Delhi, India

Festivals of Ladakh

By Parveen Paul, independent tour guide in India

Hemis gompa holds its festival on the 10th and 11th day of the fifth month of the Tibetan calendar, corresponding to late June or early July. The festival opens with the unfurling and display of a large thanka, reputedly one of the largest in the world, that is only displayed once every 11 years (its last appearance was in July 1992). It takes about 50 monks to carry and unfold the thanka. The hands of the artist who painted it are preserved as holy relics, although they are not displayed to the public.
The Rimpoche (head lama) of Hemis leaves his private apartments to pray in the Dukhang. Then, accompanied by musician monks, he walks to the central courtyard and takes his place on his throne in the gallery. The masked dances begin shortly thereafter, before the huge thanka on display, with the courtyard’s prayer flags forming the dances’ central point. These dances represent the forces of good, symbolized by legendary heroes and saints, overcoming the forces of evil, represented by demons. The violence of the demons is conquered by the superiority of virtue based on wisdom and the demons are driven away. The dances continue throughout the two-day festival.

Matho gompa has two significant festivals during the winter months: the two-day Nagrang festival (usually in February at the Tibetan New Year) and the one-day Nispetsergyat (usually in March).
During the Nagrang festival, two lamas, called Rongzam, who are chosen every three years by Matho’s lamas, go into a trance in the Gonkhang room of the gompa. Adorned with old weapons, they run over the mountain ridges and also over the gompa’s roofs. They are evil-minded on the first day, vividly demonstrated by the hitting spectators, and peaceful on the second day.
At the Nispetsergyat festival, the Rongzam ride on horseback over the same route they previously took on foot. Both festivals are accompanied by masked dances. The Rongzam have the additional responsibility of demonstrating their divine powers and hence the powers of Buddhism, whenever someone in the village loses faith. They do this by battering themselves with old weapons on their arms, feet and tongue. The wounds do not bleed and heal so quickly that the Luyar are able to dance a short time later, thus proving the power of Buddhist belief. This ritual takes place on the 14th and 15th days of the first month of the Tibetan calendar.
Matho is also famous for its oracle, the Rhabo of Matho, who, in contrast to the lay oracles of Thiksey and Shey, is a lama living in the gompa. On special occasions he runs over the mountains near Matho gompa blindfolded, only “seeing” with the help of a painting placed on his front and back. He then answers villagers’ questions at the base of Matho peak.

Held in the summer for the first time in 1983. Thiksey’s two-day festival follows the same format as that of Hemis. What makes the Thiksey festival especially notable is the trade fair held at the same time at the gompa’s base. Villagers from all over Ladakh gather to eat, drink, play cards, barter, trade items and generally socialize in a sprawling area below the gompa. In addition, tea-stalls, sweet sellers and refreshment stands are located in this area and on the footpath leading up to the gompa.

Shey gompa has two festivals during the summer months. In July, the Metukba festival lasts for one day and consists of prayers for the well being of all life in the world. During the Metukba, the Shey oracle, a layman from the Shey area, stays at the Tuba gompa (a short distance from Shey gompa) where he engages in a two to three day prayer in order to be possessed and become an oracle. He then leaves the Tuba gompa on horseback and leads a long procession to Shey gompa, all the while accepting offerings of chang, the local beer, prophesying the future and answering petitioners’ questions.
Although other gompas also have oracles, the Shey oracle is considered the most powerful and is viewed as a god who has achieved the highest level of existence. It is said that if one does not believe the Shey oracle’s answer and consults another oracle, the second oracle will not answer.
During the August harvest festival, called Shey Shublas, the Shey oracle begins by engaging in a two-to three-day prayer at Tuba gompa, a short distance from Shey. This oracle, a layman from the Shey area, leaves the Tuba gompa in a trance and on horseback, leads a long procession to Shey gompa. After his emergence from Tuba, while possessed and during the procession to Shey and his appearance there, he accepts numerous offerings of chang, the local beer, answers petitioners’ questions and prophesies the future.

This festival was first held in 1987. Lasting for one week with different events scheduled for each day, the festival begins with a colourful procession down the main street of Leh. The procession includes musicians, archers and masked figures walking on stilts over five feet high. The procession reaches a dirt arena near the bus stop, where an archery contest is held.
While the archers practice, musicians play drums and horns and groups of women, dressed in the traditional costumes of Ladakh and Baltistan, sit on the sidelines to observe the contest.
The Dard women of Baltistan wear distinctive head-dresses of orange ribbons curled to look like flowers, while Ladakhi women wear peroks – eleborate head-dresses with fur side flaps and a large band decorated with turquoise and coral reaching from their forehead to part way down their back.
The festival also includes several afternoons of polo matches at the Leh polo grounds, which were deliberately built within sight of Leh palace, so that women in the royal family could watch the matches without being observed by the general public.
The polo ponies, small and sturdy, make quick charges against the backdrop of snow-covered peaks. There are virtually no rules to this game and at times the whole affair resembles nothing more than a general free-for-all.
The program for this festival will vary from year to year but it will always include the main ingredients of archery, musicians, polo and plenty of chang, being consumed by the participants.



About Parveen Paul, independent tour guide in IN.

Let me welcome you to Incredible India. India has transformed in the last few decades from a struggling young country to a vibrant democracy. Modernity and tradition thrives side by side in a stunning array of diversity. Bounded by the majestic Himalayan ranges in the north and a 6000 kilometre long coastline in the south with many stretches of golden beaches, India is a vivid kaleidoscope of landscapes, magnificent historical sites and royal citadels, misty mountain retreats, verdant forests, i

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