Dance and pantomime performances are used by the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh to explain Buddhist philosophy, religious rites, rituals, and also for entertainment. The custom of crafting and using masks for these performances can be traced to the 16th.century when monks from the Tawang monastery began the task of propagation of Buddhism, with the help of these masked dances.
Performed in the courtyards of monasteries, the dancers traditionally have always been boys and men and never women. Custom holds that when a dancer dons a mask, the spirit he is portraying seeps through his being. This supernatural power is vested on the masks through a ritual performed by the lamas.
The Monpa wood carvers make magnificent masks as do the Sherdukpen, the Khampa and the Monpa. Masks are realistic – some with human faces others with contorted faces to drive away the evil spirits, while still others represent birds and animals. Wooden masks are also carved by the Khambas and Membas of Northern Siang.