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Drametse Ngacham: The Drum Dance of

Drametse Ngacham () is among the most common sacred
cham performed in Bhutan, and forms a major part of most tshechu
festivals. Its retinue of sixteen dancers, wearing animal head masks
and dressed in silk costumes, each hold a drum as perform the dance,
which lasts between two to three hours.

Origin and history

The Drametse Ngacham, as the name suggests, is said to have
originated in Drametse, a religious centre in eastern Bhutan. Choten
Zangmo, about whom we know very little or almost nothing with
certainty, is said to have established the first centre in the area. She is
said to have been a daughter or granddaughter of Bhutans foremost
saint and treasure discoverer Pema Lingpa (1450-1521) although we
find nothing mentioned about her in surviving texts available to us. The
site, formerly known as Brahmi, is said to have been renamed as
Drametse () or Spot without Enemy, because she settled there to
pursue her religious life peacefully without the enemy () of
distraction. She was said to have been pursued as a bride by the ruler
of her native Chokhor valley; she made her journey to Drametse to
escape from him.

Her brother, Kuenga Gyaltshen alias Kuenga Nyingpo, about whom we

also know almost nothing, lived with her. Some accounts identify this
person as Kuenga Wangpo, one of Pema Lingpas sons. As a
practitioner of Buddhist meditation, Kuenga Gyaltshen had several
visions and spiritual experiences. During one of his dream states, he is
said to have visited Guru Rinpoches Copper-coloured Palace (
), where he witnessed a drum dance performed by celestial spiritual
beings. When he returned to his senses, he vividly remembered the
external costumes, choreography, and movements as well as the
internal process of visualization that accompanied them. Fully aware of
the spiritual significance and the liberative power of the dance, he
wrote down the details of the performance and enacted the dance in
Drametse, thus giving it the name, Drum Dance of Drametse. Since
then, it was performed at the site as a dance of immense religious
significance. In the 19th century, the Drametse establishment saw the
birth of several important incarnations including two consecutive
reincarnations of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651), the
founder of Bhutan. Zhabdrung Jigme Chogyal (1862-1905), one of the
Zhabdrung incarnations from Drametse, is said to have taken the
dance out of Drametse for the first time and introduced it at Talo
Sangngag Choling. In the middle of the 20th century, the dance was
further introduced at the Paro and Trongsa Dzongs, and Gangteng and
Ura temples. By the end of the 20th century, the Drametse Ngacham
was performed in most state festivals and also in many religious
centres. The Royal Academy of Performing Arts began performing it
during state events. In the process, the manner in which it was
performed also started to vary from place to place and today we see
two main versions of Drametse Ngacham: one that strictly follows the
original structure and style from Drametse and the other, which has
seen some modifications and changes.

The Characters and Costumes

Although the number of dancers varies from place to place depending
on trained participants, the original dance in Drametse is performed by
sixteen dancers. The sixteen wear masks of the following real and
mythical animals: snow lion (), garuda bird (), dragon (), yak
(), leopard (), goat (), snake (), raven (), horse (), owl (),
stag (), pig (), dog (), bear (), tiger () and ox (). Although the
number is not fixed and most festivals will have a number between ten
and sixteen depending on availability of competent dancers, the
original version in Drametse is said to have sixteen characters. Older
people often count twelve to match the twelve animal signs in
Bhutanese astrological-divination tradition.

The masks represent the non-human tantric divinities as Kuenga

Gyaltshen visualized them in the Copper-coloured Palace. Most of
them, like the lead snow lion, are found in the lists of divinities in the
tantric teachings, such as those dealing with the hundred kinds of
peaceful and wrathful deities () and the bardo intermediate
state. They overlap with the four door guardians (), eight thramen
deities (), and the twenty-eight powerful divinities ()
which are listed among fifty-eight wrathful deities. They represent the
different forms of enlightened energy that are both latent in a person
and are manifest during spiritual and existential visions such as those
during the bardo state. The animal and bird faces also have the
purpose of disrupting our prejudice towards seeing enlightened beings
only in the form of human or celestial figures.
The Drametse Ngacham is not merely an artistic and entertaining
performance. When done properly, it is a rigorous spiritual practice
combining bodily movements, musical sounds and mental
visualization. The dancers ideally will be experienced in deity
meditation and genuine practitioners of Vajrayna Buddhism. They
should have at least received the required authorization and initiation
to do the practice and be familiar with the process of deity
visualization. They have to often observe a set of religious disciplines
before the dance performance. The dance was traditionally performed
by lay priests with the necessary religious competency, although due
to the declining number of lay priests and introduction of schools for
performing arts, more and more ordinary men perform the Drametse
Ngacham without necessarily understanding its significance and
meeting the above criterion to be a dancer. For the spectators, the
Drametse Ngacham is presented as an artistic piece, which has the
potential to bring about liberation by seeing it () by awakening the
divine potential within sentient beings as they encounter the divinities
in dancing form.

The Dance Procedures

The dance has twenty-one chapters including chapters dedicated to
entrance and exit, each of them with different steps, movements, and
visualisations. Along with the fixed expressions of the masks, the
movements are supposed to show the nine different moods () of
the divinities. The movements are performed twice once in a slow
peaceful manner and once in an active violent manner. The dancers
are supposed to visualize certain forms and activities of divinities
during each chapter. Before the dancers enter the ground for their
performance, a brief ritual of supplication is also performed. In
Drametse, a unique dance of the clown character known as the Old
Man of Merak () is performed before the drum dance. As
Drametse Ngacham is one of the longest and most vigorous mask
dances in Bhutan, the dancers also take short pauses and stand still.
During such recesses, the clowns normally collect tips and tokens of
appreciation for dancers called dar (). If the token is a scarf, it is tied
diagonally across the chest of the recipient dancer(s) and when offered
cash, it is collected in a common pile that is divided equally among the
dancers later. Dancers are also offered simple refreshments during the

Each dancer is dressed in a silk jacket and a dorji gong () shoulder

cover with the trab () sash forming a cross over them. Below, they
wear differently coloured silk scarves hung from a belt with mentse
designs covering the outside layer. They wear loose trousers that stop
above the knees. They dance barefoot and hold a cham drum in their
left hands and the curvy drumstick in their right. Often, a small piece of
silk scarf is attached to the drum as a decoration. In all other dancers,
the lead dancer or champoen () is the first dancer but in
Drametse Ngacham, the lead dancer is the last to enter or exit and
holds a pair of small cymbals. He uses the cymbals to control the
rhythm, speed, and the flow of the dance.

The dancers are accompanied and regulated by an orchestra of large

cymbals, large drums, and long horns. The music from the orchestra
controls the speed and the rhythm of the dance, and is in coordination
with the small cymbals of the lead dancer. When the dancers enter the
ground, they are led by a long procession, including other monastic
musicians who play conch shells, oboes, a procession drum, a bell, and
an incense censer. Large horns are also blown to herald the entrance of
the dancers from the temple and in the procession. When the dancers
perform the concluding chapter to exit the ground, oboes are again
played to herald the end of the dance. Men normally help the dancers
take off the masks as soon as they finish the long performance and are
quickly treated to refreshment and food.

The Drametse Ngacham, considered a great cham (), is one of the

finest and most rigorous creations of Bhutan. Both for its artistic value
as a dance and for its spiritual value as a didactic medium of religious
teachings, it is a highly significant and profound intangible cultural
heritage of Bhutan. It combines the human social and artistic elements
of life with the divine ideals of enlightenment. Due to its worldly,
spiritual and artistic value, Drametse Ngacham has been labeled a
Masterpiece of the Intangible Heritage at the Third Proclamation of
Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by
UNESCO in Paris in November 2005.

Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden
Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History
of Bhutan.