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Buddhist Music of Bhutan

The kingdom of Bhutan is tucked away in the Himalayan ranges with Tibet to the north, India to the south and east, and Sikkim to the west.  A central mountain range divides the country, the western portion inhabited by people of Tibetan origin, the eastern area populated by Assamese descendents.  Northern Bhutan, with valleys 3,600-5,500 meters above sea level and heavy rainfall, and southern Bhutan, also with high annual rainfall and dense forests, both have low population density, whereas the fertile valleys of central Bhutan have moderate rain and are comparatively well populated. 

Buddhism was first introduced to Bhutan in the 7th century AD. Tibetan king Songtsän Gampo(reigned 627–649), a convert to Buddhism, who actually had extended the Tibetan Empire into Sikkim and Bhutan, ordered the construction of two Buddhist temples, at Bumthang in central Bhutan and at Kyichu (near Paro) in the Paro Valley. Buddhism was propagated in earnest in 746 under King Sindhu Rāja, an exiled Indian king who had established a government in Bumthang at Chakhar Gutho Palace.  Bhutan existed as a patchwork of minor warring fiefs until the early 17th century. At that time the lama and military leader Ngawang Namgyal, the first Zhabdrung Rinpoche, who was fleeing religious persecution in Tibet.  To defend the country against intermittent Tibetan forays, Namgyal built a network of impregnable dzongs or fortresses, and promulgated the Tsa Yig, a code of law that helped to bring local lords under centralized control.

Many such dzongs still exist and are active centers of religion  and district administration. Portuguese Jesuits Estêvão Cacella
and João Cabral were the first recorded Europeans to visit Bhutan, on their way to Tibet. They met Ngawang Namgyal, presented him with firearms, gunpowder and a telescope, and offered him their services in the war against Tibet, but the Zhabdrung declined the offer. After a stay of nearly eight months Cacella wrote a long letter from the Chagri Monaster y reporting on his travels.  After Ngawang Namgyal's death in 1651, his passing was kept secret for 54 years; after a period of consolidation, Bhutan lapsed into internal conflict. In the year 1711 Bhutan went to war against the Mughal Empire and its Subedars, who restored Koch Bihar in the south. During the chaos that followed, the Tibetans unsuccessfully attacked Bhutan in 1714.

In the 18th century, the Bhutanese invaded and occupied the kingdom of Cooch Behar to the south. In 1772, Cooch Behar appealed to the British East India Company which assisted them in ousting the Bhutanese and later in attacking Bhutan itself in 1774. A peace treaty was signed in which Bhutan agreed to retreat to its pre-1730 borders. However, the peace was tenuous, and border skirmishes with the British were to continue for the next hundred years. The skirmishes eventually led to the Duar War (1864–65), a confrontation for control of the Bengal Duars. After Bhutan lost the war, the Treaty of Sinchula was signed between British India and Bhutan. As part of the war reparations, the Duars were ceded to the United Kingdom in exchange for a rent of Rs. 50,000. The treaty ended all hostilities between British India and Bhutan.

Following four centuries of Tibetan rule (with British influence in the 19th Century) the country became a British protectorate in 1910 before gaining independence in 1949.  Today, the nation's relation to India is defined by a treaty that guarantees its independence, with India guiding its foreign relations and supplying aid.


Buddhism was introduced to Bhutan in the 7th century AD. Tibetan king Songtsän Gampo (reigned 627–649), a convert to Buddhism, ordered the construction of two Buddhist temples, at Bumthang in central Bhutan and at Kyichu Lhakhang (near Paro) in the Paro Valley.  It is estimated that between two-thirds and three-quarters of the Bhutanese population follow Vajrayana Buddhism, which is also the state religion. About one-quarter to one-third are followers of Hinduism. Other religions account for less than 1% of the population.  Though largely Buddhist, the Bhutanese have maintained links with earlier, "natural" religious faith.  People of Assamese origin are greatly influenced by Hinduism, and a strong Nepalese presence also stresses Hindu leanings.  The main theatrical event in Bhutan belongs to the primitive category.  Participants in the annual archery competitions wear colorful clothes, and are encouraged by richly attired girls, who dance intermittently.  To the accompaniment of d hol "large cylindrical drums" and tutari "high-pitched horn," dancers wearing long robes and animal and bird masks execute heroic dances.

Masked dances and dance dramas (cham) are common traditional features at festivals, usually accompanied by traditional music. Energetic dancers, wearing colourful wooden or composition face masks and stylized costumes, depict heroes, demons, dæmons, death heads, animals, gods, and caricatures of common people. The dancers enjoy royal patronage, and preserve ancient folk and religious customs and perpetuate the ancient lore and art of mask-making.  The Drametse Ngacham (Mask Dance) of the Drametse community is a sacred cultural and religious mask dance performed during the Drametse Festival in honour of Padmasambhava, a Buddhist guru. It takes place twice a year, during the fifth month and the tenth month of the Bhutanese calendar. The festival is held by the Ogyen Tegchok Namdroel Choeling Monastery, situated in the Mongar district of eastern Bhutan. The dance features sixteen masked male dancers wearing colorful costumes and ten other men comprising the orchestra lead by a cymbal player. The dance has a calm and contemplative part that represents the peaceful deities and a rapid and athletic part, where the dancers represent wrathful deities.

Dancers dressed in monastic robes and wearing wooden masks with features of real and mythical animals perform a prayer dance in the soeldep cham, the main shrine, before appearing one by one on the main courtyard. The dance performance is accompanied by traditional instruments, which are played by an orchestra and by the dancers themselves. The orchestra consists of cymbals, trumpets and drums, including the bang nga, a large cylindrical drum, the lag nga, a small hand-held circular, flat drum and the nga chen, a drum beaten with a bended drumstick.

The Drametse Ngacham has been performed in this location for centuries. The form has both religious and cultural significance, because it is believed to have originally been performed by the heroes and heroines of the celestial world. In the 19th century, versions of the Drametse Ngacham were introduced in other parts of Bhutan. For the audience, the dance is a source of spiritual empowerment and is attended by people from Drametse as well as neighbouring villages and districts to obtain blessings.  Today, the dance has evolved from a local event centered around a particular community into something approaching a national art form, representing the identity of the Bhutanese nation as a whole.