In Photos | In Tawang, Tibet’s Timeless Folk Theatre

Three generations of the Tibetan Monpa tribe in Arunachal Pradesh's Zemithang Valley have come together to revive the dying traditional dance-drama art form of Achelamo Cham.

Please login to bookmark

High up in the eastern Himalayas, in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang district, the ancient performance art of Achelamo Cham has been dying a slow death over the last decade or so. Elders of the Zemithang Valley, concerned about losing this traditional dance-drama artform conferred and decided to initiate a revival, with help from across generations. 

Achelamo Cham imparts moral lessons through mythical stories. Only trained men enact the dance and the performance runs the entire length of the day. The troupe is made up of a dozen men, with five to six persons performing at a time. Dressed in ornate costumes and finely carved wooden masks, the dancers murmur chants and move in a circle to the clashing sound of cymbals.

In the past, troupes from Zemithang used to travel all the way to Bhutan, performing at several villages on the way. Each village used to host them for two to three days and the caravan would journey this way for many months. While it may not be possible to replicate those glorious ways of the past, the people of Zemithang are jubilant that at least the bright robes of dancers are back in the valley. Now they hope the younger generation plays their part and the sound of cymbals will continue to echo here for eternity. 

 

In Photos | Cham For The Ages

 

A merry troupe of dancers from Kharman makes their way to Khelengteng village while singing traditional songs. Here they set up camp at the village headman’s house and change costumes to perform before an eager crowd at the village square. Achelamo Cham is performed soon after the festival of Losar in February. It is performed on a rotational basis. So, next year, residents of Kharman will play host to performers from Khelengteng. 

 

In Photos | Cham For The Ages

 

Training for the Cham starts two months before the actual festival, where the Lopan (teacher) presides over the rehearsals. Like a traditional ceremonial pantomime, it combines singing, dancing and storytelling and is accompanied by sounds of drums and clashing cymbals. What makes it truly special though, is that the performance lasts not just a couple of hours but an entire day. 

 

Also See | A Journey With Tibetan Monks To Pemasiri, Arunachal Pradesh

 

In Photos | In Tawang, Tibet's Timeless Folk Theatre

 

Usually, the whole village turns up to watch the dance. While some grab the front row seats others climb onto sheds or other vantage points. Here, two friends make the most of the break while the dancers take a breather for refreshments.

 

In Photos | Cham For The Ages

 

Masks are of special significance for most Tibetan dance forms. Besides the usual finely carved wooden masks, a special one made from felt and goat’s hair is made for Cham. While traditionally, each village made its own, most now tend to buy one from Tawang town. These masks are believed to drive away evil spirits and bring prosperity to locals. 

 

In Photos | Cham For The Ages

 

The Achelamo Cham is performed to impart important moral lessons through mythical stories. The troupe is made up of a dozen men, with five to six persons performing at a time. Dressed in ornate costumes and finely carved wooden masks, the dancers murmur chants and move in a circle to the clashing sound of cymbals. Usually the show also includes a clown, who makes an appearance to provide comic relief. 

 

In Photos | Cham For The Ages

 

In the past, troupes from Zemithang used to travel all the way to Bhutan, performing at several villages on the way. Each village used to host them for two to three days and the caravan would journey this way for many months. While it may not be possible to replicate those glorious ways of the past, the people of Zemithang are jubilant that at least the bright robes of dancers are back in the valley. Now they hope the younger generation plays their part and the sound of cymbals will continue to echo here for eternity. 

 

Also Read | New Treasures at a Festival in Arunachal Pradesh

 

To read more stories on travel, cities, food, nature, and adventure, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

  • Mayank Soni is a travel and documentary photographer with a keen interest in tribal culture. He loves places one can explore on foot. When not actually in the field, he annoys librarians with his ever-increasing list of research books.

COMMENTS

Please Login to comment
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE