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The Dancing Monks of Tengboche

Article contributed by: Golden Hill Travel

IT ISN'T MUSIC AND IT HAS NO RHYTHM. Amplified by the dear mountain air, the cacophony of sound is deafening. Conversation becomes impossible and all attention turns to the temple entrance, whence a procession of solemn faced monks is emerging. Dressed in orange silk robes, and with yellow crescent shaped hats perched precariously on their heads, they carry an assortment of instruments including bugles made from human bones, giant conch shells and long, brass horns. These horns, known locally as dun chen, issue the deep, hoarse notes that herald the unforgettable Mani Rimdu Festival.

Every year, in the Khumbu region of Nepal, this Buddhist Dance Drama is enacted by the monks of Tengboche Monastery. The site of this high altitude entertainment is the temple, or gompa, within the monastery itself. Situated on a generous plateau at an altitude of almost four thousand metres, the gompa is crowned by some of the highest mountains in the world: Thamserku (6608m), Kangteiga, (6779m) Taboche (6542m) and two kilometres or so away, the summit of Mount Everest (8848m) peers above the Lhotse Nuptse Wall.

Tengboche gompa is home to around 36 monks and 25 students, under the leadership of the Abbot Ngawang Tenzin Zangbu. The Abbot spent his early years in Namche Bazaar, a busy trading centre in the Khumbu Valley. As a small child he expressed a wish to return home to Tengboche, a desire that coincided with the death of the previous Abbot, Lama Gulu. It was believed that the child might be the Lama's reincarnation, and monks from Tengboche visited Namche Bazaar with a heap of possessions to test him. He picked out all those that had belonged to Lama Gulu, and from the age of five was raised at Tengboche as the Reincarnate Lama and Guru Rinpoche of the monastery.

Tengboche translates as 'sacred bowl' and the gompa commands a view over a clearing ringed by dwarf firs and rhododendrons. The land below is occupied during the autumn trekking months by groups of western tourists. The festival of Mani Rimdu is a three day affair, taking place straight after October's full moon. Sherpas and travellers alike flock to the scene to be entertained, and educated about the fundamentals of Buddhism as practised by the Sherpa people of Nepal.

The dances emanate from Tibet's Rongbuk Monastery on the northern side of Mount Everest, and depict the triumph of Buddhism over the earlier 'Bon religion. Followers of this ancient cult believe that the world is inhabited by spirits and supernatural forces, upon which the monks, by means of their dancing, perform the rites of expiation and purification to give protection to the people.The bright, thundering procession slowly wends its way from the gompa towards the memorial ground outside, where an expectant crowd is gathered. The monks sit cross legged on the ground, chanting mani or prayers as the blessing ceremony to the god of compassion, Pawa Cherenzig, begins. These prayers invoke du, the blessing of Pawa Cherenzig, onto small, red pellets of rice, which act as powerful medicine to help guarantee a long and healthy life.

The rice is scattered among the crowd while the younger monks serve hot Tibetan tea to their seniors. The addition of rancid yak butter and salt to the tea gives it the consistency of thick soup and a memorable flavour, probably something like that of greasy dish water. Meanwhile, the monks take it in turns to offer symbolic gifts of money, placed on white silk shawls, or katas, to the Guru Rinpoche. Each kneels reverently before the throne as the Rin poche places the kata around his neck in the tra ditional form of blessing.

The second day of the festival is the most keenly awaited, and the crowd gathers early, buzzing with excited laughter and chatter. In contrast to this highly charged atmosphere, the nuns of Devouche sit cross legged and in silence, watching the comings and goings within the gompa. Each year they leave their nunnery to witness the Mani Rinidu. Their wrinkled, stoic faces reflect a way of life that is as hard as the mountain environment in which they live.

The gompa is a square, three storied edifice, recently rebuilt for the second time, having been destroyed in 1989 by an electrical fire. An earthquake half a century before demolished the original building. The entrance opens onto a courtyard paved with large, flat stones, overlooked by public balconies. At its centre, attached to a long wooden pole, is a banner inscribed with prayers to be carried on the mountain winds. Beside it is the altar, piled high with sacred objects, amongst them a skull bowl with a silver base and lid. Musicians occupy the south facing balcony, and in the shadows to their left sits the Guru Rinpoche.

The addition of rancid yak butter and salt to the tea gives it the consistency of thick soup and a memorable flavour, probably something like that of greasy dish water. A grey curtain masks the entrance to the gompa. A monk, playing the role of master of ceremonies, pulls it aside to check that all is in place. He marches around the courtyard and roughly pushes the audience back to create space for the dancers. Finally he is satisfied: the stage is set and the entertainment, a fourteen scene masked dance drama, begins.Heralds descend the stone steps from the gompa entrance in single file; incense bearers follow in their wake, purifying the atmosphere in preparation for what will follow. Musicians come down, blowing clarions and bugles, clashing cymbals and beating drums. The dun chen players keep to their corner and issue two deep notes to bring each dance to a close. There is no clapping or cheering; such gestures are considered inappropriate and unnecessary.

Shrill notes of bugles announce the first dance. The vibrant costumes of eight dancers appear on the steps and sweep down into the courtyard. With short, hesitant steps they make clockwise circles around the altar, sprinkling to the Buddhist gods offerings of torma, balls of parched barley flour, and chang, a local beer made from fermented millet. Milky in colour, it is a potent brew that during the festival takes on the properties of Holy Water.

The next dance depicts the Four Protecting Kings, defending the Buddhist faith against attack by demons. Shining paper masks hide the faces of the dancers, each a different colour and each displaying a constant ' smile. The dancers' skips are rhythmically accompanied by the beating of cymbals. Without breaking step, the dancers charge haltingly at children in the audience. The youngsters recoil in horror, much to the amusement of everyone else in the crowd.

Tension builds up for the most memorable and terrifying dance, that of Padmasambhava, considered in Tibet to be a second Buddha. His entrance is preceded by furious drumming and shrieking of horns. At last Padmasambhava emerges slowly, wielding in his right hand a vajra or Thunderbolt of the Gods, and in his left, a sacred dagger to fight off the demons. The dance symbolises the defeat by Padmasambhava of the evil spirits of Bon religion and the conversion of the people to Buddhism. The more subdued Dance of the Celestial Drums that follows celebrates this victory.

The unannounced appearance of the Aged Scholar, Mitshering, heralds a more light hearted act. Dressed in a long, yellow tunic of Chinese brocade and a skin coloured mask, he is an expert parodist, limping slowly down the stairs supported by a cane. To the delight of the Sherpa audience he slips and stumbles clumsily, but the laughter turns to shrieks of mock horror as the old man approaches the crowd. The locals scatter in all directions to escape... and the reason soon becomes apparent, as an unsuspecting westerner is chosen by Mitshering to be his Assistant.

No words are spoken by the Aged Scholar as he instructs his victim in the preparation of torma. The crowd ripples with merriment as the Assistant is made the butt of Sherpa humour, though on this occasion he turns the tables, mimicking the Scholar amidst peals of laughter. Mitshering waves his arms in mock annoyance, before throwing torma and water at the crowd and slowly ascending the stone staircase into the gompa.

The gentle Dance of the Dakini contrasts sharply with what has gone before. Five young priests execute slow motion dance steps, keeping perfect time with the soft tinkle and slow beat of bells and drums held in their hands. The dancers are without masks, and portray female spiritual figures, the partners of Padmasambhava.

Hinduism is the state religion of Nepal, yet in this remote corner of the country, the Mani Rimdu allows a light hearted dig at the Hindu sadhus or holy men. The tenth dance portrays the ostentatious sadhus drawing attention to themselves in parks and at roadsides, as opposed to the Buddhist monks, who retire to the mountains away from the public eye. The arrogant sadhu shown accidentally killing himself with a knife while attempting a yogic feat.

It is cold sitting on the courtyard floor. The shadows lengthen on the stone pavement an people gravitate to sit in the weak rays of the sun Not so the nuns from Devouche, who remain in the same position throughout the nine hour performance. A young monk serves hot Tibetan tea at regular intervals, and the nuns hold out the wooden bowls that they have brought with them for this purpose.

At this time of year, night time temperature can fall as low as minus twenty. Nima, my Sherpa guide, led me down the hill from Tengboche the sun was already setting. Dusk was short lived and soon our way was lit by the light of the full moon. The next day the Mani Rimdu Festival would draw to a close. A finale without an audience and without music.

To the sound of prayers being chanted, the concluding act involves the burning of rolls of parchment on which the ritual prayers are written. Any evil forces operating in the Khumbu Valley that have escaped earlier exorcism should now have been thrown out. The end of the Mani Rimdu sig nifies the end of all evil. For another year, good ness and peace will reign over the Khumbu region of the Sherpa people.