You are here: Home » About Tibet: interesting facts about Tibetan plateau » Festivals » Cham Dance

ABOUT CHAM DANCE

Cham dance is unique to Tibetan Buddhism. The dance also known as the God Dance is a colorful and impressive performance, and at the same time intimate and significant dance performed by Buddhist monks. Unlike common dance, Cham has a religious meaning, therefore, only monks and lamas can perform it. It is  a form of meditation for both dancers and the audience. 

For Monks, performing Cham Dance is a form of offering. During the dance, monks impersonate deities and protectors. 

Monks accompany the dance with music played on traditional instruments. They play handheld drums, cymbals, large drums, blow horns, trumpets, and long trumpets. They chant along with the drum beats and recite mantras. 

For foreign visitors, elaborate costumes and intrinsic decorations are the main attraction of the dance. Because Tibetan protectors appear in the wrathful form, some early travelers to Tibet even called it the “devil dance”. 

DANCE TELLING RELIGIOUS STORIES

Cham Dance appeared as a form of teaching, when monks could tell religious stories to spectators. In the early days of developing Buddhism, most of the population was illiterate and printing was expensive. That’s why dance became an important form of not merely entertainment, but also a way of spreading Buddhist teachings and giving blessings. 

Monks perform Cham dance during religious festivals. These festivals attract people from even remote nomadic areas. One of the most popular festivals is Saga Dawa. This day commemorates the Birth, Enlightenment and Parinirvana of Buddha. It is the most auspicious day of the year.  A Cham dance performed on that day commemorates Buddha and Dharma.

Another important function of Cham Dance is to pray for a peaceful world, to protect all living beings from demons. It is an offering to Bodhisattva to eliminate all suffering and worries, and bring joy and happiness. 

VIDEO OF CHAM DANCE

WHAT YOU WILL SEE DURING CHAM DANCE PERFORMANCE

There are several subjects of the Cham Dance, some are specific for various schools of Tibetan Buddhism. 

WRATHFUL PROTECTORS

The center figures of the dance are wrathful protectors, such as Mahakala, Yama, Hayagriva, Palden Lhamo, Begtse, and others. For visitors, these characters are the most impressive because of the elaborate masks and colorful costumes. Despite their force looks, these protectors are scaring only evil spirits. They are Dharma protectors essential for Tibetan Buddhism. 

SKELETON DANCE

Another common character of a Cham Dance is a monk wearing a skull mask and skeleton-decorated costume. Tibetans are not intimidated by death, as they believe in reincarnation and perceive death as a necessary step for a new life and eventually, enlightenment. 

There are different types of skeleton characters. Ging usually wears a simple skeleton costume and a plain skull mask. Gangre wears a skull mask decorated with ornaments, typically on the sides. They usually perform dance in pairs. Citipati skeleton dancers perform in a male-female pair. The skull mask has 5 smaller skulls on top. The Citipati is one of the forms of Mahakala. The unity of two deities symbolizes the eternal dance of death and a perfect awareness.

Chitipati or Shmashana Adhipati is a protector deity or Dharmapala in Tibetan Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism of the Himalayas.

GURU DANCE

Padma Sambhava (Guru Rinpoche in Tibetan) is an 8th century Indian master and a  Nyingmapa founder. According to Tibetans, Padma Sambhava started the Cham Dance tradition. That’s why Cham dance often depicts scenes of Padmasambhava’s life. The Guru Dance is performed on June 10 of Tibetan calendar to commemorate the day of his enlightenment. Monks perform the dance in masks and costumes of the 8 manifestations of Guru Rinpoche. In their hands, they hold various special instruments that Guru Rinpoche used.

DEITY DANCE

The center subject is the prayer to Buddha to subdue demons. The dance shows sentient beings suffering from bad obstacles, delusions, and troubles.

DANCING IN THE SKY/ RITUAL DANCE AND TRANSFORMATION OF SPACE

Performed in a mandala, with a chanting monk in a center. Performers praise the merits of all Buddha and Bodhisattvas in ten directions with singing and dancing. 

The Padmasambhava, the great meditation master who was a knowledge-holder, subdued the demons in the Samye area by performing a ritual dance. It relied on the great mandala of action. By doing it, he created excellent conditions, such as pacifying the malice of the gods and demons, and thus he bounded them strongly on that occasion by splitting open the earth and supplementing it with efficacy and with the expulsion ritual, the thread-cross and magical weapons. This cham is associated with the source of Tantra and has a great deal of empowerment. 

Tibetans consider this dance as a prototype of Cham. It also reflects the essence of Tibetan Tantric dance regarding ritual space: the creation of a purified realm for a temple, a stupa or a mandala in general to be built upon. 

This preparatory action of ritual dance initiates what we could call a temporary place-creation in terms of a recreation of the cosmological spheres. The performance of Cham becomes itself a “great mandala of action”.

CHAM DANCE IN KUMBUM MONASTERY, QINGHAI

Once a year you can see Cham dance depicting debate of the Council of Lhasa between Moheyan and Kamalasila. The dance tells the story of assassination of the cruel anti-buddhist Tibetan king Langdarma. It symbolizes the victory of the good over the evil.  

Monks of Kumbum perform the dance on the eve of Tibetan New Year – Losar.

WHERE TO SEE CHAM DANCE

  • Tsurphu Cham dance is on the 10th day of the 4th Lunar month of Tibetan Calendar (Saga Dawa)
Tsurpu Monastery

Tsurphu Cham Dance Festival celebrates the eminent Indian monk, Padmasambhava, who was invited by the Tibetan King to teach Buddhism in Tibet.

2020: 1st Jun
2021: 21st May
2022: 9th June

  • Drigung Til Monastery. In this monastery, there is a Cham dance for 2-3 days from the 25th Day of the 4th month of the Tibetan Lunar calendar.
Drigung Til monastery near Lhasa, Tibet
Drigung Til monastery

2020: 15th June
2021: 4th June
2022: 23rd June

  • Samye monastery Cham dance on the 15th day of the 5th month of Tibetan Calendar.

According to a legend, the Cham dance tradition was started by Guru Padmasambhava in the late 8th CE. When the king of Tibet, Trishong Detsen called Guru Padmasambhava to get rid of evil spirits that did not allow to build the Samye monastery, the revered Guru performed the dance ritual. The same ritual over the period of time became the elaborate Cham Dance, a practice specific to the sect of Mahayana Buddhism.

2020: 5th July
2021: 24th June
2022: 13th July

  • Tashilunpo monastery is among the largest Gelugpa monasteries of Tibet. The festival lasts 3 days and each day different portraits of Buddha are displayed. Monks also perform Cham dances in the monastery.

Cham dance on the 14th, 15th and 16th day of the 5th month of Tibetan Calendar.

2020: 4th, 5th and 6th June
2021: 23rd, 24th and 25th June 
2022: 12th, 13th and 14th July 

  • Sakya monastery Cham Dance. There is a Cham dance on the 29th day of the 11th month of Tibetan Calendar.
Sakya monastery in Central Tibet near Shigatse
Sakya monastery in Tibet

2021: 12th January 
2022: 31st January

  • Drak Yerpa Cave Hermitage is known for this festival. The celebration continues 2 or 3 days. The celebration includes religious ceremonies and mask dances performed by the monks on the 10th day of the 7th month of Tibetan Calendar.
Temple in Drak Yerpa complex, Tibet

2020: 28th August 
2021: 17th August
2022: 5th September 

  • Rongpuk monastery is the highest monastery in the world and it is situated at Mount Everest region. 
View of the Rongbk monastery

Monastery Cham dance is one the 15th day of the 4th lunar month and 29th day of the 11th lunar month in Tibetan Calendar.

2020: 5th June, 2021: 12th January 
2021: 26th May, 2022: 31st January
2022: 14th June, 2023: 20th January

  • Chongye Cham dance is on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month in Tibetan Calender, annual Cham(an old song and dance tradition)dance was performed in Janye Monastery, Chongye County, Shannan City, southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region to pray for dispelling the disaster and prosperity for the next year.

2020: 2nd September
2021: 22nd August
2022: 10th September

FESTIVALS IN TIBET

CHAM DANCE PERFORMANCE GALLERY

PLAN YOUR TRIP TO TIBET

LEAVE US A MESSAGE

RECENT BLOG POSTS

Monk dressed in a costume with lamas in the background