Most masks are created locally of indigenous materials for particular ceremonies and are put away for the remainder of the year. A mask used only once a year and then kept wrapped and put away in a storage box may well show less wear and patina than a much more recent mask which has been kept hanging near the kitchen fire of a chimneyless stone house. Scientific testing is generally the only proof positive of the age of a mask unless one comes upon the rare example which can be dated from the written record or from the memories of these who remember stories of when it was new.
In the Qing Dynasty, Tibetan opera was widely popularized among common people. Tibetan opera grew richer in style and repertoire. Compared with religious masks, Tibetan opera masks were decidedly secular and folksy. The images they demonstrate include characters of spirits and animals from historical stories and myths. Among Tibetan opera masks, masks of kings, ministers, lamas, elderly women and men bear their unique personalities while masks of spirits, monks and animals, although bearing marks of religious masks, are personalized and given human emotion. Masks display in a specific way not only the true, the good and the beautiful, but also the false, the bad and the ugly. Most of masks are colored. Different colors represent the characteristics of different roles. For example, dark red, pale red, yellow and blue respectively represent kings, ministers, Living Buddhas and negative figures while masks in half black and half white manifest double-dealers. When a Tibetan opera begins, a performer wearing a hunter's mask appears on the stage first. Hunter's masks are in blue or black.
Varnished Cloth Mask of a Guardian of Dharma
Religious dances (vChams) were performed in Tibet a long, long time ago. According to historical records, in the mid-eighth century (Tubo bTsan-po Khri-srong-lde-btsan's reign), the bSam-yas Monastery, the first one in Tibet, was built in Gra-nang region in Lho-kha of Tibet. At that time, in order to hold the consecration ceremony for the bSam-yas Monastery, Padmasambhava organized a vChams ensemble so as to express his thanks to deities and exple evil spirits. Religious dances were made up according to the contents in Vajra dances of Yoga Section and of the Incomparable Yoga Section preached by Sakyamuni. It is also recorded in Biography of Padmasambhava that eminent monks would hold newly-translated scriptures, walking around the hall three times after they were translated. Monks would line up and wear masks, dancing while beating drums so as to consecrate the newly-translated scriptures. Masks, very exquisite in workmanship, are made of copper, wood, clay, cloth and leather. In practice, most of three-dimensional masks are made of clay and varnished cloth.
Varnished Cloth Ox Head Mask
This mask is worn by the performer who plays the role of the Great Dignity and Virtue. Its eyes are open wide and its nose is upward. It opens its big bloody mouth and it has two sharp horns on its head. Its image often inspires people with awe. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas appear in peaceful-looking and ferocious-looking forms. This mask belongs to the latter.
Varnished Cloth Wandering Monk's Mask
"A-tsa-ra" in Tibetan language stands for a wandering monk of Yoga in ancient India. Tibetan religious dances originated from Indian Esoteric Vajra Dances. Therefore, the role of an Indian wandering monk exists in vChams of various sects. This mask is only worn by the performer who plays this role. Judging from the facial feature, he is from the northwest of India. Wandering monks not only appear in vChams, but also are painted on walls of halls in monasteries and in front halls of houses as well.
Buddhism entered Tibet in the 7th century AD. The transformation of Tibet from an essentially animistic culture to a radiantly Buddhist one is a fascinating story. One of the major players in this tale is Padmasambhava. A great Indian Tantric Buddhist adept from the Swat Valley (modern day Pakistan), he was instrumental in founding the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery at Samye (777-779 AD), south central Tibet. It is said that he overpowered the ancient mountain gods of the old religion (Bon) and converted the wrathful deities, convincing them to become defenders of the new faith.
Padmasambhava is also said to have introduced the Vajra Dance (rdo-rje gar) at Samye Temple. This practice continues today under the name Cham in celebration of Padmasambhava's conquest of the Bon religion. Taking place in a monastery, masked monks in deep meditation perform dramas first imported from India and prescribed by Sanskrit-based Tantric texts. The ritual lasts for three days.
In masks, Padmasambhava appears in his natural and animal manifestations. Wrathful protectors of the faith or dharmapalas, including Mahakala, exhibit their fierce visages as spectators enter into the transformation process of the masquerade. In this way, Buddhist doctrine is transmitted to literate and non-literate alike through meditation in action.