When music speaks

Anuradha Thakur on the two-day Hemis festival in Ladakh which brings alive the dull land with its vibrant dance and music

Monks in saffron robes sit near long, wooden stools of low height on which religious books are kept.
Monks in saffron robes sit near long, wooden stools of low height on which religious books are kept. — Photos by the writer

Nestled in the lap of Himalayas, the colossal expanse of Ladakh beckons one to its rugged terrain, harsh climate and curvy roads. The snow-capped mountains and deep valleys of this wind-swept desert unveil nature at its starkest.

People of the land wake up to the vivacious beats of trumpets, cymbals, drums and bells as the summer sets in. Colour and music fills the air, bringing the barren land alive.

Tucked in this geographical labyrinth is the much-known Hemis monastery which is the venue for the famous Hemis festival. Attracting visitors from across the globe, this celebration falls on the 10th day of the sixth month of the Monkey year (end of June/beginning of July) annually and marks the birth anniversary of Lord Padamasambhava (Rimpoche) — venerated as the representative reincarnate of the Lord Buddha.

Located at 40 km from Leh in a small, distant valley south of the river Indus, the Hemis monastery was set up in the 1630s by Stagshang Raspa. It belongs to the Kagyupa (Red Hat) sect of monks and forms the pivot of the administration of various monasteries in Ladakh. Belying its simple exterior, Hemis houses valuable artefact, including ancient scriptures in gold.

The mask worn by Padamasambhava dancers
The mask worn by Padamasambhava dancers
Ladakhi woman wearing the traditional dress goncha and the headgear perak
Ladakhi woman wearing the traditional dress goncha and the headgear perak

Another attraction is the 12-m high idol of Guru Padamasambhava, founder of Tantric Buddhism. According to a legend, he fought with the demon for the safety of the local people. The interiors of the monastery are adorned with thangkas paintings and numerous statues. These beautiful thangkas depict Buddhist philosophy and incidents from the life of Lord Buddha and Padamasambhava and are an embodiment of the spirit of Buddhism on canvas.

Once in 12 years, the monastery unfurls the embroidered thangka (painting) of Lord Padamasambhava — the largest in the world for public viewing. A huge prayer wheel is situated in the courtyard in addition to rows of small ones in the monastery. Though rotating the small wheels is easy, moving the large wheel is quite an arduous task.

Monks in saffron robes sit near long, wooden stools of low height on which religious books are kept. The disciples read these scriptures, chant hymns and play musical instruments. Wearing silver masks and robes, the priests move in a circle ringing hand bells, alternately standing and reading from a book. The offerings made to the deity include items like chocolates and cakes. Free lunch and dinner is also distributed.

The Hemis fair celebrations kick-off with the sound of trumpets made of silver and gold. People from all over come here to watch the performance of the black hat dancers. The Padamasambhava dance reiterates the tale of victory over demon Ruta. This dance includes characters like Yama, Lord of Death and Guru Trakpu, a sorceress wearing a black hat. The dancers add colour to the dull surroundings with their bright costumes and graceful balled movements punctuated with leaps and jumps. The ritual dance drama, referred to as chamas, is essentially part of Tantric tradition and is performed only in the gomphas that follow the Tantric vajrayana teachings.

These masked dancers illustrate the victory of good over evil. The course of dance brings out the good spirits slowly overpowering the bad ones and their conversion to Tibetan Buddhism which is synonymous with goodness for the Ladakhis. The atmosphere is further enlivened with frequent serves of chang — Ladakh’s country liquor.

At this annual fair, numerous stalls selling household items are laid out for which a Ladakhi will have to travel to Leh. The celebrations give an opportunity to tourists to peek into the rich culture of Ladakh. Ladakhi woman wear the traditional dress goncha — a long gown with a bright cummerbund, perak — the headdress.

The sacred mime has participation by both men and women. While women dancers wear quilted skullcaps, their ears covered by semicircular woollen flaps, the men sport even more exotic headgear. The Lamas portraying various spirits stand out by virtue of their finely crafted masks.

This two-day festival showcases the culture and beauty of Ladakh. It fills the atmosphere with the beats of trumpets and cymbals and a riot of colours infusing life in the dull land.