Yesterday, I went to Hemis for their big festival. Took the bus, as I couldn’t find anyone to share a taxi with. Hemis is about an hour and a half from Leh. By the time we reached Hemis, there were not only people on the roof of the bus and hanging off the ladder at the back, but there were also a few daredevils dangling from the outside of the windows with their feet seeking any tiny toehold they could find. The inside was, as you might expect, like being in a sardine can.

Coming back was not so crowded and I was fortunate to get the single front seat, so that was a big improvement. I’m not a fan of Indian buses, as there is no sensible limit (by Western thinking) to the number of people that they will cram in.

Hemis Tse-Chu is the biggest and most famous festival of Ladakh. It centers around the extraordinary Chams dance performed by the monks. The Chams dancers wear masks and elaborate costumes, representing various deities. Each monk assumes the personage and personality of the deity. The dancers are not regarded as dancers in the usual sense. The dancer, during the ritual of masking, takes on the qualities and power of the deity or entity he represents. (From the Buddhist point of view, the deities could be said to be personifications of the forces of Nature.) The whole ritual is formal and complex. Chams performance is a part of Tantric tradition, performed only in those gompas which follow the Tantric vajrayana teachings.

The Chams dance takes place in the open courtyard of the Hemis gompa (a gompa is a Buddhist monastery). Most of the people sit around the roped off area in the middle, but others (especially the foreigners) find places on the balconies and rooftops.

The festival is dedicated to Padmasambhava, represented in this thanka. At the beginning of the first day, the thanka is unfurled, and there is a grand ceremony with a dancer dressed as Padmasambhava in the form of Guru Rimpoche, surrounded by many attendants.
Monks on the roof of the gompa with drums, cymbals, horns and gongs, signaling that the festivities are about to begin.

Then two monks herald the entrance of the first dancers with huge alpine horns reminiscent of those found in Switzerland. Their deep, resonant sound can be heard for a great distance.

The dancers, whose masks and elaborate costumes are rich with significance, make a dramatic entrance  down the steps of the gompa. In this photo are two of the Four Protectors of Dharma. Their purpose is to uphold righteousness and drive out the evil spirits.

Yama, the god of death, makes his entrance.

A skeleton, one of the guardians of the cremation grounds.

This was the first group to come out. Not sure who they are.

The monks are serving tea to the black hat sorcerers as part of the performance.


Yama and one of the guardians.

Music is regarded a sacred offering to the deities. For most of the chams dance, the rhythm is mostly slow and ponderous, with a beautiful, but otherworldly sound to it.

The yellow-robed dancers are monks with their begging bowls. I’m not exactly sure about the others.

After Yama loses his power, the four skeletons kick the linga to dust, celebrating the destruction of the ego and of evil.

Some of these young monks were evidently shaved by a very inexperienced barber.

If you found this post interesting, you may want to check out this blog with great photos from the Hemis festival in 1986: http://rolfgross.dreamhosters.com/Kashmir-Ladakh1986/Hemis/Hemis.htm. Although it was similar in many respects, I noticed quite a few differences between Rolf’s account and what I saw at Hemis. The thanka of Padmasambhava was different. The sequence also seemed to be different, as the black hat sorcerers were not the first group to come out. And some of the groups seemed to involve a smaller number of dancers. Although the Chams ritual is performed according to ancient texts, it may be that some aspects of the performance continue to evolve  according to the need of the time. I’m not sure about that. Some costumes were also different, but after nearly a quarter of a century, probably some of the old costumes were no longer usable. I should mention that I only attended the second day.

There is also a much more detailed article at http://ignca.nic.in/nl_01104.htm, which will be of interest to some of you. At the end of that article is a quote by Tashi Rabgyas, a Ladakhi scholar, on the meaning of the gruesome appearance of the masks and costumes: “At death they will reappear again. The person will not be afraid of them. Having seen these dances year after year, one understands the nature of life and the meaning of death.”


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