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  • Traditional Dance Masks of Buddhists

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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016

- Example 2: Mongolian Tsam Performance - the Erlik Tsam from Urga

The Preparation

Monks who are supposed to take part in the performance have to learn by heart the "Tarni", these are the mystic incantations allocated to each single deity, and they also have to participate in the preparatory holy masses in honour of the dreadful Protectors of Religion.
The Dshagchar, the Iron Palace, is modelled from flour dough. The construction is decorated with different ornaments and symbolic figures which are cut into the dough and painted with vegetable colours. Also the flour dough is modelled into a sharp, three-sided pyramid, the Zor (sacrifical offering), with flickering flames and symbolic decorations, and it is furthermore painted with colours with symbolic meaning. On top of the pyramid, there is fastened a skull made from this dough. A similar skull is placed at each corner of the pyramid's area. Moreover, there is produced a little figure, the Lingka (sacrifice), from the dough; this is a naked body with bloated belly and arms and legs tied up.
During the last three days before the Tsam performance, the holy masses are celebrated in honour of the strict Protectors of the Faith and Erlik Nomun Khan (Tshoijoo - Yama) for whom there are then made sacrifices. On the sixth day of the last summer moons, the Tshambon (dance master), on the occasion of the lingka-sacrification, puts on a black headgear with symbolic decorations made from metal, and he then cuts, after having spoken the sacrifical words "Hit, kill, and cut", the human figure into twelve single parts. By means of reading the sacrificial words with the magical incantations, the enemies are attracted and banished into the Lingka figure. At the same time, there is burnt incense in order to cover this figure with ill-smelling smoke which ought to attract the Spirits of the Darkness. The parts cut therefrom with this magic dagger are put down at the foot of the Dshagchar. On the seventh and eighth day, there are also performed further Lingka ceremonies.

Magic Dagger

On the eve of the ninth day, preparations for the site take place. In the middle of the site there is it put up a baldaquin with applied ornaments on four poles, and there is drawn a circle with chalk. The next circle is an empty circle. The third circle is the Tshambon (circle of the dance master), the fourth, again, is an empty circle, and the fifth is the so-called mask circle. Then there follows an empty circle. The seventh circle is the circle of the "Shanak" (black hat). Around this seventh concentric circle there is drawn a big square, at the four sides of which there are placed the flags of the fifteen Protectors of the Cardinal Points - (Tshokdshong). At the Southern side there is placed a statue of the deity "Ochirvaani".


- Skizze Tsam-Place (in German)

The performance

In the morning there takes place the fourth ceremony of the destruction of the enemies of the religion, in which the Tshambon again cuts a lingka figure and reads aloud incantations. During the ceremony, while the masks are entering the dance place, further incantations are read aloud, which are supposed to banish the evil spirits into the Lingka figure. Around midday, the sacrificial offerings Dshagchar and Zor are brougth to the site and put beneath the baldaquin. At this point of time, the "Protectors of the Cardinal Points - Tshokdshong" enter the Tsam site. After the sacrificial offerings have been put into the inner circle, the monks sit down in the pavillion reserved for them. The statue of the "
Ochirvaani" is put up. Then there appear two warriors with sword and shield who now guard the Dshagchar and the Zor during the performance.
At first the two skeleton masks Khokhimoi, the "Lords of the Graveyards", enter the stage. At this time, also the raven appears who steadily wants to touch and thereby desecrate the consecrated sacrifical offerings. The warriors, however, are able to prevent this from happening. The next to follow onto the site is a monk in the role of the master of ceremonies, Argamtshi (Argam-Lama). In his hand he holds a bowl made from human skull containing blood mixed with various ingredients. By calling "Argam", the invisible Protectors of the Faith and the strict deities are called to the site.
Subsequently, the monks recite their texts accompanied by trombones and cymbal. The two
Guugor, the strict Protectors of Doctrine, make an appearance. One wears a black and the other one a yellow mask. They are accompanied by the "Lords of the Graveyards", the Chinese monk "Hoshang" with the six boys, two monks playing the flute, two monks carrying censers, and one monk showing them the way. After they have left the stage, the two "Luba" appear on stage. These two Spirits of Death perform the dance to attract the enemy and destroy him with arrows. One wears a red mask with a red costume, the other one is clothed in the colour blue.
Now the two Shind masks (a red and a white mask) present themselves in accompaniment of the "Lords of the Graveyards", the "Hoshang", etc. They perform the dance of the evil enemies of the four cardinal points.
The musicians, at this point of time, also play the introduction tune for the eight frightening masks Dundshadama who appear in pairs. They are led in by
Makhi, a dark blue mask of a bull's head with dark blue silk costume.
Further animal figures, namely the deer head
Shiva and the buffalo's head Bukh make an appearance on the site where the Tsam is performed. Their quick and strange movements, by means of which they pursue and destroy the evil enemies invisible for all those mortal, end in an ecstactic dance. After they have left stage, the place is cleared for the masks of the frightening deities Gongor (a white and a yellow mask – they are distributor of wealth and eliminator of poverty and need) – and of the benevolent deity Namsrai (God of Wealth).
Now the deity "Ochirvani" puts in an appearance, accompanied by the lion's head
Sendom, the tiger Bar and the bear. (According to popular belief, these four figures bring along peace and well-being for the peoples.)
Next to follow are the eight Carriere of the Sword (
Selmechi), the satellites of the Lord of War, who then perform their dance supposed to kill the enemies. After the end of the dance they wait in the middle of the dance circle for the mighty deities to appear. The first to enter stage is the goddess Rigbilchamo, then comes Lächansrogdak, followed by Jamsran. After they have left, the frightening masks Dsanamidra, Dagiradsa, and Drakshad appear, accompanied by Gombo, the Mighty Black (Mahäkäla). Then comes the goddess Lhamo who is called Lkham.
Together with Garuda who is called
Khangard, the Ash Grey Old Man (the Spirit and Lord of the Onion Mountain situated in the North of the river Tuul and in the West of Urga), the Dog's Head and the Wild Boar (embodiment of the figure of an old Shaman spirit) make an appearance. These masks are known as "The four local Lords".
The next to come are the four
Azaras, the four Indian religious teachers (who mainly wear simple cotton clothes). Then there is called the Old White Man, the Good Spirit of the Earth, who livens up the atmosphere when he makes fun and distributes sweets. At this time also the four lions (a present of the governor of that time) turn up, and he starts to fight with them.
Again it is time for the dance master (Tshambon) to enter stage; it is his task to burn at the stake the Dshagchar and the Zor after the performance has come to an end. After his leaving, the "Shanak" (Black-Hat-Magicians in the traditional dress of old Bon priests) appear and start the dance with incantations for the deity Yama.
After a short break, Zamindi, the female power of the mighty Tantra deity Erlik Nomun Khan, who is called
Tshoijoo, enters stage. Now this god is called to appear in person, but he takes his time. Only after having been called for the third time, he enters stage, followed by the "Lords of the Graveyards", the monk "Hoshang" with his boys, the Indian religious teacher (Azara), and the White Old Man with the four lions. They enter the dance circle and are followed by all masks having performed so far. At this point of time the reading of invitations of deities and spirits in the course of the ceremony of the Lingka burning has come to an end. Servants of the temple have erected a funeral pyre in the South of the place behind the spectators. A big boiler hangs over this pyre in which butter has been melted during the recitation of the ritual texts. The Tshambon (master of ceremony) now pours the contents of the skull bowl into the boiler. A flame escapes the boiler and reaches the Lingka hanging above. The mask dances seem to have come to an end. The Dshagchar amd the Zor are carried to the pyre to be burnt at the stake. The audience utters the final words of the incantations. Thereafter the choir of the monks launches into a common song. The masks end their dance, and all tsam artists return to the monastery, whereas the audience walks home or rides back to the steppe.

The pantomime mystery play Erlik Tsam was performed, in this very version, between 1811 and 1937 in Urga (Ulaanbaatar) 127 times, this is once every single year, always on the ninth day of the last summer moon, namely July or at the beginning of August. There exist recordings of Russian filmers, but only in monochrome and in the form of silent films, which were produced at the beginning of the 1930ies. Also the Japanese recorded tsam performances in the monasteries of Central Mongolia during World War II (these films, however, cannot be found anymore). Apart from its religious importance, the Tsam has always been a form of an open-air folk theatre in times of Old Mongolia. The highlight has always been the burning of the Lingka figure (the symbolic human sacrifice) and the final burning of the Dshagchar (Iron Palace) as well as the Zor (the sacrifical offering) in accompaniment of rifle and bow shots. Today the texts can be read, and the symbolism of colours and ornaments of the masks and costumes as well as the dance steps can be studied. The music was put down in musical notation, and there can even be found musical recordings.

back to the Tsam History

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