Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Performer in an owl mask © Yannick Jooris

Drametse Ngacham: The Sacred Mask Dance

Introduction

The Dance of the Drums of Drametse,1Name of a community in Eastern Bhutan from where the dance got its name. also known as Drametse Ngacham, is a popular mask dance performed throughout Bhutan. It was first introduced in the sixteenth century by Khedup Kuenga Wangpo, son of Terton Pema Lingpa. 2Pema Lingpa is a highly accomplished spiritual figure in history who is also regarded as one of the five great treasure revealers of the Nyingmapa religious school in the Buddhist world viz. 1. Nyangrel Nima Ozer (twelfth century), 2. Guru Choewang (thirteenth century) 3. Dorje Lingpa (fourteenth to fifteenth centuries) 4. Pema Lingpa (fifteenth to sixteenth centuries) 5. Jamyang Khentse Wangpo (nineteenth century). It is a unique Bhutanese cultural expression and reflects the cultural and spiritual identity of Bhutan.3Though Bhutan shares many religious and spiritual similarities with the Himalayan Buddhist world, the Drametse Ngacham has remained purely a unique Bhutanese expression over the centuries. It has not travelled beyond its boundary. Many other Buddhist spiritual dances are transnational in nature. Until the late nineteenth century, the dance remained confined to the Drametse community under the patronage of Thegchog Ogyen Namdroel Choeling.4The seat of Drametse Ngacham lineage holders, where the dance was first introduced. Later it was introduced to other parts of the country. Today, Drametse Nagacham is performed in almost all local festivals and celebrations. In November 2005, at the Third Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, UNESCO proclaimed it a Masterpiece.

The Symbolic Meaning of the Dance

Drametse Ngacham is believed to be originally a celestial dance performed in the presence of Guru Rinpoche,5The great Indian saint and scholar who introduced Buddhism to the Himalayan world in the eighth century. in the pure land of the copper-clad mountains.6It is believed to be the abode of Guru Rinpoche, a pure land or a paradise. The dancers wear different masks of real and mythical animal faces. The whole dance is registered as a meditative art form in which the dancers visualize the outer world as pure land and the inner world as a manifestation of peaceful and wrathful deities,7The sacred outlook of pure vision, where the outer world (physical world) is viewed as pure land and all sentient beings (inner world) are viewed as enlightened entities. a concept central to Mahayana Tantric Buddhism. Peaceful deities are visualized with softer and gentler choreography whereas intense and quicker choreography reflects the gestures of wrathful deities. This explains why Drametse Ngagcham is more than entertainment. It is considered a didactic way to impart the sacred and esoteric teachings of the Mahayana Tantric Buddhism in the form of dance to the commoners. It has a strong philosophical content reflecting Buddhist concepts of Samsara and enlightenment. According to Buddhism, enlightenment is the realization of the innate Buddha nature that is predominantly present in every sentient being.

Conclusion

Drametse Ngacham has received tremendous support and patronage from the chain of lineage holders of Thegchog Ogyen Namdroel Choeling over the centuries. It has been passed down by an unbroken chain of lineage holders until the present day. It is believed that only the fortunate get the opportunity to learn the art of Drametse Ngacham and to perform it. Bhutanese believe that one has to see Drametse Ngacham at least once in one’s life to be able to recognize the deities in the bardo8Intermediate state, a concept in Buddhism, which is a mental state between death and the next life. through present life acquaintance with the dance.

References

Do rje, Srid thel, Dasho, dPal ldan ‘brug pa’I ‘cham gyi ‘byung khungs dang le’u bshad, Thimphu, 2000 pp. 126. (English version, Dasho Si thel Dor je, The Origin and Descriptions of Dances of Bhutan, 2001).

Thinley, Kuenzang, Drupai Chamgyi Godoen Drelshed Dang Drametsei Ngacham gyi Migrim Dordue, Nyerkhoi Bumzang (The Descriptions of Bhutanese Dances and The Visualization Procedures of Drametse Ngacham), 2000.

Nagphel, Dasho Champoen Chichap, Dances of Bhutan and Its Origin, Government of Bhutan, Kalimpong, 1971.

Gyatso, Lungtaen, The Dance of the Drums from Drametse, National Candidature for UNESCO Proclamation, 2004.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Name of a community in Eastern Bhutan from where the dance got its name.
2. Pema Lingpa is a highly accomplished spiritual figure in history who is also regarded as one of the five great treasure revealers of the Nyingmapa religious school in the Buddhist world viz. 1. Nyangrel Nima Ozer (twelfth century), 2. Guru Choewang (thirteenth century) 3. Dorje Lingpa (fourteenth to fifteenth centuries) 4. Pema Lingpa (fifteenth to sixteenth centuries) 5. Jamyang Khentse Wangpo (nineteenth century).
3. Though Bhutan shares many religious and spiritual similarities with the Himalayan Buddhist world, the Drametse Ngacham has remained purely a unique Bhutanese expression over the centuries. It has not travelled beyond its boundary. Many other Buddhist spiritual dances are transnational in nature.
4. The seat of Drametse Ngacham lineage holders, where the dance was first introduced.
5. The great Indian saint and scholar who introduced Buddhism to the Himalayan world in the eighth century.
6. It is believed to be the abode of Guru Rinpoche, a pure land or a paradise.
7. The sacred outlook of pure vision, where the outer world (physical world) is viewed as pure land and all sentient beings (inner world) are viewed as enlightened entities.
8. Intermediate state, a concept in Buddhism, which is a mental state between death and the next life.