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The sacred Lhamo’i Mang-cham performance in the Tashichhodzong courtyard © Sanga Dorji, NLAB

Lhamo’i Drubchen: The Vast Accomplishment of Palden Lhamo (Maha Kali)

Lhamo’i Drubchen, or colloquially Lhamo’i Dromche (with a corrupted form drubchen), is a grand religious ritual and mask dance dedicated to Palden Lhamo, the principal female guardian deity of Mahayana Buddhism. It is conducted in Thimphu Dzong (Thimphu Fortress) by Zhung Dratshang (Central Monastic Body) and is the most highlighted annual event that takes place before the monastic body leaves for the summer residence in Punakha Dzong.

Drubchen

The term drubchen means ‘vast accomplishment.’ An exceptional group practice of yogis or monks, it is led by an accomplished master practitioner who epitomizes the depth, power, and precision of Vajrayana in Buddhist traditions. It combines intense visualizations, mantra recitations, music, and dance to appease the deities,1Rigpa Shedra. 2017. “Drupchen.” Rigpa Shedra, Last modified 20 August 2017. http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Drupchen. which aid in accomplishing a complete awakening of body, speech, and mind to become authentic and beneficial sentient beings. Making the Mandala, tormas (sacrificial cakes), and tshok (sacred substances offering) and performing a sacred dance called cham are the principal drubchen components. Drubchen is believed to expel the negative world forces and help promote inner peace, community peace, and world peace. Thus, Guru Padmasambava said, “For someone engaged in a group drubchen, the benefits are the same as practicing alone in a three-year retreat.”2Dharma Talks. 2017. “Benefits of a Drubchen.” Dharma Talks, Last modified 1 June 2012. https://neozen888.wordpress.com/2012/06/01/benefits-of-a-drubchen/.

Lhamo

Lhamo refers to the general title for goddesses. But here, the title ties in with Skt. Mahā Kali, Kali Devi,or Shri Devi, who are believed to be the wrathful form of Goddess Skt. Lakshmi and Sarasvati in Hindu Vedas. In Buddhism, she is a principal female deity appearing in twenty-one forms, which is why she has many dissimilar titles, such as Lhamo Ré-ma-ti and Lhamo Du-sol (in the Kargyud Pa and Sakya sects), Mak-zor Gyal-mo (in the Ge-lug sect), Dorji Rab-ten Ma (in the Zha-lu tradition) and, Sid-pa’i Gyal-mo (in the Bon school in Tibet).3Himalayan Art. 2009. “Shri Devi: Palden Lhamo: Glorious Goddess.” Himalayan Art, Last modified 25 September 2009. https://www.himalayanart.org/news/post.cfm/shri-devi-palden-lhamo-glorious-goddess.

Lhamo normally appears on mural paintings and thang-ka (cloth scrolls) in deity shrines called Gön-khang. Her wrath is depicted through a dark-blue or an indigo complexion with one face, four or two hands holding wisdom tools, and being mounted on a mule galloping from a blazing fire and smoke. She wears human skull crown, ornamental human bones, and human and animal skins and is surrounded by cloud retinues.

Orgins of Lhamoi Drubchen

According to Bhutanese texts, the Lhamoi Drubchen is credited to Gyalsey (prince) Gana-pai aka Je (abbot) Kuenga Gyaltshen (1689–1713), who was believed to be the reincarnation of Gyalsey Jampal Dorji, the son of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (unifier of Bhutan).

He [Gyalsey Gana-pai aka Je Kuenga Gyaltshen] received a monastic education and further philosophical knowledge, empowerment, oral transmission, and instructions from highly accomplished spiritual masters who helped him to experienced extraordinary achievements of frequently visualizing tutelary deities and even mingling with them. After his installation as the successor to Gyalsey Jampal Dorji in Thimphu Dzong, it was believed that Lhamo Düd-sol Ma appeared in form of a maiden and exhibited the sacred dance accompanied by her retinues while in the state of deep contemplation. He penned down every sequence….The text became the mask dance guideline.4Sangay Dorji. (2013). Gzhung ‘bral dus chen nyal gso’i rnam bshad: A Guide to Official Holidays of Bhutan. 2nd Ed. Dzongkha Development Commission. Bhutan: Thimphu. Pg. 38-43.

He also realized it was the the protective deity’s prophecy for him to establish the drubchen in dedication to her. He thus taught the steps and acquired costumes, successfully founding the event between 1705 and 1709. The drubchen takes place over two weeks with an extensive performance ritual in the du-khang (assembly hall) and another performance for the public in the main Thimphu Tashichhodzong courtyard on the sixth day of the eighth month of the Bhutanese calendar.

The Performances

Different dances are performed during drubchen. One dance, which is called Nang-cham (the secret performance), is exclusively performed in the shrine with the performers wearing black-hat costumes while circumambulating the Mandala, and the other two—Lhamo Tso-mo’i ku-cham (a Palden Lhamo performance with her four principal retinues) and Lhamoi Mang-cham (a Palden Lhamo performance with all her retinues)—are showcased to the public.

The rituals and offerings in the drubchen are made to appease the goddess so practitioners can receive blessings and ward off evil spells, adversity, strife, famine, epidemics, thus making way for peace, tranquility, and happiness to prevail. According to folktales, spirits disguised as humans attend the sacred dance to receive blessings. The event awakens the Buddha-hood nature primordially residing within all beings, socializing and integrating with protective deities and living harmoniously in the human and spirit worlds. Thus, the day has been declared a government holiday in Bhutan.

Yeshi Lendhup, Librarian, National Library & Archives of Bhutan

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Rigpa Shedra. 2017. “Drupchen.” Rigpa Shedra, Last modified 20 August 2017. http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Drupchen.
2. Dharma Talks. 2017. “Benefits of a Drubchen.” Dharma Talks, Last modified 1 June 2012. https://neozen888.wordpress.com/2012/06/01/benefits-of-a-drubchen/.
3. Himalayan Art. 2009. “Shri Devi: Palden Lhamo: Glorious Goddess.” Himalayan Art, Last modified 25 September 2009. https://www.himalayanart.org/news/post.cfm/shri-devi-palden-lhamo-glorious-goddess.
4. Sangay Dorji. (2013). Gzhung ‘bral dus chen nyal gso’i rnam bshad: A Guide to Official Holidays of Bhutan. 2nd Ed. Dzongkha Development Commission. Bhutan: Thimphu. Pg. 38-43.