Dance of the Lamas – The Hindu

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Benoy K. Behl, whose documentary captures Cham’s spirit, talks about layers of meaning in ritual dance

The serene and the sacred meet harmoniously in Benoy K. Behl’s documentary, Lama Liberation Dance, which captures the spiritual experience of the Cham.

The filmmaker and art historian recently gave a talk on the dance form at an online event hosted by the India Habitat Center.

According to Behl, Cham is one of the very few living examples of the role of dance in ancient India, both from the point of view of the practitioner and the society for which it is performed.

Tracing its origins, the veteran art historian and filmmaker says: “The Yogachara School of Buddhism was founded in Kashmir in the 4th century by Asanga and Vasubandhu. This developed into the sophisticated form of Vajrayana Buddhism, which incorporated the Cham dance. From Ladakh to Mongolia, Cham is the most profound form of Lama meditation.

The purpose of this meditation is for the Lama (priest) to be able to free himself entirely from his own ephemeral personality. “He chooses a deity to meditate on until the qualities of the deity grow in him and fill him completely. At this point he is no longer the Lama I have, but became the deity, ”says Behl.

Unique cultural tradition

The film captures the social bond between the Lamas and the people. Behl points out that most dance traditions have lost their true purpose of spiritual awakening and have become mere stage performances. “Therefore, Cham is a unique and important cultural tradition, which reminds us of the philosophical purpose of all forms of Indian dance.”

Behl met Cham about 30 years ago and it was after 15 years of research that he shot the documentary for Doordarshan.

To capture the drama of the dance, he began to film it sitting very close to the feet of the dancing monks. “In the film, you will notice the Llamas’ dresses brush against the lens of my camera. During one of these shoots a few years ago, a dancing llama’s sword swooped down on me because he probably couldn’t see through his mask. Fortunately, he touched the microphone mounted on the camera and I escaped unscathed, ”laughs Behl.

Each dance form has a story behind it that captures its essence. Cham is no different. According to Behl, the people of Tibet and those who lived in the Indian part of the Himalayas believed that evil spirits resided in the mountains and in the winds. This fear prevented them from accepting the compassionate message of Buddhism. Guru Padmasambhava studied at the famous Nalanda University, where he acquired the knowledge of Tantric philosophy and rituals. “He used Cham to destroy the forces of evil. Until today, he is revered throughout the Himalayan region.

The Lamas celebrate the victory of good over evil with two days of monastic dancing. Cham begins in the morning with the appearance of Lhalung Paldor. In the ninth century, King Langdarma persecuted Buddhists. The monk, Lhalung Paldor, disguised as a black hat dancer, approached the king and killed him with an arrow. The event is celebrated in all the monasteries of the trans-Himalayas as the majestic dance of the black hat.

Cham looks simple but wears deep layers in every whirlwind of the Lama. In Vajrayana Buddhism, says Behl, evil is not something outside of ourselves. “It’s our own ego, our attachment to the illusory world around us. He is subjugated and transformed by the prayers and finally by the experience of the Cham.

Costumes and masks are an integral part of the dance. “The masks are used to cover the ordinary and everyday nature of men and present in them qualities of divinity. So there are masks with peaceful and evil expressions. Finally, both symbolize the emptiness of the ultimate nature of all appearances, ”notes Behl.

All Cham sounds are sacred mantras. The drum is a reminder of the deep sound at the beginning of creation and at the time of the enlightenment of the Buddha. “Music is presented as an offering to the divine. It elevates the mind to a contemplative state, ”explains Behl.

Once a great tradition that was practiced in Ladakh, Lahaul, Spiti, Kinnaur, Tibet, southern China and Mongolia, Cham is now kept alive in annual celebrations in parts of Ladakh and Spiti. “In places frequented by tourists, dance has lost its original character and meaning and has become a form of entertainment”, rue Behl.


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