Intriguing counterpoints: the ‘Kalachakra Ritual Offering Dance’ and Tibetan folk music

Here is something curious almost live from the web. Last week the Dalai Lama presided and led one of the most important initiation rituals in Tibetan Buddhism, the Kalachakra Ritual, a massive, 12-day event event held this time in Bodhgaya, the place where Gautama Buddha is believed to have reached enlightenment under the bodhi tree.

The very same day when the ritual itself began (after many days of preliminary rituals) the Dalai Lama’s office put the ceremony online. At first I did not look through, due to connection problems and the long silent beginning of the video. Then, last weekend I viewed the whole thing and I found it a very intriguing event. Take this combination, for example (all videolinks in this post look the same, but lead to different moments in the ceremony) :



What you see in this 1-hour+ video, is the monks doing their esoteric rituals, their chanting of scrambled-&-stretched-syllables, interrupted with cymbals, bells and horns. What is so unusual, at least to my ears, is this overlapping with a long sequence of secular performances (non-religious folk and popular music), which happen right next to the monks at the same time. These worldly sounds somehow compete with the ritual sounds, at least in how they reach your ears and provide often strange contrasts.

Think of Gregorian chant during a religious service in church, with a simultaneous parade of different folk bands and village choirs from across Europe (Bulgaria, Spain, Rumania and so on) and a bit of amplified Austrian schlager mixed-in, right in front of the altar. A very unorthodox mix.

Here are just some of the things I noted, with timings. The whole video lasts 1h 09m. Click on each YouTube link to hear the moment I describe.

At 03:00 the ritual orchestra begins playing, up to then the film is mostly silent.



At around 8:00 the monks start chanting. It is close-miced and you can clearly hear the physical effort they make to bring out their special voice quality.



At around 10:00 the secular music starts playing, faintly in the background.



They slowly fade-in as they approach. Then,

at around 12:00 the musicians and dancers become visible. A subtle blending-in of a dynamic counterpoint to the relatively static religious chants, probably by a professional performing troupe like TIPA.



In the following hour, several professional performers/groups follow, and as time goes on the secular performances become loser and wilder.

At around 35 minutes into the ritual, for example, the worldly acts become more polyphonic or complex. Village groups make their entry which have their own counterpoint voices, playing two different parts.



Meanwhile the Namgyal monks’ chanting goes on, undisturbed, intensifying. With perfect vocal blend and dancing in near-perfect synchrony. Every once in a while the sutras are interrupted, and the reduced sounds of cymbals and bells allow the secular music to come to the foreground. Like here, when this energetic group of women perform village songs, reminding me of Slavic polyphony.



The Dalai Lama can mostly be seen reciting along with the monks, but sometimes throws a glance at a dancing/singing group, apparently approving the whole thing. Obviously the Namgyal monks have the upper hand, performing right in front of His Holiness, but increasingly the Dalai Lama also pays attention to the parade and interupts his own chanting. When only bells ring (48:50) a duo attracts more attention than at other moments, at least on the videoregistration of the whole event.



Around 56:00 there are what I assume to be Mongolian singers, this is the same fragment as the first one at the top of this post. If you listen further on, then after the a capella you’ll hear them using a loud play-back tape over their crooner-like songs – a smashing contrast to the monks’ chanting. What a weird event this is!



In the 59th minute, you’ll sea a single man playing a straight flute, with its ring of solemnity: perhaps a closer match with the monks’ part than many of the other pieces.



Then at 1:04:00, a wild dance and fast instrumental piece, most likely of Kalmyk origin, as the monks’ voices give way to the bells and cymbals of their orchestra to finish the ritual dance.



More of Tibet’s beautiful song traditions follow, until the monks finally go offstage.


I really wonder what is going here. Is this an established tradition? A new way to give many devout Tibetans a stage and honour His Holiness? A way to present some distraction, now that hour-long chanting and dancing becomes increasingly difficult for millenials with their infamous short attention span? Hardly so, as for thousands of attendants this is the start of six days of lengthy dharma expositions and tantric rituals.

In any case I am baffled by the radical juxtaposition of these very different ‘performance arts’, if I may call them that. And I must say it speaks for the Tibetans and for Tibetan Buddhism that they juxtapose their traditions in this seemingly crude, unpolished way.

In Europe, there would always be a concern to make things match, to coordinate all the voices, according to idea(l)s of musical harmony, polyphony. We (Europeans) try often and hard to mix different traditions in an effort to develop/show our ‘worldiness’, among other things.

I have seen and heard many encounters of radically different music forms. Yet this is different, because of the utterly unchangeable, focused monks, who are not trying in any way to connect with the secular musicians, and vice versa. It is a lovely mess, each part speaking for itself, on its own terms, without adulteration to meet the other voice. That can sometimes be terrible, and sometimes refreshing.


If you didn’t have enough, or if you need to settle down, as it is sort of an overkill to hear all those different voices for over one hour, then listen to the Dalai Lama’s final session of the Kalachakra cycle. What a great voice, what a contagious laugh, what a remarkable energy for this 81-year old. May His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama live long and inspire many people!

(Skip to 2:00 to listen to him talking.)