The Gyalwang Karmapa is Chief Guest at the Bhutanese Cham

Druk Ngawang Thubten Chokling Monastery, Bodhgaya
14 January, 2015

Directly behind Tergar Monastery, where HH Karmapa resides in Bodhgaya, is the monastery of the Shabdrung of Bhutan. The present Shabdrung Yangsi is eleven years old and lives in Bhutan. His parents, however, have travelled here with their second child, a boy of five. A monastery without a resident rinpoche lacks magnetising power and thus the place looks rather forlorn. But for three days of the year, during the annual Guru Rinpoche festival, it comes alive with the sound of traffic on the dusty pot-holed road that leads through a poor Indian village to the main gate. The Bhutanese arrive in traditional dress, crammed into cars, motor rickshaws and the new environmentally-friendly electric trolleys. The prayer flags fly, and the golden canopy comes out, transforming the temple entrance into a VIP seating area. To the right is a throne that awaits the arrival of the 17th Karmapa, who has been a regular guest here since he started coming to the Monlam.

The Bhutanese cham is significantly different from the Tibetan, originating as it did  with the visions of  Jampal Dorje, the son of the founder of Bhutan, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, in the 17th century. The dancers have more flexibility, their movements are lithe and somehow contemporary, even feminine in style.

Devotees line both sides of the long playing field leading to the monastery holding white offering scarves: Bhutanese, Europeans and a significant number of Malaysians and Taiwanese. A procession greets the Karmapa's black car at exactly 10 o'clock.  Masked dancers sway, while jesters cavort, and monks in dark orange robes blow horns and gyalins.  It just happens that the first glimmer of sun melts the fog at precisely the same time as the Karmapa enters the temple. Once inside there are three enormous statues: the Buddha, Guru Rinpoche and the first Shabdrung of Bhutan. He lights a butter lamp, chants a Mahakala prayer and blesses a new mask of Yamantaka  before he takes his customary seat on the throne outside. The Khenpo, Tshokey Dorje sits beneath him talking to His Ho>liness almost continuously. As they talk, three clowns make floppy prostrations to the Karmapa, in jest. Another poses for a photo with him. The idea is to distract the crowd while the dancers prepare.

It is the second day of the dance called Dungam, the dance of the wrathful deities of Lama Gongdu, a treasure cycle discovered by terton Sangye Lingpa (1314-1396).  Four dancers appear in the form of deer wearing stag masks with antlers to subdue all the evil spirits who try to destroy the dharma.  The next dance is performed by the durda , the cremation ground protectors, wearing skull masks.  They catch the spirits of the dharma obstructors and put them into a black triangular spirit trap. In the final act they will take out their phurbas to liberate the spirits from evil karma.  In between here is a shift to a dakini dance, in which the movements of the dancers are flexible like swans, flowing from one graceful step to the next. It is in an elegant, well-rehearsed, confident performance.

On the balcony of the monastery, where another scene is being enacted, the Khenpo brings out a tray with some objects on it, among them a phurba used to destroy obstacles. The Karmapa blesses it. Soon afterwards at midday, the Karmapa stands up to depart while his devotees flock in singular pursuit. The Guru Rinpoche dancers barely miss a beat.

Sonam Dorje, the head monk confides: ''We rejoice that His Holiness comes here every year to bless our Tsechu.   His time is very precious, yet he sacrifices it and sits here for two hours. We would like to thank His Holiness for guiding and taking care of us. His Holiness Karmapa is the  only one who comes here to visit us.''

2015.1.14 Gyalwang Karmapa Chief Guest at Bhutanese Cham Dances 法王噶瑪巴出席不丹金剛舞


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