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The Dances of Namdroling – Ancient Buddhist Dance

A form of Buddhist dance that existed on the Indian sub-continent more than a thousand years ago, has returned after being preserved in the Himalayan mountains of Tibet.

In the lush green countryside of Mysore State, in Karnataka, there is a Tibetan colony where several Buddhist monasteries have been developed closely resembling those in their native homeland. One of these, known as the Namdroling Nyingmapa Monastery has, since its inception in the early 1960’s grown to become a village in its own right. In fact, it is essentially a college of Buddhist studies and young monks from all over India and the world come here to study and practice their religion.

There is not just this one Tibetan temple here but four while a fifth, said to be one of the largest in the world, is under construction. Their Abbot is Penor Rinpoche, a highly trained monk from Tibet who, assisted by various other monks, some known as Khenpo (truly learned), look after the few hundred monks in his care. Their time is not only spent studying such subjects as languages and Buddhist philosophy but also in practicing the rituals of their religion and looking after the monastery with its various needs. Funding comes from the faithful not just in the Tibetan community but also from abroad where sponsors include wealthy Chinese disciples from Hong Kong and the Hollywood star, Stephen Segal.

The four temples that can be seen at present are in themselves works of art. They contain many statues and paintings which serve to awaken the memory of the founders of the order. Initially, this was Padmasambhava who came to Tibet from India in the eighth century, a little over a thousands years ago.

During his years in India, prior to his journey to the high mountain land of Tibet in the north, Padmasambhava stayed for some time in the kingdom of Zahor. This was in eastern India and historians are not sure exactly where except that the kingdom was probably in what is now Bengal. Its people were some of the most exceptionally gifted spiritually if accounts are accurate and among the mystical arts practiced was dance. This might sound strange to an adherent of the more disciplined southern school of Buddhism, known as the Hinayana, but to those of the northern school, any genuine form of artistic expression could become a means to enlightenment. Buddha is regarded as having experienced dance and shared it with his disciples.

Around this time, there are said to have been three teachers of dance, one of them a princess, the others both male. Padmasambhava must have been a good student for not only did he learn the dances, he also taught them to the Tibetan people who remember and practice them to this day, although it is likely they have developed them with the passing of the centuries. The dances are not regarded as entertainment but rather religious ceremonies. They form part of an extensive series of religious rituals and prayer that every year is performed by the monks of Namdroling Monastery. The first of these is a dance performed in both the morning and the afternoon to the sound of chanting monks whose deep throated voices add a further mystical dimensions to the scene. The dancers wear round flat-topped hats made of metal and painted black; on their top, is stuck a peacock feather which has been considered an object of meditation for thousands of years. Around the feather is a gilded design of painted metal portraying lacking flames while there is a sun and moon attached to the cup shaped base from which flow brightly coloured scarves that hang down the back of the monk dancer. The group makes slow movements, gesturing with their arms and carefully moving their feet. The dance may seen monotonous, and in a sense it is, but the chanting evokes both the peaceful and later the wrathful aspects of the Buddha’s nature, allowing those present to momentarily gain a little experience of it. You can not have the good without the bad and, for the Buddhist, they amount to the same ultimately, being a duality that requires transcendence.

The next dance is not held until over a week later. This time, a group of 16 dancers come out clothed in beautiful garments, which make much use of silk brocade and the Chinese influence here is unmistakable. One cannot see the dancer’s faces since these are covered by locks of thin black hair that falls down in front of them. In their left hand is a bell, rung occasionally, while in the right hand is a curiously shaped object known as a dorjay and considered to represent a thunderbolt. They slowly move around in a circle as the chant master utters monosyllabic sounds; with their hands and arms they make gestures and perform similar actions with their feet and legs.

The next day sees the last of these archetypal series of movements. A golden masked figure appears and starts to dance; after awhile, others of this deity’s retinue join him so that there are in all 25 of these dancers moving around the courtyard. In the centre of the state, a small figurine has been placed and the central figure starts to make gestures over it, initially with a dagger and then a sword with which he cuts up the prostrate form. This is the climax of the proceedings in which the false identity man has of a separate self, is symbolically dissolved into a more universal view. There is still more dancing and this time, the dancers form a line, one end of which leads to the centre of the stage, the other to the exist one by one, the figures dance out.

All the while, robed monks have been grouped around the courtyard and on the next day, that of the full moon, they become the centre of a grand spectacle which involves almost all the members of the monastery. Four mandala designs are made in the main courtyard over which pyres are constructed. Then the assembly start to enter, forming circles as they move around to take their place. A fire ceremony gets underway. Soon the rest of the monks appear, encircling those already present. Some carry banners while they walk around, coming to a stop only when all have found a place to sit. From a balcony, the Abbot looks down, directing those less experienced.

It is a fitting end to days of ceremonial activities, of chanting in the temples and even the classrooms, for many different prayers go on simultaneously. It is difficult not to be touched by such an occasion. Eventually the monks finish their prayers and file out of the courtyard, their celebrations over for another year although their many rituals continues unabated. In the afternoon, there is a special blessing for the many that have gathered.