Monpa

by Aug 25, 2021Demographics, Tribes0 comments

The Monpa or Mönpa (Tibetan: མོན་པ་) is a major tribe of Arunachal Pradesh. Monpas are the inhabitants of the high altitude Tawang district and the mountain passes of Bomdila in West Kameng district. Historically, the Tibetan word Monpa referred to all the indigenous tribes of southern Tibet and Bhutan. The Tawang Monpas have a migration history from Changrelung. The Monpa are believed to be the only nomadic tribe in Northeast India. The Monpa have a very close affinity with the Sharchops of Bhutan. Their languages are Tibeto-Burman languages written with the Tibetan alphabet.

Monpa demographic Map

Monpa demographic Map – representational

Most Monpas live in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, centered in the districts of Tawang and West Kameng. Around 9,000 Monpas live in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, in Cona County, Pêlung in Bayi District, and Mêdog County. In Arunachal, most of them live in Tawang district, where they constitute about 97% of the district’s population, and almost all of the remainder can be found in West Kameng district, where they form about 77% of the district’s population. A small number live in East Kameng district and other parts of the State.

The Monpas are however categorized into six clans depending on the variations of their dialect and the location of their villages. These groups were not in frequent contact with one another as Monpas lived in isolation. They are namely:

  • Tawang Monpa
  • Dirang Monpa
  • Lish Monpa
  • Bhut Monpa
  • Kalaktang Monpa
  • Panchen Monpa

History

500BC – 6th Century — 

The earliest records of the area the Monpas inhabit today indicate the existence of a kingdom known as Lhomon or Monyul, which existed from 500 B.C to 600 A.D. Subsequent years saw Monyul coming under increasing Tibetan political and cultural influence, which was apparent in the years when Tsangyang Gyatso, an ethnic Monpa, became the 6th Dalai Lama. At that time, Monyul was divided into thirty-two districts, all of which spanned the areas of Eastern Bhutan, Tawang, Kameng, and Southern Tibet. However, Monyul, also known as the Tawang Tract, remained sparsely populated throughout its history.

11th – 17th Century — 

In the 11th century, the Northern Monpas in Tawang came under the influence of the Tibetan Buddhism of the Nyingma and Kagyu denominations. At this time the Monpa adopted the Tibetan alphabet for their language. Drukpa missionaries came to the region in the 13th century, and missionaries of the Gelug school came in the 17th century. The Gelug school is the sect to which most Monpas belong today.

17th – 19th Century — 

Monyul remained an autonomous entity, with local monks based in Tawang holding great political power within the kingdom, and direct rule over the area from Lhasa was established only in the 17th century. From this time until the early 20th century, Monyul was ruled by authorities in Lhasa, who were themselves ruled by the Qing dynasty until its collapse in 1912. However, in the 19th century, the area began to interest the British Raj. One of the first British-Indian travelers into Monyul, Nain Singh Rawat, who visited the area from 1875 to 1876, noted that the Monpas were a conservative people who shunned contact with the outside world and made efforts to monopolise trade with Tibet. Owing to its strategic position, subsequently the British sought to make their political influence felt.

20th Century — 

In 1914, Britain and its colonial authorities in India drew the McMahon Line, which they claimed to be the border between Chinese Tibet and British India. The line divided the land in which the Monpas inhabited, and became a source of contention in subsequent years because of ambiguities in the specific location of the McMahon Line.

 

In subsequent years, China continued to claim the pre-McMahon border as the border between Tibet and India, while British India gradually established effective control over Monyul south of the McMahon line. Following the independence of India and a change of government in China, the dispute became a major issue in relations between China and India. The McMahon Line was the effective line of control in this period, though the border was somewhat porous. In 1962, skirmishes along the disputed border escalated into the Sino-Indian War. During the war, China took effective control of the entire Monyul area south of the McMahon Line as well as other surrounding areas. However, the war ended with China’s voluntary withdrawal north of the McMahon Line. Negotiations on the dispute remain active.

Languages

The languages spoken by the Monpa people are often referred to as the “Monpa languages“. This is not a genealogical term, and several quite different languages are subsumed under it. “Monpa languages” include Kho-Bwa, East Bodish, and Tshangla languages.

The languages can be distinguished as such:

  • Tawang Mon-Keth (The Tawang language):
    It is an East Bodish language, and is a variety of Dakpa.  It is the dialect spoken by the majority of the people of Tawang through variations in tone and phonetics is there from village to village. It is, in fact, the lingua franca of the district. Mon-keth is distinct from Tibetan although it has many Tibetan words.
  • Mago-Thingbu-Keth:
    It is the dialect spoken by the inhabitants of Mago, Thingbu and Luguthang villages. Their dialect bears resemblance with that of the inhabitants of Lubrang, Dirme, Sumrang, Nyukmadung and Senge-Dzong villages of the West Kameng district. Their dialect displays many elements of the Tibetan language.
  • Pangchenpa-keth:
    It is the dialect spoken by the people of Pangchen dhingduk (Zimithang). Their dialect is not easily understood by the other people of Tawang, though it has many Tawang Monpa words.
  • Shyoepa-loh:
    It is spoken by the people of Shyoe village. It is similar to the Tibetan language.
  • The Tshangla language:
    within Bodish comprises closely related dialects spoken in the villages of Nyukmadung and Lubrang and the Brokpa language spoken by nomads.
  • The Sherdukpen, Lish, and Sartang languages:
    They show no obvious relationship to other languages of the region. These 3 languages are related to Bugun, and form a “Kho-Bwa” group together with it.
    Bhoti Script

    Letter “A” in Bhoti

  • Other languages include Dirang (also known as “Central Monpa”), Murshing and Kalaktang (also known as “Southern Monpa”).

 

The Tibetan language, locally known as Bhoti is also making a resurgence in the district. Initially, only the Lamas & Nuns knew the Bhoti script & language, as the religious training was imparted through it. It was however realized that without knowledge of Bhoti, the local people were unable to grasp the essence of their culture and history, as all the earlier documents and records were in Bhoti. Thus, the Government of Arunachal Pradesh has introduced it as the third language of instruction in the local schools, for classes I to VIII.

Culture

The Monpa are known for wood carving, thangka painting, carpet making and weaving. They manufacture paper from the pulp of the local sukso tree. A printing press can be found in the Tawang Monastery, where many religious texts are printed on local paper and wooden blocks, usually meant for literate Monpa Lamas. They are also known for their wooden bowls and bamboo weaving.

All animals except men and tigers are allowed to be hunted. According to tradition, only one individual is allowed to hunt the tiger on an auspicious day, upon the initiation period of the shamans, which can be likened to a trial of passage. After the tiger is killed, the jawbone, along with all its teeth, is used as a magic weapon. It is believed that its power will enable tigers to evoke the power of the guiding spirit of the ancestral tiger, who will accompany and protect the boy along his way.

Society

The traditional Monpa society was administered by their Trukdri council which consists of six ministers.

  • The Kempo, or high priest of Tawang monastery, was also included.
  • The Lamas also hold a respectable position and two monks known as Nyetsangs, were also part of the council.
  • Two others were Dzongpens, or fort administrators.

The Monpa society is patriarchal; the man is the head of the family and is the one who takes all decisions. In his absence, his wife takes over all responsibilities. When a child is born, they have no strict preference for a boy or a girl. However, some prefer a daughter for she stays in the house of her parents once she is married. Her husband is the one who moves to the house of his parents-in-law.

Religion

The Monpas, like most other autochthons of the eastern Himalayas, believed in the native animistic Bon religion before their conversion into Tibetan Buddhism. But unlike the other tribes, the Monpas were absorbed into their new religion leaving behind only a few elements of their old religion, mostly strong among Monpas in regions closer to the Assamese plains.

The Monpa are generally adherents of the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism, which they adopted in the 17th century as a result of the influence of the Bhutanese-educated Merag Lama.

Many Monpa families also send their children as Lamas to join the monasteries. The Buddhist influence increased with the growing importance of Tawang when a Monpa from this region, Tsangyang Gyatso, was chosen as the 6th Dalai Lama.

Festivals

Losar — Jan, Feb or March

Lossar, the New Year festival of people of Mahayana Bhuddist of Geluk and Nyingma Sects of the great Himalayan belt comprising of Tibet, Sikkim, Bhutan, Ladakh, and West Kameng and Tawang and Menchuka area of West Siang districts of Arunachal Pradesh, is usually celebrated in the month of February or early March with much gaiety and religious fervour.

Losar is a 3-day festival, which is celebrated with great pomp and show in Tawang.

The term Losar is made of two words, ‘Lo’-which means year and ‘Sar’ – meaning new. The festival is observed to ward off evil spirits and welcome the the new year that shall be filled with happiness and prosperity.

A day prior to the main festivals, people clean and paint their houses; and prepare offerings, which is known as ‘Lama Losar.’ Eight auspicious symbols called Tashi Dargye – the precious umbrella, a victory banner, 2 golden fish, a right coiled white conch shell, a lotus flower, a vase of treasure, the Dharma Wheel and the Eternal Knot are used to decorate houses.

On the day of the festival, first the prayers are offered at Tawang Monastery, offerings are also made to the household shrine. In the evening, a traditional noodle soup called guthuk is prepared, which contains dumplings made from flour and water by stuffing with nine different fortune symbols that is said to determine the fortune of the person in the next year.

The second day of the festival is reserved for the King and is called Gyalpo Losar. On this day people visit their friends and participate in traditional mask dance, Aji Lhamu. They even exchange greetings and wish one another ‘tashi delek’, which means ‘good luck’. In the evening torches are lit by the people with the belief that it will ward off evil spirits from their abodes.

On the final day of Losar festival, visits are paid to the local monastery to offer prayers, donation of food and clothes is also made, and people raise flags, make butter sculptures and burn juniper leaves.

Traditionally, a fertility festival, especially of farmers in pre-Buddhist era in which people offered incense sticks to appease the local deities, the festival, in due course of time, evolved into an annual Buddhist festival which is believed to have begun during the reign of Pude Gungyal, the ninth King of Tibet.

Torgya — 10th - 12th Jan

Torgya, also known as Tawang-Torgya, is an annual festival that is exclusively held in Tawang Monastery, Arunachal Pradesh, India. It is held according to the Buddhist calendar days of 28th to 30th of Dawachukchipa, which corresponds to 10 to 12 January of the Gregorian calendar, and is a Monpa celebration. The objective of the festival is to ward off any kind of external aggression and to protect people from natural disasters.

This is a festival comprising oral and dance performances portraying the mythical events which are believed to have taken place in the past. The dances are performed by the monks from the monastery itself that requires strict training and discipline and a lot of practice before the programme. The distinct components of these performances are the colourful costumes and robes they wear while dancing. Many dance forms take place at this festival and are believed to be beneficial if observed in person.

Two important dance (cham) forms are as follows:

  • Pha Cham: The early morning dance takes place in the courtyard of Tawang monastery to purify the body of the people and spread good health and prosperity.
  • Losjker Chungiye: performed by 12 monks for the 12 sun signs (Buddhist horoscope dance).
    Losjker Chungiye

    Losjker Chungiye: performed by 12 monks for the 12 sun signs (Buddhist horoscope dance).

Some other important dance forms are:

  • Palden Lhamo cham
  • Lham tsokor cham as Palden Lhamo’s guards.
  • Durdak cham or Skeleton dance (protector of the graveyard)

Each of the dances showcases a myth, and the costumes and masks represent various animals such as monkeys, tigers, etc.

Torgya Festival:

First Day —
Torma Ritual

Torma Ritual

So the first day of the festival begins by worshipping an image named “Torma”. Making of the 3-feet tall and 2-feet wide effigy image begins 16 days before the festival, crafted by 14 Lamas (Monks). Four ingredients: butter, barley, milk, and molasses are used to make this tall effigy and take it to a particular location. After reaching the location, the Torma and put it in the burning Mechang (dried bamboo leaves). Post performing the ritual, they return to the monastery. This procession is performed with great pomp and show.

Second Day —

The second day mainly consists of dance and oral dialogues between the dancers.

Third Day —

The ritual (Wang) on the final day takes place in the monastery where sweets(Tseril) and local beers (Tse-chang) are distributed followed by the blessings of the Head Lama. He then blesses all the gathered devotees by touching their heads; during this procedure, the other monks tie small pieces of fabric, of the half to one-inch width, of different colours on the wrists of devotees.

Likewise, strips of yellow cloth are tied by a senior Lama around the neck of all lamas and Anis (nuns), as a sign of blessings for happiness and long life.

This ceremony is followed by the final dance performance i.e the Losjker Chungiye cham of Torgya festival that concludes the auspicious occasion of Tawang-Torgya.

Choekhor — 7th month of Lunar

Choekhor as per Buddhist philosophy, means – Choe (holy book of Buddhist) and khor (circle or wander whole area). Thus Choekhor means carry a holy book of Buddhist on men or women shoulders and wander or circle the whole area.

Choekhor

Choekhor procession

Monpa and Shertukpen tribes living in West Kameng and Tawang districts celebrate the festival in seventh month of lunar calendar, rightly known as Choekor, after the crops are sown. The villagers have hardly any agricultural activity for which the entire village community join it every village to offer supernatural protection to their sown crops for good harvest and also to drive away evil spirits.

The villagers call up priests or monks from monastery during Choekhor to read the holy books, namely Nyi-thri, Gye-tong, Ka-gyur, Bum etc. on the last day of the festival followed by a large rally carrying idols of Lord Buddha, other Buddhist pantheon and some holy books on their shoulders and circle the whole farm land.

After this the choekhor, the procession stops for some time in the fields where the monks recite some holy hymns to bless the crops for rich productivity. Tea, popcorn, chang, etc. are offered to participating members between all rituals.

Ganden Ngamchoe —
Lama Tsongkhapa

Lama Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) is the founder of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism

Ganden Ngamchoe, literally “Ganden Offering of the Twenty-Fifth Day,” or Lama Tsongkhapa Day, is a celebration of the anniversary of Lama Tsongkhapa’s parinirvana. It is celebrated on the 25th day of the 10th month of the Tibetan calendar.

This event commemorates the death of Tsongkha-pa, the founder of Gelugpa sect.

Saka Dawa —

Saka Dawa (also known as Saga Dawa) (ས་ག་ཟླ་བ།) represents the holiest and most sacred days in Tibetan Buddhism. Falling on the fourth month of the Tibetan Calendar, the religious festivities of Saka Dawa peak on the 15th Lunar Day when there is a full moon.

This day is associated with three major events in the life of Shakyamuni Buddha – his birth, his enlightenment on a full moon night, and his parinirvana. In Tibetan, Dawa means “month” while Saka means the “name of the closet star to the earth” during the lunar month which is prominently visible. In Tibetan astrological calculations, Saka is one of the 28 known major stars.

On the main Saka Dawa day, a special puja is carried out by monks in the monasteries early in the morning. Additionally, sutras are recited and Cham dances are also performed at the monastery. After this, people take an oath of the Eight Mahayana precepts to be observed during the day.

Gorsam Kora —

A large 3-day festival known as the Gorsam Kora festival is observed every year at the Gorsam Stupa at Zemithang, during the last day of the first month of the lunar calendar. It is attended by thousands of people and the nearby areas of Bhutan.

The sky looming high stupa, about 92 Km from Tawang, was constructed by Lama Prathar from Kharman village in Zemithang, in 13th Century A.D. It stands featuring 186 feet base and 93 feet high and is modeled after Boudhinath stupa of Nepal.

Mask dance by the different communities is a speciality of the festival and every evening the people gather to join the candle light procession lead by the 13th Tsona Gontse Rinpoche. This Chorten is opened for public viewing once in every twelve years.

Lhabab Duechen —

The twenty second day of the ninth month of lunar calendar is celebrated as the day of Lord Buddha’s descent from Tushita, the realm of God. Lord Buddha is said to have travelled at the age of forty-one to Tushita, where his mother had taken rebirth as one of the Gods. In order to repay his mother’s kindness, he spent one rainy season retreat at Tushita, giving teachings to his mother and other Gods. The day is devoted to religious activities such as visiting temples, lighting lamps and chanting prayers.

Tseb-Chu —

On the tenth day of the fifth month of lunar calendar called ‘Tseb-chu’ the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava is observed at Khinmey Gonpa. On this day, an initiation (wang) is bestowed to the devotees by Thegtse Rimpoche. On two days prior to it, the monks of the Khinmey Gonpa perform various sacred dances, known as cham. The dances bring blessings upon the onlookers; protect them from misfortune and evil influences.

Dress

Monpa Couple

Monpa Couple wearing traditional attire

The traditional dress of the males consists of a short woolen trouser called Kangnom and a full-length woolen trouser called Dhorna. The traditional male shirt is called Toh-thung. Over the shirt, they wear a black woolen coat called ali-phudhung or khanjar. On cold days a thick woolen red cloak called Chupa is worn, it is tied at the waist with a sash called khichin. The Monpa’s also wear a sleeveless coat called Paktza.

The women wear a sleeveless gown of light red color with white stripes known as the Shingka made up of coarse endi silk. A red or black coloured square woolen cloth is tied at the rear of the waist known as Teng-ngakyima. On top of the shingka an endi silk shirt, known as the allentoh-thung is worn, which is open from the front. Over it another shirt called kyanchen is worn. It is a lavishly embroidered full sleeve maroon colour shirt with an opening in the front like the aleentoh-thung. They also wear a woolen coat called baitoh-thung. Many Monpa women also wear the Tibetan dress, which consists of a full sleeve blouse known as the honju and a loose gown known as the Chupa. In the Tibetan dress, the married women also tie a multi-coloured apron in the front, known as pangten.

The traditional boots of the Monpa are known as Tsem-lham, which are common for both men and women. They are made up of woolen cloth that reaches till the knees. The soles of the shoes are made up of yak or cowhide; these are flat and are tied at the top with garters.

A unique aspect of the Monpa dress is the distinctive type of headgear worn by the people, based on the region of their stay. The most common headgear is called Ngama-shom. It is made of yak hair, which is in the shape of a skull. It has no brim but has five tapering points of about three inches in length twisted out from the body.
The people of Zimithang, both men and women, wear a different type of cap known as the seir-sha. It is round in shape and red and yellow in color.
The women of Mago-Thingbu wear a distinctive cap known as the nga-sha. Like other caps, it is made up of Yak’s hair and has 18-23 tapering points twisted out from the material to form an unusual brim. Both Monpa men and women also wear Tibetan caps of various designs.

 

Ornaments

The Monpas possess various kinds of ornaments for their personal adornment. The stock of ornaments also serves as an index of their wealth. Their ornaments are similar to the ornaments of the Tibetans.

  • Son-dhup It is a finger ring made of gold, silver or some other metal. Most of the rings are studded at the top with precious stones like turquoise, red coral or onyx. Both men and women wear finger rings. The Men also wear ivory rings called thekor on their right thumb.
  • Nyon-dhup – It is a bangle made up of gold, silver or other metal. Only women wear it.
  • Kaykor It is a necklace or red corals interspersed with onyx, pearls and turquoise. Only women wear it. The women of Mago-Thingbu area wear a string of Amber beads known as poshephre-nga, which hangs down from the hair, on either side of the forehead but not from the neck.
  • Gau It is a charm box of various shapes & sizes, normally made up of silver and studded with turquoise or other precious stones. Inside the gau a talisman is kept to protect the wearer from evil, illnesses etc.
  • Along – It is an earring made of gold or silver. Only women wear earrings.
  • Khraseng – It is a silver clip, which fastens the hair of women at the top of the head.
  • Grokha – It is as silver brooch mostly in the shape of a butterfly or a bird, which is worn only by Women.
  • Phre-nga-Rosaries or Phre-nga – are carried by both men and women. They may be made of wood, glass or bone.

Food & Cuisine

Millet is the staple food of the Monpas. They also eat barley, rice, wheat, buckwheat, and various pulses. Their vegetable consumption is based on local availability.

The Monpas are quite fond of spicy food. Therefore there is a lot of use of the chillies in their preparations. One of the very popular side dish, which every typical household prepares with food, is called chamin. It is a chutney which is made by grinding chilies with fermented cheese.

Fermented cheese is a key ingredient in almost all of their traditional preparations and is found in almost all households. They also use fermented beans called greh-churba as a flavoring agent.

The Monpas are non-vegetarians. They eat beef, pork, yak, mutton, chicken, and fish. Beef and yak meat are cut into strips and dried during winter months to be consumed later.

Some of the popular Monpa preparations are described below:

Zan
It is the staple food of the Monpas. It is prepared with millet or other flavored flour added to boiling water. It is consumed with vegetables, meat, or chamin along with the addition of fermented cheese or soya beans as a condiment.

Khura
It is a Monpa pancake made of buckwheat flour. It is taken along with tea or vegetable curry.

Khura

Khura, the Buckwheat Pancake

Gyapa-khazi
It is a Monpa version of the pulao. It is prepared by mixing rice, fermented cheese, small dried fish, chilly, ginger, butter, etc.

Thukpa
It is also one of the most popular and common dish consumed by the people of Tawang. It is basically a noodle soup mixed with minced meat, chillies, etc. Another kind of Thukpa is Dheb-thukpa in which they use rice. Thukpa made of maize, meat, and beans is called Ashum Thukpa.

Puta
The Monpa version of noodles is puta. These are noodles made from buckwheat flour. The Puta is usually eaten with a stew made of vegetables, fermented cheese, and chillies.

Bresi
It is basically sweet rice, usually served during ceremonial occasions. Cooked rice is transferred to a basin on which melted butter is poured. It is then seasoned with raisins and sugar.

Momos
Momos are very popular with most Indians & the Monpas also prepare them on a regular basis. It is often served with soup and hot chamin.

TsizinKyola
Its methodology of preparation is almost the same as of Zan except that only buckwheat flour is used in its preparation and the fact that the resultant paste is much thinner. It is best eaten with thin chamin.

Khazi
It is cooked rice mixed with finely chopped maan – a local vegetable (a kind of spring onion leaves), chamin, and salt.

 

Sueja’ or butter tea is the chief beverage of the Monpa people.

Brewing Chang

Brewing of Chang

The Monpa are also quite fond of alcoholic beverages, which are prepared by them at their houses. Chang is the common word used by the Monpa for alcohol. It is used for all social occasions like birth, death, housewarming, or festivals. The key ingredients used for making chang are rice, maize, barley, and millets. The Monpa brew the following kinds of chang:

Baang-chang: It is mostly prepared from rice. However, it can also be made by combining millets and barley.

Shin-chang: It is only prepared during Losar-the Monpa New Year festival. It is a sweet beer like concoction prepared by mixing together Millet, buckwheat, and barley.

Aarak: It is made by the distillation of maize, millet, rice, or barley. It is quite strong and is usually served hot in a small cup.

Dance

There are, in general terms, 3 types of dances in Monpa culture. They are recreational dances (broh), pantomime dances, and religious dances.

1. Broh —

Recreational dances are called Broh and are performed on jovial occasions for merriment. Recreational dances do not form part of any festival or ritual and anybody can take part in it. No dancing costume is required. The dancers stand in a line or form a circle, holding each other’s hand on either side. As they sing, they swing their hands back and forth, take one step forward or sideways, halt and again take one step back to the original position.

2. Pantomimes/Dance Drama —

Pantomimes are the media through which a mythical story is narrated or a moral lesson is taught. These are generally performed during Losar and other occasions but can also be performed at any other time of the year. Each pantomime / dance drama has a fascinating story which is described briefly :

Achi Lhamo Dance
The development of this dance-drama is attributed to Thangtong Gyalpo who was a highly respected Lama, Teacher and self-made bridge Engineer of the 14th century. It is one of the prominent folk dances of the Monpa and Sherdukpen Tribes of Western Arunachal Pradesh. The Tibetan version of Ramayana is depicted through this dance-drama.

This is a masked dance, which was evolved approximately 600 years before. It has its own style of dance and mime act. Achi Lhamu involves five characters each having a mythological origin. They are ‘Gyeli’, ‘Nyapa’ , ‘Nyaro’ and two other female characters ‘Lhamo’ and ‘Lhum’. ‘Lhamo’ was the fairy from heaven who later became the Queen of Gyeli. The dance also depicts the marriage ceremony of Lhamo with King Chhoegay Norzang.

The dance drama is performed for 4 to 5 days through a unique style of song, dialogue, dance and pantomime. The musical instruments played to the accompaniment of the dance are the drums and cymbals.

Snow Lion Dance

This dance is performed during the Losar and festive occasions. Legend has it that a saint named Tenteling was performing meditation on Mount Gangri-Karpo. The saint’s meditation was witnessed by the two snow-lions living on that mountain. Impressed by the saint’s religiosity, the lions offered their milk for the sustenance of the saint and consequently became his good friends. This dance is performed to commemorate the saint and the good deeds of the snow lions.

Yak Dance

One of the most popular pantomimes of the Monpa tribe is the yak pantomime. In this dance, a dummy yak is made by covering the body-frame made of bamboo with black cloth and setting a wooden head on it. An image of a country-guardian (sungma) sits on its back. The body frame is carried about by two men concealed within it who dance according to the beats of the drum and cymbals. Four masked men representing Theopa Gali, who was said to have discovered the yak, and his family members, dance round the yak narrating in the form of song the romantic story of the origin of yak-it’s discovery and how it’s integration brought permanent source of wealth and happiness to the entire community.

Kieng Cham

During Choekhor festival, Kieng Cham forms a part of the procession, where some barely dressed young men of the village wearing monkey like masks and a wooden phallus attached to their dress perform dance with erotic movements, the dancers are called kiengpas.

The dance has great significance as the Monpa believe that the evil spirits who are said to cause harm to the crops get so engrossed watching this dance they forget to cause harm to the crops and the village community.

3. Religious/Monastic Dances —

The religious dances (cham) form an important part of the religious rituals of the Monpa people. During the Torgya Festival, the dances are performed with great sanctity and spiritual quest, by selected Monks of the Tawang Monastery as a part of the Torgya rituals which go on for three days.

Before going into details about the actual cham, a mention of the outfits of the dancers needs to be made. The most important object of the dancer’s attire is the mask (bak). The masks are carved out of wood and are painted in different colours. They are often double the size of a human face. The costumes used in the cham are mostly made of brocade and silk. The outfit of a dancer representing a deity of higher rank usually consists of a gown (phodka) with long, broad sleeves and a poncho-like tippet (stod le). Some dancers wear a circular breastplate called melong bearing in its center, the ‘seed’ syllable (sa bon) of the deity, which the dancer personifies. The weapons and other objects which the dancers carry in their hands are the characteristic attributes which Buddhist iconography assigns to a particular God or Goddess. The common objects carried by the dancers in their hands are the skull cup (bandha), damaru, vajra(dorjee), dagger (phurpa), sword (raldri), club in the shape of a mummified corpse (thodthrom), bell (drill bu) or a flag.

Another important component of the cham is the orchestra. The orchestra players are attired in the usual monks’ dress. The musical instruments used by the orchestra are the same instruments used in normal religious ceremonies, such as long trumpets (dungchen), clarinet (gyaling), conch shells (dungkar), damaru, drums (dha) and cymbals (silnyen and bubcha). Their beats indicate the rhythm of the dance.

A total of 22 different kinds of Cham are performed during the festival some of which are described as under:

Pha cham (boar dance)
In the early mornings of the three days of festival, a dancer in fully ordained monk’s dress performs the Pha-cham by wearing a boar’s mask (Pha=boar; cham=dance). This dance is performed in order to prepare the ground for performance of cham by pacifying the malice of the gods and spirits so that perfect conditions could be created for performance.

Shanag cham

Shanag cham is performed by twelve dancers wearing phodka, a kind of richly embroidered kaftan reaching to the ankles and pang kheb, a colorful richly embroidered apron. The dancers wear a black, broad-brimmed hat from which the dance derived its name Shanag (black hat).

The dancers personify Tantric priests. After executing the cham for some time, four dancers representing Dharmaraja Kalarupa and his consort, Chamundi accompanied by their attendants appear on the scene dancing solemnly. They are greeted by the Abbot of the Tawang Monastery by offering scarves from the balcony above.

After the dance is over, the Abbot; senior lamas, all the above dancers and the procession of people proceed towards the southern gate of the monastery to participate in the Torgya rites.

Gon-Nyin cham

This cham is performed by eleven dancers each holding a ritual bell in one hand and damaru in the other. They represent dakinis who are the protectors of the Buddha Dharma.

Gon-Nyin cham is generally performed when an important religious venture is to be undertaken like the construction of a monastery or when a holy statue is to be installed and consecrated. It is performed to distract the attention of the demons who create obstacles to the advancement of the Buddhist doctrine. It is believed that the demons get so engrossed in watching this dance that they forget to create obstacles in the work.

Lham Tsoktor

Wearing fearful masks and dressed magnificently, a group of twelve dancers representing the retinue of Palden Lhamo (Sri Devi) perform this cham signifying the clearance of ground for her appearance.

A masked dancer representing Palden Lhamo comes out from the main temple dancing solemnly. Her attendants escort her. Before entering the dance arena, the Abbot of Tawang Monastery offers scarves to Palden Lhamo and her attendants from the balcony above. Reaching the dancing square, she is ushered to the throne arranged for her. Seir-Kyem (libation) is then offered to her by some senior monks.

This dance is performed to invoke the blessing of Palden Lhamo, the principal guardian deity of Tawang Monastery.

Zam Cham

Wearing fierce looking masks, this dance is performed by two dancers holding small flags in their right hands and skull cup in the left hands. It symbolizes the taking possession and safeguarding the ground which is to be used for performance of sacred dances.

Dung Cham

Dung-cham is performed for the prosperity of all sentient beings. This cham is performed by wearing mask of different animal figures. The dancers represent the retinue of Chamsing, a protective deity.

Gelong Cham

For peace and prosperity in the world, twelve dancers dressed in ceremonial monks’ robes perform this cham.