Fieldnotes in India (December 2013- January 2014)

On 30 December 2013, I received a phone call from a friend telling me to hurry to Tergar Monastery at once to attend the rehearsal of the dance ritual. I sped to the location and managed to squeeze into the shrine hall of Tergar Monastery where the rehearsal was taking place before the security guards barred the rest of the public from entry. The rehearsal was a solemn event and supposedly not open to the public. I had my camera equipment with me but without the permission to film, I left the camera alone. I took some footages from my phone as it appeared less intruding. In my rush to get to the monastery, I had left my glasses at home. Being short-sighted, I could only discern lama figures dancing in space, but I could hardly make out which lama was dancing even though the Karmapa participated in the dance rehearsal. For rehearsals, the monks were dressed in their special red robes with golden sleeves and white shoes, but not the full dance costumes. At times, they have a huge red sash tied diagonally across one of their shoulders. They have a golden badge that hangs low in front of their bodies.

During the day of the performance (10 January 2014), I woke up at 3.30a.m. to wait in queue to enter the dance pavilion. By the time I arrived at the site, the queue had had snaked half a kilometre across the field beside the pavilion. People started lining up as early as 2a.m. It was estimated at 10,000 the number of people who came. Karmapa gave a brief lecture of the meaning of ‘cham before the performance. This is rather unusual practice according to the tradition but it shows the importance Karmapa placed on communicating the meaning of the dance ritual to all. He stressed that:

“This sacred lama dance with such a long history and profound meaning is totally unlike any kind of ordinary or mundane dance. The essence of the vajra dance is the recognition of the nature of all phenomena as the union of appearance and emptiness. The practitioners of the vajra dance use their own body, speech and mind not as ordinary body, speech and mind but those of the deity, and the dance becomes a way to express this. Therefore when a realised practitioner performs the lama dance they can cause the blessings of the body, speech and mind of the deities to actually enter the body, speech and mind of the viewers” (Gyalwang Karmapa’s Introduction to the Tsechu Lama Dance, 2014).

There were few interesting episodes that unfolded throughout the dance ritual, some of which I experienced physically. Before the event, I suffered from a bad headache while waiting in queue in the wee hours of the morning. I could not bring myself to stand and was almost crawling in line on the ground. Initially I thought it was due to the lack of sleep but the pain kept worsening. While witnessing the dance, I started to develop a very high fever to the point I could feel my head throbbing as I slipped in and out of consciousness. I was seated in the centre with a good view of the stage, but my drowsiness prevented me from paying attention to what was happening onstage. I had my pen and journal ready to take notes, but I could hardly pick up the pen. Right after the third dance, “there is an explosion on the roof of the Pavilion like horses’ hooves clattering on metal. Not an ordinary rainstorm with a drop by drop preparation, but a deluge pouring from the sky”(A Rain of Blessing from the Copper Coloured Mountain, 2014). It was followed by thunderous applause from all that were present in the pavilion. Despite my condition, I realize this was no ordinary rain but a blessing from Guru Rinpoche[1] whom they were honouring in the dance.

My fever subsided towards the end of the performance. Later on, I was told what I experienced during the event was not coincidental. Sickness is viewed as a form of purification in the Tibetan tradition. The purpose of ‘cham is to purify obscurations for both the dancers and viewers. I would not claim that I witnessed the dance with full devotion as one is supposed to, but I definitely experienced the full brunt of the spectacle. Even though I did not manage to film the performance myself, I did obtain all footages of the dance from the official media companies. I also managed to arrange an hour-long interview with Khenpo (academic title equivalent to a Doctorate, PhD) Garwang (Refer to Appendix 1) who was in charge of organizing the dance ritual.

 

[1] Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, brought Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century.

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