The main temple complex swelled with the music of gongs and horns. The head lama sat at the highest elevation. It was 7.30 AM. Monks clad in yellow robes and traditional red drikung kagyu hats sat on cushioned benches. The wooden artistry of the monastery was adorned with thangkas. The walls were painted with the teachings and stories of Lord Budhha. The hall was reverberating with mystical chants. A white ceremonial scarf known as khata was passed on from a devotee to the presiding monk. Tourists are allowed to observe the puja but clicking photos and videos are not allowed. But the monks don’t enforce this strictly and tourists appeared to be taking advantage of it.
It was the first day of the Hemis Festival. Tucked away in a secluded corner of the Himalayas approximately 40 kilometres away from Leh, Hemis is a monastery of the Drukpa lineage. Held every year at Hemis Monastery, the festival is a two-day long religious celebration which is conducted to commemorate the birth of Guru Rinpoche, also known as Lord Padmasambhava. Guru Rinpoche was miraculously born in a flower on the milky lake Oddiyana without a father or mother in a Tibetan Monkey year on the 10th lunar day of the 5th lunar month. He preached Buddhism to the dakinis—a sacred female spirit. The most striking feature of the celebration includes the chaam dances—masked dances by the Buddhist monks. The masked dancers put up a visual extravaganza which pulls the tourist crowds. Celebrations are grander in the Monkey years.
While the puja continued in the main temple sanctum, crowds started gathering in the central courtyard of the monastery. The chaam dance was scheduled to start at 10 AM. An area around the flagpole was cordoned off. Chairs were set to seat the guests, media troop and people who bought a privilege ticket. For the rest of the crowd, carpets were laid on the floor. We were one of the first people to have arrived on the grounds. We secured the best possible seat on the floor in the general seating area.
Investigations revealed that there is a media handler who needs to be convinced to secure a media seat. The privilege seats can be bought by paying a price but at that moment they were all sold out. I put out a soft request “We are staying in the Hemis Monastery guest house, are we eligible to get a favour?” The monk looked lost and apologetic, so we thanked him for his time and settled in the general area.
Tantric chants blared from the loudspeakers. The story behind the Hemis Festival was narrated in the local language and then in English. Clad in brown overcoats and beaded malas, locals started arriving with their families. A lady with silver hair sat folding her hands, a man in a robe pulled down his knit cap, and kids frolicked around. Domestic and international tourists sat alongside. We interacted with tourists from Japan, Israel, USA and Scotland. Soon a whizzing noise forced me to look upward—a drone was flying.
An enormous thangka was unfurled from one of the upper floors, covering the height of the monastery. At 10.30 AM the outdoors rituals started. Monks circled the monastery premises with horns, trumpets and holy water. Incenses were lit and flowers were offered at the flagpole, conch shells were blown. The first set of dancers arrived wearing pink robes and masks. They were soon followed by a group of monk dancers who were decked in colourful complicated robe. A strip of cloth ran across their mouth covering the lips. A symbolic skeleton was on their chest and hat.
As the first set retreated, the second set of dancers entered the courtyard. Their faces were under a golden mask. Holding a damru and bell they kept rhythm with the slow dance. The most important gathering of masked monks happened during the next dance. A monk appeared in the avatar of Padmasambhava, along with seven other manifestations of Padmasambhava. The locals bow their heads in deep veneration.
An hour long lunch break commenced at around 1 o’clock. Local families munched on homemade delicacies they brought packed in tiffin boxes. Smiling, the man sitting beside us offered us some of it. At every step, the generosity of the Ladakhis astonished us. We offered them the cakes we were carrying. As easily as that, a micro connection happened with a random local family in the middle of a bourgeoning crowd of hundreds.
Some of the priority seats had gone empty by now and were occupied by general public. The fellow Japanese tourist who sat beside me had now shifted to one of those chairs. Six more dances followed after the lunch break.
Monks masked in lion faces and a couple dressed as monkeys performed the dances. One had fake snakes all over his headgear; some were equipped with weapons. Four more dancers joined in wearing fearsome masks. When they retreated, monks wearing skeleton costumes started a fast paced dance breaking the monotony of the slow steps. The theme of the next two dances was similar to the others. During the last dance, monks carried a flag pole in their hands and were clad in tiger skins. Beating drums, they heralded the news of the victory of good over evil.
All the dances bear deep religious meaning and are associated with warding away evil and prevailing of truth, happiness and well being. We bought a guidebook from Hemis’ library to know more about the underlying meanings of the various chaam dances. As the day ended, the high thangka which was unfurled was covered and the medley of people who had gathered around dispersed.
Useful Information for attending the Hemis Festival:
Leh is 40 kilometres away from Hemis. The best option is to stay in Leh and arrive at Hemis early morning by a private car or rented scooter/bike. Some locals informed me about a bus service from Leh to Hemis Monastery during Hemis festival, but I am not sure about its existence or timing. Alternatively, you can stay in the Hemis Monastery guest house (read about it on my blog) or in any guest house at Karu (the nearest village with amenities).
Arrive early to grab the best seats. Food stalls are put up in the monastery premises but leaving your seat and going anywhere can result in others occupying the seat. Carry a scarf as the sunshine may be harsh sometimes.
Please respect the locals and their culture, remember you are a guest in their homes and this is a deeply religious event for them. Do not litter.
Have you attended the Hemis Festival or seen the Chaam dance being performed by the monks elsewhere? Comment below and let’s get talking!
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