Tibetan Mask Dance (QAMO)

The sounds of beating drums echo in my ears, as I brace myself to watch one of the ‘weird’ performances that I might ever witness. A ritual dance is such a personal experience to the participant that I feel like an intruder. My inner self nudges me to move away, another cynic in me chides my overactive mind for jumping to conclusions (after all I am an atheist)! Then of course, the mountaineer in me that always raises thumbs when I finish a climb, asks me watch on. And was it an experience. The Qamo dance performed by Tibetan monks was indeed a sight to behold. Even if my belief in God or any other Godman is limited to the extent of complete lax, I believe that the dance was so filled with faith and belief that it might actually drive away the evil spirits like it was meant to be.

The Daemons Lined Up During The Qamo Dance

During my recent visit to Zongkar Choede Monastery in Gurupura (Hunsur Taluk, Karnataka), I witnessed the Masked Dance also known as Qamo dance. The dance, that is performed on the day of theTibetan new year, is celebrated a day after the Hindu Festival of Mahashivratri. We managed to reach late around 4:30 PM and what greets us? At the entrance of the monastery, where the festival was held, the monks were seen chanting and on to their right, men dressed as demons and carrying evil-looking swords (Yes, pun intended) was staring at the fire. The swords that probably signify death or evil was glistening in the twilight. Right in the centre was another man seated and carrying something like a sceptre, which makes him a local prince, that was decorated crudely, yet beautifully. As another four monks play the Gyaling, the Tibetan horns, the beat creates the mood for the dance.

Impressive Five Skulled Crown

While the ‘prince’ occasionally saw fit to join the ‘primitive’ dance of the others, the others started dancing to the tone of the music from other huge horns known as Dung Chen which produced a far away sounds of an elephant’s trumpet that echoed in an haunting manner. The atmosphere had a spiritual aura to it, when the masked men dancing in unison picked up the rhythm. The monks with the swords, who represented evil, wore ghastly red masks with teeth barred to gobble anything in their path. The richly coloured robes decorated with complex designs and gold threaded shawls thrown over them created more of a mystic effect. The dance was simple with the perpetrators moving sideways in a straight line. Sudden little swirls punctuated the performance with the dancers trying to lazily move their swords as if to strike a prey. The monk dressed up as prince, joined the others only at the culmination of the performance, after which he left the stage.

Prince In Action

The rest continued to dance with a pause every 10 mins. A photographer clicking away the motions of the performance and the swirls of the elaborate costumes, proved to be a distraction that no one gave heed to.

The Instrument Gyaling Played By Monks

As the dance came to a close, each demon dancer, one after the other stood near the stairs of  the monastery performing some kind of farewell gestures to signify their departure. The process went on till every dancer disappeared into the monastery.


Dung Chen

Bizarre faces dressed beautifully ceased to exist after the hour-long performance. The culmination refused to put an end to the spiritual aura that sought to drive away the evil spirits. The onlookers started spreading away from the area with quiet murmurings of their own versions of the performance. Be it those die-hard cynics, who laugh away everything as a joke, or those serious enthusiasts who look at all things with an arty eye, for them it was indeed a performance that will stay alive in their over-active heads. At the end of the day, I have the satisfaction of seeing something as profound as a ritual dance!

Getting The Beat Right!

Brief History Of QAMO Dance: The dance came into existence during the clash of Bon religion and Buddhism. The Bon religion being an ancient religion of the indigenous people of Tibet. The clash between the two religion became fierce during the rule of Langdarma. Its around this time the dance is believed to have come into existence.  Padmasambhava from Kashmir was very keen on promoting Buddhism that he brought in Buddhist interpretation of the local tribal dances of Tibet. Soon, Buddhism brought an end to Bon religion. The monks to this day perform an ancient Tibetan dance in Buddhist form. Qamo the religious dance is performed to subdue the “evil spirits” in monasteries. Its widely believed that Padmasambhava, selected only some animal-mime dances and divine instrument dances that suited Buddhism and combined them with
the ceremonial mask dance of the Bon religion. Before the modern Qamo Dance (Sorcerer’s Dance) begins formally, a traditional livestock sacrificial ceremony is held. However, livestock is no longer killed since it goes against the doctrines of Buddhism.


Qamo Performance

When the ceremony begins, suona horns are blown and drums and cymbals beaten, A group of performers playing demons walk slowly round as a prelude to the dance. This is followed by the Demons’ Dance, Skeleton Dance, Ox God Dance, Deer Dance, Guardian Dance and Dharma Protector Dance. Sometimes they perform stories from Buddhist scripture that bear messages to do good things in other people’s interest, such as “Sacrifice Life to Save the Tiger” and “Dance of the Man of Longevity” who is believed to be generous in bestowing longevity and good fortune. The last act is for the divine soldiers to drive away
the evil spirits. With guns on their shoulders, the performers send Duoma (the leading demon, made of butter and tsampa) to the wilderness and burn him to drive away evil for the year and pray for good fortune in the coming year.

The End!


4 responses to “Tibetan Mask Dance (QAMO)

  1. Shraddha Pandya

    Very beautifully written, the beginning was particularly captivating! 🙂
    Read it twice already!

  2. Awesome. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing this story. 🙂

  3. Beautifuly written! Seems like a g8 experience!

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