Polychromed papier-mâché mask, gilt-bronze
ear pendants; late 19th-early 20th century
Chojin Lama Temple Museum, Ulaan Baatar
This mask was worn by a lama in the role of Protector of
the Law (Dharmapàla). The menacing quality of the
Dharmapàla was given additional emphasis by attaching
a silk appliqué demonís mask to the back of the mask.
The spectator would thus always be confronted by a threatening
A Tsam ceremony was held at the
beginning of the year to exorcise evil. It consisted of a series
of masked dances and often had a narrative content. Tsam (in Tibetan,
Cham) means masked dance, and local variations of the festival
were once practiced in Tibet, Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, China
and Mongolia, but only in Ladakh and Bhutan and at a few remote,
inaccessible monasteries has it been protected from destructive
politics and the impact of Western civilization. In Tibet, Mongolia,
Transbaikalia, and China the festival either fell victim to the
ruthless Stalinist suppression of Buddhism in the 1930s, or more
recently to the vandalism unleashed by the Chinese Cultural Revolution
of Mao Zedong. Today in Mongolia efforts are being made to revive
the tradition, with elderly monks who survived persecution teaching
young monks the rituals and choreography of Tsam.
While the use of grotesque masks in the Tsam dances creates an
impression of going back to high antiquity, the festival is in
fact a relatively recent tradition. Among the southern Mongol
tribes, the annual dance seems to have been adopted during the
second half of the eighteenth century. At the capital of Urga
(near present-day Ulan Baatar) it is said that these dances were
first performed in the monastery of Bogdo Gegen ("Living
Buddha") in 1811.
A variety of sources allows us to reconstruct the outlines of
the Tsam in Mongolia. This is of special interest because this
type of sacral performance attained during its brief life span
in this country a level that was never equaled in any other. Tsam
masks of Mongolian production, for example, are exceptionally
large and have an artistic expressiveness only rarely matched
in other countries.
Although Tibetan and Mongolian manuals exist which detail the
iconography and outline the choreography of the Tsam, eyewitness
accounts of early Western travelers imply that the dances actually
differed in many ways from the manuals. Indeed, it is these accounts,
together with photographs and even a few early films, which allow
us to gain an impression of the character of the Tsam festival
and the sequence of its dances. A collection of undated glass
negatives of photographs taken during the Tsam festival in Ulaan
Baatar by an unknown photographer and preserved in the National
Archives of Mongolia provides an important source of information.
Kahn and his sons at the Tsam festival in Ulaan Baatar (before
A rare collection in the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology
and Ethnography in St. Petersberg of polychromed wooden figurines
representing the different roles in the festival enable us to
reconstruct the actual use of the impressive masks and colorful
costumes. In addition to the masks, a very small number of large
tangka paintings, displayed on tall masts during the festival,
as well as some bronze sculptures, and ritual implements were
saved from destruction during the religion repression of the Soviet
regime and later Chinese Communist regime. They constitute the
few remaining artifacts of Tsam rituals. Most of them now belong
to collections of the national museums of Mongolia and many are
being shown abroad for the first time in this exhibition.
two Citipati patrol the perimeter of the Tsam square in Ulaan
Baatar (before 1937).
In the rituals of the Mongolian Tsam festival, tantric and much
older shamanistic traditions of dance merged in 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 festival, is therefore
a multi-layered phenomenon, the different strata of which cannot
always be clearly distinguished.
In Urga, the Tsam festival was held in an open space in which
seven concentric circles were drawn in chalk inside a clearly
marked square. In the center of these circles, an open tent or
canopy was erected in which was installed the zor, a pyramid
made of dough and crowned by a skull. At the beginning of the
ceremony, the lingka, a doll made of dough, was placed
next to the zor. The dances started with a performance
by two Citipati, that is figures wearing skull masks and skeleton
costumes. The two characters represent the Lords of the Charnel
Grounds and through their dance rituals and the mantras they repeated,
the pavilion and objects enshrined in it were transformed into
a mystic Charnel Ground where the desire that is the root of rebirth
is extinguished and where higher knowledge can be obtained. A
host of others including the White Old Man, a sometimes buffoon-like
character who represents fertility, and Khashin Khan and his eight
sons, who represent a sort of reception committee for the other
dancers, are members of the standard Tsam repertory and play out
their roles. Afterwards, other groups of characters wearing demonic
masks appear and dance around the zor, banishing all evil
by driving it into the lingka. At the same time the soul
is delivered from the grip of demons. The festival is concluded
by a lama wearing a stag mask who tears apart the lingka
with his sword. The lingka was made of fast-rising dough.
This allowed the audience to clearly see the belly of the doll
expand during the duration of the ceremony, creating a dramatic
and convincing effect.
at the Tsam festival in Ulaan Baatar (before 1937)
The concentric circles drawn on the ground around the zor
and the lingka created three bands that were used by masked
dancers, separated by bands that were left unused. The innermost
circle was reserved for the Master of the Dance. The dances were
accompanied by a small orchestra consisting of wind and percussion
instruments. Just outside the southern end of the square a huge
thangka representing the supreme deity Vajrapani was displayed.
In front of this, a shrine to the same deity was placed. In the
third and outer circle only the shanag, or Black Hats,
danced. The shanag, the only participants in the ritual
not to wear masks, represent the earliest stratum of pre-Buddhist
Tibetan religion called Bonpo. Bonpo, like popular Mongolian religion,
had unmistakable shamanistic characteristics.
The final character to appear in the Tsam square was Yama, God
of the Realm of Death and Supreme Judge of the Dead whom the Mongols
call Erlig Khan. He usually appeared wearing a Buffalo mask, with
a lasso for catching souls in one hand and a skeleton-shaped scepter
in the other. His arrival at the head of the possession constituted
the climax of the ritual.
Mongolian masks symbolizing the actual presence of a deity never
have their eyes pierced. The performers therefore had to look
through the mouths of the masks, adding extra height to the performer.
As the temporary residence of gods and demons, masks are like
statues and treated as sacred objects. When not in use, they were
stored in monasteries and paid homage to in daily rituals.