Tibetan temple music is particularly renowned in the west for its two forms of multiphonic singing known as jok-kay (low tone) and bar-da (high tone). In both forms, each of the main chantmasters simultaneously intones three notes, thus each individually creating a complete chord. The Tibetans are one of the only cultures on earth that cultivate this most extraordinary vocal ability. This tradition is also known as “overtone singing” because it is accomplished by learning to control the muscles of the vocal cavity and then re-shaping it while singing, thus intensifying the natural overtones of the voice. In effect, the body is transformed into an effective overtone amplifier.
One night in 1433, the Tibetan lama Je Tzong Sherab Senge awoke from a startling dream. In it he had heard a voice unlike any voice that had ever sounded on the planet. It was a low voice, unbelievably deep, sounding more like the growl of a wild bull than anything human. Combined with this first voice, there was a second. This voice was high and pure, like the sound of a child singing. These two voices, so totally different, had come from the same source and that source was Je Tzong Sherab Senge himself.
In this dream, Je Tzong Sherab Senge had been instructed to take this special voice and use it for a new chanting style that would embody both the masculine and feminine aspects of divine energy. It was a tantric voice, a sound that could unite those chanting it in a web of universal consciousness.The next morning, Je Tzong Sherab Senge began to chant his daily prayers. The sounds that came out of him were the sounds he had heard in his dream — unearthly sounds, tantric sounds — and he gathered his fellow monks together to tell them of his dream.
That year, more than 500 years ago, the Gyume Tantric Monastery began in Lhasa , Tibet . The monks of this monastery learned to chant in the same voice which Je Tzong Sherab Senge had heard in his dream. It was a voice that enabled each monk to chant three notes at the same time, creating ‘One Voice Chords’. Within that same century, another monastery in Lhasa , the Gyuto Tantric College , was founded. The monks at this fellow Tantric College also incorporated this chanting technique in their sacred rituals.
For centuries the magical sounds and rituals of Tibet lay enshrouded in the mysteries of a country refusing communication with the outside world. Stories of this unearthly chanting would filter back to the ‘civilized’ world along with tales of seemingly superhuman abilities which the Tibetan monks were said to possess, but these seemed to be nothing more than myth. In 1950 China invaded Tibet. Certain monks escaped to India, where they continued their tantric rituals. Their spiritual activities remained esoteric, but certain teachers of religion and ethnomusicology were finding their tantric rituals somewhat more accessible. These scientists and scholars would come back to the West with reports of a remarkable chanting technique utilized by the Gyume and Gyuto monks.
In Tibetan tantric chanting the goal of the chanting is to invoke and then unite with a particular deity or being. The monks literally become the gods and goddesses to whom they are praying. It may be that the overtones which are pronounced by the different Tantric Colleges are specific invocations to particular entities.
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