Hemis Festival: the Masked Dance of Ladakh

Editor’s note: Stella Peters is a writer/photographer from Amsterdam who focuses on inequality and human interest stories. She is currently studying anthropology in an Advanced master’s programme at KU Leuven, Belgium.

The dance performance at the Hemis Gompa, the largest Monastery in Ladakh is one of the most impressive festivals that India has to offer. Every year the Buddha Padmasambhava is honored for his endeavor to improve the spirituality of all living creatures and for being the founding father of organised (tantric) Buddhism. The Hemis festival is celebrated on the 10th lunar day of the Tibetan (Ladakh) calendar, this year that date fell on the 18th to the 19th of June.Witnessing the Hemis festival is thought to bring spiritual fortitude and good health.  

On the courtyard in front of the Hemis monastery dancers with colorful masks perform the mystic mask dances (Chams) and sacred plays around the central flagpole. Chams are essentially a part of Tantric tradition, performed only in the gompas that follow the Tantric Vajrayana teachings and where the monks perform tantric worship. At the section reserved for Lamas, the head lama presides over the function. The ceremonial items – cups full of holy water, uncooked rice, tormas made of dough and butter and incense sticks – are placed on a ornately painted table on a raised dais. Dressed in colourful bright brocades with vibrantly decorated and richly adorned paper mache or copper-gilded masks (some extending over 1 metre in height) the masked dancers simulate combat between good spirits and evil demons. The dance movements are slow and measured a stark contrast to the grotesque masks the dancers wear.The Drukpa Buddhists follow the Mahayana Buddhist tradition in philosophy of getting enlightened for the benefit of others and it is apparent in the show. In addition to the festival’s aesthetic appeal, the performance conveys a message to the general public about the trustworthiness of divine creatures in the afterlife. In the period between death and reincarnation the deceased experiences hallucinations born from the karma of former life and he meets peaceful and vengeful deities. In order to reach nirvana the soul must endure these personifications of human emotions.

The performance of the religious rituals is guided by the traditional Tibetan music of cymbals, drums, trompets and other wind instruments, whilst the crowd is enveloped by the intoxicating scent of incense. The dance ends once the dough idol of evil is destroyed by the leader of black hat dancers signifying the triumph of good over evil. This year even the weather seemed dedicated to spreading the word. The day started out cold and rainy but as good prevailed so did the sun, bathing the courtyard with light and warmth.  

Click here for the full photo album.

These otherworldly, haunting, often eerie mask dances are called chams. Copyright Stella Peters.
The festival’s dance is slow and spiritual, juxtaposed with the visual drama of the chams, costumes, and distinctive music. Copyright Stella Peters.
The performance of the religious rituals is guided by the traditional Tibetan music Copyright Stella Peters.
Lamas observe the ceremony. Copyright Stella Peters.

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