Drametse Ngacham (དགྲ་མེད་རྩེ་རྔ་འཆམ་) is among the most common sacred cham performed in Bhutan, and forms a major part of most tshechu festivals. Its retinue of sixteen dancers, wearing animal head masks and dressed in silk costumes, each hold a drum as perform the dance, which lasts between two to three hours.
Origin and history
The Drametse Ngacham, as the name suggests, is said to have originated in Drametse, a religious centre in eastern Bhutan. Choten Zangmo, about whom we know very little or almost nothing with certainty, is said to have established the first centre in the area. She is said to have been a daughter or granddaughter of Bhutan’s foremost saint and treasure discoverer Pema Lingpa (1450-1521) although we find nothing mentioned about her in surviving texts available to us. The site, formerly known as Brahmi, is said to have been renamed as Drametse (དགྲ་མེད་རྩེ་) or Spot without Enemy, because she settled there to pursue her religious life peacefully without the enemy (དགྲ་) of distraction. She was said to have been pursued as a bride by the ruler of her native Chokhor valley; she made her journey to Drametse to escape from him.
Her brother, Kuenga Gyaltshen alias Kuenga Nyingpo, about whom we also know almost nothing, lived with her. Some accounts identify this person as Kuenga Wangpo, one of Pema Lingpa’s sons. As a practitioner of Buddhist meditation, Kuenga Gyaltshen had several visions and spiritual experiences. During one of his dream states, he is said to have visited Guru Rinpoche’s Copper-coloured Palace (ཟངས་མདོག་དཔལ་རི་), where he witnessed a drum dance performed by celestial spiritual beings. When he returned to his senses, he vividly remembered the external costumes, choreography, and movements as well as the internal process of visualization that accompanied them. Fully aware of the spiritual significance and the liberative power of the dance, he wrote down the details of the performance and enacted the dance in Drametse, thus giving it the name, Drum Dance of Drametse. Since then, it was performed at the site as a dance of immense religious significance. In the 19th century, the Drametse establishment saw the birth of several important incarnations including two consecutive reincarnations of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651), the founder of Bhutan. Zhabdrung Jigme Chogyal (1862-1905), one of the Zhabdrung incarnations from Drametse, is said to have taken the dance out of Drametse for the first time and introduced it at Talo Sangngag Choling. In the middle of the 20th century, the dance was further introduced at the Paro and Trongsa Dzongs, and Gangteng and Ura temples. By the end of the 20th century, the Drametse Ngacham was performed in most state festivals and also in many religious centres. The Royal Academy of Performing Arts began performing it during state events. In the process, the manner in which it was performed also started to vary from place to place and today we see two main versions of Drametse Ngacham: one that strictly follows the original structure and style from Drametse and the other, which has seen some modifications and changes.
The Characters and Costumes
Although the number of dancers varies from place to place depending on trained participants, the original dance in Drametse is performed by sixteen dancers. The sixteen wear masks of the following real and mythical animals: snow lion (སེང་གེ་), garuda bird (ཁྱུང་), dragon (འབྲུག་), yak (གཡག་), leopard (གཟིག་), goat (ར་), snake (སྦྲུལ་), raven (བྱ་རོག་), horse (རྟ་), owl (འུག་པ་), stag (ཤ་ཝ་), pig (ཕག་པ་), dog (ཁྱི་), bear (དོམ་), tiger (སྟག་) and ox (གླང་). Although the number is not fixed and most festivals will have a number between ten and sixteen depending on availability of competent dancers, the original version in Drametse is said to have sixteen characters. Older people often count twelve to match the twelve animal signs in Bhutanese astrological-divination tradition.
The masks represent the non-human tantric divinities as Kuenga Gyaltshen visualized them in the Copper-coloured Palace. Most of them, like the lead snow lion, are found in the lists of divinities in the tantric teachings, such as those dealing with the hundred kinds of peaceful and wrathful deities (ཞི་ཁྲོ་དམ་པ་རིགས་བརྒྱ་) and the bardo intermediate state. They overlap with the four door guardians (སྒོ་མ་བཞི་), eight thramen deities (ཕྲ་མན་བརྒྱད་), and the twenty-eight powerful divinities (དབང་ཕྱུག་ཉེར་བརྒྱད་) which are listed among fifty-eight wrathful deities. They represent the different forms of enlightened energy that are both latent in a person and are manifest during spiritual and existential visions such as those during the bardo state. The animal and bird faces also have the purpose of disrupting our prejudice towards seeing enlightened beings only in the form of human or celestial figures.
The Drametse Ngacham is not merely an artistic and entertaining performance. When done properly, it is a rigorous spiritual practice combining bodily movements, musical sounds and mental visualization. The dancers ideally will be experienced in deity meditation and genuine practitioners of Vajrayāna Buddhism. They should have at least received the required authorization and initiation to do the practice and be familiar with the process of deity visualization. They have to often observe a set of religious disciplines before the dance performance. The dance was traditionally performed by lay priests with the necessary religious competency, although due to the declining number of lay priests and introduction of schools for performing arts, more and more ordinary men perform the Drametse Ngacham without necessarily understanding its significance and meeting the above criterion to be a dancer. For the spectators, the Drametse Ngacham is presented as an artistic piece, which has the potential to bring about liberation by seeing it (མཐོང་གྲོལ་) by awakening the divine potential within sentient beings as they encounter the divinities in dancing form.
The Dance Procedures
The dance has twenty-one chapters including chapters dedicated to entrance and exit, each of them with different steps, movements, and visualisations. Along with the fixed expressions of the masks, the movements are supposed to show the nine different moods (ཉམས་དགུ་) of the divinities. The movements are performed twice once in a slow peaceful manner and once in an active violent manner. The dancers are supposed to visualize certain forms and activities of divinities during each chapter. Before the dancers enter the ground for their performance, a brief ritual of supplication is also performed. In Drametse, a unique dance of the clown character known as the Old Man of Merak (མེ་རག་རྒད་པོ་) is performed before the drum dance. As Drametse Ngacham is one of the longest and most vigorous mask dances in Bhutan, the dancers also take short pauses and stand still. During such recesses, the clowns normally collect tips and tokens of appreciation for dancers called dar (དར་). If the token is a scarf, it is tied diagonally across the chest of the recipient dancer(s) and when offered cash, it is collected in a common pile that is divided equally among the dancers later. Dancers are also offered simple refreshments during the recesses.
Each dancer is dressed in a silk jacket and a dorji gong (རྡོ་རྗེ་གོང་) shoulder cover with the trab (ཀྲབ་) sash forming a cross over them. Below, they wear differently coloured silk scarves hung from a belt with mentse designs covering the outside layer. They wear loose trousers that stop above the knees. They dance barefoot and hold a cham drum in their left hands and the curvy drumstick in their right. Often, a small piece of silk scarf is attached to the drum as a decoration. In all other dancers, the lead dancer or champoen (འཆམ་དཔོན་) is the first dancer but in Drametse Ngacham, the lead dancer is the last to enter or exit and holds a pair of small cymbals. He uses the cymbals to control the rhythm, speed, and the flow of the dance.
The dancers are accompanied and regulated by an orchestra of large cymbals, large drums, and long horns. The music from the orchestra controls the speed and the rhythm of the dance, and is in coordination with the small cymbals of the lead dancer. When the dancers enter the ground, they are led by a long procession, including other monastic musicians who play conch shells, oboes, a procession drum, a bell, and an incense censer. Large horns are also blown to herald the entrance of the dancers from the temple and in the procession. When the dancers perform the concluding chapter to exit the ground, oboes are again played to herald the end of the dance. Men normally help the dancers take off the masks as soon as they finish the long performance and are quickly treated to refreshment and food.
The Drametse Ngacham, considered a great cham (འཆམ་ཆེན་), is one of the finest and most rigorous creations of Bhutan. Both for its artistic value as a dance and for its spiritual value as a didactic medium of religious teachings, it is a highly significant and profound intangible cultural heritage of Bhutan. It combines the human social and artistic elements of life with the divine ideals of enlightenment. Due to its worldly, spiritual and artistic value, Drametse Ngacham has been labeled a “Masterpiece of the Intangible Heritage” at the Third Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in Paris in November 2005.