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The Fascinating History of Himalayan Masks

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Traditional Cham Dance

The Origin of Himalayan Masks Cult

Nepalese and Tibetan Masks are one of the symbols that better represent the culture and traditions of people living in the Himalayan region.
The ritual of wearing masks is very old and it comes from animists Himalayan tribes used to worship spirits of nature and guardians of these majestic mountains.Himalayan Masks

The Shamans of these tribes used to wear masks during rituals they use to perform in order to protect the village, heal diseases, practice exorcisms or other purposes.
Masks supposedly had a very important functions in the social life of these community as they were used also during theatrical representations and ceremonies dedicated to ancestors.

Hindu and Buddhist cultures, that became dominant in the surrounding regions, slowly replaced the myths of this shamanic cult.
However some of the old costumes survived.
Even spirits and demons were adopted by the Buddhist tradition and some of them became wrathful protectors of the Buddhist doctrine.

Padmasambhava and the Rise of Buddhism

Guru Rimpoche Thangka

Buddhism entered Tibet in the 7th century AD. According to Buddhist mythology the main actor of the transformation of Tibet was Padmasambhava. A famous Tantric Buddhist master from the Swat Valley (today Pakistan) and founder of the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery at Samye, south central Tibet.

Padmasambhava was called by the first Emperor of Tibet to defeat the ancient mountain gods of the old animist cult.
In accordance with the Tantric principle of redirecting negative forces toward spiritual awakening, Padmasambhava converted the wrathful deities, convincing them to become defenders of the new faith.

He is also said to have introduced at Samye Temple the so called Vajra Dance. A dance that takes place in a monastery where masked monks in deep meditation perform rituals that last for three days.
This practice continues today under the name “Cham” and it celebrate Padmasambhava’s conquest over the indigenous cult and their deities.
In Nepal this dance tradition takes a form known as Mani Rimdu: spectacular and colorful masked dances performed during different religious festival.

Iconography of Tibetan Masks

Bhairava Nepalese Mask

Considering the polytheist nature of both Hindu and Buddhist traditions the deities represented by Tibetan masks are numerous: Shiva, Bhairava, Ganesh, Mahakala, Garuda and Varahi are the most famous.
Some of the deities are depicted using animals like the Lion associated with Sima or the Tiger symbolizing Duma.
However the images must follow the rules and prescriptions described in old manuals and iconographic books.Himalayan Mask
There are several books that set those guidelines, one of the earliest is from the first half of the 15th century. All the masks display a common element: the open third eye mark on the forehead.
The style of Tibetan and Nepalese Masks is characterized by elaborate pointed crowns with skulls, various head-bands, earrings and many other colorful elements.
These decorations not only reflect religious and symbolic aspects but also add a powerful imagery and a peculiar and fascinating look.

Endless Knot Symbol
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