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MY TRAVEL DIARY: Chasing Dancing Lamas

Phodong Monastery (gompa) is situated in a small village in a tranquil and scenic region in the state of Sikkim that borders Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. Rising early to make the 2-and-a-half hours trip from Gangtok, I ‘caught’ a glimpse of the gompa as the jeep took its few final sharp turns around the steep hills. Stopping abruptly at the top of the hill, I jumped off in excitement and made my way through the rickety gates guided by the sounds of  nga (drums) and rolmo (cymbal). 

Digital photo © {p}.Haque – All Rights Reserved – click to enlarge

Walking through the small temple grounds with a field surrounded by makeshift looking rows of wooden huts that serves as the monks boarding, I was surprised that the Phodong Gompa is very simple and small by the standards of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. The current structure I was told is relatively new and have gone through centuries of modernisation, and of course increasing followers (hence, funding) over the years. However, despite its size and ‘modern’ structure and somewhat exterior, Phodong Gompa’s interiors has retained some very old murals depicting the time it was established in 1844 by the Nyingmapa sect.

I had cracked my head for 4 weeks on research, logistics and permits arrangements prior to dragging my sorry {frozen} ass to Phodong recently to ‘chase’ dancing lamas, or Chaam – during the recent Losoong festivals.

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The Lamas take to ‘dancing’ (chaam) three to four times a year. Four, if they are in Sikkim; ‘dancing’ during Phang Lhabsol in addition to KagyedLosoong and Bumchu, all of which falls at the end of the harvest season in December-January annually.

Mask dances are part of religious and cultural traditions and the holy scripts, which dates back to the 8th century AD. The Tibetan Lamas practice the religious chaam with great fervor and although the chaams may take on different forms, they generally commemorates the Padmasambhava.

In a layperson’s context, the mask dance usually consists of two parts: the first honors and pays homage to the eight aspects of Padmasambhava. And the second part of the performance shows Maha Dongcren, a horned masked figure, slaying the demonic force.

These chaams are usually performed in the courtyard of monasteries by the Buddhist Lamas that resides in the monasteries. The main theme of the dance deals with propitiating the deity, killing the evil king and protecting the people from the wrath of natural calamities, diseases and epidemics and ensuring health, happiness and prosperity for the people of the area.

The chaam dance steps are generally slow, with the exception of leaps and performed in a  circular movement (both clockwise and anti-clockwise) with big, colorful masks and grotesque expressions. The chaam is performed in accompaniment with the beats of drums, cymbals and long pipes, all of which are played by the Lamas.

The Lamas also prepare the masks themselves, which is typically made of wood and papier-mâché with a thin coat of plaster. The masks usually portrayed are of Yama (the Lord of Death) and his demons, Padmasambhava (the second Buddha), the God of Wealth, and the protector of horses and other animals, all of which has a significance of its own and is featured at different intervals of the chaam performance that can last up to 10 hours long. Masks are generally not tailored made to the size of the dancing Lama, but bigger, to cater for Lamas of different ages and sizes.

Despite being performed by Lamas of all ages and sizes that adorns heavy layers of robes and the gaily painted masks that is heavy and uncomfortable, in addition to clumsy ceremonial swords and bells, the performance my the dancing Lamas is well choreographed and demonstrates grace and perfect footwork.

Digital photo © {p}.Haque – All Rights Reserved – click to enlarge

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Unable to tell if I have been left mesmerized and spellbound by the heavenly scent of burnt juniper incense, the synchronized movement of the dancers, my easy acceptance by the Atsaras (jokers at intervals), exhaustion of ‘chasing’ dancing lama that includes days of travel and running around during the 8-hour dance ritual, or salted yak butter tea overdose … I am strangely feeling blissfully happy and had spent the last 4 days reading more on Tibetan Buddhism, politics and history.  

PHaque Chasing Dancing LamasDigital photo © {p}.Haque – All Rights Reserved

 Me (middle) being ‘kissed’ by an Atsaras (monks dressed-up and playing the role of a ‘joker’) to the amusement of the village folks – {sigh} the ‘price’ one pays for shooting with prime and wide angle lens / the ‘benefit’ of instant and great access to the heart of the dance ritual. 

Yeah, yeah, I was told by The Travel Photographer to get a 70-200mm for this … but I have a prime and wide angle lens obsession. And thanks to my obsession and stubbornness which got me up close and personal, these two photos had won me a photo competition and a publication respectively.

KAGYED MAHAKALA CHAAMDigital photo © {p}.Haque – All Rights Reserved

Dancing Lamas 
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One comment on “MY TRAVEL DIARY: Chasing Dancing Lamas

  1. Pingback: TRAVEL TIPS: World Weirdest Festivals | Travel G-spots

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