Cham, Discover the Legendary Icon
A country's identity is defined by its culture and tradition.
Especially dance is not merely a physical activity, but the spirit in itself. This is why Cham exists as a unique dance reflecting Buddhist values and ethos in Bhutan.
Cham or Gar Cham is the traditional dance of Bhutan, performed at dzongs. Dzongs are the distinctive fortified complex building combined administrative and religious institutions in Bhutan.
It involves a series of masked dances, usually performed by Buddhist monks and laymen, wearing colorful costumes. Gar means the movement with some twisting of the body while Cham means movement of hands and legs. Therefore, Gar Cham means dance performed by a combination of twist of body and movement of hands and legs.
Cham is usually performed during an annual ritual called tshechu, which is considered as a birthday of Bhutan's patron saint, Padmasambhava, or Guru Rinpoche, who is known as a central figure in the transmission of Buddism to Bhutan.
Padmasambhava came to Bumthang at the invitation of Sedha Gyalpo, the king of Chagkhar, to subdue Shelging Karpo, the powerful local deity. And he subjugated Shelging Karpo by miraculous dances performed by his manifestations. This is the beginning of the Cham dance, and it depicts the life of Padmasambhava.
Gar Cham in Bhutan can be divided into two types: Tsun Cham (mask dance of monks) and Boe Cham (mask dance of laymen). It depends on the hierarchy of the practitioners. Dances in below are listed as follows.
The dances of the monks are usually performed following the
rhythm/lyrics of the chanting of ritual prayers. The Cham performed by the monks cannot be performed by laymen, but the Cham performed by laymen can be performed by monks if the situation demands. The monks performing Tsun Cham should be fully ordained monks, but those performing Boe Cham need only take the vows for that particular day.
Poison and infectious diseases can obstruct accomplishment in Buddhism. Zhang Nga Cham represents the process to overcome the evil spirits that occur infectious disease. The dancers beat drums wearing large black hats, felt boots, and colorful long brocade garments.
There are human and non-human beings that harm or cause obstacles to the transmission of teachings. Guru Rinpoche has his own miraculous power including the ability to dispel all obstacles with peaceful and wrathful forms. In order to subdue these beings that do not readily submit to peaceful means, Guru Rinpoche took wrathful forms to get the better of them.
Dancers of the Tung Ngam Cham wear terrifying masks, depicting the appearance of Guru Rinpoche assumed to subdue enemies of the doctrine. It is often portrayed with three eyes, a gaping mouth and flowing red hair. He is adorned with a crown of skulls, wears a garland of heads on the shoulder.
These dances performed by laymen are called Boe Cham. In the past, they were performed by men enrolled in the cadre of all-purpose attendants known as Boe Garpas. In earlier times, Boe Cham was performed in the Dzongs, temples, and monasteries during religious festivals. But during the reign of the third king, it began to be performed outside the religious festivals. Boe cham is no longer performed by garpas, but by other laymen.
This dance is a kind of play with much lewd joking and clowning to entertain the onlookers. The literal meaning of Pholay Molay is noblemen and noble ladies.
It is about a king called Norzang in the Kingdom of Ngaden in Northern India. In the dance, the king returns from the battlefield in victory with the help of deities. After settling scores with the people who tried to harm the queen, the king and his Dakini queen lived happily thereafter.
The main characters in the dance wear white masks, rich costumes and jewellery and felt boots.
This dance gives a lesson related to the Buddhist doctrine of universal law, which says that there is no real essence in worldly things.
Drametse Ngacham is believed to be originally a celestial dance performed in the presence of Guru Rinpoche. The dancers wear different masks of real and mythical animal faces. The whole dance is registered as a meditative art form in which the dancers visualize the outer world as pure land and the inner world as a manifestation of peaceful and wrathful deities, a concept central to Mahayana Tantric Buddhism.
Pa Cham is a dance of Bhutan being performed wearing colorful silk robes and a fancy crown on their heads. It is a major attraction in Tshechus. It celebrates the victory of Buddhism over sin and makes people believe in the presence of Guru Rinpoche. It is also known as Powas (Dance of worshipping heroes) and Pams (Dance of worshipping heroines).
The Cham dance has prevailed in the country's long history. The songs and dances of the court reached their pinnacle during the time of the Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1928-1972) who was fond of music and dance.
King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck established the Institute of Performing Arts in 1954. Later in 1967, it was upgraded and formalized as an academy and the Royal Dance Troupe. Today, it is known as the Royal Academy of Performing Arts, and it supports the safeguarding of Bhutanese traditional music culture for the future generation.
In tradition, Cham means the ritual dance of Bhutan to purify themselves from evils and to wish well and health. It reflects the ethos and Buddhist beliefs of the Bhutanese.
Today, Cham performances have been widely seen in Bhutan, and dance has become major tourist events. It can keep them alive their traditional cultural spaces and their identities in contemporary life.