The Festival of Hemis is perhaps the biggest and most famous of the monastic festivals. It’s a two-day event that usually falls in late June or the first half of July and is dedicated to Lord Padmasambhava. Celebrated across the country, the festivities at the Hemis Gompa in Leh, are particularly exhilarating.

As with all major Buddhist festivals, it celebrates ‘the Three Jewels’ – the Buddha, the Dharma (the Buddhist Teachings) and the Sangha (the spiritual community). Various stories are told – the essence being the fight of evil with good and the arrival of Buddhism to Ladakh.

The Hemis Gompa is one of the most important monasteries in the Buddhist world, long associated with the Ladakhi royal family. Initiated by a member of Ladakh’s ruling family, the festival “HemisTse-chu” has a two hundred and fifty-year-old tradition. On Guru Padmasambhava’s birthday, thegompa bursts into life.

Who’s birthday is it though?

Guru Padmasambhava is venerated as the representative reincarnate of Buddha, and is believed to have been born on the 10th day of the fifth month of the Monkey year as predicted by the “Shakia Muni Buddha”. His life’s mission was, and remains, to improve the spiritual condition of all living beings.

Dress Code, Venue Details, Music Scene

The ceremonies begin early in the morning, atop the gompa, to the beat of drums, the resounding clash of cymbals and the spiritual wail of pipes. Initiated by a solemn parade of mock priests, clad in rich robes of china silk and brocade and unusually tall tufted hats, the event revolves around a lavish and extendedpantomime, of spectacular masked dances and sacred plays.

The festival takes place in the rectangular courtyard in front of the main door of the monastery. The space is wide and open apart from two raised square platforms, three feet high, with a sacred pole in the centre. On a raised dais decorated with a richly cushioned seat, is placed a small, finely painted table on which are displayed ceremonial items – cups full of holy water, uncooked rice, tormas made of dough and butter and incense sticks. Musicians play traditional music with four pairs of cymbals, large-pan drums, small trumpets and large wind instruments. Beside them, a small seating space is assigned for the lamas.

The portrait of “Dadmokarpo” or “RygyalsrasRimpoche” – the two storey high thangka of Padmasambhava (richly embroidered with pearls and semi-precious stones) is ceremoniously exhibited for all to admire and worship. A little later, the dances start.

The dance dramas depict the magical feats of Padmasambhava in his eight different manifestations vanquishing the enemies of Buddhism. The most esoteric of the performances is, of course, the mystic mask dances referred to collectively as chams.

The first dance is performed by thirteen dancers in black hats. This is known as the ‘setting limit’ dance because the deities chase evil spirits far away from the limits of the land. Horned devil-masks and padded brocade outfits come to life as they play out the scripture battles between good and evil spirits.

But… who else coming?

Everyone is invited to participate in these festivals, irrespective of caste, status or religion. Local people attending the occasion are dressed in their finest traditional attire. Bright cummerbunds on quilted coats adorn the men while women wear the perakp, an elaborate headdress with woven strips of beads and turquoise, silver dangles and upright ears of braided yak hair.

Each family carries a savovar of yak-butter tea, and a canister of tsampat, roasted barley flour. And as the celebrations reach their limits and beyond, the spirits of the audience are enhanced by sipping from huge bowls of Ladakhi liquor known as ‘chang‘, whilst a spectacular fair showcasing beautiful handicrafts produced by the people of the region.

The festivities end on the next day with the “Hashang&Hatuk” dance. Hashang being a Chinese monk, generally known as the “Laughing Buddha” and “Hatuk” his disciple. As the festival draws to a close, religious experience fuses with folk sentiments to create an unforgettable atmosphere that echoes the timeless spirit of the people.

I guess we’ll see you there then!

Written by: Sandesh Bhandare
Photographs: Sandesh Bhandare
Copy editor: Shama Lahiri

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