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Buddhist Chanting of Ladakh: Recitation of Sacred Texts in the Trans-Himalayan Ladakh Region, Jammu and Kashmir

  • Buddhist Chanting
  • Buddhist Chanting

Inscribed in 2012 (7.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

In the monasteries and villages of the Ladakh region, Buddhist lamas (priests) chant sacred texts representing the spirit, philosophy and teachings of the Buddha. Two forms of Buddhism are practised in Ladakh – Mahayana and Vajrayana – and there are four major sects, namely Nyngma, Kagyud, Shakya and Geluk. Each sect has several forms of chanting, practised during life-cycle rituals and on important days in the Buddhist and agrarian calendars. Chanting is undertaken for the spiritual and moral well-being of the people, for purification and peace of mind, to appease the wrath of evil spirits or to invoke the blessing of various Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, deities and rinpoches. The chanting is performed in groups, either sitting indoors or accompanied by dance in monastery courtyards or private houses. The monks wear special costumes and make hand gestures (mudras) representing the divine Buddha, and instruments such as bells, drums, cymbals and trumpets lend musicality and rhythm to the chanting. Acolytes are trained under the rigorous supervision of senior monks, reciting texts frequently until they are memorized. Chants are practised everyday in the monastic assembly hall as a prayer to the deities for world peace, and for the personal growth of the practitioners.

The Buddhist chanting of Ladakh is a form of recitation or incantation of sacred texts in a musical verse. It was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2012.

Tibetan Buddhism was introduced in Ladakh in the early 11th century by Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055), one of the  principal translators of Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Tibetan. Vajrayana and Mahayana are the two important schools of Buddhism in Ladakh. All the four major Tibetan Buddhist sects- Nyigma, Geluk, Kagyu and Sakya have their own forms of chanting. 

In Buddhism, the chanting of scripture is seen as a form of meditation which is undertaken to purify the mind, ward off evil spirits and call on the Buddha and other Buddhist deities for blessings. Chanting serves the purpose of increasing one's focus on a particular deity, ceremony or mandala.

In Ladakh, the chanting is performed by a group of monks. The chanting can take place either at the monastery or at a devotee's residence during important festivals or special ceremonies. Special costumes are worn by the monks during the ritual and specific mudras (hand gestures) are made by them to represent the Buddha.

In the Tibetan language, there is no specific term for Buddhist chanting. While the Sanskrit term shabda-vidya (grammar) is translated as sgra-rig-pa, the word dbyans is used to refer to any tune, melody or any concept related to music. The music of the Buddhist chants is customarily inscribed in traditional notation. The monks learn the chants orally under the strict guidance of the head monks.

Rolmo or music plays an important part in Buddhist rituals. The Buddhist chanting is accompanied by wind instruments like the rgya-glin (a double-reed instrument), rag-dun (a long and straight tube), rkan-glin (a short trumpet made of thighbones) and the dun-dkar (conch shells) along with percussion instruments like the sbug-chal (cymbals), drill-bu ( hand bell), sil-snan (vertical cymbals) and drums like the can-tehu (damaru) and mkhar-rna (hand drum made from a skull bone). The kind of the musical instruments used in a particular ritual denotes the esoteric (secret knowledge) or exoteric (open knowledge) nature of the ritual.

Kangso is a propitiation ritual dedicated to the chos-skyon  or the guardian deities, and practiced by all sects of Tibetan Buddhism. The dbu-mdsad-pa, a senior priest plays the cymbals as he initiates the recitation. He also directs the rolmo. The can-tehu and the dril-bu are instruments which are played by the slob-dpon or the directing priest. For the Kangso, the scripture is first recited and then the rolmo is played at the end of each part.