The Dance of the Drums of Drametse, also known as Drametse Ngacham, is a popular mask dance performed throughout Bhutan. It was first introduced in the sixteenth century by Khedup Kuenga Wangpo, son of Terton Pema Lingpa. It is a unique Bhutanese cultural expression and reflects the cultural and spiritual identity of Bhutan. Until the late nineteenth century, the dance remained confined to the Drametse community under the patronage of Thegchog Ogyen Namdroel Choeling. Later it was introduced to other parts of the country. Today, Drametse Nagacham is performed in almost all local festivals and celebrations. In November 2005, at the Third Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, UNESCO proclaimed it a Masterpiece.
The Symbolic Meaning of the Dance
Drametse Ngacham is believed to be originally a celestial dance performed in the presence of Guru Rinpoche, in the pure land of the copper-clad mountains. The dancers wear different masks of real and mythical animal faces. The whole dance is registered as a meditative art form in which the dancers visualize the outer world as pure land and the inner world as a manifestation of peaceful and wrathful deities, a concept central to Mahayana Tantric Buddhism. Peaceful deities are visualized with softer and gentler choreography whereas intense and quicker choreography reflects the gestures of wrathful deities. This explains why Drametse Ngagcham is more than entertainment. It is considered a didactic way to impart the sacred and esoteric teachings of the Mahayana Tantric Buddhism in the form of dance to the commoners. It has a strong philosophical content reflecting Buddhist concepts of Samsara and enlightenment. According to Buddhism, enlightenment is the realization of the innate Buddha nature that is predominantly present in every sentient being.
Drametse Ngacham has received tremendous support and patronage from the chain of lineage holders of Thegchog Ogyen Namdroel Choeling over the centuries. It has been passed down by an unbroken chain of lineage holders until the present day. It is believed that only the fortunate get the opportunity to learn the art of Drametse Ngacham and to perform it. Bhutanese believe that one has to see Drametse Ngacham at least once in one’s life to be able to recognize the deities in the bardo through present life acquaintance with the dance.
Do rje, Srid thel, Dasho, dPal ldan ‘brug pa’I ‘cham gyi ‘byung khungs dang le’u bshad, Thimphu, 2000 pp. 126. (English version, Dasho Si thel Dor je, The Origin and Descriptions of Dances of Bhutan, 2001).
Thinley, Kuenzang, Drupai Chamgyi Godoen Drelshed Dang Drametsei Ngacham gyi Migrim Dordue, Nyerkhoi Bumzang (The Descriptions of Bhutanese Dances and The Visualization Procedures of Drametse Ngacham), 2000.
Nagphel, Dasho Champoen Chichap, Dances of Bhutan and Its Origin, Government of Bhutan, Kalimpong, 1971.
Gyatso, Lungtaen, The Dance of the Drums from Drametse, National Candidature for UNESCO Proclamation, 2004.