Cultural Revolutions

One of things I enjoy most about writing this blog is that I am always learning. So today I’m going to share something totally new to me, Ache Lhamo, Tibetan Folk Opera.

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Lhamo, meaning sister goddess, is a traditional Tibetan folk opera performed through a unique combination of dialogue, dance, chants, pantomime and songs. Based on Buddhist teachings and Tibetan historical figures, Ache Lhamo are traditionally stories of love, devotion, good and evil.

Lhamo has it’s roots in the masked dance-drama tradition of the Tibetan royal dynasty in the 6th to 9th centuries, but the development of Lhamo as it is known today is attributed to the 14th century teacher and self-made engineer, Thangtong Gyalpo. Thangtong Gyalpo developed a performance medium that told moral tales, based on Buddhist philosophy, in the words of the common people

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Lhamo is a day long performance played outdoors traditionally under a large circular canvas tent. Music is simple, however the cymbals and drum create remarkable atmosphere. Costumes generally imitate those of the Tibetan aristocracy, and some characters wear masks, which portray their personality with bold symbols.

Lhamo Masks

However, and not surprisingly, Lhamo now has a more political context. The role of China in Tibet over the last 60 years remains one of the biggest human rights tragedies. The suppression or tight control of most of the cultural and religious practices of indigenous Tibetans is well-known. Lhamo only exists in traditional form outside of Tibet where it has been kept alive by exiles.  The most famous centre is in Dharamsala, India, and is known as the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA).  TIPA was established in August 1959, four months after the Dali Lama fled Tibet. You can watch one of their performances here:

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There is a facsinating blog post, The Wandering Goddess, Sustaining the spirit of Ache Lhamo in the Exile Tibetan capital written by Jamyang Norbu, that tells story of the revival of Lhamo following the Chinese occupation. It is clear from all I have read that the practice of Lhamo by the Tibetan refugee community across the world evokes nostalgia for a lost existence and the struggle for a return to the Tibetan Buddhist homeland.

Meanwhile in Tibet itself it has been ‘redeveloped’ by China following the Cultural Revolution and used to support Chinese claims to Tibet. If you want to read more you can do here, in a rather scholarly paper entitled Tibetan Folk Opera: Lhamo in Contemporary Cultural Politics by Syed Jamil Ahmed.

I said earlier, the music that accompanies Lhamo is traditionally played on a drum and cymbols alone – take a look at this dude:

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Norbu Tsering, was the TIPA opera master and drummer until he sadly passed away earlier this year. Another link with past traditions lost.

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