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Deer in Cham

Deer Chams and Deer Representations in Tibet

{a} Longevity Symbols

{b} Deer and Wheel


Deer have a rich history of significance in Buddhism. They receive a place of honor above the entryways
to many monasteries and temples of Tibet. Here they are pictured at left, female and male, facing the
Dharma Wheel (Wheel of the Teachings), as if attentively listening. Indeed, teaching and deer are
associated in Buddhism since the Buddha gave his first sermon at Deer Park. They also have
associations with long life, as pictured in the farther image at left. These long-life associations are
Chinese in origin but have been well absorbed into Tibetan imagery.
There is also a deer story in the Jataka tales, the tales of the Buddha's previous lives. In the story of the
Banyan Deer, the human king of the land creates a deer park for hunting deer and collects two kingdoms
of deer inside.

{c} Illustration from Jataka Tales


He promises never to kill either deer king but goes hunting every day for other deer in the park. The king
of the Banyan Deer is beautiful and noble. He proposes an arrangement in which deer from each of the
kingdoms draw lots to give themselves up to the king one by one rather than all of them flee and many
get hurt. When the lot falls to the mother of a fawn, she pleads to be passed over until her fawn is old
enough to take care of himself. One deer king refuses to excuse her, but the Banyan King offers to go in
her place. When the human king discovers the king of the deer ready to give his life, he is so moved by
this act of compassion that he decides not to kill either the king or the doe, and vows never to hunt deer
again. This Banyan King was to become the Buddha in a later life (Babbitt, 41-3).
It is useful to keep these meanings in mind as we examine instances of deer characters in monastic
dance. The dances may intentionally play on any of these meanings, or the intended meanings may
blend with the associations already in the minds of the spectators.

{d} Stag in a Tibetan painting

Milarepa Dance
Deer may appear in several contexts within cham dances. One commonly known dance enacts a story
from the life of Milarepa, a great Tibetan saint. While Milarepa was in meditative retreat, a frightened deer
came near him, fleeing from a hunter. Milarepa spoke scripture to the deer and it became calm. Shortly
after, the hunter's dog caught up with it. Milarepa preached to the dog and it, too, became calm. Finally,
the hunter arrived and in his anger at finding his hunting dog pacified, he tried to shoot Milarepa, but
missed. Since the hunter had excellent skills, he knew it must be supernatural that the arrow missed
Milarepa. The saint took this chance to preach to the hunter, and the hunter, too, was moved to follow the
teachings of Buddhism.
The dance represents the deer's relief, thankfulness and joy and serves as a morality tale to encourage
compassion for sentient beings in the hearts of the audience members (Pearlman, 38). The Jataka tale of
the Banyan deer is evidence to the fact that the ethics of hunting have been and continue to be a major
topic of interest and concern among Buddhists. The possible connections in cham to pre-Buddhist deer
sacrifice also indicate complexity in the human-deer relationship that Buddhism tries to help shape.
Padmasambhava and Yama Dances
Deer in cham may also represent either the mount or attendant for a deity, or a local deity. One example
is in a New Year dance about Padmasambhava, another great practitioner of Buddhism in Tibet, who is
said to have pacified the evil forces in the land and converted them into protectors of Buddhism. In this
story, Padmasambhava finds a menacing spirit who disturbs meditating Buddhists, riding a stag.
Padmasambhava conquers the spirit and takes his mount, forcing him into allegiance to Buddhism
(Ricard, 83).
According to Nebesky-Wojkowitz, stags and yaks often serve as attendants to Yama, the lord of death.
He describes several different performances that all involve an effigy (linga) that must be destroyed by
the stag, who dismembers it with his antlers, scattering the pieces. The antlers are often decorated in
multi-colored ribbons (as in the video above) and the stag may also carry a sword or club (NebeskyWojkowitz, 77-8).