The Pacham dance (དཔའ་འཆམ་) is a common religious performance which is seen during festivals in Bhutan. It literally means the dance of the heroes and refers to the uninhibited and elegant display of enlightened spirit. In theory, cham dance generally constitutes the external gestures and movements, which are expression of inner enlightened energy. Pacham represents more specifically the expressions of such enlightened energy as embodied in the graceful movements and acts of the spiritual beings known as pawo (དཔའ་བོ་) or heroes and pamo (དཔའ་མོ་) or heroines. In this context, the term pawo refers to the male deities and the pamo to the female divinities or spiritual beings who are said to mostly live in celestial realms of the Buddhas. One has to remember that these terms, in a different context, also refer to the class of male and female shamans in Bhutan.
Bhutanese dance specialists claim that the Pacham dance was introduced by Pema Lingpa after witnessing such a dance in the Copper-coloured realm of Padmasambhava which he visited. While Pema Lingpa’s own biography clearly records his visionary journey to Zangdo Pelri or the Copper-coloured realm of Padmasambhava and also his experience of spiritual figures of pawo and pamo performing music constantly in the abode of Padmasambhava, we do not have any record of Pema Lingpa introducing the Pacham dance in Bhutan based on his vision of Zangdo Pelri.
It is quite likely that the concept of heroic dance by male and female spiritual beings and their representation in an artistic performance existed in Bhutan and the Himalayas by Pema Lingpa’s time in the 15th century. The description of Padmasambhava’s retinue as being made up of spiritual beings, some of whom are singing, dancing and playing musical instruments is a common feature in the rediscovered terma literature. For example, a similar dance called Zhengshi Pema is commonly performed in association with another terma ritual which deals with the invitation and reception of Padmasambhava and his retinue during ceremonies in Bhutan. Thus, the Pacham dance most likely evolved from the enactment of such musical performance by spiritual beings, and Pema Lingpa no doubt played an important role in propagating them in Bhutan. The description of musical performance in Zangdo Pelri is found also in the works of other Himalayan lamas but Pema Lingpa is perhaps the only Bhutanese to report it as first hand experience from his visionary journey to that place.
The Pacham dance is performed by men and there are no female dancers included although it is theoretically a dance of both the male and female spiritual beings. In most monasteries and dzongs, it is performed by monks although when it was introduced in big dzongs, the dance was performed by the lay courtiers. In the villages, it is the lay priests or village men who perform the dance after learning it for a few weeks before the festival. The dancers do not wear any mask but they wear, as a head gear, a diadem called ringa (རིགས་ལྔ་). The gear is a tiara made of cardboard or a similar material on which the Buddhas of the five families are drawn. It signifies the spiritual beings having the Buddhas of the five families (the Buddha, vajra, jewel, lotus, action) as their tutelary divinities. The tiara has dark hanging frills, which partially conceal the face of the dancer.
The dancers wear a silk jacket over which they wear the dorji gong (རྡོ་རྗེ་གོང་) the adamantine shoulder cover and the trab (ཀྲབ་) sash forming a cross over them. In the lower part, silk scarves of different colours are hung from a belt with the mentse designs covering the outside layer. They wear loose pink trousers until above the knees. They dance bare feet and hold a small whirling pellet drum called trangti (ཀྲང་ཀྲི་) in their right hand, which they play alternately with the drilbu (དྲིལ་བུ་) bell, which they hold in their left hand. The dance is regulated by the chief musician, who plays a pair of large boerol (བལ་རོལ་) cymbals off the dance stage.
The Pacham dance is generally performed as part of an important procession. Important people and objects are received with Pacham as part of the procession although not all choreographic steps are performed when the dance is performed as part of the procession. When Pacham is performed as an independent dance piece during festivals, the different choreographic chapters in circles or straight lines are performed. Those who perform Pacham are usually young men as it involves a great deal of vigorous and agile movements.
Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of numerous books and articles including The History of Bhutan.