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Sonam Losar

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 peacock’s 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 with mirth.

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 ghoulishness.

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.

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