Ladakh often felicities the praises of people across the world for its rugged mountains, barren landscape, otherworldly beauty and amicable locals that stand distinct from the rest of the world. A shrine of solitary aptitude, people are drawn to its magnificent abode to experience the humbleness of humanity in front of nature’s fierce beauty. However, there is a time when the tranquillity of Ladakh is interrupted to envelop the valley in a spirit of vivacity. And this is during the annual Hemis festival that takes place in Hemis Monastery.
The jubilant celebrations of the Hemis Festival beckon locals and tourists alike to witness the grand display of Tibetan Buddhism in India. As a festival that encourages fraternity, the festival mingles with entertainment, history, culture, and spirituality to offer a divine experience. When the seemingly impregnable winter fortress begins to thaw, Ladakh hears the calling of this festivity. Furthermore, adorning itself with colours and the symphony of music – the land comes alive to celebrate an age-old history that marks their identity.
This is a festival that you must witness once in your life. Swayed by the gaiety of people in the spirit of the culture, you can’t help but appreciate the beauty of humanity. You certainly cannot travel your fill to enjoy the festival this year and we are in doubt as to the extent of this year’s celebrations. Nevertheless, a virtual tour and the knowledge of this monsoon fest is certainly a bucket list for perhaps the years to come!
What is the Hemis Festival?
The Hemis Festival is one of the biggest and most important festivals organized in Ladakh annually. The festival provides the locals with a break from the biting cold winters and signifies the oncoming summer season. The Hemis Festival is rooted in the history and culture of Ladakh, dubbed as “Mini Tibet”. Moreover, it carries forth the legacy of its culture and serves as a celebration of the win of good versus evil.
The festival is a grand fiesta of the Buddhist culture in India – to be specific, Tibetan Buddhism. It is conducted in the spacious courtyard of the 400-year-old Hemis Monastery, one of the largest and oldest monasteries located in Ladakh. Furthermore, Tibetans gather in the Hemis Monastery to celebrate their culture through enchanting dance performances, captivating rituals, other cultural activities accompanied by a spread of delicious food and local drinks.
You will witness scores of onlookers immersed in the fun that Hemis Festival has to offer. It is almost like a piñata filled with cultural, historical, spiritual entertainment and zeal.
Why is the Hemis Festival celebrated?
Hemis Festival of Ladakh commemorates the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava every year. It is a two-day celebration which marks the victory of good versus evil. The festival traces its origins back to the 8th century and celebrates the existence of the significant spiritual figure in Tibetan history – Guru Padmasambhava. Further on, the legend associated with the Hemis Festival is that the spiritual leader Guru Padmasambhava drove out the demons and evil spirits from Ladakh during the 8th century with Buddhism.
Guru Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, was the man who introduced the Himalayan Kingdom to Buddhism and is revered to be the incarnation of Lord Buddha. Thus, the Hemis Festival isn’t just a representation of their culture but a celebration of who they are.
The significance of the Hemis Festival
The frenzy of Hemis Festival is enhanced by the beating of trumpets, cymbals, drums and blaring horns that serenade the valley of Hemis in Ladakh. Once the first rays of the sun hit the valley, the festival begins with the followers seeking blessings from Guru Padmasambhava’s portrait. Soon, the highlight of the festival, the Cham Dance, which is a masked dance performance brings life to the festival. This slow dance is a narration of the war between good and evil wherein good gets the upper hand.
Furthermore, the vibrant buzz of the environment fills up with people displaying their colourful traditional dresses. You’ll even come across the marvellous sight of the Lamas decked with traditional dresses for the occasion. The stalls lining the festival present beautiful Tibetan souvenirs and handicrafts for sale here. A site of thriving culture and prosperity – a sight to behold, indeed.
Highlights of the festival
The holistic experience of the festival is an embodiment of buoyancy and is quite wonderful to witness. But there are several highlights of the festival that you must stick around for and make sure to witness.
The Cham Dance is the main attraction of the festival. Also referred to as the ‘masked dance’, the performance is a testimony to the successive legacy of Tibetan culture and history. The main purpose of the Cham Dance is to destroy all evil and obstacles. The performers adorn themselves with long gowns, elaborate masks that signify the good and evil characters associated with the legend. Interestingly, each mask holds a unique signature which is relevant to the story.
The main dancers of the performance are dressed in black hats and occupy the centre stage with people performing around them. Moreover, a few of them even hold weapons in their hands. The victory of good versus evil is signified through the act of the main dancers striking down the devil idols made of dough. This implies the warding off of evil spirits. Further on, the idols are smashed and scattered into four corners of the courtyard which symbolises the purification of the soul after death. The musical instruments that accompany the dance create a rapturous environment keeping everybody on their toes.
Another great highlight of the Hemis Festival is an incredible display of Tibetan Handicrafts. This draws out the shopaholic tendencies within the tourists. These handicrafts represent the livelihoods of a section of the Tibetan community. Browsing through the Tibetan touch of hand on art is an enriching experience. The head Lama or ‘Rinpoche’ presides over this event.
You’ll witness beautiful jewelleries and eye-catching gemstones spread over stalls. The lovely handicraft works of wicker baskets and carpets add to the glory of this gala. Most importantly, the stalls even sell intricate and awe-inspiring paintings and ingenious goods from the land.
The Local Drink
Now, it might seem odd to suggest a local drink as a highlight of a festival. But to know the culture of Tibetans is to know their local drink. You cannot separate the Hemis Festival cannot from it. It holds the kind of significance Bhang does with Holi or a Seviyan dish during Eid.
Chang is a traditional Tibetan drink made from rice water infused with other ingredients that give it an exquisite taste. It is a drink served to everyone during the festival. However, the drink has very little alcohol and does not pose any danger of making a person inebriated. A taste of this drink helps enhance the jubilance of the occasion and allows people to relax with the locals.
The dates of Hemis Festival 2020
The Hemis Festival starts from 30th June 2020 and ends on July 1st, 2020. The festival takes place annually on the 10th day of Tse-Chu, the lunar month of the Tibetan calendar. One of the significant time periods you can attend this festival is during the Tibetan Year of the Monkey. This occurs every 12 years.
Moreover, the Tibetan Year of the Monkey is considered very auspicious in their culture and therefore, the festival is celebrated in an even grander fashion by unfurling a thangka of Guru Padmasambhava. Thangka is a Tibetan silk painting which is, in the case of the Hemis Festival, embellished with semi-precious gems, stones, pearls and stands 12 meters long. It is a mesmerizing sight! The thangka was last brought out in 2016, therefore, the next Year of the Monkey is 2028. Although, this shouldn’t stop you from visiting the Hemis Festival before that.
Things to remember beforehand
Here are some of the pointers that you should keep in mind to prevent ruining the experience.
- The Hemis Festival witnesses a large crowd every year. We suggest that you be punctual and arrive early to the festival to experience the most of it. Hemis is around 45 km from Leh, so we suggest you keep the travelling time in mind and create a schedule accordingly.
- The Hemis Festival begins early in the morning and it follows a ‘first come, first serve’ rule. Therefore, there are high chances of missing out on good seats or even normal seats if you are late. Arrive as early as possible.
- Moreover, some of the seats are reserved for monks. Do be mindful of that before sitting.
- If you wish to capture the dance performances in your camera, then the best angle is available on the front seats. You’ll have to hurry up and grab those seats before others.
- The two-day festival takes place day-long and therefore, it is best to keep water bottles and snacks with you. There are Tibetan stalls selling food but they might come at the cost of your seat.
- Make sure the respect the rituals and traditions of the place while exploring it. Furthermore, respect nature and the environment while you are travelling!
How to Reach Hemis Monastery
There are several ways to reach Hemis Monastery. By air, you can land at Leh airport and hail a cab, a private jeep or travel in a bus to Hemis Monastery. You can even opt to motorcycle your way to Hemis Monastery for a thrilling effect. But the best and most affordable option is to travel in a bus. In case, you are coming by train, the nearest railway station to Hemis is the Jammu Tawi station. You can hail a cab to Hemis from there. Whereas, via road, you can take a bus or a private car that goes along the Srinagar-Leh Highway or the Manali-Leh Highway depending on your location.
On another note, Woovly requests the countrymen to stay inside their houses and follow the guidelines issued by the government. In these times of need, please help the needy and do whatever is under your capabilities to help the country.
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