Torgya Festival at Tawang Monastery: A Cham Dance Extravaganza

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Torgya Festival? 

Not sure if I’d heard of it before and even if I had, probably I did not pay attention. However, Sange, our host from HolidayScout, said that this was the highlight of the trip, which was organized in the bitterly cold January just to coincide with the festival. While I was not sure of the exact purpose of Torgya, I was told that there will be traditional masked dance, which are common in the Himalayas. Most people associate them with Tibetan Buddhism but I am aware of such rituals in non-Buddhist areas too such as the Fagli festivities in Kullu region. There may be a common origin for all these traditions but I am not really the right person to answer that.

Tawang Monastery Courtyard, the venue of Torgya… on the previous day when it was sunny.
Young monks playing at the courtyard.

So, coming back to Tawang Torgya, we woke up at around 5 AM at our homestay, and realized that it will be a gloomy day. It was almost dark (The previous day was sunny and warm) and it was occasionally snowing. The rituals start early but we first went to the settlement of the Brokpas. I have already described this part in my post on the Arunachali Brokpas. The reason for this hasty visit was that it was our last day in Tawang and we had to leave by noon after attending the festival for a few hours while we also did not want to skip the Brokpa experience. The sad part here was that were actually planning to spend a whole day at Torgya. However, due to some calculations, it was postponed by a day and so, we just had a couple of hours for the same.

Visitors arriving for the festival.

Anyway, at around 7 AM, we were near the Tawang Monastery, the venue of Torgya. Locals had started to arrive already. It is one of the biggest events here, a religious ceremony as well as a festival. So, a lot of makeshift stalls had opened up along the path leading up to the monastery courtyard. However, I noticed that even these stalls follow a certain hierarchy. The people occupying the area outside the fortified walls, including the road leading to the walls, are outsiders, mainstream traders, who are the modern additions, selling T-shirts, plastic goods, sweets, and snacks (I even saw a hot dog stall being run by some guy from Assam). However, they are not allowed to overwhelm the place. They remain outside the walls. The ones sitting inside the walls and nearer to the courtyard are locals selling traditional stuff including Buddhist memorabilia, local gemstones, and some exotic products from the Himalayas known only to them.

Look at the makeshift stores en-route for interesting things…
Heart says it is shilajit. They said some local name. Not sure!

We glanced through them quickly and eventually reached the main courtyard of the monastery. There were a lot of people but probably due to the extreme weather, there was still enough space for us. Some viewers had formed a circle and the dance performances were going on within the circle. The dancers, from what I learned, were monks wearing various masks as per the story. Some were bare-bodied and some were even barefoot even in the sub-zero environments.

Only if the sky was blue!

 

Some people find better vantage points.
Attentive audience…
Some people had better seats.

Every performance lasted 15-20 mins and in 3 days, 21 different dances are performed. Later on, I managed to get a small booklet published by the local tourism authorities, that lists each of these dances. From my understanding, we missed the 1st one early morning but managed to see number 2. 3 and 4, before we had to reluctantly leave. Anyway, I am providing the list of all 21 dances as mentioned in that booklet. My knowledge is limited, so I am not writing too much about them. Just enjoy the photographs.

 

Different Types of Dances at Torgya

Delightfully Macabre

DAY 1

1. Phangcham: It is also called the pig dance where monks wear pig masks to neutralize the dance courtyard of the monastery before other ceremonies.

2. Zamcham: The monks wear wrathful masks and are often bare-bodied. dance vigorously to safeguard the venue.

3. Graicham: All mon performers participate after Jargupa ceremonial rites that lasted for 3 days. The twelve participants representing Dorje Jigle’s assistant Shenji Dowo, carrying daggers to destroy evil spirits that harm living beings.

4. Lokcham: It is a light dance of rejoicing after destroying evil spirits.

5. Jacham: It is the bird dance depicting the concept of karma. It basically says that all animals including domesticated ones also have the right to live freely. It promotes non-violence and harmony.

6. Zhanakcham: This dance depicts monks dressed in tantric costumes as per Tantrayan Buddhism (Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism) to serve mankind and protect the animal kingdom. It is also done to welcome the founder of Gelugpa sect, to which this monastery belongs.

7. Arpo: It is a warrior dance in uniform to support the lifting of Torgya effigy made for this festival.

Charging towards you

DAY 2

8. Gonying Cham: This is performed in front of heavenly angels mentioned in Tantrayana Buddhism. At present, the angles actually represent Monpa girls of this region.

9. Tsog Gyan: It is the dance of emperor of Guhaya Samaj’s chief god Gunapati (Sounds like there is a connection to Ganapati/Ganesha) and his twelve assistants marching to uproot evil spirits.

10. Durdag: It is the dance of Durthoe Dagmo, the female dharma protector in Tantric Buddhism. It shows how she tirelessly protects all beings and destroy those who seek to create disturbances.

11. Shan: It is the Shinje Yamati dance. Yamati is a protector of Mons who punishes demons with his supernatural power. as they are threats to Buddhism in the mon region.

12. Le Ngan: It depicts events in hell, how sinners are punished there. It is accompanied by Dud dance and shows that negativity doesn’t vanish completely but not allowed to come up to earth.

13. Dikchung: It tells the story of Jigten Jongkhar village where a vulgar, cruel man named Dikchung lived. He eventually goes to hell.

14. Khimdak Palkyi: Khimdal Palkyi is worshipped as a helpful, pious devotee who builds roads and bridges and stupas. It basically shows the virtue of good deeds and how that can help you achieve Nirvana.

15. Ngag Cham: This dance actually depicts how the present form of Buddhism reached Tibet from India. It shows the story of Atisha, the great Buddhist scholar who went to Tibet from Bengal.

A closer look

DAY 3

16. Dung Cham: Twelve monks dress as twelve zodiac signs in this dance. They show how gods and goddesses have eebn kind to humans and pray for everyone’s health.

17. Shawa Cham: It is also called a couple deer dance. Actually, through the dance, it tells the entire history of Monpa people.

18. Gayi Cham: This dance shows how disputes and quarrels settled here in ancient times in this region.

19. Durdag: It is the same dance as number 10 repeated but with some additions. You get skeleton dancers to join from all four directions in an aggressive mood to destroy evil spirits.

20. Palden Lhamo Cham: Here the performers depict the guard of Palden Lhamo (Shri Devi). Her servants wear crocodile and lion masks and pray to her to protect the monastery and the people.

21. Gelong Cham: Here, the performers wear masks depicting twelve zodiac signs to show the circle of human life. They seek to enlarge the periods of the Buddhist regime and seek prosperity for the people.

Kinda Guy Fawksian
Sons of Harpy?
Deformed face probably depicts an evil spirit

 

Challenging weather made it really difficult to photograph
Masked performers coming out of the changing room
A moment of levity
Fearsome performance
You get a panoramic view from nearby buildings
Eclectic choice of footwear…

Attending Tawang Torgya: A Quick Guide

What exactly is Torgya?

Torgya, also called Tawang Torgya, is a major monastic festival in Tawang, that has been organized here since the inception of the Tawang Monastery in the 16th century. It is generally done for the peace and prosperity of people and to ward off evil spirits. An image of the effigy, also called Torgya or Zshor, is made with barley and ghee and the image is later burned during the celebrations.

Where does it take place?

The main rituals and performances take place at the main courtyard of the Tawang Monastery.

What exactly happens at Torgya?

At Torgya, you get to witness an array of interesting rituals that eventually culminates in as many as 21 different mask dances (cham). These performances are done by monks of the monastery and retell various Buddhist mythological stories. Such dances are popular in the Tibetan cultural sphere and especially in neighboring Bhutan, one can see similar performances.

When does it take place?

Torgya happens every January for three days. Dates depend on the Buddhist calendar, so you need to ask some locals before you go to be sure about the dates.

How to attend?

Anyone can attend the festival. Just reach Tawang during the festival dates and go to the monastery. Just remember that it will be the peak of winter and it might be snowing.

What else to keep in mind?

It is a very popular festival. So, it gets crowded. Go early to get good spots to watch the dance. Also, have a look at the people selling various things on the pathway leading to the courtyard. A lot of unique thinsg can be found there.


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Jitaditya Narzary

Is a traveller disillusioned by the familiar and fascinated with the unknown... and of course the founder of this blog.

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