Sergey Mazurkevich

Mystery Cham (Tsam) in the Ki monastery.

Unexpected meeting

To the Spiti Valley, also called Little Tibet, we drove en route from Kalpa. There is no cell phone reception in the remote Himalayan areas. I knew where the shutdown would be and decided to check my email as well as take a look at Facebook. The social network reminded me that exactly a year ago I placed my photo in it with Nima Lama, a monk from Ki monastery. I clicked on the button “Share memories”. In about five minutes we were overtaken by a car in which Nim Lama was sitting in the passenger seat. But maybe I just imagined that? After another 10 minutes in the village of Spello, where everyone usually stops for a snack, I was convinced that it was Nima Lama. A year before this extremely unlikely meeting, Nima Lama suggested that I spend the winter in Ki monastery as a teacher for monastic children. I refused. Monasticism was not part of my plans, and in a cold winter (up to minus twenty) in the Spiti valley, living in the harsh monastic conditions, only such a lifestyle was possible. All the same Nima Lam in July 2016, was explaining to me and my trekker friends some features of the ritual clothing of one of the main characters of the Cham dance.

Cham Spiti Festival

The Tibetan monastery of Ki is the largest in the Spiti valley. About three hundred monks live here. Once a year in June-July (the date is determined according to the Lunar calendar) the Cham festival is held here. I have been to it twice – in 2013 and 2016. To say that I was very impressed is to say nothing. This is an incredible magic
and fascinating action. Spiti Valley is not for nothing called Indian Tibet (along with Ladakh). Here are classic
Tibetan landscapes (stunningly beautiful), Tibetans have lived here for centuries, Tibetan monasteries here, Tibetan culture and Tibetan traditions. One of them is the Cham festival. This is not a monastic event at all. Tibetans from the whole valley, as well as from the nearby Ping, Lalung, Lahul and Kinnaur valleys gather for the main dance ritual at Ki monastery. This is a holiday where there is a place for everyone who wishes to come. Usually not too many foreigners. And those that come sometimes behave somewhat, let’s say, strange. Perhaps for the simple reason that they do not quite understand where they are and what is happening in front of their eyes. What happens is a multilayer and multitasking action, the deep essence of which is not understood even by all Tibetans. What is there to talk about foreigners? Let’s try to figure it out. What if one day you will visit the Spiti Valley during this festival?

Cham from inside and outside

This publication is not a scientific article, and I will try to talk about the Cham (Tsam) dance in ordinary language. The main thing to understand is that Cham is a multitasking ritual, and not a dance-theatrical act, as it may seem to an inexperienced spectator. Yes, at first glance, this is a beautiful dance in masks under the mysterious fascinating music. If you look closely, you can see some kind of drama, plot, interaction of characters. But there are still a few inner layers of Cham. To understand them let’s make a small historical excursion. The overwhelming majority of such monastic holidays reproduce (and reinforce) the events of one thousand three hundred years ago, when the great yogi and Teacher Padmasambhava (his name is translated as “self-born from lotus”) danced this dance with those who did not need masks, because they did not play anyone but were themselves. In those days, on the religious plane, Tibet was the scene of the battles of two religions – Buddhism and Bon Po (and somewhere nearby were also the original beliefs of Tibetans – the so-called “religion of the people”). And it was Padmasambhava who made a radical change in this struggle. The essence of what happened then was that he not only defeated Bon monks in disputes and magic battles, but also subjugated local entities (mostly angry) and, with the help of a ritual, part of which was a joint dance, redirected all of them to the service of the Buddha. In fact,  modern Cham dances in Tibetan monasteries are all the same first ritual with the same actors. And it is aimed at solving several major tasks, such as the triumph of Buddhism and the victory over all who are against Buddhism. I’m exaggerating a bit, of course, but in fact it’s the truth. Here I will make another small digression. It should be understood that not all monastic costumed dances can be called Cham. There are also dances Gar – quiet dances of peaceful deities. Yes, and among the Cham dances, over time, varieties appeared that somewhat moved away from the “general line” drawn by Padmasambhava. For example, Cham Kalachakra or conversational types of Cham. But since I’m talking about what I’ve seen and this Cham is directly related to the very first, we will talk about other Cham’s views another time.

How many skulls should there be?

Preparation for the Cham festival lasts at least a month. Rituals preceding the final dance take place about a week before the final day. Some of them are round-the-clock and closed to outsiders. Some of the rituals that resemble ordinary services are available to all comers and we visited them with friends. After one of these rituals, Nima Lama called us to one of the monastery premises. There he invited his friend, who, as it turned out, played one of the leading roles in the final ritual dance. In our presence this lama donned a shanaka dance costume (shanaka – a monk-contemplator) and gave a number of explanations about its details. The costume is worn over monastic robes. It is made of brocade and silk. The colors are bright, a lot of red, black and gold. Every detail of the costume has practical and symbolic meaning. The front down below shows the face of a tantric deity. On the chest – a large metal medallion (“mirror”). Shoes – traditional boots with curved socks (thanks to this design less insects get killed). In the hands – a ritual triangular knife-wand purba (in the right hand) and a bowl made out of a skull – kapala (in the left hand). Shanaks have only one skull on a headdress, but the number of masks of angry tantric entities varies: one skull for local deities-defenders, three for mid-level dharmapal (patrons, defenders) and five for high-status dharmapals.

Tibetan Grannies and Spiti Tulku

The beginning of the ceremony was scheduled for noon. But everyone understood that this was very approximate. And by noon, at the edges of the square in front of the not so long ago built Kalachakra Hall (in it, the Dalai Lama initiated the Kalachakra in 2001), there were still empty seats. We arrived in advance and took good seats opposite the Kalachakra Hall. We spread out karemats and sat on them in the hope of a comfortable pastime. But it didn’t happen. About an hour later, we sat on the edges of the karemat, while the best spaces was taken by a dozen of Tibetan grandmothers, aunts and children. And I cannot say that they used some brute force. Somehow quietly and unnoticed they attach themselves next to you, and then, bang — you’re on the edge. And all this is done very kindly. What can you do — tradition… They storm the same way buses — pushing each other, but absolutely without swearing and discontent. Closer to the beginning of the main action, litter was brought to the ceremonial site (a
sacrificial pyramid of dough personifying the enemies of Buddhism), then VIPs began to appear – priors of monasteries and representatives of the authorities. The head of the monastery, Ki Lochen Tulku Rinpoche, the nineteenth incarnation of the great translator and founder of the monasteries in the Valley of Spiti Ringchen Zanpo, took his throne chair. And then it all started.

The main action

1. Two dharmapals of not the highest status come first to the “stage”. Energetic synchronized dance.
2. Dharmapals leave, shanaks appear. Smooth soft movement is gradually turns into fast “dance steps”.
3. High-level dharmapals appear on the scene. One of them, Yamantaka, is the wrathful form of the Bodhisattva Manjushri.
4. Shanaks are dancing again.
5. There is some kind of rededication of Dharmapal to Buddhism. In essence, they confirm the agreement concluded with them by Padmasambhava himself.
6. In honor of this event, a joint dance of Shanak and Dharmapal takes place.
7. Two monks in traditional robes appear on the scene. Bring out ritual objects. They are in turn handed over to the main chanak and he dances with them.
8. A little away from the scene, the main shanaka conducts the ritual of burning a white pennant, as well as the rubbish that personifies the enemies of Buddhism.
9. All the participants of the ceremony (monks, shanaks, dharmapalas) go to a specially prepared place to destroy rubbish. Tibetans rush under their feet. Participants of the Cham are stepping over the bodies, and sometimes even step on them, when the locals lie very tightly on the path.
10. Trash is piled up in a special place on the hill. The monk in charge of the ceremony shoots an arrow out of the bow.
11. And again the ritual fire blazes. Trash burns down.
12. The ceremony participants return to the monastery. Shanaki continue to dance. Their final dance takes place upstairs in a small courtyard.

Spiti Valley

Gradually, one might even say, very gradually, but the Spiti Valley looks like much more tourist Ladakh. If from  Manali the road to Spiti is still very bad, from the direction of Shimla it is already very decent. And this contributes to the mass penetration of Indian and foreign tourists into the lost Himalayan valleys. And mass tourism is the killer of everything sacred and original. But do not despair! As for the Spiti valley, we still have a few years. Anyway, I really hope so. And I am going to visit the Cham Festival more and more at Ki Monastery.

Translation from Russian into English: AD Consulting LLC