Face Music - Projects - Tsam Dance Mongolia
  • Traditional Dance Masks of Buddhists

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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016

- Example 1: Mongolian Tsam Performance

Inside the monastery the Tsam play starts with a ritual action for the Gods of Fertility and Death Yama, Tshoijoo respectively. Neither the general public nor the lower clergy are allowed to participate.
At the same time there are made preparations outside the monastery. In front of the monastery, a smaller circle and around it a bigger one are drawn with limestone, chalk or flour. The bigger circle constitutes the boundary the audience is not allowed to overstep. The masks are supposed to dance in the ring between these two circles. Then there are drawn two further circles, inbetween which the Black-Hat-Magicians "
Shanak" will perform. In the middle of the smallest circle there is put up a table covered with a tiger skin and a blanket made from silk. At the four corners of the table there are poles stuck into the earth which carry pennants. Inbetween these poles there is put up a baldaquin-like screen with a coloured covering. The Zor (a sacrifical offering made from dough), which is the central issue of the ritual play, is put on the table. The Zor is of even greater importance for the Mongolians than the Lingka (human sacrifice made from dough) is for the Tibetians.
The size of the Zor ranges from a quarter of a metre to half a metre. It consists of a high, three-sided and hollow pyramid made from dough and covered with blood-coloured decorations. By means of a sickle there are modelled on the outside surfaces all sorts of figures like flowers, circles, fire-like tongues etc., this embellishment making the whole construction look like a flickering funeral pyre. On top there is attached a skull made from dough, and at each of the three corners of the basis there projects a skull, too. In the centre of the pyramid there is stuck in an arrow covered with greeting sheets, so-called "Khadak", the penna of which represents the Buddhist Wheel of Life. The Zor is then carried into the monastery where it is surrounded by burning little butter lamps, incense candles, and sixty-four little dough cones. At this time, the solemn rite of consecrating the sacrifice takes its beginning. For this reason, the Black-Hat-Magicians, the "
Shanak", will read aloud words of banishment ("Tarni", this is some fourty-four-line hymns of praise), which are supposed to banish all enemies of Lamaism by means of magic into the Zor and keep them in there.
Subsequently, the tea and kitchen monk, with circle-like movements, exchanges all sixty-four dough cones for another. Now it is time to repeat the hymns of praise, and the orchestra starts to play. The Sor is carried to the outside in a solemn procession and put down on the pedestal prepared therefore. The procession is led by monks with incense candles as further sacrifical offerings in their hands, then follows a monk carrying a little dough cone as a further sacrifical offering for the "Protector of the Site" for whom this Tsam play is performed. This monk is followed by another one holding a bowl with holy water in his hand. The last monk to enter the stage is the one holding the actual Sor.
Now the mask dance may start. At first there appear the "Lords of the Graveyards", the so-called
Khokhimoi. They are followed by the raven "Keriye" who attempts to touch the sacrifical offering. The "Lords of the Graveyard" (also called the Death Masks) prevent the raven from doing so and hit him. The raven is considered impure and could desecrate the sacrifical offerings through his touch. According to mythology, the raven is also considered a fortune-teller, or the figure is seen as the messenger of the gods.
The orchestra plays faster and faster, and after the music has ended, the Argham-Lama (master of ceremonies) enters the stage in some plays. He holds in his one hand a bowl made from human skull and filled with goat blood, and in the other hand, he holds a mandala disk covered with grains and embellished with four little dough cones. The Lama dances and then pours the blood over the mandala while uttering the words "Argham". This is the sign for the deities not visible to make an appearance and participate in the Tsam. Subsequently, the Zor is placed on the table in the middle of the inner circle. Now the "Lords of the Graveyard" dance, they throw their rods to each other, and they encircle the Zor six times, in order to finally assume their position at both sides of the Zor. (Sometimes two warriors line up in order to guard the Zor as the raven steadily tries to touch the sacrifical offering).
The masks to appear next are the
Azaras (spiritual teachers). They perform their dances and antics near the entrance to the monastery, but they do not enter the inner dance circle (In some tribes from Tongku and Mongolia these masks represent wild men, aboriginal inhabitants of the country, who smoke from wether bones, something that is actually forbidden by the Lamaistic church).
Now the mask of the "Twister of the Wheel", the representative of the secular power - he is considered the ruler of India -, makes an appearance, followed by his wife and his son or two warriors (these are sometimes represented by two Azar masks). They scatter flowers when the ruler enters the site. He and his family are offered seats of honour outside the inner Tsam circle.
Blowing the horn announces the arrival of a new mask. It is the "Ruler of Kashmir" or his rebirth. He is accompanied by his six sons carrying musical instruments. These masks are humorous masks. "Kashin Khan" (Ruler of Kashmir) is in Mongolia the Kubilai Khan of those princes who have to accomodate the respective Buddha of the era.
This mask is another representation of the Chinese monk "Hoshang" - the well-known Buddha with his big belly and his children - who took care of the children at the court of the Chinese Emperor.
The sound of cymbal and gangling (flute from human bones) accompanies the arrival of the Protective Gods, the Zamindi (Mongolian: Idam = Protector) with their satellites. Their arrival initiates the actual dance. Among the wild "Protectors of the Religion -
Guugor" there are also to be found the permanent companions of the Ruler of the Dead, the wild Prince of Hell, with his satellites (Podshud), who start to dance outside the two dance circles in front of the Zor. In front of these masks the Azar masks pour blood and scatter flowers in their honour.
Now the servants of the God of Death, namely the buffalo mask
Bukh or the bull mask Makhi and the deer mask Shiva, enter the site. They also dance under the screen. Of the "Dreadful Deities" who announce the arrival of the Prince of Darkness, there will appear (with various plays in different order) the Prince of the Demons, that is the "Big Black", also called Gombo (Mahäkäla), the "Carrier of the Thunderbolt - Ochirvaani" who, however, does not always participate, the "God of Wealth", called Namsrai, and many more.
The next to follow are the satellites of the Goddess of Death, the so-called "walking in the sky". These are the "Rulers over Obstacles", the tiger
Bar and the lion Sendom. They clear the way off demons for the mistress who is to arrive rather soon.
Finally there comes
Lkham (Käli - Lhamo), the Goddess of Yama, Death himself. The Mongolians call her the "Virgin-Goddess". She is followed by the terrible "God of War" Jamsran, who is announced or accompanied by his eight satellites (Selmechi), the "Holders of the Knives" or the "Carriers of the Sword". They have to dismember the dead bodies.
At this time there is added in a humorous interplay, in which the mask of the
Old White Man enters the stage. Sometimes the old frail man is carried on a carpet onto the stage, and he is put down in front of the table with the Zor; sometimes the frail old man also limps into the circle. Sometimes it is the case that the "Lords of the Graveyard" offer him wine to drink; as a consequence, the Old White Man starts to dance rather clumsily; and sometimes he is teased by the young satellites of the "Ruler of Kashmir". But the "Azaras" always hand him a skin, even that from the table on which the sacrifical offerings are put; and then the Old Man starts his harmless game with them.
Here very frequently a rather impressive scene follows. Accompanied by horrible howling, the "Black-Hat-Magicians" (Shanak) enter the stage. They wear the dress of the Bon priests but no masks. They introduce the "Five Kings" (Tabun Khan) who have sworn to protect religion for ever and ever. It is rather unique that they are in ecstasy, possessed by the deity. This is the reason for their eyes which are wide opened to nearly pop out of their blue-red and swollen face. The dancers who are rather dangerous in this state of mind are accompanied by monks keeping an eye on them.
After every single scene tension is being built up until it reaches a climax when the "Ruler of the Dead and the Underworld" in his huge and dreadful mask puts in an appearance. The floor in front of him is rather extensively splattered with blood. The Ruler of the Dead dances solemnly and impressingly in the centre of the dance circle. And again one of the tea and kitchen monks enters the site and carries the Lingka (human sacrifice) out of the monastery. This is a figure made from dough in the size of a five-year-old boy. It is the symbol of all enemies of Lamaism and, simultaneously, of all sins committed by the faifthful participating in the Tsam. The monks recite the sacrifical rite. And Tshoijoo and Jamsran (the God of War) as well as their satellites dance around the Lingka. Afterwards the big three-part prayer takes place. In the first part, the "wild" deities are called. In the second part there are uttered the eighteen wishes that all enemies of Lamaism will turn into dust and ash. Subsequently, the kitchen monk burns ill-smelling incense to cover the Lingka. In addition thereto, the third part of the prayer is spoken.
This is the start of the symbolic human sacrifice; in former times, however, this was probably not only a symbol. Either the "Holders of the Knives", the satellites of the God of War, or he himself or the God of the Dead cut the sacrifice into twelve pieces, exactly according to the twelve curses and spells uttered by the monks. There are also plays in which the deer mask assumes this function. They tear the sacrifice apart with their antlers and throw the parts into the audience who either disdains them or, as it is the case with some tribes (especially in Tibet), catches and eats them.
Now for the very last time all masks line up for the dance by building two circles around the Zor and the Lingka. In the outer circle there dance the Black-Hat-Magicians or the satellites of the Protective Gods, in the inner circle the deities themslves perform their dance. In this way the masks approach the monastery and finally make their exit into it. The Black-Hats represent the final part of the procession.
The monks have already stood up from their seats in order to read the last part of the sacrifical rite. Now they form a procession and carry the Zor out of the monastery into the steppe. There has already been erected a funeral pyre.
The monks still reciting form the final part of the procession, whereas some lower monks with incense bowls lead the procession. Inbetween there are to be found some musicians and the kitchen monk carrying the Zor. When they arrive at the funeral pyre, the highest-ranking monk will take over the Zor, throw the sixty-four dough-cones into the steppe and start to read aloud the burning prayer. Simultaneously, he lifts the Zor up into the air and swings it in circles above his head. This rite is repeated three times before the monk hands the Zor over to the fire and says his prayers.
The monks now return to the monastery. Only the kitchen monk stays until even the last remains of the Zor are completely burnt. Sometimes the dance of the masks lasts until the monks return from the funeral pyre and all walk back to the monastery.

back to the Tsam History

P & C Face Music - Ulaanbaatar, September / October 1999 - Albi
English translation: Hermelinde Steiner