The commencement of Chaam is announced from within the gompa by the steady drone of the kangling, an instrument like a trumpet. These notes are reciprocated by the deep muted thunder of the radong, long copper horns, blown from outside the gompa. Cymbals clash, and ceremonial drums and gongs sound in rhythmic unison and mark the start of the dance. Richly attired dancers file into the monastery courtyard and as they swirl in rich colour, incense bearers circulate among the audience, purifying the atmosphere. All this heralds the actual drama, whose principal figure is Mahakala, and it is his presence that invokes other protective deities. Elaborate costumes and masks are the hallmarks of the Dance of the Masquerades---Sha-Yak and Nam-Ding---where the dancers assume animal faces. Here, the masks of the stag, the yak, the tiger, the lion, the mythical winged garuda, walk in slow and measured steps, to the clash of cymbals and the sound of the trumpets, the dancers act out the destruction of apostasy symbolized by an effigy which is chopped to pieces and scattered. The scattered remains are not merely the annihilation of the diabolical forces, but they also constitute an offering, signifying the tantric union of wisdom, preaching and action and consecrated to the five Dhyani Buddhas.
The legend surrounding the origins of chaam is fascinating. In the 9th century, a devout and pious king in Tibet, Ral-Pa-Che, devoted much of his time to Buddhism. He had many important scriptures and commentaries translated into Tibetan. He also endowed the monasteries with the grant of lands. But there was also a malignant influence in the person of his brother, Lang Darma, who offered a reverse prayer to harm the faith. The treacherous prince instigated violence against the King and was instrumental in the murder of Ral-Pa-Chen, after which he ascended the throne. Once crowned, Lang Darma began his vicious efforts to uproot Buddhism. He desecrated monasteries, burned sacred scripts and books and persecuted the lamas.
This apostate king was assassinated in the third year of his reign by Lama Pal Dorjee. The Lama disguised himself as an itinerant Devil Dancer, within his ample sleeves he concealed a bow and arrow. His dancing got him the attention of the king, who summoned him to his presence. As the disguised lama drew near the king, he whipped out his bow and arrow and aimed the fatal shot. In the resultant chaos, the lama escaped on a black pony, with the king's guard in hot pursuit. But he eluded capture by plunging into the Kyi-chu river. When he emerged on the other bank, the pony was snow-white and this miraculous transformation fooled the pursuers and the lama escaped unharmed. Within this story are the elements of the masked dance itself-the rooting out of apostasy, or evil; and the victory of good-all played out in a fierce and splendid drama whose echoes vibrate in the chaams of today.
The monastic dance costumes form an integral and fascinating part of the chaam. Rich brocade and satin with gold embroidery go into the making of the gown and cape. The latter bears the dorje, the thunderbolt sceptre which is a mystical symbol of Tibetan Buddhism. Down the back hangs the Gyab-dar, a cloth which falls from head gear to ankle and is tucked in at the waist. The robe is said to resemble that worn by Lama Pal Dorje when he killed the evil king, and thus has a symbolic meaning, that of the victory Good over Evil.
A Thangka is an elaborately hand painted religious scroll in brilliant colours drawn on fabric. It is not a mere decorative piece but a powerful aid to tantric meditation, a visual depiction to steady the mind and aid its focus. The themes of the thangkas relate to the Buddha and his life, as well as the lives of the Bodhisattvas, the Taras, the great saints and Buddhist masters. They also depict mystical concepts like the Wheel of Life, The Mandalas and the Tashi Taggye, the eight auspicious signs of Vajrayana which includes the lotus, the conch shell and the Dharmachakra. The colours used have great symbolic power. The two primary colours, red and yellow, suggest the difference between fire and life, material and immaterial, emotional and intellectual; orange, which unites red and yellow, symbolizes knowledge of the highest spirituality. The complimentary colour of blue with its passivity is of very positive nature and is associated with depth, purity and infinity. Green represents the vegetable aspects. The violet combines the most active red with the most passive blue. Thangkas are carried out in elaborate processions during festivals like the Saga Dawa and Lossar.