When it’s time (3-4th July 2017) for the Hemis Festival, the barren landscape of Ladakh gets suffused with renewed energy and vigour. The Hemis monastery – believed to be the oldest in the region – is easily accessible by road though the short climb up might be a better idea – after all, there is no better way to meet the locals than when they greet you with “julley” and welcome you to their land.
The festival, celebrated on the 10th day of the Tibetan lunar month, is about the victory of good over evil and is dedicated to the birth of the Buddhist Lord Padmasambhava – founder of the Vajrayana Buddhism in Ladakh. It’s delightful to see the quiet and stately environs of the monastery suddenly spring to life with the sounds of music and laughter as visitors from across the world stream in to be part of the sacred ceremonies.
Dancers take centre stage
Seated all around the large courtyard, cameras in hand, visitors wait for the tales of war between the forces of good and evil to commence. Dressed in traditional multi-hued, brocade outfits with their faces behind huge, centuries-old colourful masks, the chams (performers) take centre stage with synchronised dance movements to the rhythmic beats of trumpets, cymbals and drums. They dance in prayer invoking the blessings of Lord Padmasambhava. The music starts on a slow note transporting you into another world and then it is time for the battle dance, and when the leader of the Black Hat dance strikes down the devil’s idols, it is time to rejoice. After all, evil has been vanquished and goodness prevails.
Although the Hemis festivities spread out over two days, it’s a good idea to steal a couple of hours to have a dekko at the quaint interiors of the monastery and the museum which will give you an understanding of the Buddhist culture of the region. The colorful paintings and murals, the prayer flags and wheels and, of course, the women with their gorgeous headgear decorated with thick beads will not give your camera a moment’s respite. The variety of objet d’art – be it handicrafts, statues of Buddhist idols, Tibetan gems and jewellery and handwoven dresses are delightful not just to watch and photograph but also to take back home as perfect mementos of the Hemis festival.