The Tiji Festival is the most auspicious festival in the Upper Mustang region of Nepal. Ancient mythology relates how the Tiji Festival was celebrated to mark the victory of good over evil. It is believed that what is now the Mustang region was in trouble, and was being destroyed by a demon who spread disease and took away water. Dorje Jono fought and defeated this demon and the festival celebrates his victory with prayer chants and colourful dances.
Dorje Jono (known also as Dorje Phurba, Vajrakila, or Vajrakumar) is the name of a deity in Vajrayana Buddhism, an age-old Buddhist practice in India and Nepal. The Buddhist masters Padmasambhava, Vimalamitra and Shilamnju (of Nepal) went on to introduce this practice to Tibet during the 8th century CE, where it then branched into many lineages.
Padamasambhava instructed the major steps in the sacred dance of Vajrakila at Samye Monastery in Tibet. Chhode Monastery at Lo Manthang in Upper Mustang is famous for its performance of Vajrakila practice and ritual.
However, the Tiji Festival in Upper Mustang did not start until the 17th century, when the Mustangi King Samdup Rabten invited Sakya Trizin Ngawang Kunga Sinam to come to Lo Manthang. He stayed at Lo Manthang’s Chhode Monastery and performed the special Vajrakila ritual for the wellbeing of all sentient beings, and also to dispel all negative elements in Mustang.
Since then, the monks of Chhode Monastery have been performing this religious dance every year in Lo-Manthang, over three days in the courtyard of Mustang Royal Palace. Originally it was performed at the end of the twelfth month of the Tibetan calendar, but nowadays it is performed during third Tibetan month (May).
The main dancer (Tsowo) completes a three month retreat before the main event. Members of the Mustang royal family and all the villagers of the seven provinces of Upper Mustang (Lo Chhodun) participate in this sacred dance, which is accompanied by many rituals. In the Mustangi (Lobo) dialect it is pronounced as Tiji (or Tenchi) and is a part of the meditation practice based on the Tantra text related to Vajra Kumar (Vajra Kila).
There are two kinds of activities in the build-up to the meditation: first, peaceful dance steps, followed by the subjugation of negative elements, depicted in the Mele or second stage of the dance. There are three major stages of the dance ritual. In the preliminary part of the dance, there are 15 steps. Then in the main part, the ‘generation of the celestial palace’ and ‘generation of deities’ are depicted with two steps. In the conclusion, there are steps to clear away eternal and nihilistic views and to provide auspiciousness. Different poses and gestures signify different processes of meditation in symbolic ways, and all of the dance steps have deeper meanings. The obstacles in life are believed to be cleared away by seeing these steps with faith and respect.