhism in Bhutan in the 8th century. History has it, that spiritual songs were introduced by Guru Padmassambhava in the 8th century and later in the 15th century, of the host of saints who set foot on the Bhutanese soil the great saga Mahasiddha Thangtong Gyelpo is believed to have introduced the thirteen classical dances in Bhutan. Of them, only a few have stood the test of time and rest have been lost in oblivion.
Presently there are three types of folk dances in Bhutan. Firstly,
Thus it can be said that both the religious and secular dances prevalent in Bhutan have originated from Buddhism. Therefore, the Bhutanese performing arts is popularly believed to have dual functions:
1. At the mundane or relative level, they entertain people and at the same time reaffirm the devotion and commitment of human beings to leading morally sound and honest lives.
2. At supreme or ultimate level, it is a spiritual exercise and helps human beings to acquire spiritual merit which serves as the cause for liberation from the earthly woes and gain final enlightenment.
The performing arts of Bhutan by no means lack the skillful means to benefit the beings. Externally, these dances are form of entertainment. Internally, they manifest the tangible and intangible wealth of our country which give it a unique identity. And esoterically, the dances are the source of joy for the beings at both mundane and supreme levels of existence.
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The Royal Academy of Performing Arts is entrusted to preserve and promote the traditional performing arts and also to bring out descriptive catalogue for distribution. The Academy is required to promote traditional folk and mask dance at district and block levels by sending instructors.
The strategies are:
a)Preservation and promotion of mask dance, folk dance and music.
b)To prepare a compilation calendar of all types of traditional performing arts prevalent in the villages of 20 districts.
c)To promote new songs and dances and introduce the use of traditional musical instruments.
d)Audio-visual documentation of all types of traditional performing arts.
e)To encourage the production of traditional musical instruments.
1. Mask dances
a)Treasures revealed mask dance
b)Legend-based mask dances
c)Biographical mask dances
d)Dramatized mask dances
2. Folk dances
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The socio-economic development plans launched in the kingdom have not been permitted to endanger the spiritual foundations of our religio-cultural heritage. In fact, policies have been developed keeping in mind the promotion of our unique culture. The textbooks in the schools have been designed in accordance with our culture. Bhutan's history is being taught in both English and Dzongkha for it is the basis of all the mask dance, folk dance, traditional music, ballads and oral traditions.
Mr. Phuntsho Gyeltshen
Royal Academy of Performing Arts
Address: (Special Commission for Cultural Affairs)
Post Box #493 Chubachu, Thimphu, Bhutan