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Chham - The Devil Dance of Lahaul

Updated on May 15, 2018
SANJAY LAKHANPAL profile image

Travelling is my passion as it gives a chance to visit different places and enjoy the natural and manmade marvels.

Cham dancing masks and costumes

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Demon Mask
Demon Mask | Source


One of the lesser known dances of Himachal Pradesh is the mask dance called “Chham” or popularly known as the Devil dance. It is performed by the Buddhist Lamas or the monks in Lahaul & Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh in Northern India. It came to these monasteries, in the later half of 19th century. This splendid and magnificent dance form is very popular in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh and the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir.

Chham is very popular among the Tibetan settlements in India because the Buddhist monks practice it with great fervor, much ritual, and full gaiety.

During the celebrations of religious and other festivals of the cheerful occasion, the dance is generally performed in the courtyard of monasteries before a large gathering of devoted spectators or religious congregation. Even the villagers gather in the religious fervor to witness this magnificent dance show in accompaniment with the music.

According to the Buddhist Holy scriptures, dating back to the 8th century A.D, the mask dance forms are the part of religious and cultural traditions. The Lamas, dance in slow, rhythmic and circular movements with big, colorful masks bearing the grotesque expressions.

The masks represent the life and rituals of In all the monasteries situated in the Himalayan range, including those in Himachal Pradesh, Tibet, Ladakh, Bhutan, and Sikkim.

The peculiar features of Chham are the elaborate masks, exquisite headgear and colorful costumes of the performers.

The Devil Dance

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Chham DancersChham or the devil dance at Key monastery SpitiThe mask maker at work
Chham Dancers
Chham Dancers | Source
Chham or the devil dance at Key monastery Spiti
Chham or the devil dance at Key monastery Spiti | Source
The mask maker at work
The mask maker at work
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History of Chham

This dance form originated in the 10th century when it was first performed to kill the king Lang Darma of Tibet. The king had usurped the throne by murdering his brother named Guapo Raipa Cham - an avowed patron of Buddhism. On the other hand, the king Lang Darma was a sworn enemy of Buddhist monks, who called him a ‘Demon King”.

As the story goes Lang Darma had horns. To keep this secret, every evening a young girl was summoned to coiffure his long hair in a manner that would hide the horns. As soon as the task was completed, the girl was put to death.

One day the king took pity on a crying girl and let her go on the condition that she would not divulge the secret. Somehow the girl found it difficult to keep the promise. In sheer desperation to share her secret, she dug a hole and whispered the secret into it. After some time a particular grass "Tsa-dam" grew on the spot. The stem of the grass called Dambu is used to make the trumpet called "Kangling". Whenever the trumpet was blown, it sounded, that, the king had horns. Hence the secret was out and when the king came to know of it, he became infuriated. Thus the persecution of Buddhist monks began- since they had always been talking about the horns and the devilish propensities of the king.

Sick of the reprisals the monks decided to kill the king. Elaborate plots and escape plans were made. Finally, the idea of dance performance was conceived. When the king arrived to witness the performance, the monks began dancing near him. As the dance and the music reached the crescendo, one monk killed the king before disappearing in the melee that ensued.

Since then the dance is performed on certain auspicious occasions to dispel anti-Buddhist elements.

Thangka paintings

The Qianlong Emperor in Lama Dress, Puning si, c. 1758, by an anonymous artist. Thangka, colours on cloth. The Palace Museum, Beijing.
The Qianlong Emperor in Lama Dress, Puning si, c. 1758, by an anonymous artist. Thangka, colours on cloth. The Palace Museum, Beijing. | Source

How Chham is Performed

It is a kind of “Miracle Play” of pre- Elizabethan or pre- Shakespearean era, representing the primordial battle the good and the evil.

It is usually performed in the courtyards of the monasteries.

The head Lama and other Monks sit on a raised veranda, reciting from the Holy Scriptures to the accompaniment of musical instruments.

The dance performance begins with a display of old “Thanka Paintings”, which are brought out of the monastery in a procession accompanied by the musicians.

In the center of the dancing arena, there is a big prayer flag- pole and a small platform on which a prayer lamp and other items are placed.

Among various items is the “Sattu” image of demons called “Daho”- which in Bhoti language means an enemy. The “Daho” is placed in a triangular box, which is brought to the dancing area on a sheet held by the men wearing the death masks.

A pantomime battle follows between the forces of good and evil.

Finally, ‘Daho” is killed with a ‘Phurpa”- a ceremonial dagger used by the Lamas and Dorje (thunderbolt).

The performance is interspersed with three intervals, allowing the dancers to change their costumes. After the first interval, the dancers appear wearing flat-topped hats.

The Lamas perform a dance called the “Aridelan Nritya”, to put an end to all evil. In the final sequence, all dancers emerge wearing small drums called “Nya”.

Like a clown in the Elizabethan drama, a guard in ceremonial dress holding a staff is an integral part of the performance. His duties include the regulating the crowds, ensuring the uninterrupted passage to the dancers and providing humor during the intervals.

The dance begins in small rhythmic movements and slowly reaches the climax. The dancers use the blurred movements.

Then suddenly the music drops to a suspended beat of drums (nga), oboe (geling), cymbals, short trumpets (Kangling), Long trumpet (gedug), balls and conch shells.

“Chhang”, a local beer is consumed liberally on this occasion by the Lamas and a large number of people, who turn out for the show. Interestingly, a fixed quantity of barley is collected in advance from every household for this purpose.

Masks and Costumes

The 'Chham Dance' is performed by using elaborate masks and costumes. Animal masks are used to portray the evil spirits or the “Rakshashas”. The mask is similar to that as used in “Kathakali” dance tradition of Kerala in India.

The “Chhangvi” or the costume worn by the dancers are made of printed silk. The sleeves of the dress are made extra-large in order to conceal the weapons used to kill the “Demon King”. The dancers wear special cloth- covered shoes called ‘Takpas”, during the performance.

The over-sized masks, with weird expressions and monstrous appearances, are made by the Lamas, by using wood, paper-mache and the thin coat of plaster and natural colors. The masks represent numerous and dreadful monsters, like dragons, devils, evil spirits and skeletons, which are believed to be waiting for the soul of the dead.

Usually, the bright colors like red, blue, yellow, pink, green, black and white are used in the brocaded silk costumes. It is customary that the masks and costumes are made by the Lamas themselves, according to the religious dictates.

The Women of Lahaul in Traditional Costumes

Shashur Monestery

In the context of Chham, it will be appropriate to specially mention the Shah Sur monastery where this dance is performed by the Buddhist Lamas. The monastery is famous for its ritual-plays, enacted by the mask donning Lamas wearing exotic costumes. The monastery attracts a lot of visitors in the month of June and July, during the performance of devil dance.

The monastery located in Lahaul & Spiti district and is about 2 Km from Keylong or 37 kilometers from the famous tourist place Manali.

In local dialect, the word Shashur means, "in the blue pines”, which could be seen in plenty around the monastery.

The monastery has a three-storied tall structure, which is significant in architectural design which conforms to the ancient mandala concept. The entire complex has been planned vertically because the site situated on a narrow hill.

Among the prized possessions of the monastery are the exquisite “Thanka” paintings; some of which are over fifteen feet. Besides, the priceless wall paintings in the monastery or the gompa, depict the history of 84 Buddha's or the 84 Siddhas or 84 Saints.

This monastery belongs to the “drug pa” or “Gelug-pa” or the red-hat sect of Buddhism, with their spiritual pedigree leading to the Lion Cave Temple of Bhutan.

Bhutan is the closest neighbor of India and has a tradition of fearful masks of animal spirits, which are highly codified with aesthetic connotations of color, shape, form, style and significance. It is only in Bhutan that the Mahayana form of Buddhism survives.

Panorama of Ladakh

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A picture of an antique Ladakhi headdress costume worn by women in the Zanskar region of Ladakh.Zanskar Valley, Ladakh, IndiaLine art drawing showing an anticline and syncline.Lingshed gompa, Zanskar/Ladakh.Confluence of Indus and Z anskar river in Himachal, India. A street of Padum town in Zasnkar ValleyZanskarie womenBara Laacha La
A picture of an antique Ladakhi headdress costume worn by women in the Zanskar region of Ladakh.
A picture of an antique Ladakhi headdress costume worn by women in the Zanskar region of Ladakh. | Source
Zanskar Valley, Ladakh, India
Zanskar Valley, Ladakh, India | Source
Line art drawing showing an anticline and syncline.
Line art drawing showing an anticline and syncline. | Source
Lingshed gompa, Zanskar/Ladakh.
Lingshed gompa, Zanskar/Ladakh. | Source
Confluence of Indus and Z anskar river in Himachal, India.
Confluence of Indus and Z anskar river in Himachal, India. | Source
A street of Padum town in Zasnkar Valley
A street of Padum town in Zasnkar Valley | Source
Zanskarie women
Zanskarie women | Source
Bara Laacha La
Bara Laacha La | Source


It is appropriate to mention that, Zanskar is a subdistrict or tehsil in Kargil district.

Padum is the administrative center or headquarter.

Zanskar is in Ladakh region and is situated in the eastern half of the state of Jammu & Kashmir in India.

Both the Zanskar and the Ladakh regions remained a part of the Guge kingdom of Western Tibet for a brief period and hence the tradition of "Chham".

The mountain range of Zanskar has an average height of about 6,000 m above sea level and it separates Ladakh and Zanskar regions from each other.

This range is geologically a part of the Tethys Himalayas, with an approximately 100-km-wide synclinorium- or the depression of tectonic plates into a great compound trough- formed by strongly folded, imbricated and weakly metamorphosed series of sedimentary rocks.

The eastern part of the range is known as Rupshu.

In Himachal Pradesh, this range has the highest peaks.

It also separates the Kinnaur district from the rest of the Spiti valley.

Deva Tyatsho of Zanskar

Earlier there was a small Gompa at the present site of Shashur, and the existing monastery has been built in 17th century by a Buddhist Lama of Zanskar named Deva Tyatsho.

Deva Tyatsho was a missionary of Nawang Namgyal, the king of Bhutan whose statue too has been installed in the gompa. Deva Tyatsho stayed in the monastery until his death and when he was being cremated; his heart did not burn and was enclosed in a black image of Gyatsho.

According to the lamas in the gompa, the King Namgyal was the founder of this sect and the name originated from Dug which in the Bhoti language means Bhutan.

Losar and Chham

Chham is also performed during Losar, the New Year festival of Tibetan Buddhism practitioners. It is mainly celebrated in the Lahaul & Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh and usually falls somewhere around mid-November to the first week of December. It marks the beginning of the winter season in the valley and is celebrated during the first month of Tibetan calendar. During Losar, the local deity is worshiped through traditional dances. Rich imagery and ritual dances form the highlight of the festivities. The festival may have originated in the pre-Buddhist period when Bon was the religion of Tibet.

At the time of the Losar festival, the most splendid events in elaborate masks and costumes, especially the 'Chham" or devil dance is performed in Buddhist settlements and monasteries in Lahaul. It presents the story of an ultimate triumph of good over evil in which a cruel Tibetan king, Langdarma, was killed in the 9th century. The name devil dance has come from the devilish and weird masks used in the dance.

Losar was first celebrated in the "Lhokha Yarla Shampo" region of Tibet. Earlier it was known as an agrarian festival, celebrated at the time of blossoming of the apricot trees.

The festival usually lasts for three days, though in an orthodox Tibetan family, it may continue for ten days. On the first day, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama' - the spiritual head of the Tibetans is worshiped. Therefore the festival is called 'Lama Losar', or the festival of the teacher or the Guru. Huge processions are taken out in honor of "Dalai Lama" on this day.

The Deities Represented in Chham

The deities usually portrayed as the characters in "Chham" include the "God of Wealth", the "Great Tempter" and the "God of Death" or "Yama", along with the good and evil demons.

"Chham" has many forms but the most popular one is the theme is the commemoration of the deity Padmasambhava, the god of wealth, or the second Buddha or the "Guardian Angel" or the protector of horses and other animals.

The first part of the dance performance honors and pays homage to the eight aspects of Padmasambhava. In the second part a horned masked figure called "Maha Dongcren", slays the demonic force to restore goodness.

Primarily the devil dance is to please the deity, kill the evil and protect the people from the natural calamities and diseases. The dance is thereby believed to ensure health, happiness and prosperity and peace to the people in the vicinity.

It is under the supervision of the senior Lamas of a monastery that the devil dance is performed.

The dagger or 'Phurpa', which is basically a clover blade with the head of "Khyunk" or hawk on its top, forms an important part of this dance. It is believed to be the magical dagger of tantric deities or the deities with supernatural powers. They use it to subdue the demons and ultimately kill them. It is generally made of either wood, steel or bronze.

The dance tells the story of the defeat of the cruel Tibetan king Langdarma and emphasizes the triumph of good over evil. It is due to the use of the masks that the dance is known as the devil dance.

It is believed that the Chham dance is performed to exorcise evil spirits and demons. The theme of killing the evil king, symbolizes natural calamities, diseases, epidemics and the evil tendencies in human beings.


Until recently, Chham was the only theatrical form of entertainment in Lahaul & Spiti, but now with the advent of new forms of electronic entertainment, the enthusiasm for the dance form is fading.

© 2014 Sanjay Sharma


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