This unique work provides invaluable material related to the Tibetan Sacred Dances, which have met
their doom with the destruction of monastic life in Tibet.
Nebesky-Wojkowitz, during several periods of his field work in the Himalayas had studied
these Buddhist temple dances. He brought to their description his expert knowledge of Tibetan
iconography and ritual. Of particular interest is the translation of the Tibetan texts containing detailed
instructions for the performances of the dances. The existence of such choreographical manuals
explains the uniformity in the performance of temple dances and the persistence of an unchanging
tradition over long periods. Realizing that none of the Buddhist rituals referred in this book can be
performed in the present day Tibet and with the rapid decline of the art of ‘chams-dances, Dr. de
Nebesky-Wojkowitz’s posthumous work becomes all the more valuable.
Among the papers of the late Dr. Rene de Nebesky-Wojkowitz, whose sudden death at the age
of thirty-six brought a brilliant academic career to a tragically early end, was found a manuscript on
Tibetan sacred dances. Though in an incomplete form, this manuscript contained so much valuable
material that its publication seemed to be clearly indicated. During several periods of fieldwork in the
Himalayas the author had studied the Buddhist temple dances of Sikkim and other areas, and he brought
to their description an expert knowledge f Tibetan iconography and ritual. Had he lived to complete the
book, he would undoubtedly have expanded and deepened the analysis of the dances described, and it is
likely that he would have added a chapter comparing the temple dances reported from various parts of
Tibet and the Himalayan regions. Yet, even in its fragmentary form the book provides data not
obtainable elsewhere. Of particular interest is the translation of the Tibetan texts containing detailed
instructions for the performance of the dances. The existence of such choreographical manuals explains
the uniformity in the performance of temple dances in widely separated areas as well as the persistence
of an unchanging tradition over long periods.
With the destruction of monastic life in Tibet through the Chinese intervention, the great
performances of religious dances have also met their doom, and at present it is only in some of the
Buddhist monasteries in Nepal and in the Indian borderlands that the enacting of ritual dances by monks
can still be observed. But as all these monasteries relied for inspiration on higher teaching and the
ordination of the monks on the great centers of the respective Buddhist sects in Tibet. It is doubtful
whether after the disruption of the traditional links with Tibetan monasteries the old pattern of ritual
dances will survive for long even in regions beyond the immediate reach of the new rulers of Tibet. The
likelihood of a rapid decline of the art of ‘chams-dances makes Dr. de Nebesky-Wojkowitz’s
posthumous work all the more valuable.
In the task of editing the manuscript I was faced by a number of difficulties, not all of which
were successfully overcome. The greatest of these was the incompleteness of footnotes and references,
and, though some of them could be supplemented, in many cases it was unclear to which particular work
the author had intended to refer. There remain also some obscurities in the text which could not be
entirely removed in the process of editing. Dr. Nebesky wrote the present book at a time when the Dalai
Lama was still residing in Lhasa, and Tibetan religious performances were continuing in their traditional
form. Hence descriptions of rituals are cast in the present tense, and this has been retained in the edited
text. Readers must realize, however, that none of the Buddhist rituals referred to can be performed in
I am grateful for the help of Miss Chie Nakane, who succeeded in tracing some of the
doubtful references, and of Dr. David Snellgrove, who was good enough to read the manuscript. The
Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research had generously assisted some of Dr. Nebesky’s
fieldwork, and after his death the Foundation provided a grant in aid of the preparation of his notes for
publication. Dr. Walter Graf of the University of Vienna, who had cooperated with Dr. Nebesky during
his lifetime, added to the book an appendix on the performance of the Tibetan music notation, which is
partly based on the tape recordings and notes of his colleague. Mr. Philip Denwood has assisted with the
proof-reading of the Tibetan texts and Mrs. Helen Kanitkar has compiled the bibliography. My
colleague Dr. P.H. Pott, director of the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde at Leyden - with whom Dr.
Rene de Nebesky-Wojkowitz worked for some years when writing his book Oracles and Demons of
Tibet (1956) - kindly obliged me by seeing the book through the press, inclusive of the preparation of
the indexes and the care for its illustration.
All those who knew Rene de Nebesky-Wojkowitz are deeply conscious of the great loss to
scholarship caused by his untimely death, and they will welcome this book as the last instalment of his
notable contribution to our knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism.
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