The Winter Cham Dance marks the end of a year, when all leaves are falling along the Xiahe River, and Tibetan monks at Labrang Monastery are about to perform their last Cham Dance in 2017 to worship the God and pray for the next year.
As one of the most comprehensive Tibetan Buddhism University monasteries, Labrang Monastery is known for its six colleges covering subjects such as philosophy, astrology, art and medicine. Encircled by the longest pilgrim path in the whole Tibetan region, it is a must-visit holy site for millions of prayers streaming into the town every winter. There, the Hevajra College holds three religion dance festivals throughout a year, with the final one performed on 29th lunar September, named “Gom Cham” in Tibetan.
One month before the day, Tibetan monks has already begun rehearsals at the Hevajra College, which is devoted to various art forms including Cham dance, music and calligraphy. Wearing glowing and colorful masks, they perform dances in a traditional way, which dates back to ancient times in the snow land.
Being performed since the very beginning of Tibetan Buhhdism, Cham dances aim to expel evils and pray for good luck and fortune in the coming year. It is said to originate from the time of Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century, and created Cham dances to conquer evils at that time. It was then transformed in 15th century by Tsongkhapa, the founder of Gelugpa, to make it a perfect, yet mysterious religions ceremony.
There are indeed lots of mysteries around Cham dances, as it is also a form of religious practice for Vajrayana, or Esoteric Buddhism. From the mask they wear, the words they chant, to the movements they follow, few can be spoken or known to the pubic. In most cases, an outsider viewer can only grasp the appearance of it, not the essence.
“Every mask has its power, symbolizing a force of God, or Nature.” A monk says. For example, a skull mask may convey the idea of impermanence, and an ox head mask refers to Yamantaka, a god who has the power to conquer demons. As for the movements, they should be dignifying but relaxing, showing all kinds of emotions such as anger and calmness.
When the 29th of the Lunar September comes, 37 Tibetan monks wearing masks, plus a band of around 20 monks carrying drums and horns, march in procession into a courtyard, where a triangle fork symbolizing the Four Elements: earth, water, fire and wind, is already displayed there. The Cham dances include four episodes, dedicated to the God of Earth, dharmaraja, the God of Wealth and Black-Hat monks. At the end of the dance, they send Dorma out to burn in the fire, representing evils being eliminated, and peace and happiness coming to the world.
“Cham dances are a way to please God, and to pray for the benefits of people and all the living things. When we are dancing, we feel like we have been unified with the God, with all our movements fluid and effortless, like we are acting according to God’s will, not ourselves”, reflects a monk. Before the performance, all the dancers are required to take a 13-15 days retreat, to make them holy and pure enough to connect man with God.