The art of Tibetan masks forms part of the traditions of Tibetan culture, and is steeped in history. The masks, which are traditionally used in Buddhist festivals, and date back to before the 6th century.
Significance of Tibetan Masks
Tibetan masks often embody the wrathful deities of Tibetan Buddhism, and are meant to drive fear and terror into the hearts of the forces of evil. They are also meant to provide tranquility and calm to Buddhists seeking enlightenment through prayer and meditation. In Tibet today there are masks held in the monasteries that have survived since the early days of Tibetan Buddhism. These older masks are venerated and are considered to be very powerful, and the faithful often make pilgrimages to worship in front of them, especially on religious festivals and special days.
The masks are designed and decorated to scare off evil emanations and influences that can distract a Buddhist from their deep prayer and meditation. The more terrifying the mask is, the more effective it is in protecting the worshiper. These so-called “Devil Masks” are the faces of the wrathful protector deities who have a duty to save the faithful from harm.
Tibetan Mask Facts and History
Historical records show that the masks originated in around the 6th century AD. In the ancient Tubo Kingdom, Bonpo dances were already taking place, with the dancers wearing animal masks. In the time of Songtsen Gampo, around the 7th century, grand ceremonies featured dances with masks depicting lions, tigers, yaks, and leopards.
At the completion of the Samye Monastery, in 779 AD, the 37th Emperor of Tibet, Trisong Detsen, held a ceremony to consecrate the monastery. It was during this ceremony that many of the dancers wore white masks, and danced playing hand drums. In later years, these white masks became the faces of the players of Tibetan opera, which was popular in the period in Lhasa. These ancient operas are the origins of the modern Tibetan opera. According to Tibetan manuscripts, the origins of Tibetan masks has close links to primitive Bonism, Tibetan laws and scripts, and the consecration of the first Tibetan monastery.
How to Make Tibetan Masks
The masks are made according to Buddhist scriptures, and are all made in the same way. The masks must conform to certain, pre-written dimensions. First the mold is made from clay and allowed to dry. After it is dry, the monks take small rectangular strips of cotton soaked in barley brine and tsampa, plus other ingredients, and apply them in layers to the mold. The mask must have a total of fifteen layers. The drying process for the mask is critical, as it will break easily if not dried fully and properly. It can take around 4-5 very hot days – usually in late July or early August – to dry the masks correctly.
Once dried, the clay mold is smashed away, leaving the mask intact and whole. It is then smoothed or “sanded” and painted in the appropriate colors. The finished masks are covered in hair, which is taken from a special herd of yaks to get exactly the right texture and color for the mask, depending on which deity it represents.
Three Main Categories of Tibetan Masks
Masks that depict deities, heroes and comical characters from the Buddhist culture are often described as “classical”. These include monastery and temple masks used in Buddhist dance ceremonies. The classical Buddhist masks are based on figures from the Buddhist pantheon of gods, including the ferocious faith defenders such as Mahakala. They are often used in the mysterious Cham dance, which invokes the deities and disperses the negative forces.
“Village” masks usually include elements from the Buddhist traditions, and their defining characteristics are derived from local village myths. The village masks originated in Arunachal Pradesh, in northeast India, and came to Tibet later in the history of Buddhist masks. These masks normally depict local mythical characters, such as Lakhe, a local demon from the borders of Tibet and Nepal. The masks often bear a resemblance to the Mediterranean “Gorgon” features, and are often used in local morality dramas and operas.
Primitive, shamanic masks make up the third category of masks, and their origins largely unknown. These shamanic masks were normally made of wood, and can be found as far abroad as Sumatra, Timor, and Siberia. The main reason for the mystery that surrounds them is the remoteness of their geographic origins. While it is clear that these masks originated in the higher reaches of the Himalayas, an exact period of origin in unclear. These masks, which were born from shamanism, extended into the areas of western Tibet among the village folk, and were soon absorbed into the higher Buddhist traditions.
Tibetan Buddhist Mask and Cham Dance Festival
Every year in Tibet the monasteries hold a sacred festival, during which they perform 1,300-year-old mystic dances. These dances are known as Cham, and are held to transform the evil for the benefit of the world. Monks will meditate for days or weeks before the festivals, visualizing and invoking the spirits of the deities. Then they will perform elaborate dances posing as the deities they visualized. The dances include the performance of ancient movements and the repetition of sacred mantras that are designed to draw the evil from the world.
This evil is drawn and held in an effigy of a human body made of soft clay or dough. As the ceremonial dance reaches its climax, the dance master, known as the chamspon, cuts the effigy open and draws the evil into his own body, in order to show it peace and the path to enlightenment and liberation.
The masks are used in the dance to show the face of evil, and the images of the wrathful deities show the people that evil comes from within. Evil in the mind is created by ignorance, anger, desire, jealousy, and ego, and these cover the mind as the clouds cover the sun. Cham is designed to remove the ego from the mind of evil to allow it to see the path to transformation more clearly.
Buddhist teaching show that the Buddha showed many different paths to enlightenment and liberation, so people who understood things differently could all understand. In cham, the masks of the deities take on several forms, and while they may appear wrathful on the outside, it is believed that the deities are filled with inner love and compassion for all beings. Buddhists believe that people can recognize the gods, which they will meet after death, through cham. Cham will show them which gods they can trust in the afterlife to help them find a rebirth into a good life.