Video Introduction



Tsaghan Ebügen, the White Old Man
Papier-mâché mask, horse’s hair, and cotton; 19th century
Attributed to Puntsag Osor
Robe: silk with cotton lining; 19th—20th century
Museum of Fine Arts, Ulaan Baatar

At the Tsam festival the White Old Man represents the ancient shamanistic gods of Mongolia, who were absorbed into the Buddhist pantheon but assigned only a secondary role. Tsaghan Ebügen is the Protector of Cattle and can prevent various diseases in animals. Though of Tibetan origin, he has assumed the appearance and function of Shoulao, the Chinese God of Longevity. Armed with a staff with a dragon-shaped finial, the White Old Man performed the role of a buffoon. Moving along the edge of the Tsam square, he caricatures the solemn dances. Popular superstition explains his association with longevity: Those who were hit by the sticks of the Lords of the Charnel Grounds were believed to die within the year. Only by receiving another hit by the staff of Tsaghan Ebügen could they be ensured a longer life.

Since time immemorial Mongolia has been occupied by tribes whose nomadic existence was dictated by the rugged topography and extreme climate of this vast region. More often fragmented than unified, these tribes, nevertheless, shared similar cultures and religious beliefs. Shamanism, an indigenous cult, was an amalgam of beliefs and practices centered on the shaman,. The shaman was a figure who acted as an intermediary between the human and spirit worlds. Lamaism, a form of esoteric or mystical Buddhism introduced from Tibet, however, became the dominant institutionalized religion and the catalyst for large-scale festivals.

Among the most colorful and fascinating of these festivals were the masked dance ceremonies known as Tsam. These ceremonies, introduced in the eighteenth century, were held around the New Year with the purpose of destroying the evil that had accrued during the past year. Performed by monks, the characters portrayed in the dances included a wide variety of terrifying deities from the Lamaist pantheon. Shamanistic deities also made cameo appearances, and shamanistic motifs were often incorporated into the costumes and masks. So compelling are the masks and so strong was the exorcistic atmosphere of the ceremonies that nineteenth-century Western travelers in Mongolia dubbed them the devil’s dances.

With the brutal repression of religion and the destruction of monasteries in the region by the Russian Communist regime in the 1930s, Tsam and other ceremonies were forbidden and many of the masks and paraphernalia destroyed. Today, however, in newly independent Mongolia Tsam ceremonies are once again being performed.