The Moving Mandala: Inside Bhutan’s Sacred Dance Festivals
At the annual events, monks perform cham, choreographed rituals that serve as enlightening visualizations and honor the influential guru who danced them.
The sound of droning oboes builds a sense of expectation in the crowd as the Guru Tshengye dance opens with the wrathful manifestation, Dorje Droloe, taking possession of the ground. In a spiritual culture that inherited a host of easily offended pre-Buddhist spirits of the landscape, Vajrayana adopted ritualized methods for demarcating and cleansing sacred ground before a religious event. This may involve meditation, walking the perimeter of the performance ground, reciting mantra, dispensing offerings, and/or the offering of torma [ritual, multi-colored, sculpted forms made of flour and butter by monks].
Dorje Droloe performs a series of ceremonial high marching steps crossing the dance space back and forth with arms uplifted, holding the ritual scepter in one hand and the dagger in the other. Usually danced by thechampon [dance master], Dorje Droloe acts as the master of ceremonies. He goes on to lead a formal circular procession in which the fully enlightened Guru Pema Jungney (actually a ninth manifestation portrayed by a master lama), dressed in fine robes and wearing a golden mask, is paraded to his throne in grand style—with ornamental parasol, musicians, and a full entourage. Meanwhile, Dorje Droloe and the other Guru Rinpoche emanations, along with a retinue of wrathful deities, continue to dance in a wide circle spinning back and forth.
Eight monks take turns dancing into the center of the circle performing solos representing each manifestation. These danced solos are not pantomimed or dramatized, but are distinguished mainly through their striking masks and costumes and less so through the choreography. The peaceful manifestations dance with deliberate majesty while the wrathful manifestations dance with building energy and speed. Meanwhile, the dancers remaining in the wide circle mirror the movements of the featured soloist and intone praises to each specific form of the guru.
Once the eight manifestations complete their dance and exit the courtyard, another cham is introduced into the larger dance—Dance of the SixteenDakinis [female wisdom facilitators], or Rigma Chudruk Cham. It is a cham within the cham. The dance is performed as an offering to Padmasambhava. The sixteen dancers sing and dance the offering of pleasing gifts (flowers, incense, butter lamps, perfume, ornaments, and so on). For this dance, young slender monks are costumed to look like dakinis in long brocade dresses overlaid with aprons of carved bone latticework. These spiritual guides dance unmasked wearing wigs of long black hair with a crown of five golden lobes. Their dance movements are slow, serene, and purposeful, featuring continuous, flowing arm motions and complexmudras [hand gestures] that symbolize the specific offerings to the guru. They look as if they are speaking a sign language.
During the tshechu, while the monks are performing these dances, the entire crowd of festival attendees lines up at varying times in an unhurried manner to receive blessings, holy water, and a prayer cord from the guru and his attending monks. People visit with family or friends as they wait in line and feel quite pleased at having the opportunity to be blessed. At this point, performance and reallife merge as the audience members enter the performance space to interact with the performers in their roles as enlightened beings, and the performance becomes a real-life ritual event.
As the dakinis complete their dance, the guru’s entourage of wrathful deities comes swirling into the dance space, leading another circular procession followed by Guru Rinpoche, his eight manifestations, monks, local officials, folk dancers, the incense carrier, and the musicians. The dakinis bring up the rear, continuing their flowing choreography. It seems like everyone gets in on the action as the oboes, dungchen [long telescoping horns], bells, cymbals, drums, and chanting fill the air with the sounds and sights of Vajrayana Buddhism.
Through the Guru Tshengye Cham, the Bhutanese recreate a mandala—a vision of a perfect universe— and place themselves in it. They join in the company of their spiritual heroes as they pay homage to and seek blessings from their revered guru. Thus, by viewing and entering into this dance mandala, they imprint on their minds and teach each succeeding generation the qualities Padmasambhava exemplified and the values they hold dear. In this way, the guru continues to dance the foundation for the flourishing of the dharma.