Bhutanese Mask Dance

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The Stag, The Hound and The Clown

Hailed as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan is the only independent country in the world, where Tibetan Buddhism is an official religion of the state. Opening to the outside world only in the 1970s, television and the internet did not come to Bhutan until 1999. Hence, it comes as no surprise that the core values of this small Himalayan nation are strongly influenced by Buddhist ideology.

Young Bhutanese monk

With nearly half of the population undereducated and illiterate, the public had no means to read religious texts or novels and learn from them until recently. To fill in this gap, Bhutanese had been solely relying on the Cham dances to broadcast social ethics and religious concepts to masses in an entertaining way. For outsiders, these costumed-masked dances might seem rather superstitious and the masks may look somewhat demonic, but behind every mask lies a cultural and religious meaning that cannot be overlooked. The dance of the Deer and the Dogs (the Stag and the Hounds) is one of the finest examples of Cham dances, that can teach us about the Buddhist path. It narrates a story of two hunters’ conversion to Buddhism by the 11th-century saint Milarepa.


According to a legend, when the saint Milarepa was meditating in a cave, he heard a dog barking aggressively. As he went out of his cave to check what was happening, he saw a frightened deer being chased by a hunting dog. Out of compassion, Milarepa started singing to allay its fears. The stag thus knelt close to him. Shortly, the hunting dog arrives and aims for the kill. Noticing the rage in the dog’s eyes, Milarepa sings a song of compassion and subdues the dog. Then, together with the deer and the dog, Milarepa waits for the imminent arrival of the hunters. When the hunters arrive at the scene, much to their surprise, they find the stag and the hunting dog obediently sitting next to Milarepa. The holy man told the hunters that their dog has been pacified and now has compassion for all living things. The hunters, intending to punish Milarepa for meddling, shot an arrow at him. Astonishingly, the arrow misses its target, whilst the bows of both hunters bizarrely fall to the ground. Milarepa then tells the hunters that they can shoot him later, but that they should first listen to his song. While listening to the song, the hunters think about what had happened. They know that they are exceptional marksmen, and yet they missed their target. Their hunting dog is the finest trained in the region, but now it is sitting calmly next to the deer. Could it be the power of this stranger? As the song ends, the hunters feel an immense peace of mind and joy, which they never felt before. Stunned by all the wonders they have seen and felt from the stranger, both hunters follow Milarepa to the cave and became his pupils from then on.


The tale of stag and the hounds shows us that forgiveness and compassion should be offered not only to humans but also to all sentient beings, including the animals. The taming of one's emotions against anger, whatever the circumstances, is another fundamental Buddhist message conveyed in the story. It can be seen when the hunter tried to kill the saint by shooting an arrow to him, yet Milarepa forgives him without holding a grudge.

Forgiveness-and-compassion, Bhutanese mask dance

The mask dance adaptation of this story, consisting of two chapters, is performed for two days during the Tshechu festivals, with each chapter lasting up to two hours. Tshechus are major events, where isolated communities come together in one place to watch religious mask dances, get blessings and more importantly to socialize. Despite the centuries’ long seclusion, Bhutanese people have a historical appreciation of sarcasm. Undoubtedly, their great sense of humor and attitude of not taking the world too seriously, explains why they refer to their country as the “Happy Kingdom”. It also further explains why the Bhutanese Cham dances include various comical reliefs, such as pranking and doing a comedic parody of religious rituals.


The Tshechu festivals formally have clown figures called atsara, who entertain the public during or in the interval of the Cham dances. The atsara wears a wooden mask with an exaggerated nose and a permanent smile and wields a wooden phallus for a blessing. They serve a duty to assist the dancers, distract the audience when performers are in the changing room and manage the crowd. The atsara can be witty, vulgar, outrageous and even irritating, but the locals believe that without them the festivals would be lifeless. The atsara may point at a teenage girl and say “Please use a condom to be safe” in front of her parents. They do not respect time or place and often leaves the crowd bursting into laughter with their dirty jokes. However, when they encounter foreigners during the festivals, they occasionally face awkward situations where women react furiously to their lewd jokes, not knowing their spiritual function.


As stated in the religious texts, 84 saints, who acquired magical powers from their spiritual practice, wandered around the universe to vanquish all evil thoughts by mocking worldly things. Atsaras represent these enlightened beings, whose vulgarity arises out of their detachment from human feelings such as embarrassment, humiliation, and anxiousness. Atsaras feel no shame in begging, no humility in being tenacious, or no anxiety to behave inappropriately, because they fully understand the concept of emptiness in Buddhism and the uselessness of emotional attachments. In a way, atsaras can be compared to the comedic book character known to us as the “Joker”. They both challenge social norms, they neither desire nor do wish for possessions, and they both do not care what others might think of their actions. Their portrayal demonstrates that it is the nothingness that makes everything funny, thus encourages us to question the idea of social acceptance and confirming with social norms.

Atsara, Bhutanese mask dance

Sending such deep messages, in concrete and simple examples that anyone can easily understand is the quality that makes the mask dances something more than a typical religious ceremony. In the traditional society of Bhutan, the mask dances have been playing the role of mass communication, providing an aesthetic opportunity for visual information as well as entertainment. Now that these dances are performed more frequently around the country and on TV, they became part of the mainstream culture, highlighting Bhutanese national identity. I still consider it is still that one must attend a Tshechu once in their lifetime, to witness the mask dances and wash away their sins. Besides the locals, many travelers from across the world are bucket listing these unique and colorful events.


Join us on an in-depth trip through the Kingdom of Bhutan to see for yourself how these far-flung images are so true to reality. Attend the annual Gangtey Festival and see the purest form of traditional Buddhist ceremonies taking place through a buzzing country-fair.



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