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Masks, Robes and High Passes: Exploring Festivals of Ladakh

By Arka Chakarborty

In many ways, festivals constitute the beating heart of a community. They bring together family, friends, neighbours and acquaintances in celebrating their common history and heritage, reminiscing or performing folk tales, reiterating shared beliefs and values and through regularly repeated celebrations, pass these down from one generation to another. They help boost and sustain the economy of a particular region or community by encouraging festive spending and even contribute to attracting tourists to a region. The rituals and customs followed traditionally in festivals are rich repositories of the cultural heritage of a region or community (Tanu B. 2023; Dewanrudra, 2023). Almost every human community, no matter how diverse or distant from one another, partakes in festivities of their own. While sometimes festivals embody the spirit of a specific community, a few exceptional festivals even go beyond to encompass the people of an entire region (like the Durga Puja in the state of West Bengal) and can even be seen as being celebrated nationwide (such as Diwali). The Union Territory of Ladakh, although sparsely populated, has a unique cultural identity of its own, encapsulating transregional nature of human culture. This rich cultural heritage is on full display for the world at large during the numerous festivals which are celebrated annually all over the region. Reflecting the traditions, rituals and values of the community, these festivals are an integral part of Ladakhi culture.

Ladakh, like neighbouring Kashmir, has historically been situated at a cultural crossroads. Located as it is in the border regions of South Asia, Central Asia, Tibet and China, Ladakh is molded into a platform where the intercultural boundaries are blurred and a multicultural landscape has been created at the local level. According to the Census of 2011, Ladakh has a population of 274289. With an area of 95876 sq. km. (including the areas occupied by China and Pakistan), Ladakh has one of the lowest population densities in India, with only 5.5 persons per sq. km. Around 77.39% of this population is rural although there has been significant urban growth in the last three decades (Sandup, 2020). Most of the Ladakhi population follows Tibetan Buddhism, followed by Muslims and Hindus. Ladakhi festivals mostly follow some form of the Tibetan Buddhist creed and many of them are centered in monasteries. Buddhist priests lead the ritualistic parts of these festivals while lay people throng these monasteries with great enthusiasm and festive spirit (Festivals, District – Leh-Ladakh, Government of India).

Almost all of Ladakh’s traditional festivals follow the Tibetan calendar which demonstrates the cultural influence that Tibetan Buddhism has in this region. This fascinating lunar calendar has twelve or thirteen months depending on the year. This apparent discrepancy is due to the necessity of maintaining some sort of alignment with the more globally prevalent solar calendar. The Tibetan lunar calendar, in turn, follows the Mongolian calendar to some extent when it comes to dates and events. Moreover, each year of the Tibetan calendar is associated with an animal or an element, much like the Chinese zodiac. The element-animal designation recurs in a cycle of sixty years. The local community also follows the Kalachakra solar calendar and the elemental lunar calendar (Himalayan Ecotourism).

Nearly all of the Buddhist monastic festivals in Ladakh witness the ‘masked dance’ known as ‘cham’ as their chief attraction. Its historical origins are shrouded in mystery but it is generally believed that this form of ritual dance was birthed by Guru Padmasambhava, the founder of Tantric Buddhism, in the late eighth century CE. During festive occasions, Buddhist monks dress up in rich colorful robes, intricate headgear and decorated masks to pose as deities and demons and enact a mock battle where good triumphs over evil. Chams are considered to be a form of ritual cleansing of evil from places and communities. This dance fits well with monastic life as not the form but meditation, hand gestures, chants, invocation of deities and “the effect it has on the destruction of negativity” are the main foci. For the viewer-devotees, the dance serves simultaneously as moral lessons and an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the kinds of deities they may encounter during ‘Bardo’- the forty-nine day period of the transition between death and rebirth (Chakraborty, 2018).

Among all the festivals of Ladakh which have gained some degree of popularity outside the UT, the Hemis tsechu or the Hemis festival, celebrated at the Hemis monastery, is perhaps the most famous. Hemis is one of the largest and richest of Ladakh’s monasteries. The Hemis festival which generally takes place during the last week of June or the first half of July is celebrated to commemorate the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava. This three-day festival is attended by throngs of local lay people and tourists alike, with local men sporting cummerbunds and women wearing rich headgears and jewellery. The highlight of the festival is the masked dance or cham performed by the Buddhist monks of Hemis. The intricate robes and masks which they wear during this dance reflect the guardian deities of the Hemis monastery. Each dance step is symbolically significant and represents the eight incarnations that Padmasambhava is reputed to have taken in the eighth century to combat evil. The third and final day of the festival is marked by a sacrifice. In the year of the monkey which comes every twelve years according to the Tibetan calendar, the Hemis monastery ritually exhibits its crowning jewel, a four storey long thangka (usually a vertically oriented scroll made of silk or cotton fabric which is richly painted using mineral or organic pigments mixed with animal glue and is used by Buddhist scholars as a teaching or meditative tool) (invaluable) of Guru Padmasambhava, in its courtyard (SOTC, 2022; Thrilllophilia; Wander On).

Saka Dawa is considered as one of the most sacred festivals for Buddhists as it commemorates the Buddha’s birth, spiritual awakening and death (nirvana). The etymological origins of the term ‘saka dawa’ lie in the words ‘ska’ which means ‘month’ and ‘data’ which literally means star but is strongly associated with the full moon of the fourth month of the Tibetan lunar calendar, when the festival is actually celebrated. This occurs between the end of May and the end of July. The festival itself which is celebrated all over Ladakh is marked by people following dharmic practices such as protecting animals, offering sadhanas, reciting mantras and making sacrifices. Moreover, practices such as the killing of animals are avoided during this time, in line with the Buddha’s teachings. Monks of the numerous Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh celebrate the occasion by changing the Tarboche flagpole. It is believed that if the flagpole does not remain erect after it is changed, it is inauspicious (SOTC, 2022; Thrillophilia).

The Tibetan New Year celebration known as the Losar Festival takes place two months ahead of the actual New Year’s Day! According to legend, this tradition of celebrating the New Year two months early, typically during the eleventh month of the Tibetan calendar, was inaugurated by the 17 th century Tibetan king Jamyang Namgyal who is said to have done this as a matter of expediency before invading the kingdom of Baltistan. The Losar festival celebrated by the Tibetan people in general, is marked by a number of interesting customs. The picture of an ibex is put up in households as an auspicious symbol. Kitchens are dotted which is supposed to bring prosperity to the household. A procession of fire or Metho takes place where the participants chant slogans in order to ward off evil spirits. Some villagers also participate in the tradition of making snowmen. Finally, many follow the tradition of having tea with the entire family in cups bearing the name of family members. Cups are prepared even for members who are absent from the festivities (SOTC, 2022; Thrillophilia).

Stok Guru Tsechu or the Stok Guru Festival is celebrated on the ninth and tenth days of the first month of the Tibetan calendar. Celebrated in the village of Stok, the present seat of the Ladakhi royal family, this festival is unique as many of the rituals are carried out not by the monks but the common people. The highlight of this festival is the presence of two oracles who are commoners trained by the monks to receive the energy of the deities. The Stock Guru festival sees the performance of mask dances, merrymaking and feasting (SOTC, 2022; Thrillophilia; Wander On).

Celebrated on the 28 th and 29 th days of the twelfth month of the Tibetan calendar, the Dosmoche festival takes place in Leh, Diskit and Likir monasteries, the festival at Leh being the most popular. This festival was started by the Ladakhi royal family to ward off evil. Monks take the lead in this festival, performing masked dances and chanting mantras (SOTC, 2022; Thrillophilia).

The Phyang Tsedup festival, celebrated on the second and third day of the sixth month of the Tibetan calendar (usually July or August) at the Phyang monastery, is marked by masked dances which the Buddhist monks perform to ward off evil. A thangka of Skyoba Jigten Gombo, the founder of the Dogungpa way of teaching and the Dringumpa Monastic Dynasty, is hung on the courtyard of Phyang monastery during the festival. This thangka is worshipped to signify the triumph of good over evil. Sacrifices are offered on the second day of the festival and finally stroma or storma (religious figures molded out of dough to serve as symbolic scapegoats in order to ritually cleanse a place of evil) is burnt to ritually conclude the celebrations (SOTC, 2022; Thrillophilia; Festivals, District – Leh-Ladakh, Government of India).

The Matho Nagrang festival, celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first month of the Tibetan calendar, takes place at the Matho Nagrang monastery situated on the bank of the river Indus 20 km south of the city of Leh. This monastery is special as it is the only one in Ladakh which follows the Sakya sect of Buddhism. Like Stok Guru, the defining feature of the Matho Nagrang festival is the active participation of two oracles. These oracles, said to be in a meditative state for two months, rejoin society during the festivities and offer prophecies. Masked dances are performed by the monks, like many other monastic festivals (SOTC 2022; Thrillophilia; Wander On).

Celebrated from 1st to 15th September chiefly at the city of Leh, the Ladakh festival is emblematic of the unique cultural heritage of the region. The highlight of this festival is a grand procession through the city where cultural troupes from all over the UT participate. This procession reaches its conclusion at the polo field of Leh where cultural programmes such as masked dances, musical concerts and folklore ceremonies are celebrated. Polo and archery competitions are also held and attended by enthusiastic crowds of onlookers (Thrilllophilia).

The Tak Tok festival, celebrated at the Tak Tok monastery in Leh, is the only festival in Ladakh celebrated at a cave. The whole day of festivities is characterized by masked dances, ritual offerings, prayers and cultural programmes and concludes with a grand feast (Thrillophilia; Wander On).

Amid the traditional, predominantly Buddhist monastic festivals of Ladakh, the Sindhu Darshan festival stands proudly as a modern celebration of Indian culture. This festival is, in fact, a recent arrival to the Ladakhi festive galaxy, as it was first conducted in 1997. The aim of this festival is to celebrate the river Indus which, in many ways, has historically been a lifeline of the Indian civilization and culture. A chief aim of this festival is also to honor and celebrate the brave soldiers of the Indian army who put their lives on the line to protect India and its people. People from all religions, caste and creed participate in this festival by bringing a pot of water from their own hometowns or villages and offering it to the Indus river. The festival celebrated at Shey Manila on the bank of Indus from 1 st to 3 rd June is attended by enthusiastic participants from across India. The three day festival begins with a reception for all the attendees and the offering of prayers to the river Indus by fifty senior lamas who reside in the area. This is followed on the second day by cultural programmes, sightseeing and puja. The third and final day of the festival is highlighted by a grand celebration. Sindhu Darshan also has a very fun and fascinating. connection with the Hindi Film Industry, as the movie Dil Se (1998) starring Shah Rukh Khan was shot during the first Sindhu Darshan festival (SOTC, 2022; Thrillophilia; Wander On)!

There are numerous other festivals celebrated with equal zeal in Ladakh, discussing which in detail is unfortunately beyond the scope of this article. Some of these festivals are: Yuru Kabgyat, Thiksay Gustor, Ladakh Monlam Chenmo and Galdan Namchot (Thrillophilia, Wander On).

The festivals of Ladakh proudly wear the traditions and culture of the people of the region on their sleeve but they should not be seen as limited to being repositories of tradition. While many of Ladakh’s festivals are monastic in nature where Buddhist monks play a key role, some like the Matho Nagrang and the Ladakh festival witness the common people taking the lead, participating in rituals and celebrating to their heart’s content with their families and loved ones. Moreover, festivals like Sindhu Darshan honor the uniqueness of Ladakh and simultaneously locate it as an inextricable part of India, commemorating the principle of unity in diversity and saluting the brave soldiers of the Indian army who have dedicated their lives to protecting this vision. Whether monastic or led by lay people, all Ladakhi festivals generate income for local businesses and boost the tourism potential of the region not only in India but globally. Hence, these colorful festivals should be celebrated in their own right and protected and promoted by the authorities so that a crucial part of Ladakhi culture is preserved in a fast-changing world.


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