Stone breaking ceremony and Buchen of Spiti

Buchen “the great disciples”

The first time I witnessed a Buchen performance, I remember feeling eerily awed. I do not remember much details about the performance but their ghastly white face smeared with flour and the cheek piercing ritual has stayed distinctly with me. My mother used to scare me that if I ever behaved badly, I would be taken away by meme buchen at night. 

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Photo Courtesy: Pitt Rivers Museum, UK

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Photo Courtesy: Tenzin Sonam , Spiti

Buchen are a group of religious performers in Spiti who enact elaborate rituals and ceremonies to ward off evil spirits that bring misfortunes. They entrap the spirit in a stone and demolish it through a sacred stone breaking ceremony. The ritual is also associated with curing diseases and healing an ailing heart. Nowadays, it is most commonly commissioned to prevent agricultural mishaps, disease outbreak, disaster and water scarcity in a region. Buchen are well-known for performing folk lore, enacting stories of Buddhist saints, Lhamo (opera) and Namthar (biographies). Given their dynamic role in Spitian society, they are viewed differently as ritualistic performers, opera performers, healers, storytellers and messengers of Buddha’s teachings.

The Buchen of Spiti trace their lineage to Thangtong Gyalpo, a 14th C religious practitioner in Tibet who was famously known as “Chak zampa” for making iron bridges and stupa in Tibet. It is said that the stone breaking ceremony was first performed by him to curb an epidemic in Tibet; the capital city Lhasa was plagued with 360 different types of deadly diseases - massively ravaging the lives of ordinary citizens. A demonic force is believed to have caused the disease outbreak and it was then Thangtong Gyalpo first performed the sacred stone breaking ceremony to tame the evil spirit. It is believed that he entrapped the demon in a stone, performed the ritual by breaking the stone, and successfully managed to stop the disease from spreading.

 

He performed it the second time when a demonic spirit was obstructing the monastery he was building. Whatever was made during the daytime was demolished by demons at night. He then performed the stone breaking ceremony where he subdued the evil spirit in a stone and annihilated it by performing the ritual. The monastery eventually came to completion after the demons were tamed. The practice then became widespread in other Himalayan regions and became an important tradition.

Thangtong Gyalpo was a versatile figure. He was a highly revered Buddhist tantric master, skilled in monument making, and nurtured a strong penchant for performative art forms like opera, theater, folk songs and writing. He was also the first priest to spread religious teachings through physical enactments of morality plays, allegorical folklore, song & dance and narratorial acting. He strongly felt that the core teachings on compassion, kindness, peace and impermanence should be taught in a way people can understand and implement in their real lives rather than just instructing from scriptures. He then founded the first theatre group in Tibet which goes to every village and performs religious teachings through morality plays and songs. Buchens of Pin valley in Spiti are disciples of this great master and they consider themselves as his sons “Bu-chen = great sons" who will follow the legacy of their master. Paying tribute to Thangtong Gyalpo is a huge part of Buchen's performance; they put his statue on the altar, pray to him, sing odes and his teachings are orally passed through many generations.

Buchen as healers - relevance of the ceremony

I have seen several Buchen ceremonies during my growing up years and their performances are always invariably very striking. They are bold and impressionistic - one can remember the visuals long after the performance is over. Their repertoire, the enactments, narration and audience engagement are hugely appealing. It is like when they are performing - you are part of the stage, the play and the world they created for you. You might be a silent audience observing them from a distance but they will break the barrier by suddenly putting you in the spotlight – asking you questions, mimicking you and making you part of the play. As such, the distance between the performer and the audience is fluid. You are part of their stage, their world and they derive inspiration, anecdotes from you, your life and the larger community.

 

The Buchen's performances are highly centered on religious precepts but with time, it has evolved to incorporate social realities of local communities. The practice is no longer restricted to impart religious teachings but it's also done to avert serious social and ecological crises like drought, disasters, plague, agricultural loss and to bring harmony among communities. Locals appeal Buchens to perform ceremonies before agricultural season, during particularly low snowfall year, for recovery of physical ailments, while building houses, before starting any new venture in life or to bless a pregnant woman for health and happiness. Meme Buchens play a critical role as healers in Buddhist societies in Himalayan region and their blessings are sought during times of insurmountable distress as well as to bring peace and prosperity. Last year, when the world was gripped with novel coronavirus and there was panic everywhere, remote communities from Spiti sought solace in the healing powers of Buchen, to protect and safeguard them.

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Picture shared by Buchen Gatuk Sonam, Pin valley

Stone breaking ceremonies were performed in many villages like Kaza, Demul, Khurik, Ki and Pin valley. They were also invited to many parts of Ladakh, Zanskar, Lahaul and Kinnaur to help communities deal with crop failure and drought. They were once invited to Patlikuhl, a small village near Kullu/Manali where an annual flood was causing huge devastation. Similarly, in 2018 when His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama fell gravely ill after an eye surgery, meme Buchen of Pin performed a stone breaking ceremony in his “sim-chung” (private residence) for quick recovery. Individuals, villagers, institutions and monasteries consult them for healing, to dispel hindrances and for an auspicious beginning deed.

Sword dance and the stone breaking ceremony

Buchen form groups of 4 or 5 people. The troupe is led by the head Buchen (Lo chen), an actor who plays the role of Lukzi (shepherd) or Onpa (hunter) followed by two other actors who assist them in various tasks. The Lo-chen performs all key ceremonies and religious narratives while Lukzi grips the audience through his skillful narration, storytelling and repertoire. He is the most captivating character – his deliveries are a blend of social commentaries, mimicries, moral teachings and comic interludes.

The Buchen head opens the ceremony with prayers, places the statue of Thangtong Gyalpo on the altar, pays him homage and narrates Namthar (biographies). The other team prepares the stage by placing a large boulder near the altar, drawing a human figure on it symbolizing the evil spirit/ demon that is to be demolished and burning incense. There will be brief prayer in between and after that, followed by a dance led by the head Lama rhythmically swinging the sword in slow dance movements.

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Picture shared by Buchen Tsetan Dorjee, Mikkim village (Pin valley) from his album. Picture taken in 1998

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Picture shared by Buchen Gatuk Sonam from his album, Pin valley - Spiti.

Then comes Lukzi’s turn, who enters the stage wearing a sheep skin and face smeared with white barley flour. He takes over the performance, engaging with the audience – making them crack into loud laughter and burst into tears while the head Buchen prepares for sword dance. He strips the upper part of his body naked, then slowly pierces his cheeks with a large pin and there’s considerable excitement, fear and thrill among the audience who watch him do this. It is a slow careful action and is done to dispel ill omens – the piercing of cheeks symbolizes purity of speech. He then proceeds to point the tip of the sword on his belly and slowly jumps to put all his body weight on it – repeating the act by drawing a sword in his armpits. The whole ritual of body piercing symbolizes the mutual existence of the mortal human body and lha (spiritual deity) that resides in each one of us. The sword dancing and body piercing symbolizes purity of body, mind and speech.

At the culminating act, while Lochen prepares himself for the sacred stone breaking ceremony, the dancer on whose body the stone is to be broken, lies down. A thin cloth and a heavy stone is placed on his body while the other actors look for a second stone. Lo-chen enters the scene, lifts the second boulder and smashes it on the stone placed on the dancer’s belly. The stone breaks with loud thudding noise signaling annihilation of the demon whose spirit was entrapped in the stone. Meme Buchens undergo intense tantric training, yoga, meditation and scripture learning in retreat to acquire such high feat. They acquire immunity towards fatal injuries and mishaps while performing ceremonies after decades of stringent training and disciplining of body and mind. They acquire mastery over their being before they perform healing treatments on others.

They travel extensively within Spiti and outside to perform stone breaking ceremonies among various communities in Himalayan region like Ladakh, Kinnaur, Kullu/Manali, Riwalsar (Tso Pema), Sikkim and Nepal.  Every year they make a journey in small groups carrying the traveling altar, a trunk comprising their costumes, props and other material used for performance and leave from Pin for months at stretch. Sometimes they are out of their homes for as long as six months and come back only during harvest season for the farm work. They recite Namthars, folksongs and perform ceremonies in settlements where they reside and also make trade deals with the locals. They also sell horses and in turn receive Khullu (Yak wool), hand spun blankets,  Lena (Pashmina) and apricots. The Buchen tradition has seen huge decline in Ladakh and the meme Buchens of Pin valley often get invited to perform ceremonies to revive crop failure, crop damage and to appease local deities for abundant snowfall. They travel all over Ladakh; Demchok, Korrzok, Tsokar in Changthang to Choglamsar, Parang valley and even in Zanskar. Alternatively, in Kinnaur they visit Chango, Nako, Malling, Leo, Hangrang and even go as far as Rampur where the biggest trade fair in Himachal happens. Wherever they go, they are treated with utmost respect and their sword dancing and stone breaking ceremonies are considered equivalent to the Jintsak ceremony performed by highly incarnated Rinpoches (religious leader) to dispel ill omen and bring prosperity in the region.

Buchen tradition has undergone a tremendous change over the years. It used to be a widespread practice in many Himalayan communities but now it is actively pursued only in Spiti and that too minimally - there are only 10 remaining Buchen households in the region. “.. people no longer value our skills" laments Meme Buchen Tsetan (76) who is one of the oldest Buchen in Spiti. "Earlier people would bow down in front of Buchen to show their reverence but there’s considerable change in people’s attitude." They also confide that with the influx of tourists, photographers and filmmakers, the practice has been reduced to a bare minimum where they are generally not interested in listening to prayers and Namthar (biographies) and rush them to perform sword dance and stone breaking which has more element of spectacle.

About the Authors

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Tenzin Sonam

Tenzin Sonam is from Lari village in Spiti and he is currently pursuing his doctorate studies in Buddhist studies from University of Delhi.

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Chemi Lhamo

Chemi Lhamo hails from Kowang village in Spiti and is interested in exploring community stories of Spiti which are slowly fading from collective memory. This article is the result of long conversations between the authors around Spitian culture and vanishing tradition. They are grateful for the support of meme Buchens of Pin valley (Spiti).