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Buddhist Dance in Bhutan

Mask, 1900–1930

Mask, 19001930. Bhutan. Wood. Gift of Ms. Jane R. Brady, 1995.31.

The kingdom of Bhutan is famous for its masked dances, which take place all over the country during important festivals.  Each temple owns a set of masks; these masks are hung high up on the walls when they are not being used.  The presence of the third eye, flaming eyebrows, and fangs identify these masks as those belonging to attendants of wrathful deities.  Typical of the masks of Bhutan, they are carved from soft wood.

Human mask

Human mask, 18001900. Probably India. Wood. Gift of Georgia Sales, F2001.63.2.

This mask probably came from the Monpa area of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, bordering Bhutan. The Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan is famous for its masked dances, which take place all over the country during important religious festivals. Each temple owns a set of masks, which are hung high on the walls when not in use. Festivals are happy occasions during which families wear their best clothing, bring picnic food, and enjoy the mask dancing. The Bhutanese masked dancers, who are especially known for their high leaps, are accompanied by the music of cymbals and drums.

The Buddhist guardian Gonpo

The Buddhist guardian Gonpo, by Lama Pema Tenzin (Bhutanese, born 1964), 2003. Thangka; Gold and colors on cotton. Acquisition made possible by Tibetan Study Group, 2004.29.

A form of the guardian Mahakala, Gonpo is worshiped by the Nyingma Order, one of the two popular traditions of Buddhism in Bhutan. Painted in gold against a black background, this work is of a type made to hang in a special temple room dedicated to wrathful protective deities and local guardians.

Mask, 1900–1930
Human mask
The Buddhist guardian Gonpo

Sacred Dance
Cham is the sacred dance of Vajrayana Buddhism. Performed throughout Bhutan, it is usually presented in festivals featuring several days of dancing. Even the smallest village has a set of Cham dance masks. These dances have been passed down in Bhutan for hundreds of years. They are created by advanced Buddhist masters, and according to tradition are often transmitted to these masters through mystical visions.

Vajrayana Buddhism
The Vajrayana, or Tantric, branch of Buddhism was established in the Himalayas by the 700s. Vajrayana rituals involved meditation on and recitation of sacred sounds (mantras), practice of sacred hand gestures (mudras), and visualization of higher deities. This branch introduced into Buddhist practice the mandala, or mystical diagram of both human consciousness and the spiritual universe. Art has always played a key role in Vajrayana Buddhist practice.

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