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!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 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

Shamanism: Old & New

A young Buryat shaman flings an oblation of milk during opening of the Yordinkski games on the shores of Lake Baikal.

A young Buryat shaman flings an oblation of milk during opening of the Yordinski games on the shores of Lake Baikal.

Shamanism, sometimes known as the black faith, originated in and has been practiced for millennia in Siberia. The term Shamanism is poorly understood in the West. Generally we lump shamans in with witchcraft and New Age religion, writing Shamans off as charlatans practicing throwback beliefs from the ancient past.
Contemporary Shamanism is alive and well, going through a period of change and expanding its influence in Siberia as native cultures experience a needed resurgence. When interacting with indigenous locals, you will find differing perspectives on the value and practice of this worldview. Some will participate quite actively, some only on relevant holidays. Some practice shamanism out of respect for their family, or cultural worldview, while others will consult shamans before any serious life decision is made. Healing from sickness is the most common reason people will ask a shaman to come minister to them. Shamans will tell you they influence spirits or fight with them to attain a positive answer concerning any problem you might have be it health, work, fortune or other. Generally for the favor of their services, you bring them a gift, whatever you can afford.
Shamanism is difficult to nail down, for even from the mouths of shamans you hear different explanations of what is a white shaman, black shaman, yellow shaman, or blacksmith shaman.
Historically there are two predominant types of Shamans; white and black. Westerners immediately think to themselves, “aha, white shamans are good and BAD shamans are black!” Nothing of the kind! Nor would you know the difference by their dress. I find most present-day Buryat Shamans wear blue. Traditionally white and black shamans had different roles; black shamans battled evil spirits, sickness, curses and could travel in the nether world. White shamans led public ceremonies, interceded for the whole community regarding harvest, well being etc. White shamans had more responsibility to general society while black shamans dealt with individual problems and requests. These roles in contemporary shamanism are in flux as shamans/shamanism reboots after seventy years of communism. Urbanization in modern Siberia is also changing the roles of Shamans, putting them much more in the public eye of city dwellers, and in a position to influence culture.
In an effort to cast aside abundant preconceptions and misconceptions about other religions and cultural practices, and instead meet at the intersection of humanity, we will be exploring Shamans and shamanism in the coming months in Siberia. I expect a series of unexpected revelations about the people behind the mystery of drum and spirits.

Here is what other bloggers believe about belief.

Buryatia by Russia Today


(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)