Zlos-Gar Performing Traditions of Tibet

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Item Code: IDC352
Publisher: Library Of Tibetan Works & Archives
Author: Jamyang Norbu
Edition: 1986
Pages: 146 (6 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5” X 5.5”
Weight 210 gm
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Book Description
Back of the Book

Zlos-Gar is an invaluable collection of articles on the many aspects of the music and performing traditions of Tibet by fourteen scholars from many different countries. Since this important part of Tibetan culture has not been studied comprehensively until now, this collection of highly informative and readable papers fills a significant gap in our knowledge of Tibetan civilisation.

Publisher’s Note

We are happy to publish this anthology on the musical and performing arts of Tibet compiled and edited by Jamyang Norbu.

The world of Tibetan secular and spiritual music and performing tradition is rich and fascinating. As yet, very little has been done in this field. This anthology which comprises excellent contributions from many experts and enthusiasts in the field of Tibetan music and dance will be one of the most useful publications on the subject and will undoubtedly help in further researches in this field.

We are grateful to Mr. Jamyang Norbu for his enthusiasm in compiling and editing this anthology. We hope many more contributions will come in for the second volume of a similar anthology.


Western travelers to Tibet like Sir Charles Bell, while noting the weakness of the Tibetan race for such scientific disciplines as arithmetic, have commented very favourably on the ‘natural artistic instincts’ of the people. Though a definite aesthetic sensitivity seems to have influenced the life of the Tibetan, even to the design and ornamentation on articles of everyday use like his drinking bowl, rug, prayer-wheel, dagger and clothes, the form in which his ‘natural artistic instincts’ found most prodigious and widespread expression seems to have been in music, dance and theatre. Unlike the plastic arts, which in Tibet were professional and quasi-religious vocations, the performing arts found universal expression not only in the rituals of the church, or the ceremonies of the rulers, but in almost every aspect of the lives of the common Tibetan.

For instance in the province of folk songs alone the variety and quantity is quite astonishing. Tibetans not only sang specific songs on such joyous occasions as the celebration of a wedding, the drinking of beer, or the courting of a girl; but also on less germane moments when ploughing, harvesting, threshing, building a house, begging, throwing dice, telling riddles, doing one’s accounts (on house, Tibetan counting table), making political criticisms, or preparing for battle. Some of these songs could be accompanied by stringed fiddle). Other instruments such as the rgyud-mang (hammer dulcimer), phred gling (transverse flute) could also accompany singers but were generally confined to the music of the Lhasa nangma ensembles. The singing and recitation of the famous Gesar epics was popular in Kham or Eastern Tibet. Roving bards known as sgrung mkhan could sing and recite the epic for days.

Songs in praise of Buddhism, of holy men or sacred mountains were popular with Tibetans. Much in the way of St. Francis of Assisi who took the words of the gospel and incorporated them in the Jonglur songs of medieval Europe, saints and Iamas of Tibet like Mipham, Brug-pa Kunlegs, Milarepa and the sixth Dalai Lama expressed their spiritual feelings in the melodies and words of the common Tibetan. Tibet, the Italy of St. Francis, was a medieval country, which probably helps to explain why song and music, and the performing traditions in general, played such an important and pervasive role in the life of the common Tibetan.

In spite of the grandeur and sophistication of Tibetan civilization, life in old Tibet was, materially speaking, primitive and lacked the amenities of modern life like newspapers, radio, movies, television, public transport and so on, that we now take for granted. Therefore the performing traditions not only played the valuable role of entertaining a people who generally led hard uneventful lives, but in many cases served as a medium for moral and spiritual instruction. Moreover such forms as the ‘Street Songs’ (Khromcal and social criticism… in the form of songs that lampooned the vice, fully and misdeeds of the mighty and summed up important political and social events, often with biting sarcasm and irony.” Certain Europeans who visited Tibet in the past seemed up important political and social events, often with biting sarcasm and irony.” Certain Europeans who visited Tibet in the past seemed to have noticed such social criticism even of revered institutions such as the traditional opera. The opera troupes that toured Tibet at certain seasons of the year, were, with the exception of a company from Lhasa, mainly recruited from the tillers of the soil. When their tour finished they returned to work in the fields. Meanwhile they had seen a bit of the world outside their village and enjoyed it, for the Tibetan loves travelling.

A fondness for dancing is also marked in the Tibetan character. Whether at a festival, a party, or in the course of an ordinary evening at home, the native of Lhasa would find much delight inn the performance of the quick-stepping stod-gzhas, or the elegant nangma; while the Khampa, the native of Eastern Tibet would prefer the grander movements of his bro dances. In Western Tibet men and women would form a circle and perform their robust sgor-gzhas dances to the beating of a drum or the rhythmic twang of the Tibetan lute. Aside from such popular dancing many villages and districts also performed unique ceremonial dances on special occasions. In the district of sPo-rong in Western Tibet the people performed the rgyal-gzhas or ‘royal dance’, which they claimed was first performed by the nobles and ladies of Tibet to welcome the Chinese princes Wen-cheng as the bride of the Tibetan Emperor Srong-btsan sGampo. In SDe-ge and Chab-mdo in Eastern Tibet and Rwa-sgreng in Central Tibet, the people performed the gLing-gzhas or ‘royal dance’, which they claimed was first performed by the nobles and ladies of Tibet to welcome the Chinese princes Wen-cheng as the bride of the Tibetan Emperor Srong-btsan sGampo. In sDe-ge and Chab-mdo in Eastern Tibet and Rwa-sgreng in Central Tibet, the people performed the gLing-bro dance to honour the epic hero Gesar. In Tshaba-rong, dPag-shod and Brag-gyab in Eastern Tibet roving bands of dancers called respa or yogis, performed acrobatic dances and plays. In their kha-bshad or narration they describe their tradition as having been founded by Rechungpa, the favourite disciple of Milarepa. In the Lhoka and Tsang districts of Central Tibet certain villages performed the Bro-brdung or drum dances said to have been created by the legendary trickster and saint Uncle Tompa. Many other such singular dance and theatrical traditions existed all over Tibet.

The ceremonies of the government also provided the Tibetan with an outlet for his artistic spirit with such productions as the Gar, the court music and dance of the Dalai Lamas, and the annual government sponsored Zho-ston, or opera festival in Lhasa. The Tibetan love of a ltad-mo or spectacle is more than fulfilled in the elaborately stage-managed pageants of the New Year and sMon-lam festival, and on other holy occasions like the Tsongs mchold ser-bang, “The Procession of the Offerings of the Assembly”, established by Desi Sangye Gyatso to commemorate the death anniversary of the fifth Dalai Lama.

The ecclesiastical music, dance and theatre displayed a marked difference in form and content from its secular counterpart, though it more than matched it in variety, sophistication and virtuosity. Not only did the clergy develop a very rich corpus of liturgical melodies for many rituals and sacred texts, but devised it, tonally, very differently from secular music. Unlike secular music the monasteries also developed a number of notational systems (dbyangs-yis) as well. A wide variety of musical instruments, very different from secular instruments (most of which are stringed instruments), are used to accompany religious chanting and the sacred tantric dances (‘cham). The instruments generally used are the long trumpets (dung-chen), double-reed oboes (rgya-ling), handled drums (rnga), conch shells (dung dkar), waisted drums (damaru), thigh-bone trumpets (rkang gling), and cymbals (sbub, bsil-snyan, ting-shag) of many sizes and tones.

In dance and theatre too the monasteries have, as befitting their paramount role in Tibetan cultural life, produced one of the grandest spectacles in Tibetan performing tradition, the ‘cham, the sacred dance theatre of Lamaist Buddhism-the ‘Devil Dances’ of old time European travelers to Tibet. ‘Cham could, with some license, be described essentially as a kind of meditation in movement. The dancer is by his actions (aided by chants, music and costumes) supposed to conceive himself as the diety he is representing. Every gesture (Skt. mudra) he makes is not only symbolic, but is supposed to have power in itself. Padmasambhava is said to have made rocks explode and set the Emperor of Tibet’s robe aflame by the power of his mudras. For the most part the dancers conceive of their art as an offering to the deities. This idea of art an offering to the gods is of Indian origin. The ‘Natyashastra’ mentions that the gods are pleased by dramatic performances of themselves.

For a people scattered over large tracts of rugged sparsely populated land, and living for the most part, in small villages and nomad important social occasions where friends and relatives could meet and exchange news; where romances between young people of different localities could spring up and where marriages could be contracted. Indeed, in the story “sNang sa ‘Od’bum” a popular folk opera, the heroine is observed by a young prince at an annual ‘cham performance at the local monastery, where he falls in love with her and later marries her. ‘Cham performance were also an occasion for buying and selling; small markets would spring up outside the monasteries during the period of performances.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that, for all practical purposes, the old performing traditions are now dead in Tibet. While the ‘cham dances have been absolutely proscribed, and its musical instruments, masks and costumes destroyed, there has, on the other hand, been a systematic and wholesale perversion of Tibetan folk songs, dances and operas to serve as vehicles for Communist propaganda and a buttress for racist and pseudo-historical claims. It would require many volumes to fully describe this, what I think can only be termed as, cultural ‘genocide’; though I am aware that the word itself is a much abused one, and I use it with reluctance. Painstaking efforts have been taken by the Chinese to remove, as far as possible, any vestige of Tibetan character in the performing arts. Even the very way that Tibetan sing has now changed. In the past, with the exception of opera singing, Tibetans sang in an easy natural way. Now female voices are invariably rendered in the hideous and shrill falsettos of the Peking opera, while male voices reflect Russian operatic influences. This unfortunate trend is not just limited to professional singers, but seems widespread even among ordinary Tibetans especially in Lhasa and Eastern Tibet.

In a brave effort to preserve this important aspect of Tibetan civilization, the Tibetan government-in-exile under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalia Lama, founded the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts twenty-seven years ago. Despite a permanent paucity of funds, occasional official neglect, and a disastrous fir in 1984 that destroyed the Institute’s auditorium among other things, much good work has been done there. Indeed, arts like the Lhamo (opera), Gar (Court dance and music), and the Nangma stod-gzhas music of Lhasa ha certainly been given a new lease of life, to the extent that it now plays an important role in the lives of the Tibetan refugees. Due to astute research work done by the staff and artists of the Institute many other musical and dance traditions have not only been documented but also performed for the public. For all that, much more needs to be done, and to achieve further success there must not only be active support for Institute by the Tibetan people and government but a change in basic ideas. First of all the medieval tendency among many Tibetans, even in government circles, to regard actors and musicians as somewhat disreputable must come to an end. Most important of all, Chinese Communist influence in the thinking of government officials regarding the role of the performing arts must be rooted out. The official tendency to regard music, theatre and dance as mediums for self-glorification and propaganda, and a generally handy device to entertain visiting foreign firemen is most upsetting and quite contrary to the true spirit of performing culture in old Tibet.

Having served as the director of the institute of Performing Arts for five years it gives me great pleasure to bring out this book to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Institute. It is my hope that this volume of excellent articles will help to begin a more fruitful era in research work in the performing arts of Tibet. I much regret the delay in the publication of this collection. The fire at the Institute on the eve of its twenty fifth anniversary forced us to devote our efforts only to basic reconstruction work. Also my own unexpected transfer from the Institute last year added to the problems.

I wholeheartedly thank all the contributors for their invaluable articles. It is a signal honour for the Institute as well as myself that such eminent scholars should, despite their obviously busy academic schedules and heavy research work, have so generously spared us some of their precious time and knowledge, and also replied so promptly and graciously to our many letters. It would be remiss of me if I did not especially thank Mr. Hugh Richardson, who in spite of an unfortunate ill health and much important work, responded kindly to my appeals with a most informative and charming vignette of life in Lhasa during the opera festival.

I would like to thank Mr. Nyaljor Samten for helping me to edit this book, and to Mr. Gyatsoo Tshering, Mr. K Dhondup and Mr. Tashi Tsering of the Library of Tibetan works and Archives for their advice and assistance in its publication.

This book is not only of value to the expert, but will delight anyone who has an interest in Tibet or in the musical and theatrical traditions of the world.




Jamyang Norbu  
Memories of Shoton  
Hugh E. Richardson 7
Music of the Lhasa Minstrels  
Geoffrey Samuel 13
The Life of the child Padma ‘od-‘bar from the theatre to the painted Image  
Anne-Marie Blondeau 20
The Bonpo Tradition : Ritual Practices, Ceremonials, Protocol and Monastic Behaiour  
Ricardo O. Canzio 45
Three Sacred Bon Dances (‘cham)  
Samten G. Karmay 58
Preliminary Remarks concerning the use of musical notation in Tibet  
Mireille Helffer 69
Thang-stong rGyalpo, Father of the Tibetan Drama Tradition: The Bodhisattva as Artist  
Janet Gyatso 91
The State of Research in Tibetan Folk Music  
Peter Crossley-Holland 105
A Note on Vijra-dance choreography in the snow in the early 18th century AD  
Heather STODDARD 125
A Preliminary Study of Gar, the Court Dance and Music of Tibet  
Jamyang Norbu with Tashi Dhondup 132
Contributors 143
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