Ache Lhamo

Ache Lhamo, which literally means “sister goddess,” is a traditional folk opera that originated in Tibet. The name is said to come from one of the figures in the preliminary stage of the opera. Ache Lhamo combines dances, chants, and songs to depict many different Buddhist stories and Tibetan history.

It is believed that the Tibetan polymath, spiritual adept, and iron bridge builder Thangtong Gyalpo first introduced drama to Tibet in the 14th century CE. In order to provide adequate provisions and conditions for his bridge projects, Thangtong Gyalpo called upon the Chhongje Bena family with their seven beautiful daughters to perform roles in a play, while Gyalpo himself beat the drum. Thangtong Gyalpo wrote the operas himself, basing them off religious stories. It is said that onlookers saw the women perform, they exclaimed, “The goddesses (lhamo) themselves are dancing!” Therefore, the folk operatic tradition became known as Ache Lhamo.

Great efforts have been made to preserve this unique Tibetan performing art in exile, the Dalai Lama himself calling for preservation. The following is a brief example of Ache Lhamo:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffTmU16dyLk

In addition, Emory University, under the auspices of a grant from the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, brought twelve Tibetan performers on campus in April 2013 to stage the Ache Lhamo folk opera, Sukyi Nyima (“Radiant as the Sun”). The following are links to part 1 and part 2 of the opera:

Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVy8ykI8L-E

Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKjft79_LSs

Sukyi Nyima tells the story of a beautiful girl, who has an intimate connection to Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. She was magically conceived by a deer that had drunk the spilled seed of a forest sage from a stream. Therefore, due to the girl’s radiance, the sage names her “Radiant as the Sun” (more literally, “Embodied Sun”) and she grows up to be a beautiful woman. Eventually, a local king finds her and takes her as a second wife. However, the king’s first wife is evil and attempts to destroy the heroine, but the girl escapes to the forest, where she meditates with her mother, the deer, by her side. The girl later emerges disguised as a Lama Mani (“wandering storyteller”). Those that had done evil to her confess their crimes to the heroine, not recognizing her, but eventually her conch teeth give her identity away. The girl agrees to return to the palace, and the entire kingdom renounces wrongdoing and takes up the Buddhist path.

Ache Lhamo is an important aspect of traditional Tibetan culture, and it is now even more important that efforts are made to preserve the folk operas.

Works consulted:

“Ache Lhamo,” Asia-Pacific Database on Intangible Cultural Heritage, http://www.accu.or.jp/ich/en/arts/A_BTN1.html

“Lhamo – Tibetan Opera,” The Tibetan Performing Arts, http://tibetanarts.dk/historical.htm

“Sukyi Nyima’s ‘Radiant as the Sun’: A Tibetan Folk Opera,” International Association of Buddhist Studies, http://iabsinfo.net/2013/06/sukyi-nyimas-radiant-as-the-sun-a-tibetan-folk-opera/

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