Tsam is a type of mystery play based on Buddhist mythology. Tsam was introduced into Mongolia in the 8th century from India, via Tibet. A few hundred years ago, an estimated 500 of the 700 monasteries in the country had their own distinct masks and dances. Tsam were enriched with elements of witchcraft and the pagan traditions of the nomads. The mystery play formed part of the local Buddhists? cult rites. The Mongolian Tsam costumes and masks, as well as stage sets, differ considerably from those used in other Buddhist countries. They contrast sharply in colour in accordance with local tastes, Mongolian masks are in bold primary colours - red, black, yellow, white and blue - and therefore look more expressive. Performed to exorcise evil spirits, tsam dances are ritualized and theatrical, and are influenced by unique Mongolian nomadic folklore, as well as shamanism. The Biggest Tsam Dances, the Mil Bogdo and Geser, were usually held on the ninth day of the last month of summer.
The masks are big and bright so that the audience could see them clearly. They are much larger than life-size, but however big, all masks are invariably made in strict conformity with the canons of religious decorative and applied arts. The scenery, opening, inaction, musical climax and outcome of the Tsam Dance reflect the character in different ways: cruel, calm or humorous.
There are three types of Tsam: the first presents episodes from the life of Milaraiba, a famous Indian hermit poet, the second is about Khan Gessar, the folk hero, and the third, Elrik Tsam is about the struggle between good and evil. Tsam performances need long preparation. Rehearsal begins one or two months prior to the event under guidance of an experienced high-ranking Lama. One scenario, about Gessar-Khan, contains 94 acts. Apart from the scenario proper, it includes a detailed description of the costumes and masks and an explanation of the symbolism.
There are numerous personages from a variety of popular stories as well as different animals showing positive and negative influences. To depict positive and negative influences animals such as Khangarid - the lord of fliers, lion - the King of wild animals, Stag - the beauty amongst animals, Crow - the soothsayer and different kind of domestic animals were involved. Furthermore the color and decorations of costumes and other means were used during this ceremony as clues to the personality of the characters depicted.
The person who choreographed the first Tsam Dance after the establishment of Erdenezuu monastery was a Mongolian.
Folk art and native wisdom played an important role in the production of the one-off specific dance "Tsam". Song and dance, music, decorative arts and other kinds of folk art are included in the Tsam ceremony.
In spite of the fact that the Mongolian Tsam Dance was based on Indian folk art and was popularized in Tibet it was highly developed in Mongolia. For this reason the Mongolian - Tibetan Tsam Dance, the Geser and Nomon Khan fancy-dress. Tsam and Milbogdo's Talking Tsam will preserve their position in the history of world theater arts.