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– History of Tsam in Mongolia




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P & C December 1998
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- last update 03-2016


Text in German


Religious Mask Dance "Tsam"

The ancient religious mask dance "Tsam" is one of the significant religious rituals reflecting Buddhist teaching through correct apostolic images and essence. "Tsam" mask dancing is included in the art form called "Doigar" depicting independent imagination as one of the 10 kinds of wisdom according to ancient Indian philosophy. It is a theatrical art performed by skilled dancers bearing the extemal appearance and characters of different apostles and devils, animals or real people. This ceremony requires magnificently ornamented costumes. The "Tsam" dance ceremony was first introduced into Mongolia in the 8th century when the famous Indian saint Lovon Badamjunai was invited to Mongolia to sanctify the construction of the first Tibetan temple Samya. From that time on the "Tsam", the ceremonious dance following the traditional teaching of Nyambdeyann was performed. From the 16th century on it has become popular in Dashlhumb temple, in Uigien Namjra and other places.

In the ritual of the Mongolian Tsam, Tantric and much older Shamanistic traditions of dance merged in a harmonious fashion. Mongolian Shamanism may have owed its great vitality and dynamism to the fact that it had already absorbed all kinds of Tantric elements when Buddhism first reached Mongolia. The Shamanistic influence, as it manifests itself in the Tsam, is therefore a multi-layered phenomenon, the different strata of which cannot always be clearly distinguished.
Their dancing is a "meditation in action", creating a sacred space with a particular mood or vibration, and is also an active prayer with a particular target. Tsam can als be seen as a "Shamanic" kind of exorcism or purification of a given place or time - better, a Buddhist "blessing" ("mystery plays" teaching profound Buddhist instruction on philosophy, meditation, and ethics) or energizing-event designed to uplift and make virtuous the audience's mind. Tsam dancers are seen to embody or "channel" the Divine beings - their created space is that of a Deity's presence in its own transcendent palace and grounds.

At the beginning of the 19th century a "Tsam" ceremony reflecting the history of Milbogd's Geser took place, and in 1811 the "Jahar Tsam" or "Tsam of the Erleg Nomun Khan" showing the taming of the aggressive Erlegs by the apostle Yamandag destroying their metallic citadels (in the monastery of Bogdo Gegen "Living Buddha"). In the "Khuree Tsam" or the "Tsam of the Erleg Nomun Khan", a total of 108 fancy dresses of 21 apostles including Congor, Namsrai, Combo, Ochirvani, Jamsran, Lkham, Damdintshoijoo was worn. This Tsam was staged as a big religious ceremony on the 9th day of the last summer month every year.

The scenery, opening, enaction, musical climax and outcome ot the Tsam dance reflect the character of the participants in different ways: cruel, calm, or humorous. There are numerous personages from a variety of popular stories as well as different animals showing positive and negative influences. Additionally, more than 500 monasteries of the 700 Mongolian monasteries have had their own local variations of the ceremony. To depict positive and negative influences, animals such as Khangard / Garuda (the lord of flies), Sendom the lion (the king of wild animal, stag) - the beauty amongst animals, crow - the soothsayer and different kind of domestic animals were involved. Futhermore the colour and decorations of costumes and other means were used during this ceremony as clues to the personality of the characters depicted.

There were two kinds of Tsam dancers. The first, "Mil Bogdo", died out, but the fancy-dress Tsam remained until those days. This kind of Tsam is called the "Geser" or "Jahar Tsam" or "Erleg Nomun Khan Tsam". The "Geser Tsam" was famous for its elaborately rich decorations, famed in this above all the monasteries, such as the Dalai Choinhor and Lord Sansraidorj. The "Tsam of Erleg Nomun Khan" or "Jahar Tsam" was the most popular Tsam in Mongolia. The person who choreographed the first Tsam dance after the establishment of the Erdene-Zuu monastery was a Mongolian monk. Folk art and native wishdom played an important role in the production of the one-off specific religous dance "Tsam".

Song and dance, music, decorative arts and other kinds of folk art are included in the Tsam ceremony. In spite of the fact that the Mongolian Tsam dance was based on Indian folk art and was popularised in Tibet, it was highly developed in Mongolia. For this reason the Mongolian-Tibetan Tsam dance, the "Geser and Nomun Khan Tsam" and "Mil Bogdo's talking Tsam", will preserve their position in the history of world theatre and arts.

   
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