India’s sheer vastness in diversity makes it home to thousands of colorful and vibrant festivals and hidden among these are a few that are neither national holidays nor are they known to the general public. But, their grandeur, charm and aura is second to none. One such unique festival of Incredible India is the Hemis Festival of Ladakh.
Imagine this…Mighty tall Himalayan mountains with the Indus river flowing downstream, spectacular landscapes all around and the richest monastery of Ladakh. This is the location of the Hemis Festival. Belonging to the Drukpa or dragon lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, Hemis Monastery celebrates Guru Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche and his divine teachings as the Hemis Festival on the 9th, 10th and 11th lunar days of the 5th month every summer.
When I attended the Hemis festival this summer, it was a doubly special event. Not only was it the annual Hemis Festival, but it was also the Kumbh Mela of Hemis Monastery, which takes place once every 12 years. This momentous occasion celebrates the birthday of Guru Rinpoche, which occurs on the 10th lunar day of the 5th lunar month in the Tibetan Monkey year.
This Guru’s day is celebrated with the grand display of a silken thangka (about 4 storeys high) of Guru Padmasambhava that attracts people in hordes from all over the world. This marvelous silken image is a patched work of the finest Chinese silk in various colors and it was prepared between 1750-1760 under the guidance of Gyalras Mipham Tswewang, the royal monk regarded as the third incarnation of the great Dragon yogi Stagtsang Raspa. And then there are the famous masked dance performances that cater to a special flavor on this Guru Rinpoche birthday.
I was here primarily for the dances, but got to learn and experience so much more. Depicting the life and activity of Guru Padmasambhava, these tantric dances aim to bestow health and pacify disease and all kinds of negative energies. In short, it aims to spread happiness and peace to all the people who visit the Hemis Monastery and see these dances in person.
The atmosphere was a heady mix of sweet incense fragrance and resounding music coming from traditional instruments such as gyalings (ritual clarinets), trumpets, drums, cymbals and bells. Add to it the performers in colorful attire, the sea of monks and tourists and you had all the ingredients for a gala event.
Once the silken thangka was launched from the top of the Hemis Monastery and all the prayer sessions were complete, the dance performances began. It all started with the sacred dance performed by the 13 black hat dancers. These monks wearing a complete tantric dress evoked divine wrath through their spiritual power and ritual gestures and dancing. This is believed to cut off all evil spirits and negative influences.
Next came a group of sixteen copper masked dancers who aimed to purify the place, the teachers, the disciples and bring down blessings that transform the whole scene into a pure Buddha land. These divine fairies or celestial daikinis performed this Vajra Guru dance where they melodiously chanted the invocation mantra of Guru Rinpoche and giving their mantra musical company were their damaru (hand drum) and bell.
The next dance performance was possibly the longest and the most elaborate. It was called the Eight Manifestations of Guru Padmasambhava. These manifestations include Guru Tsokye Dorje (Padma Vajra), Guru Padmasambhava, Guru Lodan Chog Sred, Guru Padma Gyalpo, Guru Nyima Odzer, Guru Shakya Senge, Guru Senge Dradong (the roaring lion) and Guru Dorje Drolod. This performance involved musicians, actual monks, religious ceremonies, felicitations, group dances and then finally solo dance performances by each of the eight manifestations of Guru Padmasambhava.
As a spectator, I loved the semi peaceful and semi wrathful dance of Guru Tsokye Dorje where he is holding a Bell and a Vajra (symbols of wisdom and compassion) and the wrathful incarnation of Guru Dorje Drolod where his face is dark red and he is holding a vajra in the right hand and a phurba (an iron dagger) in the left hand.
The post lunch session saw more incredible dance performances that included the Twelve Zhing Kyong, Serkyem, The Four Goma, The Four Lords of the Graveyards, the Five Chemchog Heruka, The Five Tshog Len (five daikinis) and the Ten Great Ging (Heroes ad Heroines). I could not catch all of these post lunch performances as I had opted for a steep trek to the Gotsang caves. But, in what I saw it in bits and pieces, they blew my mind with their energy and fervour like they did in the morning session.
While the performances were taking place, all the eyes were riveted on the masks, the colorful costumes, the musical instruments and of course the tantric dance. Each one of these captivated the attention of the spectators in their own way. The gentle, but mesmerizing music only added to the deep spiritual feel.
These tantric dance performances take place on all 3 days of the Hemis festival, but the 2nd one or the 10th lunar day is the most important as this is the date when the most important ones are performed. All the actors, dancers, singers, musicians are monks from the Hemis Monastery. You can see them training without their costumes if you arrive a day or two earlier.
This is one of those incredible festivals of India that will allow you to see her in a different light. It certainly touched my soul and I am pretty sure that it will touch yours too! If you are planning to visit Ladakh next summer, do remember to keep this festival as one part of your itinerary.
How to get to Hemis Monastery: Leh is the nearest international airport. Hemis Monastery is about 45 kms from Leh and it takes about 60 to 90 minutes to reach by road. It is best to hire a car for the entire day to reach the monastery.
How to book seats for the Hemis Festival: Seats are limited and hence it is advisable to book your tickets in advance. All popular travel agents in Ladakh can make bookings on your behalf.