Bodh Gaya: Reviving ancient Buddhist dance

All India
Radhika Bordia
March 21, 2014

Bodh Gaya: Reviving ancient Buddhist danceBodh Gaya, Bihar:  At the Tergar monastery in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, the long queues are an indication of the event to follow – a rare performance of the Garchen Tscechu Cham, a sacred lama dance of the Kagyu Sect of Tibetan Budhism. It begins with an invocation which is believed to help purify the land. The music is played by a chanting master, their instruments coordinated with the meditative movement of the dancers. The dancers are the sect’s most eminent monks, led by the absolute spiritual head of the Kagyu sect – the 17th Karmapa Trinley Dorjee. He has been living in exile in Dharamsala after he fled Tibet in 2004 at the age of 14.

The Kagyu sect has a unique theory of reincarnation which is based on the belief that each Karmapa leaves clues to indicate where he will be reborn. Following the death of one Karmapa, the clues then help in finding the reincarnated guru. There are two other claimants to the throne of the 17th Karmapa. But Trinley Dorjee is the one who has the dominant following and is endorsed by the Dalai Lama. The Karmapa’s following is evident in the numbers that have gathered to see him lead the Tsechu.

“For 900 years this prayer dance has been a core part of our tradition in monastries across the Himalayas but this is the first time it is being performed in Bodhgaya. What’s even more historic is the scale of the performance. Every effort has been made to ensure that the scale and authenticity of the dance matches its original form. The Karmapa has paid personal detail to this and will be leading it,” explains Acharya Yonten from Ladakh. His eager anticipation is echoed by thousands of other Lamas, the excitement palpable as they wait for the event to begin.

The Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim is the original seat of the Karmapa but so far the Karmapa has not been given permission to go there.

“I’m from China and I have come as I want my child to hear the Karmapa’s teaching. It’s very nice. Wonderful,” says a woman from Xiamen city.

The presence of a large number of Chinese followers here underlies the endless politics between India and China over Tibet.

While those politics are actively discouraged here, the deep historical and spiritual links between India and Tibet are reinforced by this dance itself which honours Guru Padmasambhav, who is said to have taken Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century.

Today, many ancient Buddhist texts and Sanskrit shlokas which were lost to India are preserved by Tibetan Buddhist orders. The Karmapa is the key to help preserve and revive this knowledge.

The Karmapa talks about the various aspects of the ritual. “First of all we feel very very fortunate, to have had this opportunity to celebrate the elaborate Tsechu ritual here in Bodh Gaya because as everyone knows the Buddha dharma was brought from India to Tibet. And therefore Tibetan Buddhists look to India as the source of this tradition and as the birth place of Buddha dharma.”

“In particular to celebrate it here in Bodh Gaya, where Buddhism began, has tremendous significance in two ways. First of all, we are brought back to India, ancient Indian wisdom and cultural. And the second reason, it also is our hope that the younger Tibetan generation will witness this as many people were here yesterday and we seek to preserve it further,” he says.

For the first time, Buddhist nuns are also dancing as part of the Karmapa’s agenda to give women greater equality within the faith.

“I really like it here,” says a nun about her time at the ritual.

Backstage, there is frenzied excitement, with monks from monasteries across the Himalayas at the camp.

The dance is part of a month-long peace prayer, for which the monks, almost 10,000 of them, will stay in camps like this.

This replicates the Tibetan concept of Garchen-Garchen, literally means encampment, the sort that would historically accompany a Karmapa as he went from one monastery to another.

For those, outside the faith, the residents of Bodh Gaya, this event has some impact. The bomb blasts in July last year had impacted the tourist season here.

The owner of the popular Om restaurant tells us that the Buddhist event is helping business return to the city.

As part of the reason to perform the Tsechu dance and the peace prayers is to purify the environment, the Karmapa was keen to hold the event in Bodhgaya exactly six months after the terror attack.


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