The Skeleton dance is a sacred Tibetan dance ritual found in Himalayan Buddhist lineages. It is intended to reflect the transient nature of things, including states of mind and the body itself. The monk pictured in the above photo, taken in 1925, seems to be performing the dance known as Durdak Garcham, “Dance of the Lords of the Cemetery.” The dance celebrates the liberation that comes from acceptance of our impermanence.
The skeletons depicted in the dance are Chitipati, a pair of lovers known as the Lord and Lady of the charnel ground whose dance represents the eternal dance of death, as well as the attainment of perfect consciousness. They are worldy guardians, They are typically depicted as skeletons, each with a third eye of wisdom, holding scepters made of human heads and spines in one hand and a blood-filled kapala, sometimes with a still warm brain inside, in the other hand.
The Lord and Lady can usually be distinguished from other skeleton deities by the crowns with five small human skulls, as well as the fan-shaped ornaments on their ears. They represent a “dynamic vision of death and transformation” and a “joyous freedom from attachment” rather than “morbid pessimism” as the imagery conveys in Western societies.
Tibetan Skeleton Dance
Tibetan monks of the Drepung monastery perform the traditional skeleton dance in this video from the 2002 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Some ritual skeleton dances are secret, having never been seen by the public. They are performed by chod initiates before they are sent off by their teachers to practice alone in cemeteries or other charnel places.
Thanks to the Cabinet of Curiosities Podcast for sharing these photos and bringing my attention to this fascinating tradition.