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.


Purevbat - director of the Mongolian Institute of Buddhist ArtG.Purevbat, 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.


Mongolian Tsam Mask from the Danzanravjaa Heritage © Copyright Photo Guido Verboom 2005The 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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