Hemis Festival: A Short Photo Essay

India is home to innumerable indigenous folk and cultural festivals. Every state has many such festivals celebrated on different occasions. While most are familiar with the ones that are celebrated across the country like Diwali and Holi there are many regional ones too. To name only a prominent few, there’s Onam and Pongal in the south, Durga Puja in the east, Bihu and Hornbill festival in the north-east, Shimga, Navratri and Ganesh Chaturthi in the west, Baisakhi and Pushkar in the North… the list goes on. While I haven’t experienced them all, I planned and attended a very peculiar folk/religious celebration in the India’s far north: Hemis Festival.

On a solo bike trip in Ladakh, when my bike broke down I had to abandon original plan. If you haven’t yet read the story of how I caught the dreaded altitude mountain sickness (AMS) do read my last post: Incredible Ladakh: My Solo Travel Adventure . Because of the early retirement, I could attend both the days of this relatively unknown local Himalayan festival. Here’s a short photo essay on the magical Hemis Festival in Ladakh, India.

View from Hemis Monastery

View from Hemis Monastery

Prologue

Ladakh is the land of Buddhist monasteries and has a strong influence of Tibetan culture. These monasteries are called as Gompas in the Ladakhi language. There are many popular gompas around the entire region and the one at Hemis is among them. However, not many people know about this annual festival held in the quad of the Hemis monastery. The folk festival is hosted every June (towards the end) and lasts for two days. On both days the locals flock religiously to attend and seek blessings.

Trainee monks watching the dance

Trainee monks watching the dance

The festival begins by welcoming the head monk to the monastery. The monks stand on two sides of the red carpet laid with banners and instruments. It’s pretty evident from the overall bustle at the monastery how dedicatedly the monks make the preparations.

Priests playing cymbals to welcome the head monk

Priests playing Ladakhi cymbals (called as Silnyen) to welcome the head monk

Little monk with the welcome cloth waiting

Little monk with the welcome cloth waiting

The Beginning of Mask Dance

A couple of monks blow the Ladakhi long horns called as Dungchen and then the head monk seated behind in the balcony announces the beginning of festival.

Dungchen, a Ladakhi long horn is played to indicate the beginning of the festival

Dungchen, a Ladakhi long horn is played to indicate the beginning of the festival

One by one various masked men enter the quad in groups of 5 to 10. Their elegant masks and clothes with incredibly vivid colours and designs attract attention. The monastic orchestra of traditional Ladakhi instruments continues to play. The masked dancers then begin circling the central long flag pole on the rhythm of the horns and drums. The music is very intense, the tempo in slow beats and with unique high pitch sounds. Listen to the audio clip below to hear the atmosphere created by the music.

The Ladakhi long horns signalling the beginning of the festivities

Enter the Dragon!

Enter the Dragon!

Various characters slowly emerging from behind curtains and into the quad

Various masked characters slowly emerging from behind curtains and into the quad

Rhythmic dance begins

Rhythmic dance begins

The masked dancers represent various deities, good as well as bad. They have weapons, banners or other props in their hands as they perform a slow step dance in a rhythmic manner. As the story progresses, various groups of characters appear and go behind the curtains. This traditional Ladakhi dance is called as Chhams.

The rhythmic monastic orchestra

The exotic masks of dancers look intense

The exotic masks of dancers look intense

Masked dancer, Hemis Festival

Masked dancer, Hemis Festival

The Climax

The monks sitting in the balconies chant prayers as the horns continue to play their sharp tones. Few of the monks waiting in the galleries perform rituals before the final battle between good and evil begins.

Holy water is poured into the chalice

Holy water being poured into the chalice

Then masked dancers in the form of monkeys enter with swords and bow and arrows. They perform the ritualistic dance as other monks bring a small sculpture made of flour into the quad. It represents the evil against which the dancers are fighting and eventually win. The dance and the ceremony ends.

The battle between good versus evil

The battle between good versus evil

View from the top of the monastery

View from the top of the monastery

This was one of the classiest festivals I have ever attended and I thoroughly enjoyed shooting hundreds of photographs.

Have you been to the Hemis Festival?
How did you like it?

Travel Tips
Hemis is closest to Leh. One can hire, taxis or bikes from Leh to reach Hemis, although if you plan to visit only Hemis for the entire day it may not be economical. Buses do not operate all the way to the monastery but a nearby town of Karu. It’s an hour long walk from Karu to Hemis and a very pleasant one.
Photography Tips
The festival is gaining popularity and attracts lot of crowd. The tickets for the seats in the galleries and balconies are available on the venue however there’s a open public seating area in the quad as well. Be there much earlier to secure a nice shooting place.
earthling

earthling

I am an earthling. I am an explorer. I like to keep my own pace, conquer new territories, meet new people, try new things and write stories about my experiences. I blog at bhingri.in. Tell me if you like it!

You may also like...

4 Responses

  1. Prabodh says:

    Nice one! Beautiful photographs.

  2. Flora Baker says:

    Wow, this festival looks amazing! I love how intricate the masks are, and how much the dancers are embodying their characters. Really lovely touch with adding in audio recordings too! I still haven’t made it to Ladakh but one day..!

    • earthling earthling says:

      Thank you Flora for reading! The festival is truly unique. If you haven’t been to Ladakh yet, add it to your list right away. It’s my top most favourite place. Glad you liked the idea of audio clip. I do record a lot of mundane sounds and at times include them in my posts. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *