Chaam: The Ritualistic Masked Dance from Sikkim

Chaam: The Ritualistic Masked Dance from Sikkim
A chaam performer in an elaborately designed mask and costume, Photo Credit: Soumitra Pendse/Shutterstock.com
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Do pack in a chaam or a masked dance festival in your Sikkim itinerary; a photographer’s delight

Uttara Gangopadhyay
May 16 , 2021
07 Min Read

One of the most colourful events organised by monasteries in Sikkim are the ‘chaam’ or the ritualistic masked dances. These are usually organised as part of a bigger festival and performed by the monks of the Tibetan Buddhism order. The theme can range from appeasement of the gods to tales from the life of the divine characters. Wearing elaborate masks and colourful costumes, the performers represent various characters, broadly divided into good and bad, the divine and the devil. The dancers engage in elaborate movements to the accompaniment of traditional musical instruments, including trumpets, drums and cymbals. The chaam dances are known to bring good luck to the viewers too.

 
 
 
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Held in the courtyard of the scenic monastery complexes, with a gaily dressed crowd in attendance, the chaams are a photographers’ delight. But do remember, you have to arrive early to get a vantage position. Also consult the local people about the characters and the masks worn by them because every figure has a unique mask.

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(Note: The monastic festivals usually follow the traditional Tibetan calendar and hence dates vary from year to year. Consult the Sikkim Tourism office for the exact dates.) 

Drag-dmar Chaam
Pemayangtse monastery in west Sikkim is known for its masked dance held to mark the end of Losar (Tibetan New Year) festivities. Lamas from the monastery dress up in colourful costumes to represent Mahakal and Guru Drag-dmar. Enchey monastery in Gangtok is also known to hold this festival.

Gutor Chaam
During New Year, according to Sikkimese and Tibetan customs, it is time to invite the good energy home. Hence, it is necessary to drive away the bad energy by cleaning the house (which is known as ‘gutor’). The Nygma monasteries such as Enchey, Labrang, old Rumtek, etc. organise masked dances to observe the Nyignma Gutor Chaam.

A masked dance in progress at the Rumtek monastery

Kagyed Chaam
One of the most popular chaams of Sikkim, it attracts a lot of tourists too. It symbolises the victory of good over evil leading to peace and prosperity. Also known as the Black Hat dance, performances include dramatization of stories from Buddhist mythologies. Monks dress up in elaborate costumes, masks, carry accessories such as swords, and dance to a heady rhythm of traditional music. Some of the monasteries known for their Kagyed Chaam are Lingdum (Ranka), old Rumtek, Enchey, Ralang, Tashiding, Pemayangtse and Phodong. It is usually held in December. The celebrations attract a lot of devotees because the chaam is also said to bring good luck to the viewers.

 
 
 
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Pangtoed Chaam
This is performed during the Pang Lhabsol festival, organised in honour of the state’s guardian deity Mt Kanchendzonga. Often seen as a warrior dance, it is said that the third Chogyal (ruler) of Sikkim, Chagdor Namgyal introduced this dance form.

 
 
 
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Sangey Chaam
Observed as an annual event by the monasteries in Sikkim, the dance performance of the Sangey Chaam takes place on the last day of the festival. The performers wear traditional Sikkimese dress. Some allow onlookers to join too.

 
 
 
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Singhi Chham
According to Sikkim’s religious history, Guru Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) designated Mt Kanchendzonga as the guardian deity of the state. While the main range is known as the Five Treasures, the associated peaks are said to symbolise the fierce snow lion (‘singhi’). As one who brings good luck, the lion is highly revered by the people. The Singhi Chaam is an enactment of the good luck that the animal brings to the people.

Yak Chham
In the remote areas of the Himalayan mountains, the yak is a man’s best friend, especially during the harsh winter. It provides them with food, clothes and material for making clothes and also serves as a mode of transport. In due course, the herdsmen built a dramatic narrative around the animal. The dancers wear costume and masks to resemble the yak and perform to songs and instrumental music.


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