The cham dance (
Wylie: 'cham) is a lively masked and costumed dance associated with some sects of
Tibetan Buddhism and Buddhist festivals. The dance is accompanied by music played by
monks using traditional Tibetan musical instruments. The dances often offer moral instruction relating to
karuṇā (compassion) for
sentient beings and are held to bring
merit to all who perceive them.
Chams are considered a form of
meditation and an offering to the
gods. The leader of the cham is typically a musician, keeping time with a percussion instrument like
cymbals, the one exception being
Dramyin Cham, where time is kept using
The term "devil dance" was an early 20th century description of the performance, derived from Western perceptions of the costumes worn by performers.
The great debate of the
Council of Lhasa between the two principal debators or dialecticians,
Kamalaśīla is narrated and depicted in a specific cham dance held annually at
Kumbum Monastery in
Qinghai. One iteration of this dance is performed on the eve of
Losar, the Tibetan new year, to commemorate the assassination of the cruel Tibetan king,
Langdarma in 841 CE by a monk called
Lhalung Pelgyi Dorje. The monk, dressed in a black robe and a black hat, danced outside the palace until he was allowed to perform in front of the emperor, then assassinated him. It is a dance symbolising the victory of good over evil.
The Black Hat dance is a
Vajrakilaya dance and is the dance most frequently depicted in paintings. The dance is performed by Buddhist monks and operates in two levels, to achieve enlightenment and to destroy evil forces. The dancers often hold a skull and scarf tied together and then attached to the hilt of a
Mongolian: Цам) dance was not introduced to Mongolia until the early 19th century, however it rapidly gained popularity and visibility with celebrations such as the Tsam festival. Tsam came to incorporate both tantric and older,
shamanistic elements of dance. It became a significant part of
Buddhism in Mongolia before it was banned under
communist rule in 1924. The
Stalinist purges in Mongolia destroyed over 700 monasteries, killed tens of thousands of Mongolian monks and lamas, and forcibly laicized thousands more monks. The mass murder of so much of Mongolia's monastic culture seriously threatened the tsam dance with extinction, as few practitioners survived the purges. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the introduction of a new constitution permitting religious practices, the practice and performance of tsam dancing has grown enormously. Many of the costumes and masks used for tsam dances survived Soviet purges of monasteries and temples by being buried, hidden, or stored in museums such as the
Choijin Lama Temple Museum.
abSchrempf, Mona (1995). "From 'Devil Dance' to 'World Healing': Some Representations, Perceptions, and Innovations of Contemporary Tibetan Ritual Dances". In Korom, Frank J.; Steinkeller, Ernst (eds.). Proceedings of the 7th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies: Graz 1995. vol. 4. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. pp. 91–102.
^Roccasalvo, Joseph F.(1980). 'The debate at bsam yas: religious contrast and correspondence.' Philosophy East and West 30:4 (October 1980). The University of Press of Hawaii. Pp.505-520. Source:
Archived 3 March 2016 at the
Wayback Machine (accessed: 17 December 2007)
abPearlman, Ellen (2002). Tibetan sacred dance : a journey into the religious and folk traditions. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions.