The dramatic ritual masked dances of Tashi Lhunpo take place during the Gutor Festival which leads up to the celebration of Tibetan New Year (Losar).  This is usually around the end of February or beginning of March, depending on the Tibetan calendar.  The Festival takes place over two days, preceded by long periods of retreat and preparation for those taking part.

There has been a tradition of monastic dance, also known as Cham, in Tibet since pre-Buddhist times.  During the reign of King Trisong Detsen in the 8th Century, the great teacher Guru Rinpoche built the first Buddhist monastery at Samye on the shores of a lake and it was here that Guru Rinpoche transformed himself into a deity and performed the first Buddhist cham dance while flying through the air. 

Tashi Lhunpo Monastery's unique dances are the first in the Gelug or Yellow Hat tradition and were brought to the monastery in the 17thCentury by Lobsang Yeshi – the 5th Panchen Lama.  The Abbot of Tashi Lhunpo asked His Holiness the Panchen Lama why there was no monastic dance in the Gelugpa tradition, as the Nyingmapa school had a history of cham from previous ages.  The Panchen Lama went into retreat for several days, and when he emerged he carried with him fresh rice grass and the texts laying out the detailed ritual dances which he had written down during his visit to Shambhala.

The full programme of dances that were codified  by the Panchen Lama are now learned through an oral tradition stretching back through the generations of Tantric dance masters and their students.  Sadly, the original text containing full details of the dance was not recovered from the Monastery in Tibet, and there is even a doubt that it survived the destruction of the Cultural Revolution.  

For more information about Buddhist Monastic Culture, please click here.