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Digital Himalaya Journals

Dances in Bhutan: A Traditional Medium of Information Pommaret, Françoise between 2006-06 and 2006-08

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 Dances in Bhutan: A Traditional Medium of
Frangoise Pommaret*
When speaking today of media, we immediately think of the
press, TV, internet, films etc., therefore implying that the
traditional society had no media, no form of public
communication. This note would like to show that, in the past,
the performance of religious dances in public throughout
Bhutan had contributed to the dissemination of values and
religious ideas; and how, today, they are still used to transmit
messages to the public, however with a new concern: the risk of
being misunderstood or misinterpreted by outsiders to the
culture is now present.
It is well-known that through their contents, media transmit
values that are often cultural or religious oriented, and that the
subHminal messages that any media conveys, are therefore a
reflection of the culture in which the media themselves are
In Bhutan, traditional values have always been largely shaped
by Buddhist concepts. The dances are performed on auspicious
days and are parts of festivals which have different names
according to the places. On these occasions, a whole community,
which is usually dispersed throughout a valley, gathers at one
place at a given time and socializes, making a traditional "media
event" in contemporary jargon.1
Through a religious event and in an entertaining way,
knowledge is imparted to the public who are often not highly
*   Director   of   research   CNRS,   Paris;   Advisor,   ILCS   (RUB),
i Kinga, 2001, 135, made the same remark regarding songs:
 educated and cannot read, or have no time to immerse
themselves in arduous religious texts. In the context of the
traditional society, reading religious texts was considered as the
task of the religious specialists, and not so much of the lay
people who only read or recite their daily prayers.
Moreover it is well-known that images have a much stronger
impact than texts. A contemporary example of this is the Da
Vinci Code book by the author Dan Brown. The book, a huge
worldwide success is controversial because of its account of
supposed events pertaining to the life of Jesus and Catholic
faith. For few months, the discussion remained relatively
confined to a quarrel among experts and the upper echelons of
the Catholic Church. However, the film based on the book
which came out this year, provoked a huge outcry in several
countries. In India, in May 2006, Catholic groups have sworn to
fast to death if the film is screened in the country as it has been
taken to be degrading to their beliefs. Protests have also been
reported in other Asian countries.2 The difference in scale of the
protests is, in this case, a vivid example of the impact of visual
media compared to written media.
The religious dances have a Buddhist information component
and Bhutanese religious dances, 'cham', can broadly fall into
three categories: the subjugation dances, the victory dances and
the didactic moral dances.
Although dances impart in one way or another religious
teachings to the public, their symbolic meaning can be rather
esoteric, and therefore their presentation has to be didactic. For
any audience, an enacted story is always more captivating, even
if it is a well-known story, so the values are imparted without
2 Story from BBC NEWS: /2/hi/entertainment/498711
6.stm Published: 2006/05/1615:56:59 GMT.
 much effort on the part of the audience.
This point is illustrated by taking some examples among the
most popular religious dances. Two of them in particular, Phole
Mole and the dance of the Stag and the Hounds (Shawo
Shachyi) -also called popularly Acho Pento after the name of the
hunter's servant-, carry a strong message, reflecting the
Buddhist concepts of retribution, forgiveness and compassion.
The story of Phole Mole touches everybody because it depicts
with a bawdy humour a human trait which is found in all
societies: infidelity to one's partner. It is all the more fascinating
for the audience because it depicts infidelity among the
privileged and ruling class, a human trait which is well
demonstrated today by the success of the tabloid press all
around the world.
The princesses are unfaithful while their husbands are at war.
When the princes come back, they find out and then punish
their wives by cutting their noses. This sequence imparts
therefore the message of retribution of one's act. However,
because of the Buddhist culture, the princes, out of compassion,
finally forgive their wives. In many cultures, the retribution is
the ultimate value, there is no forgiveness or compassion. This
dance therefore contributes to the propagation of two values
central to the Buddhist thought.
In the same way, the dance of the Stag and the Hounds narrates
the famous story of the conversion of a non-Buddhist hunter to
Buddhism by the great 11th century saint Milarepa. Gonpo
Dorji, the hunter, is depicted performing non-Buddhist rituals
before following his dogs in the chase of a stag. The stag takes
refuge near Milarepa who ultimately convinces the dogs and
then the hunter to abandon their hunt. Although the hunter tries
to kill the saint by shooting an arrow to him, Milarepa does not
bear a grudge against him and forgives him, a true altruistic
This dance/drama, through a concrete and suggestive example,
also teaches the public that forgiveness, non-violence and
compassion should be extended not only to human beings but
also to all sentient beings, which include the animals. It goes
further by demonstrating that an enlightened being such as
Milarepa is above petty ordinary emotions and that taming
one's mind against anger is an example to follow.
The taming of one's emotions, whatever the circumstances, is a
core Buddhist message which is imparted during these dances
and grounded in concrete examples with which people can
easily identify; it is this strength which makes the dance
performance play the role of media.
Other Buddhist messages are given by different dances.
Bhutanese believe that a person has to see the Drametse
Ngacham of Drametse at least once in one's life time in order to
recognize the deities in the Bardo ("intermediate state") through
present life acquaintance. Its message concerns a universal
preoccupation, the hereafter, but the dance expresses it in the
context of Bhutanese beliefs and culture. This idea is depicted
still more vividly in the Raksha mar [mang] cham dance based
on the Bardo thos grol text ("Great Liberation upon hearing in
the Bardo"). It is a "treasure text" rediscovered in the 14th
century by Karma Lingpa3, and read after the death of a person
by the religious practitioners performing rituals. However,
when a family grieves of a death or is busy with funeral
preparations, nobody listens to a recitation of a text which is
meant for the deceased person.
Commentaries of this text are indeed available on the subject.
However they are written in a way and in a language that
3 He was the author of the zhi khro dgongs pa rang grol cycle
from which the Bardo thos grol is extracted. See Cuev as,
 ordinary people are neither accustomed to, nor able to read and
they cannot impact the masses as vividly as an enacted story.
In the dance of the Raksha mar [mang] cham, the main
performers represent the deities who appear after death.
Represented with animal heads, they surround the Judge of the
Dead who conducts trials; so the dance is a vivid rendition of
what the deceased person is presumed to encounter.
The Bardo thos grol explains the necessity of understanding the
meaning of these deities.4
"As for the common worldly folk, what need is
there to mention them! By fleeing through fear,
terror and awe, they fall over the precipices
into the unhappy worlds and suffer. But the
least of the least of the devotees of the mystic
Mahayana doctrines, as soon as he sees these
blood-drinking deities, will recognize them to
be his tutelary deities, and the meeting will be
like that of human acquaintances. He will trust
them; and becoming merged into them, will
attain Buddhahood. By having meditated on
the description of these blood-drinking deities,
while in the human world, and by having
performed some worship or praise of them; or
at least by having seen their painted likeness
and their images, upon witnessing the dawning
of the deities at this stage, recognition of them
will result, and liberation. In this lieth the art".
Regarding the terrifying deities, the Bardo thos grol comments 5:
"If thou recognize not, and be frightened, then
all the Peaceful deities will shine forth in the
shape of Mahakala; and all the wrathful deities
will shine forth in the shape of Dharmaraja,
4 Evans-Wentz, 2004, 132-133.
s id. 147
 the lord of Death; and thine own thought forms
becoming illusions, thou wilt wander in the
The text does explain the significance of the deities. However it
is the dance which makes it possible for the ordinary persons to
have access to this teaching, and therefore to be aware of what
to expect after death as well as to realize that ignorance is one of
the root poisons which cause the human beings to be reborn.
The text continues with the description of the judgment:
'The good genius, who was born at
simultaneously with thee, will come now and
count out thy good deeds with white pebbles;
the Evil genius, who was born simultaneously
with thee, will come and count out thy evil
deeds with black pebbles. Thereupon, thou wilt
be greatly frightened, and terrified, and wilt
tremble; and thou will attempt to say lies,
saying that 'I have committed any evil deed'.
Then the Lord of Death will say: 'I will consult
the mirror of karma'. So saying, he will look in
the mirror wherein every good and evil act is
vividly reflected. Lying will be of no avail. Then
one of the Rakshas of the Lord of Death will
place round thy neck a rope and drag thee
Although the text is in this case clear, one has to have access to
it, and not only read it, but also understand its contents. As in
the traditional society that was largely not the case, the dance
played an important role as an educational tool and mass
communication. It is an alternate means and provides an ideal
opportunity for visual information as well as entertainment,
therefore filling two of the criteria of a good media.
6 id. 165-166
 While watching the Raksha mar [mang] cham, the audience can
identify with the characters such as the man who committed
sins- who never carried a leg of meat? - as well as with the
virtuous man- who never erected a prayer-flag- ? The animal-
headed judges, frightening and roaring, surround the deceased
person; the black and white pebbles represent clearly the sinful
and virtuous acts, the black and white paths are simple enough
symbols of the way to hells and heavens. The black demon is
scary, all noise and agitation, the white god is soft spoken and
calm, the fairies have beautiful ornaments. All the characters
and symbols are cultural archetypes set in a way that it is as
simple as possible for the audience to understand the judgment
and the consequences of one's actions hereafter.
Besides these dances which are didactic in the main, the dances
of subjugation, whatever their particular name or esoteric
meaning, carry an idea that is central to Tantric Buddhism: the
liberation of evil spirits from their present bad incarnation and
the duty to lead them to a better sphere. This is done by
dismembering an effigy in a ritual killing called grol; the
practitioner who performs this killing ritual, must do it not out
of anger, but with the right compassionate attitude. The esoteric
meaning of these dances is deeply embedded in Tantric
Buddhism concepts.
While they can be understood by Bhutanese who are brought up
in the symbolic world of this religion, their message is totally
"alien" to foreigners coming from other religious backgrounds.
This partly explains the fact that these subjugation dances, also
performed in other parts of the Himalayas, were called "demon"
or" devil dances" by Christian missionaries from the 19th
century onwards.
The atsara and their antics during the festival also illustrate this
point. They are indispensable in the Bhutanese religious festival
context. Their name itself derives from the Sanskrit acarya,
 philosophy masters, and they teach that masters can appear
under any form, even as a bawdy jester. The atsara are there to
assist the dancers, and entertain the public during or in the
interval of rather solemn dances. Like a talk-show host on TV
today, they transcend the hierarchy of the society and have a
mass appeal with their mockeries and sexual jokes, but they
know their limits in the context of Bhutanese society.
However, when they encounter foreigners during the festivals,
they step into another world where they have no cultural
references and therefore no boundaries. The way atsara perceive
foreigners and how foreigners perceive atsara is a reflection and
distortion of each other's culture through mutual ignorance. If
we speak in contemporary terms, for the foreigners the atsara are
just clowns and their religious function is not apparent.
Therefore in the religious dances, as in modern media forms, the
meaning of the images can be easily distorted, used for a totally
different purpose, and misunderstood by people who are not
familiar with the religious and cultural ideas.
The dances, by being performed throughout Bhutan, also
disseminated cultural values and therefore, like Dzongkha
programmes on BBS today, contributed in forging the country's
identity. For example, the Drametse Ngacham which was
awarded in 2005 the title of Master-piece of Intangible Cultural
Heritage by UNESCO, came to represent an aspect of the
identity of Bhutan. At the beginning, it was a dance taught in the
16th century by Khedup Kuenga Gyeltshen, a descendant of the
treasure discoverer Padma gling pa (1450-1521) after he had a
vision of Guru Rinpoche's palace in the remote village of
Drametse (Eastern Bhutan). The dance became the symbol of
this community, hence its name and for two centuries, it did not
go out of the confines of the Drametse Thegchog Ogyen
Namdrol Choeling monastery courtyard. This dance was
introduced in other parts of Bhutan only towards the end of the
 19th century when it was performed in Talo monastery in
western Bhutan for the first time during the visit of the
Zhabdrung Jigme Choegyal (1862-1904) who was from
Drametse. Later, it was introduced in Trongsa at the initiative of
the second king Qigme Wangchuck reign: 1926-1952). Thereafter,
with its powerful visual content and religious value, the dance
gradually spread to the rest of Bhutan, thus disseminating
information about the Pad gling lineage and religious teachings.
In fact, all dances performed in public, including folk dances,
can be seen as traditional media. Folk dances, such as the
Wuchubi zhey of Paro, Nubi zhey of Trongsa, the Laya dances,
the Gon zhey of Gasa, or the Ache Lhamo of Merak Sateng, to
name a few, have historical and religious contents which go
beyond their local community. They reflect historical or
mythical events which contribute to the knowledge of Bhutan's
Because they are nowadays performed more frequently around
the country or on TV programmes, these dances, once confined
to their respective region of origin, have two important
outcomes, besides entertainment: Bhutanese learn about the
customs, history, and beliefs of a part of the country they may
not be familiar with; at the same time, the dances become part of
the mainstream repertoire and thus contribute to national
Mass impact, concrete and relevant examples, easy
communication and cultural values messages are criteria which
give some dances, either religious or folk, a real media role in
traditional Bhutan.
Phuntsho Rabten wrote about the modern media in Bhutan:
"As media audiences have different individual
backgrounds,      intelligence,      interests      and
attitudes,    these    invariably    influence    their
perceptions    and   interpretations    about    the
 incoming message  and  therefore  the  impact
The same can be said of religious dances. In contemporary
Bhutan which has opened to the outside world, the dances can
still be a powerful vector of values and play an educational role,
especially if they are supported by modern media forms.
However seen by people of different cultural backgrounds and
in the context of the invasion of global media networks, their
interpretations and impact might be experiencing a challenging
change of focus.
Cuevas, Bryan J., The hidden history of the Tibetan Book
ofthe Dead, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003.
Dorji, Sithel Dasho, The origin and description of
Bhutanese mask dances, KMT Press, Thimphu, 2001
(in Dzongkha dPal ldan 'brug pa'i 'cham gyi 'byung
khungs dang le'u bshad, Thimphu, 2000).
Evans-Wentz, W.Y, The Tibetan Book ofthe Dead, Wisdom
Books India, New-Delhi, 2004.
Kinga, Sonam, "The Attributes and Values of Folk and
Popular Songs", Journal of Bhutan Studies, vol.3 no. 1,
summer 2001, 132-170.
Rabten, Phuntsho, "Mass Media: Its Consumption and
Impact on Residents of Thimphu and Rural Areas",
Journal of Bhutan Studies, vol.3 no. 1, summer 2001,
Wangyal, Tashi, "Ensuring Social Sustainability: Can
Bhutan's Education System ensure Intergenerational
Transmission of Values ?", Journal of Bhutan Studies,
vol.3 no. 1, summer 2001, 106-131.
Rabten, 2001, 189.


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