Can Pollution Bring Balance to the Hidden Land?
Fibreglass Interventions in the Ecology of Sikkimese Cham
Cham, a distinctive masked ritual dance, is undertaken biannually at Pemayangtse Monastery, a Buddhist institution in Sikkim, a Himalayan state in northeast India. These ritual performances are intended to dispel negative forces and create the conditions of prosperity and health for all of the beings – including humans, spirits and deities – resident in Sikkim’s sacred landscape and throughout the cosmos. The efficacy of ritual dances is intertwined with the context of the performances and the materiality of the dancers’ costumes. This article will engage debates over cham’s changing materiality. In particular, it will focus on the recent introduction of fibreglass masks in Pemayangtse’s ritual dances to explore connections between changing ecologies, notions of toxicity and pollution and ritual economies in Sikkim. While Buddhist authorities express anxiety about the substances involved in creating fibreglass, they also appreciate its affordability and durability. Artists who work in fibreglass see the material as a fast way to work. The dancers, on the other hand, express concern about how changes in the physicality of dancing with these masks may interfere with ritual efficacy. These debates are illustrative of broader concerns about the impact of changing ecosystems on interdimensional relations in the Himalayas.
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