A ritual mask






20th century


Forging, repoussé, gilding, painting




Length 320 mm; width 235 mm

COMMENT. The copper mask is intended for the costumed religious mystery Cham (Mongolian: Tsam), which annually takes place in the open air wherever Tibetan Buddhism is common. In most cases, the ritual is tied to the celebration of the Tibetan New Year and the associated purification ceremonies. The name is translated from Tibetan means "dance of the gods". There are several types of cham, rooted in ancient ceremonies that were performed by priests of the pre-Buddhist Tibetan Bon tradition. The most important of these are the costumed dances of dharmapalas, the wrathful deities that protect Buddhist teachings and each individual Buddhist. Dances tells how dharmapalas descend to the earth in order to protect the followers of the Buddha from evil spirits. The ritual symbolizes the victory of Buddhism over the ancient Tibetan beliefs, the victory of good over evil, spirit over matter. The moves of the dancers are strictly regulated and are enlightening, because at the moment of the dance, the performers identify themselves with the deities. It is believed that even the mere contemplation of the ritual contributes to enlightenment and gives hope for well-being. Dances are performed by llamas or simple monks in special costumes, of which the masks are an integral part. They are made of wood, sometimes copper, brass, papier-mâché. Masks depicting higher tantric deities are endowed with three eyes. The mask of each wrathful deity is adorned with a crown with a certain number of miniature human skulls. Higher dharmapals have five skulls, deities of a lower rank - three, and local defenders - one each. Usually a mask is two or three times the size of a human face, so dancers do not look through their eyes, but through their nostrils and mouth. As the mask tilts slightly backward, it seems as if all the dancers are gazing into the sky. Before use, the mask must be consecrated by the lama. Masks, especially those that are passed down from generation to generation, are considered sacred relics with magical properties.