3 Reasons You Should Skip Hemis Festival

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The colorful masks

To start with, I had always wanted to attend Hemis Festival. The colors, the costumes and especially the Tibetan culture has always fascinated me. This was the sole reason I planned the Ladakh trip during the overcrowded season of July 2014. The famed festival however, had left me a bit disappointed for some unexpected reasons (Wait... I'll come to that part soon!).

My friends were least interested in Hemis Festival (and more in their cozy blankets that morning). So I decided to set sail alone. I have always enjoyed solo travel, but by some luck, Pru waved out at me from her first floor window. I was introduced to her only a day before at our Leh hotel. Pru, a montessori teacher from South Africa, had come to Ladakh to attend the Kalachakra Initiations by Dalai Lama. And I'm glad that I asked her to accompany me to Hemis that day.

Day 9, July 7th 2014, Monday : While driving to Pangong we had taken the left road from Karu. For Hemis, you take the right road, cross the river and proceed ahead. At first glance Hemis reminded me of a secret Inca city. Hidden within the towering mountains, it is not visible to you until you are close enough.

Hemis Monastery
Hemis Festival is probably one of the grandest birthday celebrations I have ever seen. This 2 day festival celebrates Guru Padmasambhava's birth anniversary. For all those who don't know much about Buddhism, this Guru I'm talking about, was the founder of Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana) in Tibet. 

The start of Hemis Festival is signaled by blowing of two 3 metre long brass trumpets and the Head Lama bringing out the portrait of Guru Padmasambhava into the courtyard. Then starts the colorful Chham dances - the main highlight of the festival, performed by the resident Lamas of the monastery. The Lamas dance around the central flagpole in the monastery's courtyard, on the beats and music of cymbals, drums and long horns. This costumed dance drama depicts the feats performed by Guru Padmasambhava, with an underlying message of the victory of good over evil.

The masks they wear are unique and depict various guardian divinities of the Dugpa order of Buddhism. The eccentric robes and aprons are made of colorful brocade. This year even the four-storey thangka (sacred Buddhist painting) of the Guru was hung in the courtyard, which apparently doesn't happen every year.

Top : Head Lama bringing out the portrait of Guru Padmasambhava
Bottom left : 3 metre long brass trumpets; Bottom right : The start of Chham dances
Top (left and right) : Procession of Guru Padmasambhava
Chham dances
Hemis Festival can be fairly entertaining if not for these 3 reasons - 

1. Damn the Reservation System! - If school, college and those government job interviews were not enough, here is one more place in India where you would face the vices of Reservation System. But wait! Here they maintain the top down approach, i.e. places being reserved for Foreigners, Indian Army, Police personnels, other VVIPs and their family. There are no placards saying so, but you will be shunted off the moment you try to sit down on an unmarked supposedly reserved chair. The first floor chairs from where me and Pru were asked to leave by an Army officer was later occupied by only one officer and his wife and son, who arrived at the festival midway. The rest of the chairs lay empty till the end.

So if you are a nobody, you will have to 'scavenge' around for a place on the crowded ground surrounding the dancing arena. The funda of first-come-first-serve won't serve you here!

2. Media Blues - Hemis Festival is highly commercialized and attracts media from across the globe. Whether they are press photographers or documentary makers, everyone wants a scoop of the story. After already being shunted around so much, all you would want is more shunting if you by mistake happen to click a picture or shoot a video standing near a media guy who claims that it is his shooting territory. Hmph! And may Guru Padmasambhava save you in case you happen to step in front of any Channel's camera.

3. Where is the Narrator? - If you don't know about the theme of good fighting the evil spirits, you might miss the entire story and leave thinking it is just a costumed dance around a flagpole. If you aren't that ignorant and want to know more about the Chham dances being performed, you would still want to ask - Can someone please translate?

Top left : Head Lama of  Hemis Monastery; Top right : A statue of Buddha perched on the adjacent hill
Bottom left : That's Pru; Bottom right : Bizarre hats!!!
I lost my cool when a Lama and a policeman asked me and Pru to move from an unreserved place where we were standing (not even sitting), saying something about not paying an entry fee. Now for your information, you don't need to buy an entry ticket for Hemis. There are only donation counters at the entrance, where we had paid 200 bucks mistaking it as entry fee. Hemis is the wealthiest monastery in Ladakh and it wouldn't be hard to guess where all the wealth comes from. With a straight face I told the policeman I wouldn't move an inch.

I left the place only when slow drum beats started making me feel sleepy and the Chham dance, though graceful and performed in synchronized manner, started getting repetitive. I unexpectedly found 3 friends in midst of the crowd and realized the world is a small place. We decided to explore the monastery instead and interacted with many locals in the due course.

Top Left : A girl who had come with her father to see the festival. 
Top Right : A Ladakhi mother with her new born baby, who had come to take blessings at the monastery.
Bottom Left : Woman at the monastery preparing momos... yumm! yumm! Feast after the Fest??
Bottom Right : A friendly monk. They almost get as much attention as a celebrity.

When I later left the monastery with Pru, she seemed very happy and kept thanking me for getting her with me to Hemis Festival. May be it was a new experience for her, but I was still amazed by her enthusiasm as she was shunted around all the time along with me, in spite of her being a westerner. 

Then again, it was still an experience - the colors, the bizarre masks and all the more bizarre costumes. One should never repent experiences. As far as I am concerned, I did not even repent leaving my friends back at the hotel. Because someone has got to tell the real scoop!

I managed to click around 200 colorful photos and if I have not turned you off enough, you can still consider Hemis Festival as a good photography expedition, provided you can grab a good vantage point like I did and brave the reservation scouts and the media. If not, there are other less commercialized monastic festivals in India where you can head to. Here is a list.

I did wonder why I didn't see a single snow lion though! 

Here is the reason - The dance of snow lions and yaks are typical to Sikkim monasteries. Singhi Chham, as the lion costumed dance is known as, has religious association with Mount Kanchenjunga. Whereas the Yak dance depicts the movements of the yak, the Sikkimese herdman’s best friend and the simple lifestyle of the herdsmen of the mountains. 
This is the 5th in a series of 7 posts documenting 14 days of our travel to Ladakh. You can also read:

Day 1 to Day 3: NH 1D - From Srinagar to Leh

Day 4: How I Got Leh'd
Day 5 & 6: On the Silk Route to Heaven - To Nubra Valley, via Khardung La - a part of the ancient Silk Route.
Day 7 & 8: Speechless at Pangong - A love story...
Day 10: 
'Dolce Far Niente'... A Buffer day spent in Leh.
Day 11: Tso Moriri - The Road Less Traveled

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