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Nabji, Part Three: Tercham, the Naked Dance

The walled temple courtyard and stupa at Nabji, site of an archaic naked danced
ritual centered on a Stone Age phallic column, 2005.
Photo by Gerard Houghton for Core of Culture

Over the cusp of the winter solstice of 2005, we saw tercham, the well-known but rarely seen naked dance, in the remote Bhutanese village of Nabji. Out of respect and our own desire to see the naked rites uninterrupted by any distractions, our dance research and documentation team did not film the occasion. The tercham was performed around a bonfire in the temple courtyard just outside the village, every night for three nights. The dance was notated by hand over those three nights. The first was the most clearly performed because the villagers—performers included—were all intoxicated and randy by the third night. The dance, which they call tercham, really means in their language “naked dance.” The same term is also used to name a so-called “treasure dance,” a product and a means of Buddhist mystical transmission.

In the lore surrounding the dances at Najbi—which involve an archaic naked dance, the master yogi Padmasambhava in the seventh century, and the treasure revealer Dorje Lingpa in the 13th century—the common use of the term tercham conflates the meanings. Padmasambhava and Dorje Lingpa traded in tercham—dances revealed in yogic visions. Nabji villagers believe the naked dance’s current form came from antiquity through Dorje Lingpa as a teaching from Padmasambhava. The story enfolds Padmasambhava teaching the naked dance in the seventh century, when oath-swearing on a stone pillar took place at Nabji and the temple was built, with Dorje Lingpa adding a layer of his distinct visionary choreography. In truth, the choreographic wonder of the tercham at Nabji is that it is one half Stone Age dance and one half cham steps unique to the Dorje Lingpa dance lineage tradition. It is a living example of tantric Buddhism absorbing pre-Buddhist rites. It is a formal integration; paleo-Buddhist syncretism.

Line drawing of commissioned thangka painting telling the dance story of Nabji
using orthodox religious and artistic methods. On the left side of the painting
can be seen Padmasambhava teaching a naked dance, the construction of the
temple at Nabji, and the oath-swearing on the phallic pillar. Several naked
dances from Nabji, Korfu, and Jambay Lhakhang appear at the bottom. 2006.
Image courtesy of Core of Culture. 

There has been lately some wonderful scholarship on Nabji. Two areas of research there need to be included and increased: archeology and dance research. The stones and the dances are the oldest artifacts at Nabji, and can be understood by specialists. Dance researcher Karen Greenspan, author of Footfalls from the Land of Happiness: A Journey into the Dances of Bhutan (Footfalls LLC 2019) shared with me a remarkable paper by Prof. Antoni Huber of the Institute for Asian and African studies at Humboldt University in Berlin.

Prof. Huber’s wonderful ethnographic paper, Naked, Mute and Well Hung: A Brief Ethnographic Comparison of Kengpa and Related Ritual Performers in the Eastern Himalayas and Beyond is certainly the work of a philology specialist, but Prof. Huber is such a fine writer that this paper is a pleasure to read: full of information, clear descriptions, and rare photographs. He makes statements questioning the use of the Western word “dance” to describe these naked rites; about the dance content being mimetic, related to millet production, and the whole rite to be understood as part of the “Himalayan shamanic complex.”

The dancers at Nabji, as in other naked rites, are villagers, not initiated religious figures. They are masked, naked, and mute. Prof. Huber discusses several naked dances at once, understanding them together and linking them, while distinguishing their ancestral identities and languages. He features the term khengpa, which means precisely the millet farming ritual performers. In Nabji, there were some unique aspects to the rites, and khengpa was not used to name the dancers.

Prof. Huber’s erudition and breadth of evidence is clear in this passage from the paper: 

There are several isolated outliers of the core distribution for the naked and mute performer further west in Bhutan, namely at Tshangla-speaking Tsakaling north of Mongar, as well as at Nabji and Khorphu in Trongsa, plus a related case at the Jampai Lhakhang in Bumthang, with East Bodish languages spoken at these three, latter sites. At Tsakaling, a masked kengpa with erect phallus performs a ‘origin of the world’ narrative with a female figure as the opening event during a Buddhist ’cham festival within a temple compound. The Tshangla-speaking Tsakaling community in question report their ancestral migration westwards from the Tashigang region, and thus from the immediate neighbourhood of Dakpa-speakers. The adjacent villages of Nabji and Khorphu in the Mangde Chu valley each stage annual community festivals during winter in which naked and mute laymen with masked faces perform in a nocturnal rite.The dance is known as tercham, and the performers as terchampa. This terminology literally means ‘naked dance/r’ based on a combination of words for ‘naked’ from various languages of far eastern Bhutan and the Tibetan term ’cham or ‘masked ritual dance’. The origin of these terms is likely the Brokpalo language spoken at Sakten, where terkhongcham or ‘naked masked dance’ is the local expression for a similar rite, the naked, masked performers in which are called terkhongpa.Additionally at Nabji and Khorphu, a partially naked, masked figure known as the hom, who carries an untanned animal skin and who appears to be ritually similar to certain kengpa, performs a ’cham dance within the cycle of Buddhist masked dances. Hom itself is a technical term associated with certain Tibetan Buddhist rites for wrathfully expelling ‘hindrances’ (bgegs) and often employing fire. 

Finally, at Nyalamdung village in the Khoma valley of northeast Bhutan, a set of masked, phallus-wielding figures known as Apa gadpo or ‘old father’ and his ‘sons’ (bu) perform in an annual community festival during the 2nd lunar month. The festival includes a series of Buddhist ’cham and lamaist rites attributed to the Tibetan ‘treasure revealer’ (gter ston) lama Gu ru Chos dbang (1212–1270), an ‘opera’-like performance locally named Alce Snang seng, and a rite dedicated to agriculture in which the Apa gadpo and his ‘sons’ wear simple anthropomorphic masks and gesture with exaggerated wooden phalluses. Nowadays, the Apa gadpo group perform wearing pants and shirts—we do not know if they were once naked, but possibly—and do not remain completely mute since they engage in a short, set dialogue. This group must be considered here since they conduct a rite identical to certain forms of the naked kengpa elsewhere.

The Stone Age raised phallic pillar at Nabji, around which the naked dance
and other phallic rites occur, 2005. Photo by Gerard Houghton for Core of Culture

From a ritual and dance perspective, it is difficult to connect all the nudity just as it is difficult to connect all the uses of a phallus as a symbol. The “naked dance” tercham that we saw four times at Nabji, and for which we made dance diagrams and choreological notation, corresponds to Prof. Huber’s primal drama of millet agriculture in several points, but described to us differently. His observations about multiple dances following the same mimetic drama may apply more directly to other naked dances than the one we studied at Nabji, which exhibits some unique characteristics indicating a broader context of which millet farming mime is a central part. Prof. Huber states that Nabji’s naked dance, along with a couple of others nearby, stand somewhat outside the main linked corridor of naked dances in his extensive studies. These ceremonies adapt locally, and many of them adapted to Buddhism at some point, untethering them from the astronomical synchronicity of a new agricultural cycle, the winter solstice and the return of light. 

Continued living research into archaeology, hermetic rites, the visual record, and choreology is emerging. Dance is not passed down in writing. The 18-part written or remembered shorthand of the millet-farming mime drama that Prof. Huber discovered in use in different places is just that, not a dance manual. And so it is not surprising that the dance is not detailed in it. Prof. Huber sets a high bar for scholarship. Linking several archaic naked/mute fire dances in the Himalaya to a single mimetic formula regarding a pre-modern crop and agricultural style is a remarkable thing to notice and demonstrate.

Dance is not transmitted with words, but with bodies. These societies were illiterate well into the 20th century; and village life is not one centered on literature. Collective memory is lore. Finally, these naked rites are ancestor worship of those related by bones: a clan; and human fertility rites. Why are they naked? Why does phallic worship abound? And why is a Stone Age phallus at the center of it all? Millet farming requires none of this. Are the specific sexual behaviors of the dance best understood as subversive of usual village customs, merely shameful or funny, or do they evoke ancestral power, primal generation, linking the human family of village life to the creation of the world in a human act? How do we understand the dancing roles of Padmasambhava and Dorje Lingpa, both prolific choreographers and institutors of dance traditions in this region?

How could it be that the distinct choreographic characteristics of the rare naked dance at Nabji mirror a prehistoric documentation of a strikingly similar, equally rare dance depiction? At the same time, the rare naked dance at Nabji incorporates specific Cham dance steps and sequences seen only in the 13th century dance lineage of the treasure revealer Dorje Lingpa. How did the villagers remember the dances, which are themselves as old as collective memory in Nabji?

A Chacolithic, late Stone Age/early Bronze Age petroglyph depicting an ithyphallic dance rite and chariot procession, from Kathotia,
India, and displaying uncanny similarities to the naked dance at Nabji—from the shoulder-borne youths to the grappling and
processions, the rare extant dance at Nabji has an equally rare Bronze Age doppelgänger. The petroglyph is a singular depiction
of such a prehistoric dance. There are but few other such depiction of a Stone Age phallic dance. Others are in Europe and depict
single dancer-shamans. Image copyright M. L. Varadpande, The History of Indian Theatre, Vol 1., 1987, Abhinav Publications. 

Perhaps most astonishing within Prof. Huber’s fine scholarship is this:

As in the case of the east Himalaya mashee and Altaian Koča Kan just compared, a range of ethnographic accounts from highland Nepal, the Tibetan Plateau and Siberia describe ritual performers possessing characteristics and roles that can be closely identified with those of the naked and mute, masked and phallus-using performers from the eastern Himalayas.

This formula of old man, the naked/mute, and the phallus-bearing character aptly describes the rite of murky antiquity, Okina, kept alive in Japan by Noh actors.* Based on Chinese scholarship in exorcistic practices, I made an effort to link actual extant rites with ancient rites. Prof. Huber does so with vast knowledge of language and fieldwork, even as he connects millet farming and naked mimed ritual across distance and time. Could Okina actually be related to the naked dance at Nabji, or other agricultural rites from among the Himalayan shamanic complex? It is likely, not unlikely.

Althea Northage-Orr, priestess of the Golden Dawn lineage of Western hermeticism, kindly offered these thoughts on the Nabji tercham, millet farming, naked dance, and phallic rites:

How amazing this communal rite has lasted for so long. In the Western hermetic tradition, like others with centuries of elaborate interpretations, still the original rituals and rites are the same, unchanged. They are universal and meant to be understood and exemplary in every sense. It is about the necessity of bowing to wild nature.

Millet farming includes swidden, which means burning the crops each year. This is not merely symbolic of breaking the hymen of the female earth preparing to accept the penetration of heaven in order to be productive. In fact, the burnt vegetation literally fertilizes the soil. Taken altogether—the geometric patterns, the nakedness, the wild sexual behavior, the childless women, the ancient raised phallus and phallic rites, the ritual at Nabji seems very much a ‘Marrying of the Land’, which can take different forms as we see in the ballet Le Sacre du Printemps, or the Greek tragedy, the Bacchae.

Running the Hunt, or Running the Land, is a related ritual in the Western tradition, where a naked female offering herself runs the borders of the land in ever greater trance becoming one with the earthly energy. Deer appear and run along with her as wild energy prevails. This is all to allow the Spirit of the Land, who is male, to choose the woman as his wife, becoming one and so together protecting the land by working in harmony with the true cycles of the earth and heavens. It is the feminine energy become wild accepting the penetration of the heavenly masculine natural power, so original that all thing flourish.

The fertile valley of Nabji, bathed in golden sunlight, 2021. A sacred tree in the upper center of the image, among the terraces, marks the Buddhist temple and courtyard, site of the raised phallic stone. Photo by Kinley Gyaltsen for Core of Culture. 

Humans experience the wildness of nature at least two times in their life: birth and death. In those times, the inevitable correctness of wild nature succeeds wholly. These rituals are not intellectual creations, they are exhortation that we must of necessity integrate our lives with the true patterns and seasons of wild nature. Intellectualizing them is a sure path to not understanding them, just as in the Bacchae, we are warned not to bring Reason as a means to comprehend so profound a mystery. In the Bacchae, Reason, in the form of Pentheus, is dismembered by his own mother in a Bacchic ecstasy. We bring our intuition to understand such universal rituals. This Nabji ritual is the great cyclic exchange of Yin and Yang, essential to our basic survival on the planet, in the heavens. Wild Nature is the center of it, around which sex, procreation, farming, ploughing, burning, and weaving revolve and continue.

We can begin to see how strongly dance, masks, and ritual act as a cultural indicators, and how they possess a capacity, among others, not to change but to preserve . . . to preserve without argument or over-interpretation; to preserve for the inherent power of the forms and the rites themselves. We are only beginning to understand how ancient traditions of movement have sustained themselves throughout epochs of crisis and change.

Aerial dance diagrams for section 10 of the tercham, the naked dance
at Nabji, using a method called Kinetography Laban, according the field
notebooks of Joseph Houseal. This section shows a group of childless
women entering the circle of dancers, bowing to every male sexual organ
while moving in a counter-clockwise direction, and returning.
Movement Notation by Mark Bankin for Core of Culture.  

According to our documentation, the naked dance tercham has 25 sections, three of which repeat four times. Although the styles integrate, basically the first half of the dance is pre-Buddhist, compellingly similar to late Stone Age depictions of phallic dances from Indian river plains. A canon of fertility ritual acts occur during the course of this naked dance. In section 10, for example, every childless woman enters and bows to every healthy penis in the village, as the naked men and youths (no pre-pubescent boys or old men) face inward as a circle and the woman proceed in a counter-clockwise direction. Movement notator Mark Bankin has provided aerial dance diagrams of section 10 to interpret my field notebooks using a system called Kinetography Laban. A complete movement notation score is as complex as musical notation.

A word about nakedness. At Nabji, most of the men and youths were completely naked. In Korphu, some had a cover or horn holding their penis, held in place by a single string around their hips. At other naked festivals, loincloths are worn. The dance is several hours long, and the dancers are sometimes ithyphallic (erect), sometimes not. It is neither shocking nor shameful nor lascivious in any way. It is masked, overtly sexual, entirely stylized, and has an appearance of wildness: brandishing flaming branches, wearing masks, being nude and menacing. However, by the third day of dances and drinking, there is a much looser atmosphere.

The dancers enter out of the black darkness, appearing as large shadowy figures then only to be revealed as boys sitting on the shoulders of men, or sometimes two boys on the shoulders of one another. This is an unusual and specific step found in rare late Stone Age/early Bronze Age petroglyphs from central India. Nabji was likely founded by Indian agriculturalists 4,000 years ago. One of the two kings in the border dispute resolved by Padmasambhava was Indian.

At another point, the dancers break off into pairs. One stands on his head, while the other imitates fellatio. Ready flowing fertility is what this is about. Not millet farming, not shame, not humor. Basic truths. The gelapo is a masked joker-type character with a large nose and wielding a large phallus. “I come from heaven to find a girl to have sex with, but I can’t find her.” All the women who have lost children, are childless, or children who were “miracle children” come to the gelapo, who dips his phallus in rice wine and drips it on their heads like ejaculate flowing from a male organ. Then all the babies who are not yet named are brought forward. The gelapo does an arm-spiraling dance holding the phallus. He places the erect phallus on the baby’s head and shouts out a name. In the ritual sacrifice section of the dance, the dough effigy of a man to be slain has an enormous phallus, with a bit of pulled cotton to show it ejaculating.

The Gelapo spinkles liquid seed dripped from a wooden phallus onto a boy’s hand. Nabji winter solstice dance festival, 2005. Photo by Gerard Houghton for Core of Culture. 

The gelapo then asks: “Whose husbands are bad in bed? What are they doing wrong?” At this point, women begin to shout out hilarious insults to their husbands, just as the Buddhist Black Hat dancers are about to consecrate the ground. The village men run and sack women, throwing them over their shoulders and running to the gelapo for a blessing. They enter into a shouting match—a competition between religions as it were; phallic rites and Buddhist dances. The monks and the fertility makers are literally shouting at each other, back and forth, to be quiet. This antagonism is classic, simultaneous, and carries on throughout the three days of dance, culminating in a fight between the gelapo and a garuda. There are several fights within these rites. It is important to remember that there are rites going on inside the temple, around the phallic column, and around the religious throne of the Chakar Lam throughout the entirety of the naked dance.

Phallic rites are many and are not all the same. Predominantly, the Shiva Lingam is the most prevalent phallic symbol in Asia, but it doesn’t explain so much about Nabji, its paleolithic phallus, or its many phallic rites. The Bhutanese decorate their homes with images of phalli, flying phalli, colored phalli. They’re everywhere and there are many reasons given for why. Protection is the basic reason. The Bhutanese have elevated the role of the comic atsara or jester within religious cham festivals. Atsara exist in some form in almost all Buddhist dance ceremonies, and the Bhutanese have some of the most elaborate and funny. The gelapo is such a character. In Bhutan, the atsara often know the dances and rites better than anyone and keep the large effort going; they repair costume malfunctions, or steal them, waving them around on a phallus in front of a pretty girl. The atsara is a bit of a referee amid the days-long festival.

The excellent decision by the atsara family to piss on the dead man with an erection to see if he really is dead. Nabji winter solstice rites, 2005. Photo by Gerard Houghton for Core of Culture

In Nabji, the phallic rites were interrupted by an atsara family carrying phalli and carrying on because, it seemed, one of their men had died and everyone was very sad sitting around the body. The one of them noticed: “He has an erection! He can’t be dead!?” The others consult and consider whether or not he is dead if he has an erection. Finally, one of the atsara suggests: “Why don’t we piss on him and see if he revives? If he’s dead, he won’t notice.” They all agree that this is a good idea and someone pulls out their enormous phallus and pisses on him. Sure enough, he wasn’t dead all along! But he’s mad now, and the seeming dead man with the erection and the atsara who pissed on him get into a terrible fight, fists and phalli flying.

The evidence of early Bronze Age choreographic documentation coupled with extant rare dance rites and Stone Age megaliths are coherent and compelling if not abundant. There is photographic documentation of a number of aboriginal societies. These also correspond with noticeable similarity. Our research team did not photograph or film the naked dance of Nabji out of respect. We asked and were allowed to draw, diagram, notate, and write. Core of Culture’s research team is in the process of making lasting records from our field notes to offer our early dance research to the table of mysteries that is the rare winter solstice dance festival of Nabji.

Andaman islanders, some of the last tribes on earth to live a Stone Age lifestyle, photographed in a naked dance mid-20th century. The movements are similar to some from the naked dance at Nabji. Image courtesy of the Museum of National History 

* Okina, an Endless Blessing from Long Ago (BDG)

See more

Core of Culture

Related features from BDG

Nabji, Part One: Bearing Relics
Nabji, Part Two: Stone Age Mysteries

More from Ancient Dances by Joseph Houseal

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2 years ago

Nice Blog