Mysterious Dance

Tsam, Dance of mystery

Tsam, Dance of mystery.

Mogi*, my Mongolian friend, runs the Top Tours hostel in Ulaanbaatar. She has hosted me there multiple times on my journeys down from Russia. I roll in regularly due to the intricacies of visa requirements here in old Rus. She knows I am a cultural enthusiast, generally with camera in tow, so she put a bug in me ear about the “Tsam” dance.

Mongolia is an explorers paradise. She feels a lot like Montana to me, minus the fences, and the welcome is high, wide and handsome. Opportunities for discovery are as unlimited as the steppe itself. It is discovery that soothes my restless heart.

So when Mogi’s words flowed into my oral receivers and made contact in my frontal lobe, my comprehension was ECSTATIC! I couldn’t believe my good fortune! Tsam, or Cham dances are a rarity, attendance can be quite a trick. One has to be in tune with sacral calendar of a monastery that observes the Tsam, not all do. Unknowingly, I had made my way to Ulaanbaatar for three days, and a Tsam dance dish was served up spicy on my discovery plate! No chance I was gonna miss this.

Black Hat dance, performed by the Yellow Hat sect.

Black Hat dance, performed by the Yellow Hat sect.

Since my return to the confluence of the Selenga and Uda, the capital of the Siberian steppe, Ulan-Ude, I have actively searched the world wide web so to inform you of the deep meaning and religious significance of the Tsam dance. Alas, the web has remained virtually silent on this point. The Tsam dance is mostly mystery to the uninitiated. Here is what I know: the first Tsam was performed around 770 A.D. The dance originated in India, and quickly spread to Tibet. From Tibet, it spread up into Mongolia and then into Siberia. The dance is staged to combat the enemies of Buddhism. Many of the characters who appear in dreadful form, present themselves such, so as to strike fear into the hearts of evil demons: a kind of fight fire with fire approach. While they look dreadful, their hearts are full of love and peace according to the practicants of the ritual.

The rise of Soviet power in Siberia and Mongolia not only put the kibosh on Tsam dances, but ended the lives of more than 18,000 lamas in Mongolia alone. In Buryatia, between 1929 and 1937 45,000 Buryats were disposed of, roughly 10,000 of those being Buddhist monks. Monasteries across the Mongol world lay shattered, their practices and rituals soaking into the soil along with their lifeblood.

Tsam is only now making an impression again, twenty-five years after the end of Soviet power. The mystery has arisen again, to remain . . . mystery.

And now, unveiled before your very own two peepers, behold the mystery that is Tsam!

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 Tsam in the words of it’s practicants:

“The performing of cham not only destroys all obstacles to Dharma and its people,
it also purifies and blesses the whole earth.
These dances leave powerful karmic imprints in the minds of the people
who observe them.”
Drupon (Master Teacher) Sonam Kunga

“We show the same form as the evil so the evil can feel fear. The protective deities take a wrathful form in order to scare evil.”
Khenpo (Scholar) Konchok Namdak

“With the help of Cham, people can know the role of gods and devils,
and understand the fruits of good and bad work.”
Lopon (Abbot) Konchok Namgyal

“Through cham we are trying to destroy evil with love and compassion.”
Lopon (Abbot) Thupstan Standin

If you would like to know more about the “Tsam” or “Cham” dance, I did find this explanation on the “History and Development of Dance” website. Just follow the link below:

Cham Dance: the Masked Ritual

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What is White Month?

Rinpoche Bagsa Temple lit up in white fire to celebrate White Month.

Rinpoche Bagsa Temple lit up in white fire to celebrate White Month.

The White Month holiday (Sagaalgan), emerged from nomadic culture on the steppes of Mongolia. Originally it was celebrated in autumn, when the production of so many milk-based foods which saw the nomads through the rigors of winter, drew to a close. White Month therefore features “White foods”, which are of course milk based. These foods include: Airag – fermented mares milk, YUM! Salamat – sour cream mixed with flour and fried. It is to die for! Sour cream, cottage cheese, cheese similar to Brinza, and Tarasoon, “milk vodka” all fall into the white food group. You must not forget Buuz, the crowning culinary treat in Buryat culture.

Glorious homemade buuz crafted by us in celebration of White Month.

Glorious homemade buuz waiting for the steam pot. Lovingly crafted by us in celebration of White Month.

With the influence of Buddhism waxing in the 1700’s among the peoples of the steppe, the holiday was moved to the first month of the Lunar Year. Sagaalgan starts on a different date every year depending on when the first new moon of the year falls, which makes it a “nomadic holiday” on the calendar. It can start anytime beginning in mid-January to roughly mid-March.

Before the White Stupa. A woman pays her respects on the first day of White Month (Sagaalgan), or the Lunar New Year at the Hamgyn Hureh Temple in Ulan-Ude, Buryatia.

Before the White Stupa. A woman pays her respects on the first day of White Month (Sagaalgan), or the Lunar New Year at the Hamgyn Hureh Temple in Ulan-Ude, Buryatia.

Because of the change, Sagaalgan is now the celebration of the lunar New Year. The ideas of a clean start, and cleansing oneself from the sins of the last year fit in nicely with the idea of White Month. White itself is a “color” that represents peace and good fortune in the family according to Buryat belief. So turning from sins to a clean start should bring peace and a better future to the family.

Casting dough full of last year's sin into the prepared bonfire.

Casting dough full of last year’s sin into the prepared bonfire.

The people's collected sins awaiting the first sparks of the "Cleansing Fire". (Дугжууба (Dugzhooba) The Cleansing Fire. What does this have to do with cold? It was -30 C out. Even in my fur and feathers (down) After being out for hours, I was COLD. This is a ritualistic fire into which Buddhists throw dough which they have rolled ov

The people’s collected sins awaiting the first sparks of the “Cleansing Fire”. (Dugzhooba)

At roughly the same time at all the Buddhist temples across the city, bonfires flare up to pierce the frigid night sky.

At roughly the same time at all the Buddhist temples across the city, bonfires flare up to pierce the frigid night sky.

Lamas return to the temple after completing the ritual burning of sins.

Lit by flare of fireworks, lamas return to the temple after completing the ritual burning of sins.

On the evening before Lunar New Year begins, people gather at their local temple for the ritual of Dugzhooba, (Дугжууба) or, the “Cleansing Fire”. This event will make quite an impression on any person who manages to wait out the cold to see all the sins of last year burn in a bonfire. Through out the day leading up to the lighting of the fire, people visit the temple to pray and throw bags of dough into the bonfire. The dough is mixed at home and rolled over the body to collect the sins of the last year. This year while watching people approach the fire, I noticed several take dough out of their purse or pocket, and dab off any uncleanliness or sin they may have collected on their feet on the way to the temple. They then cast it amongst the straw and wood to be burned later.

Worshipers pray as they circle the remains of the fire.

Worshipers pray as they circle the remains of the fire.

Visiting family is a vital part of White Month. Buryats value their family connections. Relatives that people in the west would consider distant, are close relatives to the Buryats. Much of White Month, which truly is a month long celebration, is spent visiting relatives. Gifts are exchanged and the prerequisite white foods are set upon tables across the Buryat homeland. Laughter abounds at the table as families catch-up, feast and admire any new babies who have made their appearance. Cup after cup of tea disappears in between toasts to the New Year and health of the family. And just when you think everyone has had their fill, another round of eating and toasting begins! (And then, yet another!)

A young lama in training smiles after an all night vigil of prayer at the Ivolginsk temple the night before the beginning of Sagaalgan.

A young lama in training smiles after an all night vigil of prayer at the Ivolginsk temple the night before the beginning of Sagaalgan.

Look for part B of this post coming soon to a blog near you. Here is a teaser:

Sagaalgan Adventures

The pocket into which I had (safely?) slid my passport was EMPTY! After triple confirmation, I quickly scanned the faces of the Buddhist supplicants crushing in from all sides…

Buryatia by Russia Today

Video

(Part 1)

As part of their “Faces of Russia” series, Russia Today has filmed a fascinating episode in Buryatia. It covers both Buryat and Soyot culture, and reveals some of the amazing natural sites of our part of Siberia. Apart from the poor pronunciation of place names, it really does a good job of conveying the spiritual atmosphere of Buryatia.

(Part 2)

The Gates of Sagaalgaan

Entry gate to the Ethnographic Museum in Ulan-Ude, all done up Buryat style. Another fine example of Steppe Bling.

Entry gate to the Ethnographic Museum in Ulan-Ude, all done up Buryat style. Another fine example of Steppe Bling.

The gates of Sagaalgaan (White Month) are about to open! White Month is celebrated across the Southern Siberian steppe, Mongolia and parts of China where ever the remnant people of Genghis Khan’s great empire reside. Known as Shagaa in Tuva, Tsagaan Sar in Mongolia and Chagan Sar in Kalmykia, and Sagaalgaan in Buryatia, White Month hastens in the first month of the Lunar New Year. I am not sure what the Lunar New Year is called across the rest of Asia, but it is celebrated throughout Asia. If you know what the Lunar New Year is called in Korea, Nepal, Tibet, Thailand, India, China, or any other Asian country, please leave me a comment below!

Serpant Khan; lord of the Lunar New Year.

Serpant Khan; lord of the Lunar New Year.

This is the year of the snake, which explains this giant ice serpent lording itself over Soviet Square in the center of Ulan-Ude. As the New Year approaches, you always know what next years Wild Kingdom representative (shout out to Marlin Perkins!) will be, as images of it materialize everywhere in plastic, plush, poster, and confection. I was severely tempted to purchase snake embellished porcelain tea cups several days back. I bet your grandmother does not have porcelain ware with snakes in her hutch.

White Month is sure to be a grand month-long celebration. There will be family to visit and feast with, concerts to attend, ceremonies at local Buddhist temples, Shamanistic rituals, and white foods (any milk product, and mutton counts as a white meat) consumed by the stomach-full. White Month also serves to welcome the spring sun to the steppe. (We are in the fit of a cold spell with lows in the -40’s.) After February, it’s all downhill to summer, only March, April and May remain between hardy Siberians and the God blessed month of June!

Stay tuned to this White channel, where I will endeavor to introduce to you the joys, foods and spiritual perspectives of the Buryat during White Month. (Previous years White Month posts: 1. Melody of the Western Buryats, 2. White Month, and 3. Buryat Dance Troupe Ulaalzai.) And, for your enjoyment, images from White Month across the Mongolian World!

Tuva

Shamans lead a ritual during Shagaa in Kyzyl, Tuva. (Alexander Kryazhev RIA Novosti)

Shamans lead a ritual during Shagaa in Kyzyl, Tuva. (Alexander Kryazhev RIA Novosti)

Buddhist Ritual Dance for Shagaa in Kyzyl, capital of Tuva. (found on Sib-infor.ru)

Buddhist Ritual Dance for Shagaa in Kyzyl, capital of Tuva. (found on Sib-infor.ru)

Kalmykia

Traditional steppe greeting with white silk for an honored guest. Kalmykia. (Nikolai Boshev, Rossiskaya Gazeta)

Traditional steppe greeting with white silk for an honored guest. Kalmykia. (Nikolai Boshev, Rossiskaya Gazeta)

Dancers celebrate Tsagaan Sar in the capital city of Kalmykia, Elista. (Nikolai Boshev Rossiskaya Gazeta)

Dancers celebrate Tsagaan Sar in the capital city of Kalmykia, Elista. (Nikolai Boshev, Rossiskaya Gazeta)

Worshipers gather in the main Temple in Elista. (SaveTibet.ru)

Worshipers gather in the main Temple in Elista. (SaveTibet.ru)

Mongolia

State ceremony in honor of Tsagaan Sar. I believe the man in the center is the former President of Mongolia. (my.englishclub.com)

State ceremony in honor of Tsagaan Sar. I believe the man in the center is the former President of Mongolia. (my.englishclub.com)

Trading snuff bottles, an old tradition with Mongolian peoples. (my.englishclub.com)

Trading snuff bottles, an old tradition with Mongolian peoples. (my.englishclub.com)

Opening the Green Tara Temple

The brooding drone of Tibetan prayer wrapped the Buryat supplicants in a ponderous brume. Muffled against the sharp day, they opened their offerings, vodka, milk, tarasoon (vodka made of milk) and cakes, filling tables before the new temple. Huddled together, they prayed, waiting for the opening ceremony.

People of the steppe gather to worship.

Lyonya, my brother in law, and I had made the twenty-five minute drive across the steppe from Ulan-Ude to Ivolginsk, the center of Buryat Buddhism in Russia. We came to witness the climax of work begun by a local business woman in 2006, building a temple to the Green Tara, a female form of Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings. (Mahayana Buddhism)  Aesthetically, the architecture and carven details were marvelous, there is a mystical beauty to Buddhist temples. But any time I walk Buddhist temple grounds, I am haunted by heavy emptyness, a disquiet sitting in my soul. I asked Lyonya what he felt, he said “I feel sad for my people, sad they are being decieved”. Prayer wheels spun, coins dropped, candles flickered, flags fluttered, monks orated, big-whigs toured, temple-dogs scavanged, sacrifices sat, the people sent up shivering prayers.

Hungry dogs make offerings magically disappear!

Bringing the tea.

Dancers welcome dignitaries in Buryat tradition.

The Hambo Lama gets his word in.

The Hambo Lama, spiritual leader of Buddhism in Russia, addressed the crowd in Russian and Buryat. He explained the virtues of the Green Tara, praised, haraunged, and humored the crowd in turn. Other dignitaries and ranking monks said their peace, while green helium baloons were circulated throughout the crowd. Glowing like floating emeralds against a powder blue sky, they were the day’s highlight, delighting toddlers and their parents alike.

Eternal God, light your hope’s fire in the people’s hearts.

These balloons made this boy's day! I laughed with his parents at his pleasure.