Monastic Dance Classes in Ladakh and Zanskar

- through Francois Leclercq

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Dance Court at Spituk Monastery, Ladakh. Image courtesy of Core of Culture

Nowhere is the centrality of dance in Buddhism clearer than in dance classes (Tib: chamber) Vajrayana monasteries that mark the landscapes of Bhutan, the Tibetan regions of China and the neighboring Himalayan regions of Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh and Zanskar in India. In 2012, in Ladakh and Zanskar, Core of Culture, the organization I lead, conducted research using a method called rapid inventorying, which is a technique developed by scientists working in the Amazon to effectively study phenomena so that their basic attributes can be recorded in a thorough manner and used to aid preservation efforts. His Eminence Rigyal Rinpoche, now Abbot of Phyang Monastery, conducted this research on behalf of Core of Culture. His participation ensured the collection of excellent and orthodox information.

Dance Court at Choglamsar Monastery, Ladakh. Image courtesy of Core of Culture

For Buddhist Monks cham dance in the monasteries of Ladakh and Zanskar, the rapid inventory survey included many things, from the observation of the existence of choreographic manuals called cham yig, identify works of visual art incorporated into dance ceremonies. He noted the number of dancing monks and the didactic methods used to transmit the ancient dances. Each dance and its attributes have been named and recorded. We also took into account the dance court of each monastery. This article is illustrated with our documentation resulting from this fieldwork. A few years later, another rapid inventory of monastics cham the dance was undertaken in the monasteries of the Spiti Valley and parts of Kinnaur. In total, the survey results covered 31 monasteries. Here we share eight courtship photographs from this work.

Dance court at Sani Monastery in Zanskar. Image courtesy of Core of Culture

In Vajrayana Buddhist monastic architecture, dance courts have great significance, being deliberately designed spaces within monastic complexes for the performance of the ritual dance called cham. The courtyards – sometimes in rough stone, sometimes in cut stone, and sometimes simply in raw earth – are performance spaces dedicated to masked dances. These dances, hundreds of years old, include intricate large-scale choreography and spectacular displays of magnificent costumes, fierce masks and well-trained dancers, which appear on ritual, ceremonial and festive occasions. There is a symbiotic relationship between the dance itself and the architecture – as completely integrated as Greek tragedy was to the Greek amphitheater, and Japanese noh is the noh stage. It's just to call cham a form of dance that evolved into a backyard performance art.

Court dance at Thikse Monastery in Ladakh. Image courtesy of Core of Culture

These monastic dance classes are designed to harness beneficial energies, and this is expressed in the orientation of the classes within the context of their natural surroundings. Courtyards are aligned with landscape features such as rivers, valleys, mountains and skies, providing a consecrated space that is energetically suited to the purpose of the cham, which are, in fact, a form of meditation and moving visualization. Together, the dances, the architecture, the multiple consecrations and the environment create a spiritually and energetically charged site. The courtyards are places where the shared symbolism is staged and animated.

Dance Court at Hemis Monastery, Ladakh. From the heart of culture

Cham dance ceremonies provide an opportunity and purpose for the greater community to come together, reaffirming the bonds of community and belief between monks and villagers. The dance classes allow the community to observe, share religious rites and socialize together as well as with the monks. Many dance courts have tiered viewing platforms, and some, though open-air, have walls reaching five stories high containing and embracing the courtyard, making dance ceremonies a source of energy at the heart of the whole complex. Important religious figures can speak to the crowds at dance ceremonies, and the courtyards are designed to allow for circulation and interaction for the whole community. This civic vocation of architecture is similar to the civic vocation of Greek amphitheatres: witnessing tragedies was the responsibility of every Athenian citizen. The Buddhist cham festival is an opportunity for all to come together for the greater good.

Dance Court, Padam Monastery, Zanskar. Image courtesy of Core of Culture

Most dance classes in Vajrayana monasteries have a set of stairs leading from the monastery itself, or a green hall, and serve as the entrance and exit for the dancers. Unlike painting a mandala – which a person can see and absorb at the same time – a danced mandala appears over time: dancers enter, one by one, to form a mandala, activate it and set it in motion. movement. The design of the monasteries evolved from low buildings built at the bottom of the valley to slender fortresses on high cliffs and mountains. Cham the dance was part of the military apparatus of the monks, and the struggle against intruders outside as well as inside, against other sects of Buddhist monks, was common. As monasteries became symbols of power, the ceremonial function of cham the dance flourishes.

Dance Court, Lamayuru Monastery, Ladakh. From the heart of culture

The centrality of the dance court in Vajrayana Buddhist monasteries not only emphasizes the importance of dance as a revered handed down tradition, but assists and ensures the continuity of the dance practice itself, by providing a dedicated space and deliberately designed for the dances to take place. . The whole architectural plan reinforces the central place of dance in Buddhist practice and identity.

Dance Court, Likir Monastery, Ladakh. From the heart of culture
photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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