Re-awakening ceremonial dances
by T. Mandala
The enormous creatures dressed in their fine silk costumes
and large exquisite heads are meticulously decorated in precious
radiant stones. Although at first glance it may all appear
like a colorful masquerade, it is not just a festival- but
also embodies a specific kind of Buddhist ceremony, Tsam Dancing.
The previous year marked an auspicious time for Mongolian
Buddhists- it revived this special event, and the Khuree Tsam
danced for the first time since the 1930s. Lacking the proper
wardrobe though, the organizers were allowed to borrow authentic
museum costumes and masks. They were also able to design a
few extra new ones.
Head of the Department of Arts & Sciences at the Institute
of Buddhism, played a major role in reviving such ceremonies.
He asserts that due to the banning of religious beliefs during
the purge, much of Mongolia’s religious heritage is practically
lost. “Most of all the arts- and almost 80 per cent of virtuoso
skills are forgotten.” However there is a move to try to revive
this aspect of ceremonial enlightenment. Seen as a large part
of Mongolia’s own original culture, there is a growing interest
to keep these features alive today. So last year Purevbat,
together with his teachers, D. Danzan and P. Sereeter, arranged
the ritual dances with the support from Gandan monastery.
But there was a lack of written scripts on the subject- and
even fewer research work done on Tsam. To re-design the costumes,
D. Danzan and Sereeter’s retrospection of early 19th century
were very important. They also studied the few costumes remaining
in the national museum. Their tenacity ultimately paid off.
“Now we have 540 kinds of research materials and will re-design
costumes again,” Purevbat remarks. But the researchers feel
a certain urgency because there are very few teachers left,
and those who can assist are very old.
The Tsam ceremony once spread widely throughout Mongolia during
the early 19th century. It was a time when about three hundred
Mongolian Buddhist monasteries out of seven hundred had their
own dancing styles and techniques. Back then it had very strict
rules and deeply-rooted meaning. The purpose for the ceremonial
dance was to win the enemies of Buddha: teaching the followers
to help the nation, putting down any bad issues, especially
caused by sinister or harmful spirits.
Tsam dancing developed it’s own Mongolian uniqueness- unlike
that of the related art form in Tibet or Balba. The different
Tsam dancing ( Ikh Huree Tsam; Lama Gegeen Khuree Tsam and
Zaya Gegeen Khuree Tsam- which were named after settlements
of Budhist monasteries,) all had their own appearance, but
Ih Khuree Tsam is the most widely known. Lama Khaidav, well
known as Jadar Khamba composed the rules about 1810. A year
later the Jahar Tsam or dance training, was officially opened
to train dancers. According to historical notes, in preparing
for the year’s ceremony, 74 dancers were trained for 45 days.
Tsam dancing is divided into eightteen to twenty variations,
and the dancers had to train twice a day. The date of the
ceremony was the 15th of summer’s last month.
Before the preparation started, the daamals (controllers)
of Gandan Monastery secretly nominated the dancers for their
roles and Bogd Khaan approved them. Previous days of the dancing,
between seven to nine grand religious ceremonies were held,
reciting scriptures, to invite Damdinchoijoo (the King of
the underworld) with his Choijins (followers) and make offerings
to them, and entrust and worship him.
Sewing dance costumes On the morning of the summer in last
month, a yellow silk tent is set in front of the vanguard
gate of Bogd Khaan’s Yellow Palace for Bogd Gegeen to watch
the dancing. To the right of it the tents of Ikh Khamba, other
religious leaders and musicians follow. To the left of Bogd
Gegeen’s tent Mongolian aristocrats’ tents were set.
In the front side of the tents Jahar and Sor (Jahar is the
best offering to Damdinchoijoo, and Sor is the symbol of putting
down all the bad spirits) are set; two heroes: Geel and Shijer
guard them. The fifteen dancers in different costumes pretend
to be guards of all orientations, and dance after each other.
The dance lasts for three hours and ends with Jahar and Sor
ceremony with the main Khuree astrologer’s instruction. Experts
believe that Tsam dancing is a classical art. There has also
been traveling dance performances to France, Germany and the
United Kingdom as well.
Minor editing by G. Verboom
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