The rapturous crowd had just been silenced. The warrior looked fierce and scary in the red mask ringed by five human skulls; he twisted and twirled as he danced. My hair stood on end in anticipation; there was pin drop silence even amid the chaos around. I instantly knew I was witnessing something special while attending the Pang Lhabsol Festival in Gangok, Sikkim.
When we had entered the Royal Palace Compound (Also called Royal Chapel Monastery), a festive air prevailed in the surroundings. Men, women, children and the royalty had all converged on the Tsuklakhang where the masked warrior dances of Pang Lhabsol festival were to be performed. It was a hot and balmy day in Gangtok, after all the rain on the previous days and I wondered how the dancers were managing with the sweat!
Two days ago, at the homestay in Gangtok, our host had informed us that he is one of the dancers at Pang Lhabsol and excused himself by making us meet an alternate host for the time being. Someone amongst us spotted him while he was engrossed in the dance. There were around 15 men dancing in a huge circle in traditional costumes and had practised the slow movements of the dance for the past 2 months.
Young lamas watched from the windows from the second storey of the Tsuklakhang; a gaggle of photographers went clickety-clack, well dressed locals sat in the shaded portion and enjoyed the dances; children cried and laughed, the jesters were doing their duty well. The dignitaries and eminent personalities sat in a separate enclosure; people watched from the rooftop of the monks’s residences – umbrella in hand to save from the uncharacteristic sweltering heat.
And when the fifteen-odd men were done with their dance; the theatrics began. The funny looking jesters with their even more funnier masks were doing what they did best; joking around and making the crowd laugh. When the fierce masked dance began, it was almost an anticlimax : We had oscillated too quickly from funny to serious! The masked dance was a sight to behold though; slow, measured movements with precise foot placement while the dance was being performed.
Check : First impressions of Sikkim
In a dramatic entry, Mahakala – the protector of dharma enters the Palace grounds and instructs Kanchendzonga to ensure that Sikkim remains prosperous and peaceful! The crowd makes a queue to present the deity with khata (white cloth offering) and the photographers go clickety-clack again!
Tsuklakhang or Royal Chapel Monastery in Gangtok, Sikkim :
Within the Royal Palace’s compound is the Tsuklakhang or the Royal Chapel where the Chogyals (Kings of Sikkim) were coronated; signifying it as a seat of power. Royal wedding ceremonies were also performed here.
About Pang Lhabsol Festival :
Pang Lhabsol is a three day festival of Sikkim that was popularised by the 3rd Chogyal, Chagdor Namgyal (Chakdor Namgyal). It is an important annual festival that celebrates Mt. Kanchendzonga (Kanchenjunga) and is indigenous to the state. Pang Lhabsol is dedicated to Mt. Kanchendzonga, the presiding guardian deity of Sikkim. The festival pays homage to all of SIkkim’s Guardian Deities like Dzonga, Gonpo and Dragpo Deshi.
Pang means witness and the festival also commemorates the Treaty of Brotherhood between the Lepchas and the Bhutias which was witnessed by the local deities in the 13th Century.
Pang Lhabsol is celebrated with the masked warrior dance and Mt. Kanchendzonga is represented by the red mask ringed by five human skulls.
Historical Background to Pang Lhabsol Festival :
Guru Rinpoche established Buddhism in Tibet in the 8th Century AD and then travelled South to Sikkim and declared it as a blessed land and the most sacred of his seven hidden lands (bey-ney). He professed the discovery of Sikkim by the Tibetan Yogi and the establishment of Buddhism in Sikkim by Naljor Chezhi. The prophecy indeed came true.
Naljor Chezhi literally translates to ‘the four great accomplished brothers’. They had entered Sikkim from four cardinal directions and met at Yuksom in West Sikkim. Their names were Lhatsun Namkha Jigme, Ngadag Sempa Phungtsog Rinzing, Karthog Kuntu Zangpo and Phuntsog Namgyal.
Among these, Phuntsog Namgyal had been conferred the title of Chogyal (King) after an auspicious ceremony at Norbugang, near Yuksom. The four stones throne on which the Naljor Chezhi sat still exists at Norbugang as a testimony to the historical event.
When Guru Rinpoche blessed Sikkim, he also subdued the land-spirits of Sikkim and bound them under oath as sworn Guardian deities of the dharma and to preserve Sikkim’s hidden treasures. In their duties as guardians of Sikkim and its people, Guru Rinpoche instructed them to grace the land with bountiful harvests, with abundant rainfall but also protect it from natural calamities and wars. In return, it was agreed that these guardian deities would be prayed on an annual basis by the people of Sikkim.
The Pang Lhabsol ceremony follows a ritual text called Neysol; the origin of which lies in the very foundations of Sikkim. This text is recited by the monks in the monastery before the Cham and is believed to win the favour of all Guardian deities. The warrior dance is also called Pangtoed Cham; the ceremonies are performed in order as a mark of devotion and loyalty to the lineage of the Chogyals and Mt. Kanchendzonga.
In the Pangtoed Cham, the masked dancers representing the guardian deities of Dzonga and Yeshe Gonpo emerge from the Tsuklakhang amidst rituals. Prayers are made to the deities and once Dzonga has defeated all the evil forces, the dancers representing the two deities return to the Tsuklakhang. The Pangtoed Cham became a part of Pang Lhabsol by the 3rd Chogyal of Sikkim after a dream.
The final stage of Pang Lhabsol by which the festival culminates is a procession of Pangtoed dancers circumambulates the Tsuklakhang monastery three times while singing traditional songs of victory.
Translation of the prayers during Pang Lhabsol, in English :
Protector of Dharma and the Guardian of the East, Kirtima;