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Tibetan Cham Dance

  • by Merry
  • Last Updated: 2024-01-13

Cham dance, also known as " བཅམ " in Tibetan, translates to "dance of the gods." It is a religious dance within Tibetan Buddhism, believed to have originated from the construction celebration of the Samye Monastery during the Tubo period and evolved over time to become a fixed ritualistic dance in Tibetan Buddhism.

Cham dance
Cham is a costumed dance related to Tibetan Buddhism.

Cham dance is a vivid masked and ornate dance associated with various sects of Tibetan Buddhism and Buddhist festivals. Accompanied by traditional Tibetan musical instruments played by monks, these dances provide compassionate guidance to devotees and bestow merit upon all who perceive them.


According to tradition, in the 8th century, after the introduction of Indian Buddhism to Tibet, King Trisong Detsen vigorously promoted Buddhism, welcoming the master Padmasambhava to propagate the Buddhist teachings. Master Padmasambhava integrated the content of Indian Buddhism with some rituals, rites, and doctrines of the local Bon tradition in Tibet. Respecting the Tibetan inclination towards the worship of multiple deities, he incorporated various spirits from Bon into the protective deities, infusing elements of Buddhist Tantric sorcery into the original ritual dances of Bon. This fusion resulted in a form of temple religious dance that aimed to exorcise spirits, pray for abundant harvests, benefit future lives, explain karmic relationships, and propagate Buddhist stories. Known as "Cham," this religious mime dance gradually evolved and spread in Tibet, preserved in its entirety for over a thousand years, becoming a religious ceremonial dance passed down through the generations.

Religious Significance

Cham Dance is a tantric ritual. The religious dance itself relies on the shape of the human body and uses various movements, postures, music, costumes, and masks to enhance the image of the Buddha, so that the monks and people can see the true appearance of deities, protectors and other Buddhas who are usually invisible, making them more faithful in the teachings of Buddhism. This can achieve a level of publicity that cannot be achieved by any other art form, and play a role in praising Buddhism, in which its artistic charm lies.

Tibetan dance
Cham dance shapes various images of gods, Buddhas, demons, etc. described in Buddhist scriptures.

Process of Cham Dance

In the past, cham was not performed to the public because the objects of its performance were gods and ghosts rather than ordinary people. Later, it was gradually performed during major Dharma Assemblies to ward off evil spirits and bring blessings to believers in the world. In order to attend the sacrificial activities in person, believers have to travel thousands of miles away and set off to monasteries with their families several days in advance to worship the gods and seek the fulfillment of their family's wishes. The performance content and time in each sect and monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism are also different.


As the prelude unfolds, monks engage in prayers while throwing colorful "Longda" into the sky and burning incense. The fragrant rising smoke and the colorful Longda rise gradually in the wind, sending everyone's prayers to the protector in heaven. Dharma horns, gongs and drums sounded together, and monks wearing tall yellow goose crowns and Kasaya chanted sutra in Sanskrit, kicking off the "Cham Divine Dance".  Amidst the loud and solemn music of Suonas, trombones, drums, and Tibetan copper titaniums elevated on the roof of the temple, the monks filed into, carrying dharma trumpets, holding dharma drums high, beating gongs, and carrying various ritual instruments. Two lions, symbolizing the eight lions guarding the lotus throne of Buddha Shakyamuni, engage in a ritual dance. This dance expresses the deep reverence and devotion towards the Buddha.

Play Tibetan musical instruments
Ritual instruments create a solemn atmosphere.


The instrumental music resounds as the city gate opens. Following that, a multitude of gods and various animals make their appearance. The lamas in charge of the Cham performance, wearing divine animal masks and wielding ritual implements or weapons, enter in order of the hierarchy of the gods, indicating that various divine beings have descended to the mortal realm. Accompanied by awe-inspiring sacrificial music, these gods, while receiving the worship of the believers, simultaneously form a line, circulate the temple, and with raised hands and lifted feet, rotate and advance.


Dance troupes clad in various religious costumes take turns appearing, wielding ritual implements, brandishing swords, or carrying sacred images atop their heads. Their movements exhibit a slow and graceful rhythm, showcasing the primal and ancient traditions. There are various kinds of Cham dances such as "Dharma Deity Dance," "Fierce Deity Dance," and "Vajra Deity Dance", which vividly highlight the supreme power of the deities, as well as "Skeleton Dance", which portrays mischievous playfulness among elves in the underworld, "Deer Deity Dance", which brings blessings and prosperity,  "Longevity Deity Dance" and "Crane Deity Dance", which promote benevolence, longevity, and wealth. Additionally, there are dance segments depicting Buddhist stories such as "Self-sacrifice to Feed the Tiger" and "Karmic Retribution," creating a spectacle that captivates the audience.

Deer Deity Dance and Skeleton Dance
Deer Deity Dance and Skeleton Dance

Among these various divine animal dances, the "Skeleton Dance" and the "Deer Deity Dance" stand out as the liveliest, most adorable, and dance-intensive, earning the affection of all spectators. Despite being religious dances, these two performances lack the solemn and eerie atmosphere associated with religious rituals. Instead, they endow people with spiritual joy and tranquility, instilling boundless hope for the future.


The performance reaches its culmination as monks enter the stage one by one. Holding a Vajra in their right hand and a skull bowl in their left, adorned with a multicolored khata and a black round-edged hat, and draped in a crimson robe embellished with colorful streamers, they leap onto the venue. These ritual dance monks, in coordination with the sound of bronze gongs, chants, and drum beats, alternately crouched, bounced on one foot, and spun mid-air. In the deep sound of dharma trumpets, they used steady jumps and slow body changes to create a mysterious and solemn atmosphere of religious dance.


"Expelling evil spirits" is the last part of Cham Dance. After all the exorcism rituals were completed, the various gods gathered the big and small ghosts into the ghost leader "Torma", which was made of butter and tsampa. The ghost leader "Torma" was escorted by the "divine troops" and crowds, and transplanted to an open space at a distance from the temple. There it was erected and burned to ashes by firewood. Till now, Cham Dance ritual achieved the expulsion of all evils for the coming year, ushering in a sense of peace and prosperity for both the temple and the people.

Black Hat Dance

There is also a special dance held on the eve of the iterated Tibetan New Year to commemorate the assassination of Langdarma by Lhalung Pelkyi in 842 ACE. The performing monks, wearing black hats and robes, danced outside the palace until they were allowed to perform in front of Tsenpo and then executed assassination. This is a dance that symbolizes the victory of good over evil. The Black Hat Dance also belongs to Cham dance, and it's most frequently depicted in paintings. The dance is mainly performed by monks, divided into two levels to achieve enlightenment and to destroy evil forces. The dancers often hold a skull and scarf tied together and then attached to the handle of a purba. 

Black Hat Dance
The black hat dance commemorates the assassination of Langdama.

When to See Cham Dance

In Tibet, each major Tibetan Buddhist monastery and temple holds Cham Dance on the birthday of Sakyamuni, the Tibetan New Year and important religious festivals of Tibetan Buddhism.

In Bhutan, Cham Dance is performed in every Dzong in the country during annual religious festivals or Tshechu Festival. Cham Dance is sometimes performed by women with the villagers.

In India, Cham Dance is performed during cultural and religious festivals in Lahaul, Spiti, Sikkim, Ladakh and other places.


Cham Dance is considered a form of meditation and an offering to the gods. Combining visuals such as colorful costumes and masks, as well as rhythmic practice art such as musical instruments, Cham Dance not only embodies a deep respect for Buddhist teachings but also provides a visually pleasing performance. Tourists traveling to Tibet cannot miss the interesting Cham Dance in Tibet.

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