Winter solstice 2005 would be like no other. Our Core of Culture dance research and documentation team was headed to the remote village of Nabji in Bhutan. It was a 10-hour trip from the capital of Trongsa District by car and horse and foot. No foreigners had ever witnessed the exceedingly rare dance festival there, which incorporates elements from pre-history, the eighth century, and the 14th century. We were excited and reflective because Bhutan would become a constitutional democracy in a mere three years, building roads and expanding the tourism industry, and we had a gut feeling that we would see dances that were not merely rare but on the verge of extinction.
Core of Culture’s dance research and documentation in Nabji adds another dimension complementing traditional textual scholarship. Being able to interpret and analyze dances with advances in world dance scholarship makes this record—of video and photographic documentation, a searchable database, and 11 fieldwork notebooks—viable and relevant today and for the future. Many dances recorded in Nabji by Core of Culture can be found in the public digital collections of the Dance Division of the New York Public Library, with links to the complete set.
Reviewing my 2005 and 2006 fieldwork notebooks in 2022, and in regular contact with villagers in Nabji, I see that we were right. Nabji is now an example of how dances can die out, even as a Buddhist cham is being introduced newly to them. Perhaps inevitably, the modern world has defiled the precious example of an earlier way of human life in Nabji. It has also degraded an astonishing living example of extremely old dances integrating with and within Buddhism. This context makes our research and documentation 16 years ago all the more valuable.
Rising at 4am, we packed our small caravan of cars and drove two hours in the darkness to a landing point on a steep cliff above a roaring river. Horse and mules were being readied to carry our documentation team of five, our cooks and assistants, and following after, distinguished guests Dasho Thinley Gyamtso, director of the Royal Academy of Performing Arts, and the cultural officer of Trongsa.
Our little expeditionary team was also bringing “a living relic.” We were bringing the 78-year-old Chakar Lam, a 16th-generation hereditary Lam, or lay religious leader, whose lineage has been entrusted since the 13th century with the site of Chakar Lhakhang in Bumthang District and with the performance of cham dances. The Chakar Lam is associated with the dance lineage of Treasure Revealer Dorje Lingpa, one of the Five Dharma Kings of the Nyingma tantric tradition, the oldest school of Vajrayana Tibetan-style Buddhism. Treasure revealers are considered reincarnations of Guru Rinpoche’s close disciples of the eighth century. These tertons, as they are called, reveal teachings of Guru Rinpoche for a later time, so their action is outside of time. When a terton reveals a cham, it is called tercham; Treasure Dance.
These tertons have revealed many treasure dances over the centuries that remain extant today. Often, the choreographic inspiration and instruction occurred during mystical journeys to Zangdokpalri, Guru Rinoche’s cosmic abode of light, which is full of dancers and surrounded by sky-dancing creatures. The Chakar Lam is a living relic of Terton Dorje Lingpa. The village of Nabji, called in 2005 “one of the last remaining traditional villages of Bhutan” by the Trongsa cultural officer, is an ancestral duchy of the Chakar Lam. This medieval social structure was observed faithfully even into 2005. For a variety of factors, including old age and the difficulty of the trip, the Chakar Lam had not visited Nabji in 30 years, and his return was a much bigger event for the Nabji villagers than a dance documentation team. In fact, it was all connected within the ancient and complex dance story of Nabji.
Bhutan remains a largely pristine environment. It is stunning and beautiful and unspoiled. It is rough and rugged and full of rare animals, such as golden langurs, black-necked cranes, and horn-billed birds. Rare fauna surrounded us, wild orchids and primeval jungle forests punctuated by immense waterfalls. From the start of our trip—a near vertical horseback descent down a crumbling bluff—the mountain jungle terrain we crossed over a seven-hour trek would be a most complete and primal experience of nature. Whether stopping at a village to eat oranges or dismounting and walking, as we did most of the way because of the dangerous route, it was as if we’d returned to a world undefiled by man’s modifications. Golden sunlit leaves fell and fluttered about us in the jungle. Pristine mountains were our only observers, and the darting sunshine made for an ever-changing poetry in the rare landscape.
Unbeknown to us, our most capable and delightful Bhutanese crew, whom we believed had set out on horseback 30 minutes after we did, surprised us by laying out a place of rest and refreshment ahead of us at the five-hour point. It was simple, hospitable, and deeply respectful of the Chakar Lam. About an hour after our lovely rest, we encountered the first of four libations that were poured out onto the ground to honor the Chakar Lam. At intervals of every kilometer or so, as we approached the village, another welcoming group met us, poured libations, and paid obeisance to the Chakar Lam. In the course of the final hour, as we climbed higher into the dusk, extending the daylight with our ascent, more villagers from Nabji would join in the libation offerings, until finally we caught sight of the temple, Nabji Lhakang.
It was at Nabki Lhakhang that the Chaka Lam would deposit the other relics we were bearing. There were seven relics in total, including a stone-age axe. Two of these ancient objects were particularly sacred: a ritual phallus, and a dakini footprint in stone connected with Guru Rinpoche at Kurjey Lhakang in Bumthang.
The phallus, 23 centimeters long and with a 15 centimeter circumference, was made by the fourth king’s maternal great-great-grandfather, Dasho Jamyang of Prakhar in the Chumey Valley of Bumthang, approximately 120 years ago. It was given as a gift to Chakhar Lhakhang to replace a ritual phallus, along with a gift of several masks also made by Dasho Jamyang, which exist in use today.
The wood for this phallus came from a takpishing tree in Nabji, a place associated with Guru Rinpoche and the Sindhu Raj, a seventh century regional king. The tree is believed to come from an original planted by Guru Rinpoche by grafting his walking stick. Enclosed within the phallus are various Buddhist scriptures inscribed on paper and small strips of wood called sokshing. These scriptures convey the Jewels of the Buddha’s Body, Speech and Mind. The phallus was blessed by high masters and reincarnates before use.
This phallus, called Wangphu Chempo, meaning Creator of Human Beings, is used only by a hereditary atsara or ritual joker. The atsara of Jambay Lhakhang has been, unusually, a hereditary position since the 14th century, and no one outside of the Jigme family lineage of atsara performers may wear the mask—assumed to be more than 200 years old—or touch the phallus as part of the ritual. The phallus is used at the start of each day of the annual four-day cham dance festival to symbolically break the ground of phenomenal existence. Here, the phallus is meant to recall the origin seed of every human, and so, subsumed, the more ancient symbol becomes a Buddhist symbol of that power enabling man’s interconnectedness with all sentient beings.
The footprint relic, about 13×7 centimeters, was discovered at Kurjey by Treasure Revealer Dorje Lingpa in the 14th century. The relic is believed to be the footprint of a consort of Guru Rinpoche, from an event in the seventh century. It is made of stone and gilt paint. Menmo Tashi Kherdoen, a daughter of the Sindhu Raj, a king living in Bumthang in the seventh century, became Guru Rinpoche’s consort and so a dakini, a sky dancer. She performed a dance distracting the King of Demons, during which time Guru Rinpoche transformed into a Garuda, swept down and slew the Demon King.
With this Dakini Footprint, Dorje Lingpa founded Chakar Lhakhang in the 14th century on the site of Sindhu Raj’s former seventh century nine-storied castle, and charged the Chakar Lam to be custodian and steward of the relic, along with the Lhakhang and the Dorje Lingpa tradition of Cham dances. Today, the 16th generation hereditary descendants of the Chakar Lam are entrusted with carrying on these ritual acts.
Nabji is situated in a vast and verdant valley, seeming a natural concave circular mandala. The districts of Trongsa and Bumthang have a number of sites associated with Guru Rinpoche in the eighth century and the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo, who in the seventh century established 108 temples to contain a great ogress afflicting the spread of Buddhism. Jamby Lhakang, in Bumthang, is one of the seventh century sites. It is intriguing that the traditional and accepted biographies of Guru Rinpoche do not describe any activity in Nepal or Bhutan. Both Nepal and Bhutan, in elaborate detail have histories of Guru Rinpoche going there and performing dance and ritual acts of transformative tantric Buddhism. These precious earlier histories, rituals, and dances enhance an understanding of Buddhism as it has been lived and practiced; and as it is lived today in Nepal and Bhutan.
NEXT: Nabji, Part Two: Stone Age Mysteries