Every year, in the months of November-December, themonks of Gompa Nyingpa dance a strange play-of evil being transformed
into good. Frightening, yet fascinating, these day long festivities
remain a mystery to most onlookers.
The silence of the night
is broken by blasts of blaring horns, clashing cymbals and beating
drums. It is Sonam Losar in Sikkim-New Year and the Harvest Season.
for the monks of Gompa Nyingpa, a three hundred year old monastic
settlement perched on a ridge below Rumtek, it is time to dance.
The weather has been
cloudy, clammy and overcast but the previous day the monks were able
to practice their movements as the sun broke through the clouds to
bathe the participants in its invigorating light. Today, the
twenty-nine of the tenth lunar month, as the sun rises up from behind
the mountain peaks, the monks bring out a ferocious visage which is
placed to the fore of the grassed courtyard upon which the play is
set to take place.
Over an hour later, a
small crowd has gathered and the appearance of the rochestra-robbed
monks who sit to one side of the Gompa entrance, marks the beginning
of the festivities as their music heralds the coming of the black
hats-splendidly robed monks who proceed to encircle the stage,
bearing aloft their pointed hats upon which are displayed a number of
portent symbols such as the interlocking triangles, the sun and moon,
with occasionally a peacocks feather stuck on the very top
above a skull with a ring of fire.
This spectacle might be
overwhelming for the audience; indeed few attend the entire
proceedings, hence the jovial clowns, in this case played by the
youngest and smallest monks of the monastery who enjoy a day of
playful truancy dressed in ghoulish masks. One carries a ragged doll
which is placed near the totem, another grabs hold of a passing
western traveller in an attempt to make him dance along, while yet
another picks up a child and runs off with it. The crowd responds
Suddenly, there is the
sound of whistling and the lamas appear wearing a variety of
horrifice masks. Those like Garuda and kali serve to remind one of
Guru Padmasambhava who brought these teachings from India to Tibet
where they were to develop this unique flavour. There is no conflict
her as many suppose, rather it is a process of evil becoming good;
out of the mud grows the lotus with its flower in which the dewdrop
may be found. Om Mani Padma Hum.
The next dance sees a
lama with a bow and arrow slowly yet deliberately move into the
arena. About a thousand move into the arena. About a thousand years
ago this dance was performed by a lama who actually shot a member of
the audience-a heretical king of that time who was crushing the
teaching in Tibet. Today, onlookers are safe, for this is just part
of history and, after the lama has taken a seat, four skeletons
appear to dance in front of him, lifting their arms high and shaking
their hands. The bulls and stags also dance followed by other masked
figures. A dough effigy is brought out and placed on the ground-a
symbol of the illusory self. While monks meditate a little on the
nature emptiness others feel this to be more of their body than their
being and mark for the food stalls that have grown up along the track
leading to the Gompa.
The climax comes with the
stag dance. He appears from the wrathful entourage to sway and bend
over the red coloured offerings-the false identity man clings
to-which he then chops up into pieces, moving back into the circle of
dancers and returning to the interior of the monastery.
Some of the smaller monks
now dance out in pairs, dressed as robed monks, as black hats and in
wrathful guise. They watch as the senior lamas dance again in the
masks, this time carrying implements such as the trident in the case
of the stag, a red and white flag. Before the younger monks
disappear, the clowns come to taunt them with their guile and
Then, as the shadows
start to lengthen, the black hat dancers appear again, dancing
gracefully and with dignity. Most of the onlookers have gone and as
dusk falls, the monks chant their prayers in deep, sonorous tones as
smoke from burning incense wafts across the scene. The festivities
are at an end although tomorrow a Rinpoche shall come to give a
blessing for the faithful.
One may well speculate a
to the meaning of this drama. Many consider it to be an enactment on
what occurs when one has died and is yet to be reborn. However, it is
surely a mistake to conceptualize too much about what is essentially
a mystery play.