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July 1, 2012, vol 8, no 2

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Sonam Chhoki

The Dance of the Skulls

Full moon night. The oracle dons her crown of protective deities. Her pellet drum beats a repeat beat to her silver bell. She swirls conjuring the contours of her hallowed realm. Her incantations in falsetto swell to a crescendo as she summons the hungry ghosts from the sublunary world between death and rebirth.

Dancing skulls rise from the vaporous vortex of sandalwood smoke. Bloodless and body-less spectral discs. They sway and they swing to the oracle's pulsing drum. They wail, they waul to her thundering call:

"Our hollowed eyes behold
only the darkness
of bardo and karmic rebirth.

We're mollusks, unformed, unborn,
unable to escape this stained space
between life and death."*

To and fro the oracle flings her drum and bell in deafening tempo. She leaps and she weeps. This is her song: *

"You polyps of pain and woe!
You're shackled by your own
hatred, lust and envy.

The travails of rebirth that you fear
lead to the Clear Light of Nirvana
all sentient beings seek.

With the razor of the Buddha's mind
I cut the cords of your ignorance.

By the luminous aura
of the fear-destroying Moon
I free you from this dark limbo.

With this ambrosia of the Dakini**
I awaken you to the inherent emptiness
of all existence.

From this unborn expanse I raise you to the radiant rainbow of bliss."

The moaning and mewling cease. The skulls dance out of the abyss. The oracle sinks on the dew-moist grass. Her drum silent, her bell mute, she bows in obeisance to the glorious full moon.

drifting fog –
silhouettes of figures
on the rope bridge


*Own translation of the oral repertoire of the local oracle. This exorcism rite is performed only on certain occasions when a household is dogged by misfortunes and death. It is believed that such repeated misfortunes are caused by the spirits of the dead who are unable to travel through the bardo to a new rebirth. The principal oracle and one of her/his experienced assistants enact the exorcism dance.

**Dakini: (Sanskrit) A tantric deity. In Tibetan Buddhist iconography the dakini is a female embodiment of an enlightened mind. In Dzongkha (lingua franca of Bhutan) and Tibetan, dakini is rendered as khandroma 'she who traverses the sky' or 'she who moves in space'.