Buddhism in Mongolia: Tsam Dance




Dance, as an intrinsic community-building activity, cannot be isolated from its spiritual and ritualistic roots. While sacral and secular dancing emerged simultaneously and had a similar social significance in most Western cultures, the majority of secular dances originated as primitive spiritual dances. Categorised into larger groups, there are hundreds of dance forms with unique characteristics and religious dance practices remain a notable part of cultures around the world. This paper examines the history of Cham dance as a religious ritual and the attributes of Mongolian culture in the performance.

Ceremonial musical instruments consisting of tambourines, drums, bone flutes, and horse headed fiddle is performed as lamas (monks)begin to chant: Death, portrayed by two figures wearing a skull mask, walks around in a circle. Placed according to a symbolic order, following the traditional music, other dancers follow chanting religious hymns. Among Khashin Khan - the Ruler Who Invites, Erleg Nomun Khan - the God of the Underworld, and other deities of Buddhism, is an old man. The цагаан өвгөн, or the White Old Man is a hallmark in Mongolian cham dance for it’s an integration of shamanism and Mongolian nomadic tradition, explored later in this paper.

A Look Into Tsam

The cham dance, (Tibetan: འཆམ་; Mongolian: цам) is a tantric ritual traced back to Tibet, supplemented by a range of Mongolian cultural heritage including the imaginative creativity and aesthetics of Mongolian artisans, the heroic roles of folk stories and epics, as well as shamanic and ancient religious occurrences. Tsam is a sophisticated form of religious and cultural expression that uses dancing gestures, religious chanting, and meditation to combine body, language, and intellectual brilliance into a unified message of good overcoming evil. Considered a form of meditation and an offering to the gods, tsam dancers visualise and invoke protective deities in a state of trance, days beforehand of the traditional Mongolian spiritual ceremony.

Tsam Dance is an integral part of Buddhism in Mongolia

The dance is performed while wearing diligently crafted masks and clothing ornaments that support the dancers movements of oscillating and swaying their bodies, convulsing their heads side to side and back-and-forth, use of tantric mudras (various hand movements and positions), and kicking and stomping of the foot, in rhythm with the tr. Along with meditating and dancing, the rituals include breaking linga, in other words cutting open an effigy to banish and deceive evil spirits (Zanabazar Museum, website).

Origin of Tsam Dance: A Trail of Mongolian nomads

The tsam dance originated from the Himalayan range and the first tsam is said to have been performed by an Indian saint Padmasambhava during 740-760 AD (1001 Things, website). Also known as Guru Rinpoche and Lotus from Oḍḍiyāna, he was a tantric Buddhist master who taught Vajrayana in Tibet in 8th-9th century. Hagiographies were written about Padmasambhava starting in the 12th century but little is known about him. In contemporary buddhist liturgy he is known as a Buddha, foreseen by Buddha Shakyamuni. An earliest citation of Padmasambhava as a historical figure was in the Testament of Ba which documents the establishment of Samye Monastery (775 CE).

According to the Testament of Ba, King Trison Detsen invited Buddhist philosopher Śāntarakṣita to cultivate a dominant religion in Tibet, who brought along Padmasambhava who impressed the locals with his ritualistic powers by taming the local gods and spirits, performing big celebration and rituals, tantric yoga, and water magic. The inauguration of the tsam is rooted in the preeminent role of Padmasambhava spreading Vajrayana and practice of tantra in Tibet in the eighth century. Padmasambhava, who was summoned to Bumthang Valley to restore the declining health of the Bhutanese king, Sindhu Raja, performed an entire series of dances in a wrathful form in order to eliminate the evil. Padmasambhava exhibited the first tsechu or the festival of tsam dances in the high mountains of Bumthang, including the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche presented with the eight forms of performance essential to eliminating evil spirits and manifesting good wishes. (Goomaral, personal interview).

Tsam and Buddhism in Mongolia

Similar to its origins, tsam swiftly assimilated local practices and incorporated components of various cultural essence into its creation, from Tibet and Bhutan to Ladakh and China (Face Music, website). In the early 19th century, tsam was introduced to Mongolia through the third wave of Buddhism influenced by the subjugation by the Qing Dynasty.

Three major epochs saw the spread of Buddhism in Mongolia. In the third century BC, influenced by Indian Emperor Ashoka’s seizing of the city of Khotan, Khotan form spread across the Silk Road to the Gobi Desert. In the era of the Mongolian Empire, it rose again as a governance method and out of need for state unity when Mongolian rulers initiated an alliance with Tibetan religious leaders like Chogyal Pakpa in order to create a distinctive type of script contrived for maintaining stability among their territories. “The third and latest boom was in the sixteenth century. In 1570, Altan Khan of the Altan Urag brought the Dalai Lama school of Tibetan Buddhism to Mongol empire and made it the national religion of the country. Since then hundreds of other schools have been adopted by Mongolians over the centuries. Buddhism in Mongolia had its ups and downs and was finally restored to its full power in 1990’s after the Soviet influence and the restrictions on religion were banished.” (Escape to Mongolia, website)

Building on the previous history that subsisted, tsam reached the highest form of development in Mongolian nomadic culture due to the intricate way it spread. “In no country prior to Mongolia had tsam consisted of masks so immense, costumes so elaborate, rituals so complex, or reached such impressive heights of popularity as it did in Mongolia.” (Chinbat, personal interview) Since Buddhist monasteries served as a sanctuary for Mongolian culture throughout the 200-year Manchu rule of the nation, Tsam attained such tremendous heights in Mongolia in part as a result of the social climate that supported their existence.

The Manchurian state encouraged the existence of Buddhism in Mongolian society because the long term social impact of the presence of Buddhism was harmful to Mongolia’s population growth as Mongolian families preferred having their kids attend monastic institutions to spend a life of studying religion over enrolling in Manchurian schools to lead a life of servitude. The amount of Mongolian nomads that chose a path of religion guaranteed the survival of capable monasteries that had resources available to contribute in the development of Tsam and beyond, moreover, integrated the flourishing Buddhist establishments as a Mongolian cultural heritage. At the peak of the Buddhist wave in the 19th century, ⅓ of the male population, hundred thousand monks lived in Ikh Khuree (now Ulan Bator) alone.

Following the newfound sovereignty of Mongolia from the Manchurians after the fall of Qing Dynasty, Mongolia sought aid from the Soviet Union who played a central role in corroborating protection from potential Chinese aggression, to ensure the country independence. After the death of Bogd Khan in 1924, private trade and transport were forbidden, herds were “nationalised”, monasteries and religious elements were all eliminated from the country , and a strictly Soviet model was established as a Soviet satellite. The highly developed Tsam dance was abandoned in the 1930s when the revolutionary party which espoused atheism, closed and destroyed monasteries, putting an abrupt end to the main religion: booming Buddhist culture.

Tsam: Culture of Mongolia


The primary goal of undertaking Tsam is to eliminate all evil energy or sins  through the ritualistic meditation-based performance. These sins can be divided two separate ways in correlation with Mongolian number symbolism and Buddhist astrology. The three main forms of sins are divided by actions living beings do, and include spoken word and physical action, which are dictated by the third, more important, of thought and mind. (Mishig-Ish, Bataa.)  Over the course of the performance, all evil energy and negative things produced by the sins and immoral reflections of the spectators—which are inherent in their nature as living beings—concentrates within the performance space and is then annihilated leaving the spectators' and performers' minds purified to resume their search for enlightenment. (Goomaral, interview) Tsam also served to give comprehensible teachings for many Mongolians, which supported the state's objective of utilising the religion to unite the population against Manchu hegemony.

Mongolian traditional mongolian dance tsam ceremony

Due to the complex layers of meaning and varied functions it serves, performing tsam is a much more rigorous process of planning and prosecuting. Despite the ceremony itself taking less than a day, monasteries across the country start preparing 3 months in advance. The performance arts is often takes place in Amarbayasgalant monastery during Mongolian traditional, national holidays like naadam festival. Once the date of the tsam ritual is determined through astrological calculations by the lunar calendar, high-ranking religious leaders of the monastery designate roles for the monks considering astrological compatibility with the gods the monks are embodying along with personality elements recognized in daily life. Engaging in the practice of meditating on and internalising a deity not only positively impacts an individual's karma but also serves as a valuable educational journey that enhances the knowledge and wisdom of a lama.

Preparation Process

In many ways, tsam mirrors shamanistic and Mongolian nomadic customs and practices. Mongolian shamanism (büge/бөө) is a form of religion that dates back to Mongol Empire rooted in polytheistic animist shamanism or tengrism, a way of thinking that worships and nurtures nature and ancestors. “Mongolian shamanism includes religious beliefs and practices of shamans who enter trances to communicate with deities and spiritual beings who then possess the shaman's body. Shamans wear costumes and masks and employ ritual artefacts specific for treatments or healing.” (UNESCO, website) Contrary to the consistent practice of interaction with spirits in shamanism, tsam requires the selected monks to study about the characters thoroughly by learning sutras and prayers to help establish a stronger connection with their roles. When the performance date approaches, the tsam-ra or the ground the tsam will be performed upon is energetically cleansed through incantations and limitless number of dairy product offerings like fermented mare's milk or milk tea. In the innermost circle of the concentric circles drawn with a chalk is placed the bailing, red triangles made from a variety of flour and butter, are placed to channel the evil energy and burnt at the end of the ceremony. The second-largest circle is designated for the performance of dschang, while surrounding them is the placement of the chambon. Positioned in front of the chambon are the masked deities, and encompassing them are a total of 15 shanak. To the upper-left hand corner sits a 24 person Monastic Orchestra with percussion and wind instruments for various purposes beyond performance, like keeping time. The process of preparing for the tsam is very secretive thus not many people realise the amount of commitment put into the performance.


Tsam from its origins is a general term for Buddhist liturgical dance, as it portrays various events of Guru Rinpoche’s life. Thus there are various types of tsams like Jahar, Erleg Nomun Khan, or Geser. Despite the numerous variations of tsam mask dancing in Mongolia, they all share a common structural framework. The primary participants are the Khokhimoi, two white skull-masked figures also known as Durteddagva or Citipati. Like all the tsam mask characters, they appear in pairs representing the duality of male and female (Chinbat, personal interview). Their purpose includes introducing audiences to the concept of mortality, as recognizing the transient nature of life is an essential realisation for those following the Noble Eightfold Path.

Religious Objects: Tsam Masks

The craft of Tsam mask-making is exclusively undertaken by highly skilled and specialised artisans due to the demanding nature of the process, which necessitates exceptional precision, expertise, and patience. The mask shapes are created with ceramic or wooden bases and are polished, smoothened, and sculpted to be prepared for the intricate process of decorating and embellishing. “For instance, healer deities are white, deities who disseminate knowledge and length of life are yellow, deities of wealth are red and deities who defeat the unconquerable are black. For Tsam performance, masks are made in accordance with these colours, as well as principals and rules for Tsam mask craft making, maintained from generations to generations. Tsam masks for a formidable group of deities are depicted with shapes of the sun and the moon on it and five shapes of skulls on top of it, characterising the victory over five poisons - anger, delusion or ignorance, desire, pride and jealousy. Masks for deities with calm characters are crafted with a relaxed face of the head of calm deities on it and decorated with pentagon-shaped norov diamonds on top of it. The masks usually have earrings made of gold and yellow colour materials with embroidered decoration falling down behind the ears. “ explains Baljmaa.T.

Tsagaan Uvgun is the main character in the “Tiger Dance”. With an illustrative white beard, and a calm and comedic portrayal of the character, he is the patron of longevity, wealth, and health. Depending on the performance of the Tsagaan Uvgun, Mongolian nomads would foretell the coming year’s fortune. Antithetical to most of the other characters portraying deities and animals, Tsagaan Uvgun is one of the few who can speak. The addition of a human role seems critical to build a sense of connection and a message that indicated there was no distance between humans and deities, or death and enlightenment.

A Forecast of Tsam’s Social Relevance in Mongolian culture

The tsam as a form of fine art itself including the sedulously crafted masks and costume, coordination of artistic movements, and majestic orchestra, had long inspired other artworks to be fabricated. Yadamsuren Urjin was an honoured People’s Painter with the Mongolian State Award. With his knowledge in Tibetan language, monastic rituals and art processes, along with having exposure to Western style and techniques of painting through being trained in Surikov Art Institute in Moscow in 1938-1942, Yadamsuren focused on recording culture through portraying historical figures and revived Buddhist painting styles in flat colours. Yadamsuren produced two large albums of paintings, Folklore Arts, and Mongolian National Costume. His admiration for the aesthetic workmanship in each and every aspect of the garments, from carving and silversmithing to embroidery and lacquer work, was shown in these volumes and later prints. These pieces, combined with Yadamsuren's thorough documentation of secular and clerical attire, contribute to ethnographic records that are both historically valuable for documenting Mongolian society during the Soviet era as well as aesthetically relevant to the Mongolian and art worlds at large. Tsam, beyond influencing artworks in its early stages of entry in Mongolia, still has a significant relevance in today’s Mongolian cultural identity.

Since the advent of Mongolian People's Republic in 1990, monastic culture and religion flourished and was reestablished. Yet, during the socialist period and imposition of taboos from the Mongolian government, the tsam, along with other traditional customs, had been detached from their contextual roots and removed from contemporary culture. The existence of performance groups—organisations of professionally trained musicians, dancers, and traditional artists—is the most blatant example of this phenomenon. These groups produce multi-component performances that reduce their culture into easily digestible chunks making the absence of secrecy and exclusivity ever so apparent. Although these solely performance based dances undermine culture, they also sport increased cultural exposure and interest for traditional based art and customs, as performing a religious ritual is a complicated process that requires tremendous commitment.

This research has served as an accumulation of knowledge and an unintended path to self discovery. As Goomaral mentioned “Tsam is a fathomless topic of research not everyone dares to dive into.” Through speaking with scholars, reading manuscripts and previously done research on correlated topics, along with consuming visual media forms of tsam to properly convey the characteristics of the dance, I have had the privilege to acquire an infinitesimal understanding of tsam’s origins and status throughout Mongolian history, along with compiling a bit of it for public access.

Author: Naran-Ochir Khulan


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