Dance of the Lamas

“I sometimes seem to myself to wander around the world merely accumulating material for future nostalgia.” – Vikram Seth.

It’s the end of June’17. I had just reached Karu,40 km away from Leh (Ladakh), after mountain biking 550 km from Manali to Leh. The journey was arduous. It was yet to sink in and I was still comprehending the emotional and spiritual effects of this expedition on me. I was cycling 1500 km from Leh to Jammu to raise funds for a Delhi based NGO to build a school for kids.

My camping site near the river Indus on the other side of the Hemis monastery.

I pitched my tent in Karu, near the Indus and decided to cycle to leh next day. Since this was my first time in Leh, I was mesmerized by its beauty and distinct unique culture. Everything from the topography to food felt like I am in a different land (a fresh breeze of air). I met Mr. Stanzin near my campsite. While he was intrigued by my cycling journey, he asked to stay for one more day in Karu and attend the Famous Hamis festival. Moreover, he also told me that this year (2016) was the monkey year. This means every twelve years (the money year, next to being 2028), is very special. An ancient silk embroidery – Thangka or sporting is displayed. To my surprise, i felt very lucky to have arrived in leh on such an auspicious occasion. I decided to stay the next day and attend the Hemis festival. 

A view of river Indus from our campsite at Karu, near Leh

I spent the evening outside my camp trying my hands on astrophotography and looking at the sky full of stars. I had never seen so many stars in the sky. I kept looking at the Hemis monastery lights on the other side of the Indus and waiting for the next day.

A sky full of stars on the bank of river Indus

The next day, I woke up to the sound of flowing Indus. I could see the festivities and colorful decorations near the Hemis monastery on the other side. 

It’s a long uphill walk to the monastery from the main road. I was lucky enough to get a lift from a local. People in the mountain are generous to offer help to people in need.

Lamas, travelers, and photographers from around the world ready to witness the performance

A few km of uphill drive and you reach the entrance of Hemis monastery. Nestled in between the huge rock baron mountains the monastery expands its spectacular grandeur. The festive environment adds color to the mood. Hundreds of locals have traveled to witness this two days extravaganza. The festival marks the birthday of Lord Padmasambhava who propagated Buddhism in the Himalayan region. 

Dancers performing in the Rectangular courtyard

The entrance of the monastery opens to a huge rectangular courtyard surrounded by the main building. The open area housed hundreds of travelers, photographers, and locals ready to witness the performance. 

Masks are not seen as an inanimate object but to embody the deity (Yidam) they represent

The festivities are conducted in the rectangular courtyard with the drum beats, sound of the wail of pipes and cymbals almost six ft long. The lively masked dancers referred to as Chams, begin to arrive. The dancers are dressed in bright vibrant colors. Apparently, each color has its own significance. 

Cham dancers arriving for their performance.

The cham dance is based on the traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism and tantric practices for spiritual purposes. The dancers performed different forms of dance wearing different kinds of costumes and masks. It is monastic and sacred in nature. It is a form of meditation and offering to god.

Damaru (A small two-headed drum) is used in the dance as an instrument of tantric practices

The extravaganza went on for the next three hours. There were seven different forms of dance. These dances depicted incidents from the life of lord Padmasambhava and other saints.   (as mentioned in Bardo thodol). The dance also symbolizes the victory of good over evil. 

Skeleton dance represents the impermanent nature of our life.

A young monk beating the drum

Locals travel from far off villages to attend the Hemis festival

The performance was a great learning experience. I learned about Tibetan culture and the impact of Buddhism in the higher Himalayan region. I felt energized about my bikepacking ahead of me.

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