Cham dance or popularly known as the Mask Dance is a famous dance form seen in Tibetan Buddhism. People flock to Ladakh during the Hemis festival to see the Cham Dance. And it can be seen popularly across monasteries in Bhutan too. But I was super surprised to find it in Key Monastery at Spiti Valley. It all happened when I was sipping butter tea at the guest house at Kibber. The day’s plan was to see Key Monastery and then head to other villages like Hikkim and Komic. While chit-chatting with the guest house owner, he mentioned that Gustar festival is just a couple of days away and if we are around we have to definitely attend it. I was intrigued at the mention of it and enquired more about it. The Key festival happens once a year and it so happened that we were there at the right time. I have never seen the Cham dance before and I was super excited to see it. How often do you get to be at the right place at the right time? We were visiting Kye Gompa for the day and I was all set to inquire about it.
Key Monastery is known by many names, rather many different spellings. Ki, Kye, Key, Kee, as long as everything sounds like Key, it is Key Monastery. When we reached Kye Gompa there were a couple of bikes and nothing else. It is one of the main attractions of Spiti valley. Just about 15 to 20km away from Kaza, it is an iconic representation of Spiti. Being close to Tibet, these monasteries around Spiti comes under the governance of His Holiness The Dalai Lama. The head of the monastery reports to Him. And all the prayers and proceedings are unique to the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism. Which is different from what you would see in Bhutan or so. It requires a small climb which if not for the hill and altitude I would not call it a climb. When you google for the picture of Key Monastery you would see something like a huge fort. Actually Key is not that big. It so happened that Key was under multiple attacks, went through a fire and earthquake that multiple parts of it were destroyed and had to be reconstructed again. These new rooms built around it makes it look like a big fortress. But to the public, access is allowed only to the prayer hall. And sometimes you get to peek into the kitchen and get offered herbal tea or butter tea. When I entered the monastery the prayer was in progress and I silently listened to the drum beats and the Buddhist chants. Everyone was engrossed in the prayer and there was literally nobody to inquire about the Gustar festival. A monk who was supervising the prayer hall stepped aside for a moment and I seized the moment. But he was in a hurry and just nodded that the festival is the day after next.
Pictures of Key Monastery
Walking into the kitchen I found another monk who was preparing something for the pooja and offered us herbal tea. I started the chatty-cathy mode and he mentioned that Gustar festival is scheduled for the day after tomorrow. And that since it is festival time, no outsiders are allowed to live in the monastery. The Guru has already arrived for the festival. For the past three days, festivities and dance shows have been held in the evenings. He ended with, “People from all the neighbouring villages come to attend the festival. All the roads in Spiti lead to Kye Gompa on Gustar day. You better arrive too!” I totally chucked the plan of going to Chandrataal and decided to attend the festival. He was kind enough to show us the upper chambers which otherwise remains locked. There is a room where His Holiness Dalai Lama stays on His visits. And a couple of other rooms where ancient books and scrolls were stacked up. I left Kye excited at the thought of returning to the monastery again.
View from Key Monastery
Gustar Festival, Key Monastery
Let me be honest here. Apart from knowing that it is Cham dance, I had no clue about what the festival is all about. I pulled along my travel mates and reached the monastery at around 9 am. People had started to come in. There was a staging area adjacent to the monastery. Chairs were laid out for the villagers and there were very few tourists trying to find a spot. I started a conversation with the locals sitting on the chair and comfortably found a spot next to them to sit. They had come all the way from Kullu to Spiti just for the festival. It is like a pilgrimage and the festival is of that much importance to them. They told me it is called, “Gustar festival”, pronounced as Guettar festival (s is silent). Gustar festival is celebrated to mark the triumph of good over evil. It is celebrated in monasteries that follow Tibetan Buddhism. And depending upon their lunar calendar each monastery celebrates on different days. And this is depicted through the mask dance. Since we saw it in July, I suppose every year around this time you should be able to see.
All set for Gustor Festival
Significance of Cham Dance
The Cham dance is said to have started from the time of Guru Padmasambhava. Apparently, He was trying to build a monastery when a lot of spirits disturbed Him. To fight against them He conducted a series of rituals which are depicted through Cham dance. Basically tantric art. So the lamas from the monastery dress as demons and deities and enact a show. To be honest, it is not like a drama or just a dance. They are actually chanting a lot of prayers, performing some rhythmic movements, have symbols in their hand with which they perform certain acts. They are actually performing rituals to chase the evil spirits. It is not a one-day event. Specific Lamas are chosen, they perform rituals for nearly a week. No other outsider is allowed to stay in the monastery. Key monastery is otherwise open for visitors to stay. Each one dresses up in colorful attire and masks from which you can depict which demon or deity they are. It is really really elaborate and it is said that they actually evoke the Gods and deities. After the final victory dance, a fire is evoked which symbolises destroying the evil. And then the local villagers lie flat on the floor. The Lamas, the deities to be precise, then walk over them. This symbolises that if you have any disease or if you are possessed by any spirit, the deities help you get rid of it. I did not stay till the dance was done and the villagers lay flat for the lamas to walk on them. But this is the sequence as told to me by the villagers who had come to be part of the event, so completely trustable.
The crowd gathered to watch Cham dance at the Gustar festival
Cham Dance at Key Monastery
The crowd soon started to gather and the arena was full. I decided not to move from my place for, one there was no space around me even to move my hands and get up, two I did not want to lose my hard earned spot. The lamas came down the monastery, the horns were blown and the head lama said some prayer aloud. I cannot tell you how annoyed I was at the number of photographers and vloggers who flocked around them and completely cordoned the view. I mean am a tourist and it irks me so much. Imagine the plight of the pilgrims and villagers who have come there to sincerely pray and you block their way with stupid cameras! Soon others started to shout at them and the young lamas dressed in masks to control the crowd were chasing them away. Anyways let me not get carried away, back to cham dance. The director and the spiritual head of Kye Gompa, Reverend T.K. Lochen Tulku Rinpoche arrived at the event and addressed the crowd.
Spiritual Head of Key Monastery, Reverend Lochen Rinpoche addressing the crowd
The monks playing the traditional music instruments took their positions. Blowing off their long trumpet indicated the start and end of each dance. The first cham dance was that of lamas wearing a red mask followed by a blue mask. The symbols on the mask indicated that they are evil or the demons. And then danced with a mask representing animals. They had this repetitive motion of swirling around and balancing themselves on their one leg. It was a sight to watch!
Traditional Musical Instruments played at Buddhist Monasteries
First performance of the Cham Dance
Performing with a blue mask on – Mask dance
Fascinating Dance Movements – Cham Dance
Lamas wearing Animal Head Gear
The most fierce one was the one with Black headgear. This cham dance went on for a while. Repetitive dance steps and balancing himself for a really really long time. You definitely need to be super fit and have the willpower to balance yourself on just one leg and move around for that long!! Or as they say, God gets into you and helps you through the show. He danced in all the directions to show his prowess.
The ferocious one
Art of Balancing!!
The last one must have been the one invoking the deities. This ritual goes on for long. First, one of the lamas dressed in elaborate glittering dress comes out and performs repetitive hand gestures, facing all the directions. The seriousness in his face is something you can feel! He carries certain symbols in hand using which he performs the ceremony. And then he does a solo cham dance for a while. And slowly a group of lamas join him and they all dance together. This one was the most elaborate of all. The loud drum music, plus their thumping of feet and they shouting something. The dance must have echoed all through the mountains that day.
Inviting the Deities – Cham dance Key Monastery
The Swirl and Twirl
Cham dance ay Key Monastery
Mask dance being performed at Key Monastery
Cham dance at Key Monastery
Watching each and every step – Cham dance Key Monastery
And then there was a fun show put up too that lightened the mood of the place 🙂 lamas dressed as yaks performed a fun show. It was amazing to see two lamas bent over inside a yak costume and many a time the lama acting as the cowherd would ride them! A well practised and super fun show..
A fun show
We broke for lunch after this. The lunch was from the community kitchen and I enjoyed having the rice, dal and potato subji. The whole place now looked like a fun fare place. So many people selling food, souvenirs, fancy items. It was only then I noticed the number of vehicles piled up too. It turned gloomy, windy and the clouds were sure to bring rain. We had to leave as we were heading to Batal that day for a halt. So we did not stay for the rest of the festival. The next in the event was to lit fire and then the lamas walk over the people. It further continued with dance performances from various villages showcasing their traditional attire and dance forms. I wish I could have stayed further to see that too.
Here is a short glimpse of the dance.. It has a stitch of small clippings that I shot in my mobile, so the clarity is not so great.
Where to stay?
You can stay at Key Monastery but not during the festival time. During the festival time only the monks are allowed to stay. So your next best bet is to stay at Kaza. There are plenty of stay options at Kaza and on the festival day all the vehicles ply towards Kye Gompa. So you can stay there and hop onto to any vehicle to Kaza. Am pointing to few homestay options at Kaza here, choose your pick.
Obviously reach Kaza first. There are two ways to reach Kaza. One is through Shimla and other is through Manali. From Kaza, Key Monastery is just 15km away. If you have your own vehicle then you are good. Else you can hire motorcycles from Kaza town or hire a cab. Another thing to do is hitchhike.
I have a complete guide on everything about Spiti Valley. Read it here – How to Plan a Spiti Valley Trip