Many people within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition will have heard of the Lama Vajra Dances or Cham. However, not so many people will be familiar with the sacred (and until recently, secret) spiritual dances of Charya Nritya, preserved and practiced by the Newars, the native people of Nepal, revered for thousands of years as masters of Buddhist sculpture, painting, and architecture. In this short post, I pull together some information and articles about this sacred practice and share the video of a perfomance of the ‘Dance of Vajrayogini’ by a world class Charya Nyitra performer.
The Sanskrit word Charya (Caryā) means ‘movement’, ‘actions’, ‘conduct’, ‘discipline’ or ‘performance’. Nritya means ‘dance’. So the literal translation might be ‘Dance as Conduct (Action)’, or as ‘spiritual discipline’, as it says in this article Charya Nritya: Ancient Buddhist Dances of Wisdom and Healing in the Modern World by Lianne Takeuchi Hunt (a skilled dancer of the art):
Their [Newar] priests, known as Vajracharyas, descend through a family lineage and caste system, similar to the Brahmins of India.The Vajracharya priests maintain a Buddhist dance tradition that dates back over a thousand years and has remained, for the most part, hidden from the world. This ritual art is known as “Charya Nritya,” which means “dance as a spiritual discipline.” In this lineage, practitioners offer devotional songs and dance as ritual ceremonies, meditation, and training in the physical yogas. To the Vajracharyas, followers of the Hevajra Tantra, singing and dancing are prerequisites to enlightenment. Yogis and yoginis therefore perform Charya Nritya as a path of realization.
Charya Nritya is a method of deity yoga that integrates body, speech, and mind techniques. It is a meditative discipline that involves physical training and spiritual transformation. Practitioners engage in visualization, recitation of mantras, sacred hand gestures, foot movements, and yogic postures, and adorn themselves with the crown and ornaments of a deity.
As a classical dance, Charya Nritya is distinctly South Asian in aesthetic and style. Dancers perform to flowing ragas and melodic chacha songs written by accomplished Vajrayana masters. These devotional songs, known as “Charya Giti,” supplicate, describe, and praise the deity in Sanskrit. Songs are accompanied by musical cymbals, or ta, and a hand-held hourglass-shaped drum, or damaru. The dances portray the stories of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, interpreting the songs through codified hand gestures, or mudras.
Modern day teachers of ancient, sacred traditions
These meditative ‘dances’ are still taught and practised in Nepal, but now also in western countries such as the USA, like Prajwal Ratna Vajracharya, a 35-generation Newar priest and founder of Dance Mandal Foundation of Buddhist Arts of Nepal and Nritya Mandala Mahavihara temple, based in Portland, Oregon. As Prajawal explains in this recent article:
“It is an important form of Buddhist yoga and a part of meditative practice that is unique to our Buddhist tradition… “But it’s not just dance. It has the potential to lead one to high levels of tantric realizations.”“It is a complete spiritual discipline requiring performance with deep devotion and right understanding,” It requires a solid foundation of Buddhism, which makes it a profound form of Sadhana.”
The Vajracharya Yagyaman Pati Bajracharya too is a very well known Charya Master in Kathmandu who teaches students Charya at his Nepali Vihar, explains how the sacred practice went from being open to anyone, to secret, to more open again in recent years in this interview:
In the beginning, the knowledge of Charya, however, was open to anyone who wanted to learn the dance. ‘Bajracharya’ was a title given to avid learners rather than the current form, which represents a caste within the Newar community. But when that shift became more pervasive, the accessibility of the dance became more confined. This gradually led to the dance only being performed inside the esoteric chambers, as part of religious rituals in front of a sacred community.
“I think it became a secret because people made it so. The early teachers of the dance were worried that people would take the dance in a negative way,” says Bajracharya. “There are dances where the performers show intimate mudras, but there is meaning to it. But if a layperson views the dance without understanding its intricacies, they may perceive it as vulgar.”
This limited exposure of Charya to the wider community restricted the growth of the tradition, according to Munikar. With not many aware of the dance, its religious and cultural significance, Charya was slowly withering. Many in the Bajracharya community, who were adamant about preserving the sacredness by not sharing it with others, weren’t interested in this artform, which was costing the dance’s very existence. During the 60s, this became more prominent as the younger generation were more drawn towards western influences and weren’t keen on carrying the tradition forward.
It was then that the Bajracharya community realised the importance of teaching the spiritual dance to young people who were interested in learning the dance form. “Had we continued in the old ways, we probably wouldn’t have been able to conserve this spiritual dance,” says Bajracharya.
A sacred vajrayana practice, not dance as entertainment
There are challenges to maintaining the lineage as a sacred practice and not just an entertaining dance though, as Hunt explains:
Within contemporary society, there are challenges to maintaining the lineage as a spiritual practice. In the last 20 years, Charya Nritya has become recognized as a classical dance, transitioning from the temples to the theatre. This was the case for all classical dances with roots in spiritual practice. However, Nepal sidesteps the outcome of other traditions, where the ancient died in lieu of modern context. Charya Nritya is an exception as Vajracharya priests continue to maintain the lineage as a yogic discipline. Despite the problems of secularization, genuine practitioners seeking to engage in the art as meditation continue to receive initiation and instruction.
Charya Nritya is a meditation, yogic discipline, and dance of enlightenment to support practitioners on the path. It continues as a living tradition amongst the Newar Buddhists of Kathmandu and is being adopted by Buddhists of all lineages wishing to incorporate the physical yogas in their meditation practice.
Ultimately, Charya Nritya is a vehicle for the deity to manifest, and is given the title rupa, which in Sanskrit makes reference to sculpture or a container. Like Buddhist sculpture, the dance is a container and symbolic representation of enlightenment, albeit through a living, breathing, sentient being. Yogis and yoginis dance to transcend ordinary existence, and through the practice of Charya Nritya, offer their body, speech, and mind as a vessel for enlightenment’s display. Thus, an accomplished Charya Nritya practitioner’s role when offering the dance is to bring the Buddhas and bodhisattvas to life.
As Prajwal explains too:
“In Charya, singing is the mantra, dancing is the meditation. When you combine the two – dance and song – that becomes the Hevajra Tantra, from where liberation comes,” Prajwal said. “Through it, you grow spiritually, and you can liberate yourself from the bondages and limitations.”
“You dance with full awareness. You don’t just dance to entertain yourself. If you have complete awareness when you are dancing, it becomes a deep spiritual exercise. If you sing and dance with total awareness, then you would be doing what the yogis and the yoginis did back in the old days.”
“I think time has come for people around the world to know about and benefit from the spiritual heritage of Nepal,” Prajwal said. “There is no point keeping it hidden forever.”
“But that doesn’t mean I teach these secret Charyas to anybody who just walks in. They have to study for many years, even up to 10 years, to be eligible for that. First they learn the Slokas (chants). Then they learn the Avalokiteshwora dance, and then the Tara dance. That way, they gradually build up their practice,” he said. “Ten years is a standard time for learning anything serious. Even to get a master’s degree at a university, you need to study for so many years.”
The Charya Dance of Vajrayogini
It was only recently that these sacred ‘dances’ have been performed and taught more publicly. Here is the Dance of Vajrayogini performed at an international sacred music festival in Germany in 2004. Experience the deity in motion!