Close this search box.


Monastic Dance Courtyards in Ladakh and Zanskar

Dance courtyard at Spituk Monastery, Ladakh. Image courtesy of Core of Culture

Nowhere is the centrality of dance to Buddhism clearer than in the dance courtyards (Tib: chamra) of the Vajrayana monasteries that mark the landscapes of Bhutan, the Tibetan regions of China, and the neighboring Himalayan regions of Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh, and Zanskar in India. In 2012, in Ladakh and Zanskar, Core of Culture, the organization I direct, conducted research using a method called rapid inventory, which is a technique developed by scientists working in the Amazon to survey phenomena efficiently so that their basic attributes may be recorded in a thorough manner and used to assist preservation efforts. His Eminence Rigyal Rinpoche, now the abbot of Phyang Monastery, conducted this research on behalf of Core of Culture. His participation guaranteed that excellent and orthodox information was gathered.

Dance courtyard at Choglamsar Monastery, Ladakh. Image courtesy of Core of Culture

For Buddhist monastic cham dance in monasteries in Ladakh and Zanskar, the rapid-inventory survey included many things, from noting the existence of choreographic manuals called chams yig, to identifying works of visual art incorporated into the dance ceremonies. It noted the number of monks dancing and the didactic methods used to transmit the ancient dances. Each dance and its attributes were named and recorded. We also took account of the dance courtyard at each monastery. This article is illustrated with our documentation from that fieldwork. Several years later, another rapid inventory of monastic cham dance was undertaken at the monasteries of Spiti Valley and parts of Kinnaur. In total, the survey results of covered 31 monasteries. Here we share eight courtyard photographs from that work.

Dance courtyard at Sani Monastery in Zanskar. Image courtesy of Core of Culture

In Vajrayana Buddhist monastic architecture, dance courtyards have great significance, being purposely designed spaces within monastic complexes for the performance of ritual dance called cham. The courtyards—sometimes made of rough stone, sometime of hewn stone, and sometime simply raw earth—are dedicated performance spaces for the masked dances. These dances, hundreds of years old, are comprised of large-scale complex choreography, and spectacular displays of gorgeous costumes, ferocious masks, and well-trained dancers, who appear on ritual, ceremonial, and festive occasions. There is a symbiotic relationship between the dance itself and the architecture—as thoroughly integrated as Greek tragedy was to the Greek amphitheater, and the Japanese Noh is the Noh stage. It fair to call cham a dance form that evolved into a courtyard performance art.

Dance courtyard at Thikse Monastery in Ladakh. Image courtesy of Core of Culture

These monastic dance courtyards are designed to harness beneficial energies, and this is expressed in the orientation of the courtyards within the context of their natural environment. The courtyards are aligned with landscape features such as rivers, valleys, mountains, and sky, providing a consecrated space that is energetically attuned to the purpose of the cham, which are, in fact, a form of moving meditation and visualization. Altogether the dances, the architecture, the multiple consecrations, and the environment create a spiritually and energetically charged site. The courtyards are places where shared symbolism is put on display and brought to life.

Dance courtyard at Hemis Monastery, Ladakh. From Core of Culture

Cham dance ceremonies provide the greater community with an occasion and a purpose to gather, reaffirming the bonds of community and belief among the monks and villagers. The dance courtyards supply the location for the community to observe, share religious rites, and socialize together as well as  with the monks. Many dance courtyards have tiered viewing platforms, and some, while open air, have walls as high as five stories containing and embracing the courtyard, making the dance ceremonies an energy source at the core of the entire complex. Important religious figures can speak to crowds at dance ceremonies, and the courtyards are designed to allow the flow and interaction of the entire community. This civic purpose to the architecture is similar the civic purpose of Greek amphitheaters: attending the tragedies was incumbent on every Athenian citizen. The Buddhist cham festival is an occasion for everyone to gather for the greater good.

 Dance courtyard, Padam Monastery, Zanskar. Image courtesy of Core of Culture

Most dance courtyards in Vajrayana monasteries have a set of stairs that lead from the monastery itself, or a green room, and serves as an entrance and exit for the dancers. Unlike a painting of a mandala—that a person can view and take in all at once—a danced mandala appears over time: dancers enter, one by one, to form a mandala, activate it, and set it in motion. Monastery design evolved from low buildings built on valley floors, to soaring fortresses on high cliffs and mountains. Cham dance was part of the military apparatus of monks, and fighting against external intruders as well as internally, against other sects of Buddhist monks, was common. As monasteries became symbols of power, the ceremonial function of cham dance flourished.

Dance courtyard, Lamayuru Monastery, Ladakh. From Core of Culture

The centrality of the dance courtyard in Vajrayana Buddhist monasteries highlights not only the significance of the dance as a revered transmitted tradition, but assists and ensures the continuity of the dance practice itself, by supplying a dedicated and purposefully designed space for the dances to play out. The entire architectural plan reinforces the centrality of dance to Buddhist practice and identity.

Dance courtyard, Likir monastery, Ladakh. From Core of Culture

See more

Core of Culture

Related features from BDG

The Ancient Noh Stages of Sado, the Isle of Exile

More from Ancient Dances by Joseph Houseal

Related features from Buddhistdoor Global

Related news from Buddhistdoor Global

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments