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Tarquinia Day Trip: In the Footsteps of the Ancient Etruscans
Tarquinia lies about 100 km (60 miles) north of Rome and is an easy day trip by car, train, or bus. This classic Italian hill town sits perched near the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. From its highest points, there are sweeping vistas of green hills, the flat expanse of the coastline, and the island of Corsica as a rugged outline on the horizon. Tarquinia’s medieval streets, historic churches, and quiet beaches are reasons enough to visit, but most compelling of all is the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the ancient Etruscans.
[An ancient street in Tarquinia, Viterbo, Lazio]
Tarquinia and the Etruscan Necropolis of Monterozzi
The Etruscan Necropolis of Monterozzi is located over an upland east of Tarquinia (Viterbo) and counts with approximately 6,000 tombs, most of them spaces digged into the rock and surmounted by tumulus, the oldest of them dating back to the seventh century BC.
Among these, approximately 200 contain a series of frescoes representing the largest pictorial Etruscan art group arrived to our days and, at the same time, the largest proof of the whole Ancient paintings before Roman Imperial Age. This ex traordinary series of depicted tombs represents the most prestigious group of the necropolis, absolutely the most important of the Mediterranean, so much that it has been defined by scholar M. Pallottino as the “first chapter of Italian Painting History”.
The Etruscan Necropolis of Monterozzi - Tarquinia
The Etruscan Necropolis of Monterozzi - Tarquinia
The usage of decorating with paintings the tombs of aristocratic families has been recorded also in other Etrurian towns, but only in Tarquinia the fenomenon has reached this wide dimension and has been so continuous over time. The burial chambers, moulded inside the spaces, present frescoed walls over a thin layer of plaster, with magical-religious scenes representing funeral feasts, dancers, aulòs players , jugglers, landscapes, all of them with a lively and harmonic movement, portrayed with intense and lively colours .
Everything was aimed to make the dead live the earthly live again and at the same time help the living forget the sorrow for their loss. After the third century BC, the decay of the Etruscan civilization seem irreversible. It's no coincidence, but a consequence, that the subsoil of Tarquinia and the paintings started to be filled with demoniacal figures, monsters and demons.
Etruscan Necropolis of Monterozzi - Tomb of the Lionesses
Etruscan Necropolis of Monterozzi - Tomb of the Bulls
VISIT THE NECROPOLIS
Among the most interesting graves that you can visit, we underline the tomb of the Lionesses, of the Warrior, of Hunting and Fishing, of the Hunter, of Cardarelli's, of the Lotus, of the Gorgoneion, of the Jugglers, of the Leopards, of the Feasts, of the Flowers, of Maenads, of Bartoccini's, of the Ogre and the Shields and more. Some of the paintings, removed from the tombs in order to preserve them (tomb of the Chariots, of the Triclinium, of the Funeral Bed and of the Ship), are kept in the National Etruscan Museum of Tarquinia as well as other Etruscan finds.
In addition, if you book in advance you can visit the Tomb of the Panthers, of the Bulls, of the Baron, of the Wishes, and the tomb of Anina's in the neighboring necropolis of Scataglini.
This enormous heritage, not only artistic but historic, represents an ouline of the daily live of Etruscans and it was included in 2004 in the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Etruscan Necropolis of Monterozzi - Tomb of Hunting and Fishing
Etruscan Necropolis of Monterozzi - Tomb of the Leopards
Read the box at the botton of the article, full of useful information to plan your trip at the best.
Etruscan Necropolis of Monterozzi
From the Museum to the Necropolis with Public Transport
From Civitavecchia (Port) to Tarquinia (Barriera S. Giusto)
The necropolis is at the door of the city, the Civita (ancient acropolis) is at approximately 7 km, along the road to Monte Romano. Tarquinia is located along the train line Roma - Ventimiglia: station at 3 km with connection to City Buses.
First Sunday of the month, admission is free for everyone.
Music and dancing
The Etruscans played percussion, string and wind instruments, in particular the flute in all its various forms, although the double flute was considered the national Etruscan instrument. They greatly appreciated music and it accompanied all their daily activities: working, eating, civil and religious ceremonies.
Even on the battlefield the movements of the troops were directed by the sound of trumpets. Music often accompanied the rhythmical movements of dancers, both male and female, whose dancing was not only for entertainment but could also be a ceremony linked to propitiatory rites or funerals.
Music was also part of dramatic performances of more ancient origin, with mime by masked actors-dancers. From the IV century BC, drama with dialogue became common, inspired by Greek theatre.
Nenfro cinerary urns
We arranged for the guide to take us to the painted tombs, which are the real fame of Tarquinia. After lunch we set out, climbing to the top of the town, and passing through the south-west gate (Porta Tarquinia), on the level hillcrest. Looking back, the wall of the town, medieval, with a bit of more ancient black wall lower down, stands blank. Just outside the gate are one or two forlorn new houses, then ahead, the long, running tableland of the hill, with the white highway dipping and going on to Viterbo, inland. 'All this hill in front,' said the guide, 'is tombs! All tombs! The city of the dead.' (..) This is the necropolis. Once it had many a tumulus, and streets of tombs. Now there is no sign of any tombs: no tumulus, nothing but the rough bare hill-crest, with stones and short grass and flowers. (..) The guide steers across the hilltop, in the clear afternoon sun, towards another little hood of masonry. And one notices there is quite a number of these little gateways, built by the Government to cover the steps that lead down to the separate small tombs. It is utterly unlike Cerveteri, though the two places are not forty miles apart. Here there is no stately tumulus city, with its highroad between the tombs, and inside, rather noble, many-roomed houses of the dead, here the little one-room tombs seem scattered at random on the hilltop, here and there: though probably, if excavations were fully carried out, here also we should find a regular city of the dead, with its streets and crossways. And probably each tomb had its little tumulus of piled earth, so that even above-ground there were streets of mounds with tomb entrances. But even so, it would be different from Cerveteri, from Caere the mounds would be so small, the streets surely irregular. Anyhow, today there are scattered little one-room tombs, and we dive down into them just like rabbits popping down a hole.
David Herbert Lawrence - Etruscan Places - Published in 1932, but based on a visit made in April 1927.
After defeating the Macedonian and Seleucid Empires in the 2nd century BC, the Romans became the dominant people of the Mediterranean Sea.   The conquest of the Hellenistic kingdoms brought the Roman and Greek cultures in closer contact and the Roman elite, once rural, became a luxurious and cosmopolitan one. At this time Rome was a consolidated empire – in the military view – and had no major enemies.
Gaius Marius, a Roman general and politician who dramatically reformed the Roman military
Foreign dominance led to internal strife. Senators became rich at the provinces&lsquo expense soldiers, who were mostly small-scale farmers, were away from home longer and could not maintain their land and the increased reliance on foreign slaves and the growth of latifundia reduced the availability of paid work.  
Income from war booty, mercantilismin the new provinces, and tax farmingcreated new economic opportunities for the wealthy, forming a new class of merchants, called the equestrians.  The lex Claudia forbade members of the Senate from engaging in commerce, so while the equestrians could theoretically join the Senate, they were severely restricted in political power.   The Senate squabbled perpetually, repeatedly blocked important land reforms and refused to give the equestrian class a larger say in the government.
Violent gangs of the urban unemployed, controlled by rival Senators, intimidated the electorate through violence. The situation came to a head in the late 2nd century BC under the Gracchi brothers, a pair of tribunes who attempted to pass land reform legislation that would redistribute the major patrician landholdings among the plebeians. Both brothers were killed and the Senate passed reforms reversing the Gracchi brother&rsquos actions.  This led to the growing divide of the plebeian groups (populares) and equestrian classes (optimates).
Marius and Sulla
Gaius Marius, a novus homo, who started his political career with the help of the powerful Metelli family soon become a leader of the Republic, holding the first of his seven consulships (an unprecedented number) in 107 BC by arguing that his former patron Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus was not able to defeat and capture the Numidian king Jugurtha. Marius then started his military reform: in his recruitment to fight Jugurtha, he levied very poor (an innovation) and many landless men entered the army this was the seed of securing loyalty of the army to the General in command.
At this time, Marius began his quarrel with Lucius Cornelius Sulla: Marius, who wanted to capture Jugurtha, asked Bocchus, son-in-law of Jugurtha, to hand him over. As Marius failed, Sulla, a general of Marius at that time, in a dangerous enterprise, went himself to Bocchus and convinced Bocchus to hand Jugurtha over to him. This was very provocative to Marius, since many of his enemies were encouraging Sulla to oppose Marius. Despite this, Marius was elected for five consecutive consulships from 104 to 100 BC, as Rome needed a military leader to defeat the Cimbri and the Teutones, who were threatening Rome.
After Marius&rsquos retirement, Rome had a brief peace, during which the Italian socii (« allies » in Latin) requested Roman citizenship and voting rights. The reformist Marcus Livius Drusussupported their legal process but was assassinated, and the socii revolted against the Romans in the Social War. At one point both consuls were killed Marius was appointed to command the army together with Lucius Julius Caesar and Sulla. 
By the end of the Social War, Marius and Sulla were the premier military men in Rome and their partisans were in conflict, both sides jostling for power. In 88 BC, Sulla was elected for his first consulship and his first assignment was to defeat Mithridates VI of Pontus, whose intentions were to conquer the Eastern part of the Roman territories. However, Marius&rsquos partisans managed his installation to the military command, defying Sulla and the Senate, and this caused Sulla&rsquos wrath. To consolidate his own power, Sulla conducted a surprising and illegal action: he marched to Rome with his legions, killing all those who showed support to Marius&rsquos cause and impaling their heads in the Roman Forum. In the following year, 87 BC, Marius, who had fled at Sulla&rsquos march, returned to Rome while Sulla was campaigning in Greece. He seized power along with the consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna and killed the other consul, Gnaeus Octavius, achieving his seventh consulship. In an attempt to raise Sulla&rsquos anger, Marius and Cinna revenged their partisans by conducting a massacre.  
Marius died in 86 BC, due to age and poor health, just a few months after seizing power. Cinna exercised absolute power until his death in 84 BC. Sulla after returning from his Eastern campaigns, had a free path to reestablish his own power. In 83 BC he made his second march in Rome and began a time of terror: thousands of nobles, knights and senators were executed. Sulla also held two dictatorshipsand one more consulship, which began the crisis and decline of Roman Republic. 
Caesar and the First Triumvirate
In the mid-1st century BC, Roman politics were restless. Political divisions in Rome became identified with two groupings, populares (who hoped for the support of the people) and optimates (the « best », who wanted to maintain exclusive aristocratic control). Sulla overthrew all populist leaders and his constitutional reforms removed powers (such as those of the tribune of the plebs) that had supported populist approaches. Meanwhile, social and economic stresses continued to build Rome had become a metropolis with a super-rich aristocracy, debt-ridden aspirants, and a large proletariat often of impoverished farmers. The latter groups supported the Catilinarian conspiracy – a resounding failure, since the consul Marcus Tullius Cicero quickly arrested and executed the main leaders of the conspiracy.
Onto this turbulent scene emerged Gaius Julius Caesar, from an aristocratic family of limited wealth. His aunt Julia was Marius&rsquo wife,  and Caesar identified with the populares. To achieve power, Caesar reconciled the two most powerful men in Rome: Marcus Licinius Crassus, who had financed much of his earlier career, and Crassus&rsquo rival, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (anglicized as Pompey), to whom he married his daughter. He formed them into a new informal alliance including himself, the First Triumvirate (« three men »). This satisfied the interests of all three: Crassus, the richest man in Rome, became richer and ultimately achieved high military command Pompey exerted more influence in the Senate and Caesar obtained the consulship and military command in Gaul.  So long as they could agree, the three were in effect the rulers of Rome.
In 54 BC, Caesar&rsquos daughter, Pompey&rsquos wife, died in childbirth, unraveling one link in the alliance. In 53 BC, Crassus invaded Parthiaand was killed in the Battle of Carrhae. The Triumvirate disintegrated at Crassus&rsquo death. Crassus had acted as mediator between Caesar and Pompey, and, without him, the two generals manoeuvred against each other for power. Caesar conquered Gaul, obtaining immense wealth, respect in Rome and the loyalty of battle-hardened legions. He also became a clear menace to Pompey and was loathed by many optimates. Confident that Caesar could be stopped by legal means, Pompey&rsquos party tried to strip Caesar of his legions, a prelude to Caesar&rsquos trial, impoverishment, and exile.
To avoid this fate, Caesar crossed the Rubicon River and invaded Rome in 49 BC. Pompey and his party fled from Italy, pursued by Caesar. The Battle of Pharsalus was a brilliant victory for Caesar and in this and other campaigns he destroyed all of the optimates&rsquo leaders: Metellus Scipio, Cato the Younger, and Pompey&rsquos son, Gnaeus Pompeius. Pompey was murdered in Egypt in 48 BC. Caesar was now pre-eminent over Rome, attracting the bitter enmity of many aristocrats. He was granted many offices and honours. In just five years, he held four consulships, two ordinary dictatorships, and two special dictatorships: one for ten years and another for perpetuity. He was murdered in 44 BC, on the Ides of March by the Liberatores. 
Octavian and the Second Triumvirate
The Battle of Actium, by Laureys a Castro, painted 1672, National Maritime Museum, London
Caesar&rsquos assassination caused political and social turmoil in Rome without the dictator&rsquos leadership, the city was ruled by his friend and colleague, Mark Antony. Soon afterward, Octavius, whom Caesar adopted through his will, arrived in Rome. Octavian (historians regard Octavius as Octavian due to the Roman naming conventions) tried to align himself with the Caesarian faction. In 43 BC, along with Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, Caesar&rsquos best friend,  he legally established the Second Triumvirate. This alliance would last for five years. Upon its formation, 130–300 senators were executed, and their property was confiscated, due to their supposed support for the Liberatores. 
In 42 BC, the Senate deified Caesar as Divus Iulius Octavian thus became Divi filius,  the son of the deified. In the same year, Octavian and Antony defeated both Caesar&rsquos assassins and the leaders of the Liberatores, Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, in the Battle of Philippi.
The Second Triumvirate was marked by the proscriptions of many senators and equites: after a revolt led by Antony&rsquos brother Lucius Antonius, more than 300 senators and equites involved were executed on the anniversary of the Ides of March, although Lucius was spared.  The Triumvirate proscribed several important men, including Cicero, whom Antony hated  Quintus Tullius Cicero, the younger brother of the orator and Lucius Julius Caesar, cousin and friend of the acclaimed general, for his support of Cicero. However, Lucius was pardoned, perhaps because his sister Julia had intervened for him. 
The Triumvirate divided the Empire among the triumvirs: Lepidus was given charge of Africa, Antony, the eastern provinces, and Octavian remained in Italia and controlled Hispania and Gaul.
The Second Triumvirate expired in 38 BC but was renewed for five more years. However, the relationship between Octavian and Antony had deteriorated, and Lepidus was forced to retire in 36 BC after betraying Octavian in Sicily. By the end of the Triumvirate, Antony was living in Ptolemaic Egypt, an independent and rich kingdom ruled by Antony&rsquos lover, Cleopatra VII. Antony&rsquos affair with Cleopatra was seen as an act of treason, since she was queen of another country. Additionally, Antony adopted a lifestyle considered too extravagant and Hellenistic for a Roman statesman. 
Following Antony&rsquos Donations of Alexandria, which gave to Cleopatrathe title of « Queen of Kings« , and to Antony&rsquos and Cleopatra&rsquos children the regal titles to the newly conquered Eastern territories, war between Octavian and Antony broke out. Octavian annihilated Egyptian forces in the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide. Now Egypt was conquered by the Roman Empire, and for the Romans, a new era had begun.
Giacobbe Giusti, Tomb of the Triclinium
Detail of a barbiton player on the left wall
The tomb consists of a single room. The fresco on the back wall shows a banquet scene, borrowed from depictions of drinking scenes on Attic red-figure pottery from the early fifth century. The banqueteers recline on three couches called klinai.  On the floor under the klinai a cat prowls towards a rooster and a partridge.  On the left wall three female dancers, one male dancer and a male musician with a barbitonappear. They are placed between small trees filled with birds. On the right wall a similar scene is shown. On the entry wall two youths jump down from their horses. They may be apobates or a reference to the Dioscuri as intermediaries between the earthly life and the afterlife. 
The similarities between the frescoes in the Tomb of the Triclinium and Tomb 5513 (also in the Necropolis of Monterozzi) led Steingraber to conclude that they were the products of the same workshop. The strong influence of red-figure Attic vase painting has convinced some experts that the artist who decorated the tomb was a Greek metic. 
The Tomb of the Stucco Reliefs at CerveteriThe Tomb of the Reliefs at the Etruscan site of Cerveteri. Last quarter, 4th century BCE. / Photo by Roberto Ferrari, Wikimedia Commons
The splendid Tomb of the Stucco Reliefs was constructed at Cerveteri for the Matuna family during the last quarter of the 4th century BCE. It is accessed via a steep stepped corridor which opens into a chamber with stone benches on all sides and places for 32 bodies. The chamber’s two columns and walls are covered in painted stucco depictions of everyday objects such as rope, banners, jugs, cutlery, axes, fans, bed linen, armour, trumpets, and even board games. Many of the objects hang from nails in imitation of the typical Etruscan household where storage cabinets were largely unknown and possessions were hung from the walls. Animals also appear seemingly at random with geese, ducks, and even a pet Maltese dog chasing a lizard.
FEATURES | COLUMNS | Ancient DancesWrathful dakinis appearing in the bardo intermediate state after death. Bardo mural, 19th century, Avalokiteshvara Temple, Lamayuru Monastery, Ladakh. Photo by Kaya Dorjay Angdus, 2010. Image courtesy of Kristin Blancke
Sometimes, dance is what philosophy looks like. Only rarely in my long years of dance research has a painted image been so arresting with its mysterious presence that I would spend years unraveling both a choreography and an underpinning cultural, religious, or philosophical system. The dancers in the murals of the Etruscan Tomb of the Triclinium were the first then the Daoyin Tu gymnastics of the Chinese Han dynasty Mawangdui scroll. Later, after I first saw one of the many extraordinary painted dancers from the Dunhuang Caves in far western China, the encounter opened an area virtually unexplored by Western dance and movement researchers.
Dancers, musicians, and augurs perform during a feast, Tomb of the Triclium, Tarquinia, Italy. 470 BCE. Image courtesy of Emanuela Ghi The Daoyin Tu diagram of energetic exercises. Tomb excavated in 1972 from Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan Province. Western Han dynasty, c. 168 BCE. Creative commons license
Feitian, flying dancer, Dunhuang Cave Grottoes, China, Western Wei
Dynasty (535&ndash56). Image courtesy of Prof. WangKefen
One day in 2000, my close colleague Gerard Houghton and I were allowed into the Avalokiteshvara Temple at Lamayuru Monastery in Ladakh. The sculpture of Avalokiteshvara (Tib. Chenrezig), Bodhisattva of Compassion, is the magnificent centerpiece. The compassion continues in a mural covering the entire length of the left wall. I was new to Tantric Buddhism and the exalted complex role of dance within it. All of the iconography was wild and dizzying flying, floating, deities burst through dimensions of time and space, enhaloed with fire, ferocious and benevolent. I wanted them for my friends right away. I felt a kinship. Within the novel frenzy of the explosive imagery of Tibetan Buddhism, something in this mural burned into my consciousness and has never left.Field of wrathful dakinis in the bardo mural at Avalokiteshvara Temple, Lamayuru Monastery, Ladakh. Photo by Kaya Dorjay Angdus, 2010. Image courtesy of Kristin Blancke Field of wrathful dancing dakinis, detail. Photo by Hilde Vets, 1995. Image courtesy of Kristin Blancke
It was a large field of dancing wrathful dakinis, (Tib. khandum), some animal-headed, some brandishing weapons, all female. In a way, the dancing creatures were central, in another, they were the very border separating enlightenment from rebirth into lower existence dances on the edge of liminal consciousness&mdashone last dance, one last chance to avoid rebirth. This is a dance of ultimate consequence: in fact this, to our knowledge, is the only known mural depicting the Bardo Thodol, better known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. From the moment of death until the final opportunity to avoid rebirth, the mural can be read left to right, oscillating up and down. It begins with the image of Samantabhadra in ecstatic embrace upper left and concludes with scenes depicting types of rebirth in the lower right. The mural is about 12 meters long and some 1.5 meters high. Wild dancers inhabit two thirds of the mural.Complete bardo mural (composite), 19th century. Avalokiteshvara Temple, Lamayuru Monastery, Ladakh. Photo 2010. Image courtesy of Kristin Blancke
The dancers&rsquo movement shapes erupt, each unique. In defiance of gravity, their inherent fearsomeness and colored bodies appear in flames, dancing anywhere in the air or ground they want to appear, like a rainbow layer of their own reality. It depicts a multi-dimensional forcefield of danced energy, something ascribed to the very origins and intentions of Cham dance. I had never seen anything like these dancers. I know now, nearly 20 years later, that I will never see anything else like this because it doesn&rsquot exist anywhere else.Five vidyadharas (deities of esoteric knowldege) with consorts, surrounded by dancing wrathful deities in another dimension. Note the painted lines connecting the small white figure at the bottom with each vidyadhara. Here, as in all other cases, the light reaching the little man is twofold: the five-colored light of pristine cognition together with a dull green light of the animal realm the five colored lights are the opportunity for liberation, but if he chooses the dull green light he goes to the animal realm. Bardo mural, Avalokiteshvara Temple, Lamayuru Monastery, Ladakh. Photo by Kaya Dorjay Angdus, 2010. Image courtesy of Kristin Blancke
One reason the artistic style of the dancers struck me is, I have learned, because they are painted in a particular Drigung style of Tibetan Buddhist painting&mdashone attributed to the Drikung Kagyu school of Vajrayana Buddhism. Distinguished art historian David Jackson has defined this style only in recent years. While the mural was painted in the mid-19th century, elements of the style here trace back to at least the 17th century. The Drigung style is not delicate, it has a vitality and stylization suitable to artistic engagement, yogic development, and psychic imprint. I have since seen wrathful dakinis at the bottom of 17th century thangka paintings nearly identical in physical shape to these in the bardo mural at Lamayuru. But such a vast field of dancers I have never seen anywhere else.The same mural shown in black and white to reveal composition. The inscription reads: ‘‘On the seventh day from the Pure Land of Khechara, the vidyadhara deities come to meet [the deceased]. From the vidyadharas appear the five consorts and around them a numberless assembly of dakinis appears: those from the cemeteries, those of the four families, those of the three places, those of the 24 sacred places, along with male and female warriors, protectors and guardians.’’ Taken from The Mirror, No. 114, Jan-Feb 2012, p 11. Transcribed by Naomi Weitz
There is much to recommend this mural art historically, from the Drigung style to the rare content instructing the Bardo Thodol by means of a small figure who experiences each phase. Connections between the homunculus-like white figure to each symbolic opportunity are literally represented as painted lines. It is at once yogic and charming, outrageous like a Bosch painting, and a concise presentation of the symbolic representation of the fundamental philosophical tenets of Buddhism. It is within this framework that the meaning of the dance performed by these wrathful female deities becomes clear their urgency and significance brilliantly real.
To summarize: unless the dead person attains enlightenment immediately upon the moment of death, he will then encounter experience after experience with Dhyani (meditation) Buddhas, arrays of karmically evoked virtues, peaceful deities and finally, six dancing wrathful herukas accompanied by 52 dancing wrathful dakinis. Each dancing wrathful deity has a name, color, characteristic dance shape, specific hand gesture (mudra), and implement.
They represent three orders of spiritual beings: Kerima, dakinis of the eight kinds of awareness, also representing the eight directions of space and thereby making them coexistent with the vastness of the universe Htamenma, dakinis of the eight regions of the mind, are animal-headed. Eight gatekeeper dakinis appear. Finally come the 28 Wang-chugma, animal-headed deities that mock the illusion of form, and transform subjective passion into objective virtue. Each of these dancers offers another opportunity for liberation. These opportunities are seized when the dead person makes a connection to them and uses the expedient means of that particular element to attain enlightenment. The bardo state lasts 49 days. The dancing wrathful dakinis appear on days 13 and 14 of the bardo state.
The last chance&mdashthe final possible connection&mdashis the dancing wrathful dakinis. By merely recognizing them, the dead person can attain enlightenment and avoid rebirth. And so, my study of Buddhist Cham dance has come full circle, for the first thing I learned about Buddhist Cham was that the characters in the Cham would appear in the after-death state, and by merely recognizing them, one could avoid rebirth. It was these very painted dancers, these wrathful dakinis, ferocious in their protection, that are the substance of Tantric Buddhist Cham dance, and one reason why the village faithful see the dances year after year. These dakinis in the Lamayuru bardo mural are the monstrous deities, dimensionally expanded into physical reality and embodied in Cham dance by monks trained in meditation and movement.
Peling Nga Cham, a drum dance featuring wrathful animal-headed dancers. Yungdrun Choleing Dzong, Trongsa, Bhutan, 2005. Photo by Gerard Houghton. From Core of Culture
Back in 2000, when I first saw Cham, I had no idea what these dancing figures were. No one could tell me. The large field of dancers didn&rsquot match anything I&rsquod ever seen. The reincarnate head of Lamayuru Monastery in the mid-19th century was Bakula Rangdol Nyima. He built the Avolokiteshvara Temple as part of a monastery reconstruction after a period of war and destruction. He personally commissioned the bardo mural for the benefit of common believers, who could learn the Bardo Thodol teachings from the mural, and thereby be prepared for death and the intermediate state before liberation or rebirth. Rangdol Nyima loved the people.
I was not the only one captivated by this mural. Italian scholar-practitioner Kristin Blancke not only noticed the mural, but recognized what it was: a depiction of the Bardo Thodol. I am indebted to her for solving my riddle in the most sublime fashion. She has popularized interest in the mural, raised concerns over its conservation, given a lecture about its history and content at a conference in Leh, and has done something also very much of the common people: she started a crowdsourcing webpage for anyone with images of this mural, and the results span decades. All of the Lamayuru bardo mural images in this three-part essay on the Tibetan Book of the Dead come from that collection. Some have been digitally enhanced here to assist clarity and readability.Bardo mural images on display at Museo de Historia y Antropología de Tenerife, 2011. Image courtesy of A. Siedlecki
Images from her collection were used in the sole public exhibition of the bardo mural, in Tenerife, Spain, in 2011, curated by Alexander Siedlecki for the Museo de Historia y Antropología de Tenerife, as part of a Dzogchen presentation of the bardo mural at Lamayuru together with images from the Lhukhang mural in Lhasa, which shows visual depictions of tantric meditation techniques. The brilliance of the exhibition included an audioscape composed by Renaud Schweitzer that intoned the text of the Bardo Thodol, as intended by its yogic author, the terton Karma Lingpa.Children from the valley of Thangbi in Bhutan gladly show us how the dakinis dance. Photo by Gerard Houghton, 2005. From Core of Culture
Blancke has also produced a presentation explaining the mural, step-by-step, according the Bardo Thodol text. It can be found at this website, and I cannot recommend it more strongly. There you will find two links beneath the page heading&mdashthese are the links to use. I look forward to the day when all of this material is compiled into a lasting book, as it deserves to be.
In addition to pages on her research, there is a Flickr stream of mural images&mdashthe finest collection of such images in the world. They are beautiful, shocking, orderly, and reveal marvelous details. They also reveal the increasing degradation of the paintings, the emergency stabilization provided by the Leh-based mini-group of the Archeological Survey of India earlier this century, and their current condition. Since its inception, the bardo mural was for the common people. Even now, the Internet generations are uniting in awareness, study, and appreciation for this amazing work of art.
The head of the Drikung Kagyu order was recently informed about Kristin Blancke&rsquos work, the Tenerife exhibition, and this column&rsquos renewed interest in the dancing wrathful dakinis depicted in the bardo mural, and sent this message:
His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche has expressed his happiness in seeing renewed interest in the Bardo Thodol because of attention on the bardo mural in the Chenrezig Lhakhang at Lamayuru Monastery. He sends many greetings and tashi delek to all the people.
Stag-headed dancer, Matho Monastery, Ladakh. Photo by
Nathan Whitmont, 2011. From Core of Culture
With thanks to Kristin Blancke, Sonam Angmo, Alexander Siedlecki, Lama Kinley Gyaltsen, and also Mr. S. B. Ota and Dr. V. K. Saxena of the Archeological Survey of India, for their kind help in completing this column.
The burial ground dates from the Iron Age, or Villanovan period (9th century BC), up to Roman times. From the Villanovan period simple round tombs carved from rock for cremation burials can be seen at the site.
Towards the end of the 8th c. BC, the first funerary chambers appeared as family tombs due to the rise to power of an aristocracy. These appeared on the surface as tumuli, sometimes assuming impressive proportions to enhance the power and prestige of the nobles, as can be seen especially in the so-called King and Queen tombs. There were about 600 tumuli still visible in the 19th century, following which many were razed after excavation.
The tumuli usually covered subterranean chambers carved into the rock, containing sarcophagi and personal possessions of the deceased, and many of which have wall paintings.
The earliest sarcophagi are carved with the image of the deceased supine on the lid. The later and more numerous types show him or her reclining on the left side, facing the spectator and frequently holding a libation vessel occasionally a man displays an inscribed scroll listing his ancestry and the magisterial offices he occupied. During the second half of the 4th century BC sculpted and painted sarcophagi of nenfro, marble and alabaster came into use. They were deposited on rock-carved benches or against the walls in the now very large underground chambers. 
Sarcophagi were also decorated with reliefs of symbolic or mythological content, often derived from Tarentine models. Sarcophagi of this type, which continue until the second century, are found in such numbers at Tarquinia that they must have been manufactured locally. The walls of the tomb-chambers of the late period are painted with underworld demons escorting the dead on their journey to the beyond, scenes in the nether world, processions of magistrates and other symbols of the rank of the eminent members of the families buried there. 
Among the most notable painted tombs famous for the artistic quality of their frescoes are: