Geshe Ngawang Tashi Bapu, popularly known as Lama Tashi (Courtesy: Techsbiz, WikiCommons)

In Conversation with Geshe Ngawang Tashi Bapu: Monastic Cham Was a Means to One’s Spiritual Growth

in Interview
Published on: 26 December 2019

Dr Manash Pratim Borah

Dr Manash Pratim Borah is an Assistant Professor of English, Central Institute of Himalayan Culture Studies, Arunachal Pradesh. He has authored a book in English titled ‘Ethnicity, Identity and Literature: Reading Literatures from Northeast India’, 2014, and a book in Assamese titled Kuri Goraki Engraj Kobi (A critique on 20 English poets). He is also a translator from English to Assamese.

Geshe Ngawang Tashi Bapu, popularly known as Lama Tashi, is the former director of Central Institute of Himalayan Culture Studies, Arunachal Pradesh.

He was a 2006 Grammy Award nominee in the 'Traditional World Music' category for his album Tibetan Master Chant. He acquired his Geshe degree (PhD) from Drepung Loseling Monastery, Karnataka, and is well-trained in the monastic dance ritual of cham. He has performed chanting with renowned international artists in USA at Carnegie Hall, New York City and Hollywood Bowl, Pasadena, and in Italy at Teatro Massimo, Palermo. 

In this interview, Lama Tashi talks about the various facets of the monastic cham tradition of Arunachal Pradesh. 

Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted by Manash Pratim Borah on December 29, 2018, at Dahung, West Kameng District, Arunachal Pradesh.

Manash Pratim Borah (MPB): What are the influences of the monastic cham of Arunachal Pradesh? What is your engagement with cham?

Lama Tashi (LT): It is believed that Guru Padmasambhava performed the first cham at Samye in the eighth century, and Drubthob Thangtong Gyalpo later popularised the tradition. The present monastic cham tradition established in Arunachal Pradesh is believed to be mainly derived from the Tibetan monastic cham tradition. Therefore, it can be said that the heritage of monastic cham in Arunachal Pradesh is indebted to that tradition.

My involvement with the cham, however, is a little different as I was trained in south India with instructors from Lukhil Monastery, Ladakh, and Gaden Shartse Monastery. In the later years, I also became an instructor there. But to learn a detailed history of the cham, I went to a master who taught me about the tradition. He said that the origin of the cham of Lukhil Monastery was from Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Tibet and the tradition of this particular cham was brought to exist by His Holiness the Fifth Panchen Lama and was supposed to have been directly brought down from Shambhala. 

MPB: How old is the cham tradition of Arunachal Pradesh and what are its peculiarities?

LT: Monastic cham or the cham performed in the monasteries in Arunachal Pradesh may be around 300 years old. Historical evidences show that in most places, the Buddhist culture was influenced by the cultures and arts of the locality in which it developed; so, it became a unique culture of its own. 

MPB: Monastic cham is influenced by pantomime. In what ways is the influence apparent in present monastic cham tradition?

LT: It is difficult to say whether monastic cham is directly influenced by pantomime. It is evident that the designs of masks and costumes as well as the musical instruments used in cham basically express the philosophy of karmic cause and effect. Even the gestures that are used by the artistes in their cham performances reveal the same philosophy of karmic cause and effect. The same elements [masks, costumes and gestures] have also [symbolically] dealt with the achievement of nirvana, including the emancipation from the samsara. Therefore, I would say that spiritual belief and philosophy are more apparent in cham than the elements of pantomime. 

MPB: Can we say that the monastic cham in Arunachal Pradesh is influenced by tantric practices?

LT: Most of the monastic dances are based on the deeds and activities of different types of deities, who are invoked through the cham performances. In a way, we can say that invoking the deities itself is a tantric practice. All those deeds and activities of the deities are performed in accordance with the philosophy and culture found in the tantric texts and tradition. So, you can say that there is huge influence of tantric tradition and its practices.

MPB: What are the prime differences between the Geluk and Nyingma monastic cham traditions?

LT: Deities invoked in Geluk monastic tradition [often] differ from the ones invoked in Nyingma, because of which there are different aspects of dances in the two schools. The two schools also developed in different sociocultural backgrounds because of which their dance steps and costumes also differ, even when they are about the same deity.

MPB: What are the healing and protective powers of monastic cham?

LT. Within the ambit of common folk belief, monastic cham has a sustained healing and protective power. It is believed that performing the dance of certain deities will expel negative forces, thus the cham performance can bring healing and protective energy to individuals and society. When I was young I was told that I must go to watch and feel the cham performed by monks at least once in my lifetime. It is believed that watching cham can rid you of bad karma. It is also believed that there are many forms of cham related to death or one’s dying experience. So, if a person witnesses a cham performance during the time of their death, they have a better afterlife.

MPB: What are the specific characteristics of the masks and costumes used in cham?

LT: Based on the nature and activities of specific deities or beings, different types of masks, costumes and hats are used in cham. However, this does not mean that the masks or costumes are used in a vague way; everything used in the cham performances has serious mythological significance. In a way, we can say that the masks, costumes and hats are prepared according to the myths traditionally sustained in society. I have performed the dance of the black hat master [The black hat masters of the zha nag cham, also known as black hat dance]; the costume of the black hat master is designed with huge sleeves, which are uncomfortable when you have to move your arms. The movements of the hands and the other bodily gestures are performed in accordance with the story of the black hat dance. According to the story, when Lhalung Palgyi Dorjee wanted to perform the black hat dance to assassinate the king Lang Darma, who was completely against the Buddhist tradition in Tibet, he designed the huge sleeves to hide the bow and arrow in it. Behind every mask and costume used in cham performances, you will find such stories and myths. 

MPB: What are the musical instruments used and what are their roles in monastic cham?

LT: Musical instruments play a significant role in monastic cham. Cymbals, drums and the long trumpet are mainly played in traditional monastic cham. For some specific dances, bells, damarus, different types of short trumpets and kangling [trumpet made from human thighbone] are also played. Cymbals, drums and the long trumpet are used to control dance steps while bells are used for purposes of invoking enlightened forces. I also had the opportunity to perform the durgag cham [dance of the skeleton lord], where the movements are designed as if for a body without flesh—a skeleton. The dance requires extreme body movements and gestures. The same  applies to the music for this dance. When you watch the durdag cham of the skeleton or cemetery lord and listen to the music, you feel the difference. The music for this cham makes you feels lighter but at the same time it is tense. 

MPB: In what ways has modernisation influenced monastic cham?  

LT: The steps of the dances and the gestures have not changed; they are still traditional. However, the materials used for the costumes have changed. Earlier, most of the materials were handmade. 

Monastic cham was basically used as a means to one’s spiritual growth. But in our present times, cham performances have sometimes been presented as demonstrations of cultural aspects and, sadly, for the purpose of entertainment. In a way, we can say that the devastating effect of modernisation is seen mostly in public belief and acceptance.