Secular and religious dance form an essential part of our rich patrimony. The dances are inextricably woven into the cultural and religious fabric of Bhutan. The nation`s culture and religious influence can be clearly presented through these dances. The story of dances directly parallels the growth and evolution of Bhutan through the ages, and in particular of Buddhism in the country. Some western scholars who witnessed Chham in Tibet or in other Himalayan regions have termed them as “wrathful dances,” since most of the masked characters have fierce appearance. Some call them as “mystery plays,” comparing them to the ancient Greek practice. Today, they are called “scared” or magic” dances or simply “masked ritual dances”.
Most of the Chham, religious dances, were passed down through initiations and secret teachings. In the Buddhist world, it is believed that the religious and sacred dances were performed by Guru Padmasambhawa in 765 A.D. when he performed the vajrakilaya dance to overcome the demons and the Bon shamans for the establishment of Samye monastery in Tibet.
Masked dances are part of the Tantric tradition and are believed to be one of the four vajrayana teachings in which, through dances, one is cleansed of the sins and believed to nirvana just by observing them. They also destroy evil forces and other obstacles. In the middle of the 15th century, Bhutan had developed its own sacred dance traditions associated with great Terton Pema Lingpa (1450-1521).
Chhams was first instituted in the Dzongs (fortress). Soon Chhams was performed in most monasteries and today one can witness it being performed in almost every monastery by monks. None the less, there are slight variations in the dance patterns that vary from one region to the other.
The Bhutanese consider the very act of watching sacred mask dance a spiritual experience that can help one acquire merit and free oneself from the worldly desires and attachments. It also offers spectators with an opportunity to reaffirm their devotion and commitment to lead virtuous lives. Adorned in rich robes of silk and brocade, performers wear masks representing saints and sages, protective deities, legendary personages, and animal forms. These dances also convey the notion of tradition and demonstrate cultural values.