The Himalaya region, which spans Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibetan areas of China, shares various artistic practices that are closely intertwined with religion. They may have originated from local shamanism, often called “Bon” locally or michö (mi chos) “folk religion”, that is still practised as part of daily life and annual village rituals to varying degrees – parallel with and to variations of Tibetan-influenced Buddhism, both Mahayana and especially Vajrayana beginning from the 8th century onwards.

This article will not cover all aspects of puppetry of figure used in the region, such as the Newar mask and puppet performance of Nepal, but will focus on the Tibetan-influenced areas with attention to figures and mask used in ’cham Buddhist ritual dances. (See the country articles for puppetry on non-Tibetan Buddhist groups.) Actual manipulated figures include butter puppets, small figures made for the Lamp Festival near New Year (Losar) that amusingly show aspects of everyday life (a shaman’s chant, call to prayer), hobby horse figures (see Skirted Hobby Horse) that serve as mounts of masked goddesses, dance of the Tshering Chenga Cham (tshe ring mched lnga ’cham) or Dance of Five Sisters who encounter Milarepa at the Dochula Druk Wangyel Festival in Bhutan, or giant figures made of wood or papier-mâché that may represent saintly enlightened beings such as the “second Buddha” figure, the Saint Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), which was danced along with masked figures at the June festival at Samye Monastery in Tibet until 1959. Another monastic dance, the Raksha Mang Cham (Raksha mang ’cham) of Bhutan has a very large effigy of the Lord of Judgment (Gshin rje chos rgyal) and the dance enacts the intermediate-state (bardo) experience of judgment and encounters with wrathful deities that the human soul is believed to experience between death and rebirth. Additionally, there is a great use of masks in ritual dance performances (’cham).

Iconography, patterns of dance masters that take on clown roles, and other influences that inform Tibetan performance may relate to patterns that have affected the use of masks, figures, and mandala-like ideas in performances that also have appeared in puppet genres where Mahāyāna (Great Vehicle) Buddhism formerly spread in the period of the 8th to the 13th century – including South East Asia, southern China, and beyond. While the relations remain conjectural, major masters of the Japanese nō/kyōgen Nomura family, and others have wondered and done research and performance project theorizing if links exist between their Buddhist-inflected performance traditions which use masks and puppets significantly and important Himalayan traditions.

Religious Figures as Artistic Culture Bringers

Practitioners of the Tibetan-influenced Himalayan areas credit many of the artistic practices, which are used for meditative and religious purposes (and to simultaneously entertain viewers), to Padmasambhava (“Lotus-Born”, usually called Guru Rinpoche Precious Teacher or Lopon Rinpoche Precious Master). He is believed to have been born in the Swat Valley of what is now Pakistan (Uddiyana) and to have come to Tibet and the Himalayas in the 8th century, subjugating demons and teaching the dharma in areas that today are in Tibetan areas of China, Nepal, Bhutan, and north India.

Some of the extant ’cham are believed to have been created and performed by Padmasambhava during his lifetime. For example the Black Hat Dance (Zha nag ’cham) is said to have first been performed at Samye Monastery when Padmasambhava subdued disruptive spirits (the dance’s alternative origin or reinvention is linked to the killing of the anti-Buddhist King Langdharma (Glang dar ma) in 842 by the monk Lhalung Pelkyi Dorjé (Lha lung dpal gyi rdo rje). The iconography of the hat worn is said to represent Mount Meru (Hindu abode of the gods). The “mountain” idea is of course widely dispersed where shamanism has existed and imagery may certainly have changed over time, but current iconography and the mountain idea cause some to speculate that the iconography might relate in some ways to the the ideas of Meru images and sacral dances that open various theatre and puppet genres of South East Asia, for example the Himantaka (Himalaya) scene of Burma’s yokthe pwe, the world mountain/tree puppet (gunungan/kayon), which is the opening dance of blessing in South East Asian theatres such as Indonesia’s wayang. While links can not be proven, the “world mountain” in a sacred or semi-sacred context that opens many performances in areas where Buddhism was once strong make it seem possible that Buddhism is a link which carried some of this imagery of cosmic mountain as a core dance in various performance genres of the historically Buddhist world.

Many dances (or performance objects) are credited to Padmasambhava who is said to have hidden religious treasures or terma (gter ma) in the Himalayan locales to later be discovered by Tantric masters-artist-teachers called treasure revealers, terton (gter ston), who centuries later revealed the treasures believed to have been hidden by Padmasambhava in his lifetime. A cymbal, for example, at Paro in Bhutan was “found” by the intended receiver in the 14th century, and the terton used it in creating a music-dance event. It is brought out annually at the Paro Tsechu (tshes bcu) festival to honour Padmasambhava. Other treasures are mask dance choreographies that Padmasambhava is said to have taught tertons in dream-visions.

Art as a Tool for Enlightenment

Arts are seen as religious practice can have transformative powers: the dancer-practitioner who performs with focus, will embody the divinity or saint he performs after donning the masks and costumes. The dancer is in some sense the vessel of the divine power and the dancer’s body is available as if it were a “puppet” to embody that power. The use of large tongdrol (mthong grol, literally “liberation through seeing”), paintings called tangka (or thangka) displayed during ’cham, smaller tangka with maṇḍala (images which represent the cosmos or cosmopsychograms used in and for meditation), three-dimensional constructions of maṇḍalas as residence of Tantric deities within temples, and ritual dances with masks and costumes, are spiritual prompts which allow performers to step into the “visualization” and activate the images’ ideas through movements, group configurations, sounded mantra, and music. Artistic devices thereby transform the human from mundane to the supra-mundane. The mask, costume, or occasionally, the puppet (for example large images of Guru Rinpoche or a gigantic Lord of Judgement) help reinforce this transformation. Everyday people are taking part in this sacred choreography for the chance to experience wider possibilities of being. Manipulation of these figures and masks lets humans visualize spiritual experiences.

Figures (torma, linga) are manipulated in various ways, transformed into offerings or may be ritually cut up if representing evil forces. In many ’cham dances, such as in the Mani Rimbu Festival in Nepal, two monks dressed as skeletons manipulate the linga, a small human shaped figure laying on its back on a rope that is stretched between them before it is destroyed. While on one level these may appear to be rites of sacrifice from old shamanic practices, within the Tantric frame they are symbolizing the destruction of ego and evil forces (such as demons hindering meditation or disturbing human’s lives) and promote spiritual development. Traditionally, sites for ’cham and other ritual performance training were monasteries or temples throughout the Himalayan region, often in preparation for the summer drama festival called Shoton (Zho ston) or the New Year (Losar). Tsechu festivals include dances with masks, visual iconography, symbolic figures (torma), or the occasional manipulated figure.


Masks represent peaceful (white faced, calm visages) or wrathful manifestations (contorted, dark or bright coloured faces). If representing “protectors of religion” (dharmapāla) they have one to five skulls on the mask, depending on their rank. Animal figures, sometimes associated with the bardo or sometimes with astrological signs, are occurring frequently as assistants of high ranking deities. Skeletons, as lords of the cemetery or figures to be encountered in post-death (bardo) experiences, are depicted with papier-mâché, clay, or wooden masks. There are variations in dances and figures and meanings presented from one monastery to the next.

Performances and rehearsals are important methods for monk dancers to advance in meditational practice. Their movements are also thought to bring beneficence and luck to the lay people who watch and, indeed, all creatures including insects present in the space. In Bhutan, the teachers (lopon) who oversee the practices, during performances often take the role of atsara (from the Sanskrit acharya, “accomplished master”) and provide clowning and comic commentary. As with clown figures in many South and South East Asian puppet, mask, and dance drama, atsara play a liminal role: they improvise, interacting with audience and simultaneously assisting their monk-students through steps practised in rehearsals. Phallus-like protrusions on the top of some atsara’s masks remind of the phallic iconography or top-knot which is seen on a number of Asian clowns in mask or puppet theatre including god-clowns like Semar in Java, Pak Dogel in Malaysia, and Ayang in Cambodia. One wonders if these teacher-masters of the ’cham may have a link and help explain the lore of such puppet/masked clowns who are found from Southern China (Quanzhou) through Indonesia. While making these connections is admittedly speculative, the enlightened teacher as clown could help explain why the chief clown is considered somehow a divine protector and the wisest figure of the performance in many areas that in the past shared Tantric Buddhist leanings. Atsara insure viewers have access to esoteric performance via their accessible and entertaining interpretations and improvisations.

Imagery for some dances is abstract and sometimes dancers appear unmasked (as in Black Hat Dance). Images of skeletons (Citipati, “Lords of the Cemetery”) appear in the durdag (dur bdag), or Lord of the Charnal Ground, dance and remind us that meditation on death is a way of conquering obstructions. Ging, often figures with wrathful visages of subdued demons, are said to serve Guru Rinpoche and protect. Animal masks are repeated as in the ngacham (rnga ’cham) or mask drum dance of Drametse (Drametse Ngacham), reportedly revealed to Kuenga Wangpo (mkhas grub kun dga’ dbang po) in the 16th century and, in 2012, the sole UNESCO Masterpiece of the Intangible and Oral Cultural Heritage form of Bhutan, declared in 2005. Terton Kuenga Wangpo engaged in meditation and then saw a celestial vision, a dance which was performed by celestials before Guru Rinpoche who then clarified to the terton the movements and meanings and shared this mask genre (which is now danced by laity). Guru Rinpoche, it is said, explained to the terton that this ’cham should be used in order to transmit teachings via the deities’ esoteric movements.

Bardo (intermediate state) manifestations are the themes of other mask dances. By seeing these animal-headed figures that one is supposed to encounter during the forty-nine days between death and the next rebirth, viewers can prepare themselves so they will not be disturbed by these visions and thereby win a higher rebirth in the subsequent life.

Sometimes the eight manifestations of Padmasambhava are presented by masked figures with one larger-than-life papier-mâché figure as a centre figure. Such configurations repeat in three-dimensional space the imagery of the saint’s eight manifestations on a tongdrol or tangka, where a large central figure will be surrounded by smaller figures who may be other manifestations of the same divinity/saint or their associated spouses, devotees, etc.

Aside from ’cham, limited masks and body puppets are used in Ache Lhamo (a lce lha mo, literally, “sister goddess”), a dance drama performed by laity and, it is said, created by the civil engineer and artist-saint Thangtong Gyalpo (Thang stong rgyal po,  1361-1485?). This bridge builder is said to have gathered money for the 108 iron link bridges he built throughout the Himalaya by performing with the seven sisters. The saint is supposed to have led the troupe and played the drum. Lhamo was traditionally performed by laity during Shoton (summer festival) in historical Tibet and the genre had a limited repertory of Buddhist tales. Masks, such as the almost flat black-faced and white bearded hunter’s visage, and animal body costumes, such as the parrot in the play Suki Nyima (Gzugs kyi nyi ma) and scorpions in Pema Woebar (Padma ’od ’bar), both named after the eponymous character who suffer for their Buddhist faith), are used in this this sung-, danced-, and spoken-theatre.

All these Himalayan dances vary from one place to another, but adhere to an overall logic of performance found in Tantric Buddhist communities. The Tibet Institute of Performing Arts founded in 1959 in Dharamsala, India, and the Royal Academy of Performing Arts in Thimphu, Bhutan (founded 1954) and the Royal University of Bhutan’s Institute of Language and Cultural Studies (ILCS) at Taktse near Thimphu are sites where selected performance traditions of the Himalaya are regularly taught in a lay context. Monastaries through the Himalaya are sites where dances are practised and arts remain an important part of monastic and lay performance training.

Visualizations of enlightenment, which, when performed, make that enlightenment possible, are part of the arts practices in traditional Tibet, China, Mongolia, Bhutan, and Nepal. Since 1959, the arts have been cultivated in Dharamsala, India, where refugee Tibetans settled after the Dalai Lama-led Tibetans fled the anti-clerical campaigns of Maoist China. These performance practices move transnationally – either via tours from monasteries or in the practices of Buddhist communities in Europe or the United States exploring Vajrayana Buddhism. Performance practice can also move from one site to another, for example, Mona Schrempf noted the recent adoption of  ’cham from other areas of Bhutan as part of a temple festival at the popular pilgrimage site of Gomphu Kora as of 1993. The drum dance Drametse Ngacham of Bhutan since its acknowledgement as an Intangible Cultural Treasure (2005) has become more codified, as dancers from the Royal Academy of Performing Arts in the capital city of Thimphu visit different regions and teach performers the now officially recognized version of a dance which formerly had different variations in different areas since its spread to other parts of Bhutan from Drametse in the late 19th century. Tourism has had impact on reestablishing some of the dances in Tibet proper in the People’s Republic of China since the 1980s. China sends troupes presenting Lhamo to tour in China or abroad since the 1980s. And with global flows, dances may be introduced in areas where they were not practised in the past. One can see some of these dances in the United States or Europe in museums or university concert halls or at Buddhist retreat houses in the West, and dancers may no longer be ethnic Tibetans but European converts to Buddhism.

Though many of the dances are linked to Tibetan Buddhism, political issues are not divorced. For example, Luo Wenhua reports that masks of figures from Chinese Taoism (such as the Jade Children) were incorporated into some of the ’cham in certain monasteries during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1796) in the Qing period of China. Political and social turmoil have curtailed or caused deep modifications in performance practices of some Himalayan areas, especially during the Tibetan diaspora after 1959 and during the crackdown on religion during the Cultural Revolution in Tibetan areas of China (1966-1976). However, in the Himalaya, large figures of Guru Rinpoche, masks, skeletons, and torma figures continue to be part of the rich visual performance culture of the region. The ideas that they manifest may relate to uses of iconography across a wide area that has historical ties to Buddhism, and sometimes manipulated figures/masks themselves are moved into mandala patterns by performers to signal interrelationships between the microcosmos and the macrocosmos.


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