The Chang ma Ama las of Dharamsala

[The following post is a section in Ch. 2 “There Is a Tension in Our Hearts” from the book Echoes from Dharamsala by Keila Diehl (2002, p57-62). Dr. Diehl has given permission for Lhakar Diaries to make this section of the book available to our readers.

It’s been a while since my last post so I’m here with a treat for my readers. I’ve been reading Echoes from Dharamsala again while I’m conducting my own research here in Dharamsala, both for information and inspiration. While reading Ch. 2, I came across the section on Chang ma Ama las in Dharamsala during the mid 90s and found the read fascinating both in its details and given the fact that I have hardly ever had much of a clue about all the going-ons that have taken place at all the Tibetan weddings I have attended thus far in the Tibetan diaspora. It captures in one incident (a Tibetan wedding) the feel of how we celebrate current circumstances yet also remind ourselves of being away from home in the most intimate of spaces. Through the tradition of chang-mas with revamped songs (to suit exile livelihoods in the 90s) and their lyrics, between the game of drinking and dancing, there’s also the sorrow of not being at home which are captured in these playful drinking songs. I hope that you the readers enjoy it as much as I did and find meanings based on your own Tibetan wedding experiences.]


A polished white Ambassador sedan pulls up in front of one of the Indian tourist hotels in McLeod Ganj, and a young bride and groom step out of the car. Relatives help straighten their bright clothes and readjust their furlined brocade hats, while the British travelers having tea on the front lawn crane their necks around leggy rosebushes to see what is happening. The wedding guests are all inside the hotel’s dining room listening to a new cassette of Tibetan rock songs and chatting over sweet tea as they wait for the ceremony to begin at 1 :30 P .M ., the auspicious time recommended by the astrologer. Outside the Hotel Bhagsu, an enterprise run by the tourism department of Himachal Pradesh, the couple is greeted by a line of older Tibetan women carrying elaborate silver vessels filled with chang  (Tibetan barley beer) and rimmed with great smears of butter. As the empty taxi pulls away, the women burst into a full-throated song of welcome for the shy bride:

We have called forth the serpent goddess

From this place, the Norbu Ling.

We offer happiness to her.

Today, into this dwelling,

We bring good luck and blessings.

 This is followed by a song to greet and bless the groom’s parents:

Welcome! Welcome!

The lords have gathered together.

We offer them happiness!

Today, come into this dwelling

And dance to lively songs!

Women who sing such blessing songs and offer barley beer to the wedding party, the guests, and the gods during Tibetan marriages are widely known colloquially as chang ma . Such women played an important role in weddings in central Tibet before 1959 , but it wasn’t until the early 1980 s that Dharamsala weddings began to incorporate these well-loved traditions. During the 1960 s and 1970 s, most young couples in Dharamsala and elsewhere in the new Tibetan diaspora had simple wedding ceremonies and celebrations, if any at all, mainly because of financial constraints and the fact that families were often scattered across several countries. Since Tibetan weddings are not legal or religious affairs, a small gathering of friends with good food, tea, a little chang  just to be auspicious, and some khata  (ceremonial offering scarves) sufficed to made the arrangement “official.”

The combination of greater financial security and, more important, a strong desire on the part of some older Tibetans to resurrect a cultural activity nearly lost in exile motivated several families to undertake the research and work necessary to sponsor more elaborate and traditional weddings for their children. Gradually, the practice caught on, and today the chang ma  are seen and heard at most public wedding celebrations in Dharamsala and, increasingly (though to a far lesser extent), elsewhere throughout the Tibetan diaspora. There are now two groups of chang ma in Dharamsala: an older group of a dozen women in their sixties and seventies and a smaller group in their forties and fifties.

Ama Tsering Palmo, considered the local expert female folk singer and dancer and now the leader and teacher of Dharamsala’s chang ma,  recalls the first time she was asked to sing at a local wedding, in 1982 . She gathered together some friends she knew were particularly fond of singing and dancing, and they pooled their memories of weddings in Tibet to come up with an appropriate repertoire. None of the women, most of whom are from the Tingri region of Töd in south-central Tibet, had ever sung in any formal capacity at a wedding before, but they had often gathered to perform khor shay  (circle song-dances) during community festivals and religious events, as they still do.

Ama Palmo had casually met Ama Dekyi and Ama Ming Chung in the early 1960 s at Shar Kumbu, a camp set up for Tibetan refugees in Nepal. Ama Lobsang Dolkar, Ama Kyipa, Ama Tsering Tsomo, Ama Tsamchö Dolma, and some of the other modern-day chang ma spent extended time at Shar Khumbu as well. All the women had fled from Tibet with their families, acting on warnings that Chinese soldiers were coming, and were working as day laborers, petty traders, or wool spinners in difficult conditions in Nepal until, one by one, they decided to move to India to receive blessings from the Dalai Lama and to enroll their children in the new Tibetan-run boarding schools.

Eventually, they all made their way to Dharamsala and settled into lives generally patterned around seasonal work: first on road and building crews in northern India and later selling sweaters on the plains. In the early years, the women recall that there was “nothing” in McLeod Ganj. They camped under a big tree near His Holiness’s old palace (now the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute) or on the veranda of the Civil Dispensary (now surrounded by cafés, shops, and guest houses). Some carried stones to be used in the construction of the Dalai Lama’s new palace, which was completed in 1970 . Others joined road crews with their husbands in the mountainous areas of Manali and Lahul-Spiti.

Ama Palmo, Ama Kyipa, and Ama Phurbu worked on the same road crew, earning about two rupees a day (or up to four rupees in Manali, where the conditions were particularly harsh), which was just barely enough to buy rice, oil, tea, and other essentials. They recall that although the working conditions were difficult, the workers were provided with good tents for their families and complete medical care from Red Cross doctors. Many of the Tibetan laborers were not happy in those days, having just left their homes and finding themselves in a strange place with an unfamiliar climate, language, and diet, so they worked hard in part to occupy their minds and to cover up their grief. However, there was not, I was told, the kind of despair one hears about and senses today among Tibetan refugees in India, because all the workers thought they would return to Tibet within a year or two.

Perhaps because of this general optimism despite immediate hardship, the chang ma remember their years working as laborers as nawa kyipo (happy-go-lucky) and semgu yangpo  (carefree), as a time when they were healthy and young, despite the hard work breaking and hauling rocks eight hours a day, six days a week. They used to compete to see who could toss a shovelful of rocks the highest and to sing songs to pass the time and keep up the rhythm of their work:

In this earth in the shovel

There are various flowers of every kind.

Flowers, the thoughts of youth

Have been distracted by you

Where is our fatherland?

Please explain our lineage.

Without our country,

I hesitate to tell you our lineage.

A pleasant homeland brings happiness.

The country of another is determined by our fate.

If the right hand is tired,

Please join with the left hand.

If the left and right hands are both tired,

Partner, please join me.

The good humor and resilience of these women live on. The chang ma are perhaps most enjoyed and respected by Tibetans living in Dharamsala for their ability to take the legendary aggressive hospitality of their society to burlesque extremes. After the formal wedding ceremony has been completed and the guests have divided into small groups to play bak (mah- jongg), sho  (dice), dominos, or card games, the chang ma  fill up their pitchers with freshly made chang  and methodically move from table to table, zeroing in on one guest at a time. Each person is handed an overflowing glass of liquor as the women begin to sing one of the many well-known Tibetan chang shay  (beer songs). Only the most experienced wedding guests know exactly how to pace their drinking so the empty glass is slammed down on the table just when the song concludes with “cheek, nyee, sum! ” (“one, two, three!”) or the standard “Gakyi dzompay kyi dzom! ” (“Let us all be happy together!”). If the guest drains the glass too quickly or too slowly, it is immediately refilled, and the song resumes. If the guest leaves even two drops in the bottom of the glass, his or her tormentors hoot with delight: “O! Khyerang kom dook! ” (“Oh! You are thirsty!”)—and splash another helping out of their bottomless vessels as they sing:

Those seated at the head of the three rows on the right side!

Our root lama is more valuable than one hundred ounces of gold.

The one who liberates us from death is more valuable than one hundred

ounces of gold.

I accept all that is said to be happy.

I put aside all that is said to be bad.

Please stay with good thoughts at this happy gathering.

Those seated at the head of the three rows on the left side!

Our head leader is more valuable than one hundred ounces of silver.

The one who conquers the three realms is more valuable than one hundred

ounces of silver.

I accept all that is said to be happy.

I put aside all that is said to be bad.

And there is no point in protesting. Reluctant drinkers are mercilessly teased and, eventually, given nyepa  (punishments). Rolling her eyes in dramatic exasperation, one chang ma will surely eventually unpin the brooch from her chuba and start pricking the troublemaker menacingly, while her cohorts cajole:

Now, if you don’t drink this, she’s going to really prick you! You can’t

get angry. Getting angry is never allowed. This needle is not very thick;

it’s quite a thin one. It won’t wound you. It’s no problem at all.

If this incentive isn’t enough, some chang  is poured on the stubborn guest’s head until . . . “Da garab tung tsar shag! ” (“Ah, now he’s finished drinking quite a lot!”). Teetotalers are not exempted either, although many try to be. These guests are offered bowls of scalding tea, which must be downed before the  lump of butter at the bottom melts. “Shab ta!”  (roughly, “Bottoms up!”), the women command. Even chang ma  who take a seat to visit with friends or simply rest for a moment soon find themselves at the receiving end of their colleagues’ jests.

When the chang ma  are satisfied that all the guests have been individually welcomed (it is said that a really accomplished chang ma  should be able to sing a different song to each and every guest), they put down their vessels and settle in for a few more hours of singing and dancing in the round, often accompanied by a man playing the dranyen  (six-stringed Tibetan lute) in the middle of their circle. Their pangden  (the colorful striped aprons worn by married women) of different lengths and brightnesses create

a dazzling effect as the dancers move in synchrony. At this point any distinction between the roles of hostesses and guests, performers and participants, is completely blurred, as others join in the dance. The chang ma of Dharamsala are basically, one realizes, a group of dear old friends who feel sem kyipo  (happy) when they sing and dance. “We sing to please the wedding guests and ourselves and to preserve Tibetan culture,” Ama Lobsang Dolkar says. She hopes the tradition will continue now that it has been revived but isn’t entirely confident that it will. She senses that many young people do not like the “old Tibetan style.”

On the afternoon of the second day of the marriage festivities in the McLeod Ganj hotel, the circle dancing eventually subsides, and the chang ma  are formally invited to sit down in folding chairs placed in the center of the room. The groom’s relatives offer the women chang, which each one flicks into the air three times, and then hand them each envelopes containing an unfixed sum of rupees offered in thanks. The chairs and tables are pushed out of the way to clear the floor, some lights are dimmed and others start to flash, and the “Western dancing” begins. The chang ma  settle down with the other guests to have a hard-earned drink, tap their feet, and enjoy the younger generation’s antics. But underneath the teasing and the pleasure of celebration there is always, as Ama Lobsang Dolkar notes, a “tension in our hearts.”