Dancing on the demon’s back: the dramnyen dance and song of Bhutan

Paper presented at the UNESCO Regional Expert Symposium on Arts Education in Asia, Hong Kong, 2004
By ELAINE DOBSON – University of Canterbury, New Zealand
For a few days in October, in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, the population of the tiny
country doubles as visitors from neighbouring countries in the sub-continent, and from across the
world, gather to witness the great Buddhist, three-to-five day, annual, religious, dance-drama
festival or tsechu. A tsechu1 celebrates the great deeds that were performed by the religious saint
and teacher, Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche2
or Ugyen Rinpoche). Tsechus are held on the tenth day of a lunar month. The exact month depends on the location. Every valley has its own tsechu, usually with some identifying traits. These festivals reinforce the social life
of the community and offer opportunities for making or renewing friendships, having picnics and
drinking, or trading. In Bhutan, villagers who have moved to the larger towns are expected to return for the festival and they will often sponsor a major part of it. Tsechus accrue status for the monasteries and villages that stage them, and spiritual merit for those who are their sponsors.
The spectacular dances that form these tsechus are known as cham. The subjugation of evil and the purification and protection from demonic spirits are important themes in the tsechu and dances which represent these themes are usually interwoven with those which are morally instructive or didactic and those that proclaim the victory of Buddhism and the glory of Padmasambhava,
Although many dances in Bhutan are thought to have originated from Indian Tantric dances or
the animistic dances of the pre-Buddhist Bön religion, it is Padmasambhava, who is acknowledged as introducing Tantric Buddhism and its ritual dances, or cham, into Bhutan in the eighth century. Padmasambhava is said to have received, via visions, instruction regarding the dances from a succession of deities. His method of converting and subduing the opponents of Buddhism was by performing rites, reciting mantras and performing a dance of subjugation in order to attract, and subsequently conquer, the local, angry gods.

In Tibet, Padmasambhava used dancing to chase away and eliminate demons that were preventing him from building the famous Samye monastery (775 CE). He again used dances when he was summoned to Bhutan to save the dying king, Sindhu Raja. When he arrived in the Bumthang valley, Padmasambhava performed an entire series of dances in a wrathful form. The fearsome divinities . . . were
subjugated and Sindhu Raja was restored to health and consequently made a vow to rebuild the
temples and help the spread of Buddhism throughout the country.

Padmasambhava also arranged the first festival (tsechu), of ritual dances in Bumthang. The eight manifestations of Guru
Rinpoche (of which Padmasambhava is the human form) were presented together with the eight forms of dance necessary to destroy evil powers.
This paper examines the dramnyen cham (Tib. sgra snyan ‘cham), a ritual dance which is led by a dramnyen player, and the dramnyen choeshay, a religious song, and their connections with thefounding and spread of the drukpa (dragon) kagyu branch of Mahayana Buddhism in Bhutan.
The Bhutanese dramnyen, is a long-necked, fretless, double waisted lute. It is also the most ornate and colourful of the Himalayan lutes. It is painted with religious symbols and its pegbox is a distinctive C shape with a carved finial of the head of a chusing, a sea monster. Sometimes long tassels are hung from the chusing’s horns making its appearance even more frightening.
The dramnyen cham is a dance of subjugation, which proclaims the victory of Buddhism over obstacles or negative forces. The dance is also a notable exception to the general exclusion of stringed instruments in monastic music in Bhutan, and is usually the first or final dance of a

At the beginning of the thirteenth-century, monks from southern Tibet helped further establish the drukpa kagyu sect of Mahanayana Buddhism in Bhutan. It is this which is specifically celebrated in the dramnyen cham and the dramnyen choeshay, also concerns the saint Tsangpa  Gyare Yeshe Dorji (1161-1211). The dramnyen cham and choeshay commemorate Tsangpa Gyare’s victory over a demon, which was obstructing the entrance to a secret valley, on a famous pilgrimage route to Tsari in Tibet and close to the northern border of Bhutan. A recent account of the story is told by Ap Dopoe, a former monk and the recently retired, Bhutanese court musician

When the religious and family friends of Tsangpa Gyare arrived at Tsari they met a demon in the form of a frog which turned into a yak and prevented the party from proceeding. In order to remove this obstacle Tsangpa Gyare jumped on the yak’s back and performed a dramnyen dance and said ‘If anybody wants to compare himself to me, the son of the glorious Drukpa Lineage, let him
come’. Then the frog changed itself into a rock but, in spite of this, the saint, as if the rock wasmud, impressed his foot into it. Thus the frog was subdued. It offered its life to serve TsangpaGyare and he accepted. The frog was established as the guardian deity of that place, the Turquoise Lake, and Tsari was opened up for pilgrimages. Even today, Buddhists undertake pilgrimages to
Tsari, and by simply reaching that place are said to achieve enlightenment.
In the sixteenth century, the Bhutanese drukpa leader, Kunkhyen Pema Karpo, wrote a detailed narrative of Tsari that includes the following descriptions of Tsangpa Gyare’s dance and song and subsequent pacification of the demon.
After taking hold of the gling[-chen] in his right hand and a walking stick in his left, Tsangpa Gyare performed a dance . . . [and sang the following]:
This supreme place, glorious Tsari,
Is not wandered by all and sundry.
I have abandoned worldly activities,
I have self-luminosity of mind itself.
It’s a place to fling down life and limb.
It’s a place to remove hindrances whose causes are outer and inner.
It’s a place to make an analysis of cyclic existence (samsara).
It’s a place to weigh ascetics [and their accomplishment] in the balance.
It’s a place for thoroughly understanding the mind.
It’s a place to preserve the clear light with the mind.
It’s a place to receive the two levels of paranormal powers.
This supreme place, glorious Tsari,
Is not some minor monastery up behind a village.
This gling-chen, which is a paranormal power[-producing] substance,
Is not the spittle for smashing demons and demonesses.
The clerical siblings of this assembled Vajra[yana] family,
Are not [the type of] ascetics who roam around the marketplace.
Tsangpa Gyare made those words resonate in his mind. Because he [then] struck his walking stick on a rock, it went in as if being pushed into mud. Even nowadays the imprint of that [stick] is still found there .

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article from : portal.unesco.org

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