In the tenth day of the sixth month of the Ladakhi calendar, the Hemis monastry turns into a very large stage where monks, tourists and people from all over the world congregate for r the famous masked dances. The performers wear elaborate and bizarre costumes and masks and thorough typically slow dance movements, unfurl a story of the age-old fight between good and evil, ending with the eventual victory of the former. Gonchas of velvet, elaborately embroidered waistcoats and boots, and gonads or hats are worn by the dancers.
Hemis is one of the largest monasteries of Ladakh and probably the richest. Situated on the left bank of the river Indus in a lateral valley about 40 kms. From Leh, it is connected by a road, which leads right up to the monastry. It is believed that Hemis was built in the 17th century by Stagtshang Raspa under the patronage of Kind Sengge Namgyal and since then it has become established as a leading centre of Drugpa Buddhism.
Unlike other monasteries, Hemis is not visible from far, as it is hidden in a recess formed by a large and rugged rock face. It is a large monastry and houses a maximum of 150 lamas at one time. The lamas at the monastry are of the Drugpa sect and it is the seat of the Drugpa Rimpoche or the head lama reincarnate of the Drugpa sect.
After crossing the bridge on the Indus near Karu one goes up a long winding road to the monastry. The long Mani walls and the large white stupa are the first structures to meet the eye as one nears the monastry. Large poplar trees which have, over the years, been individually hand tended and nurtured by the lamas, are the next to come in focus. These large trees create a green oasis in the middle of the cold and stony desert of Ladakh.
A sharp turning the road brings the monastry into view all of a sudden, leaving the observer spellbound as it seems so precariously perched on the rugged and imposing hillside. The main monastry is flanked on either side by small, flat-topped white house which are the living quarters of the monks.
High above the monastry at an altitude of 3900-4000 metres is a cave which is supposed to have housed a hermit when the monastry was being built and still forms a place and for those wanting to perform long, arduous penances.
The main entrance to the large courtyard is from the north east by a small gate. In the courtyard are two large prayer flag posts on which are strung prayer flags and yak tails. This courtyard is the main ground where the masked dances re performed on the tenth day of the sixth month of the Ladakhi calendar, which falls in June-July depending on the lunar calendar. The courtyard is lined on three sides by a covered balcony the walls of which are decorated with frescoes. On the fourth side of the rock face is the main monastry which is four storeys high.
The Hemis festival lasts for two days and is the largest monastry festival in all of Ladakh and Spiti. The festival is not only a religious function, but also an annual fair fro the entire region. Men, women and children trek long distances to partake in the jubilation and to replenish their supplies for the next year. There are shops selling jewellery, trinkets and food items.
The festival commences with sound of trumpets which are several metres long. They are made of copper and silver; the other instruments used are cymbals, drums and small bells. The combined effect of these antique musical instruments adds to the mystique and aura which is so much a part of this valley.
The performers are elaborately dressed and wear colourful and interesting masks, each with its own significance. The Padmasambhava dance, which shows the conquest of the ruta demons, has among other figures represented in the dance, Yama – the God of death, and the black-hatted sorcerer, Guru Trakpo – the vanquisher of all demons. The brightly coloured and beautifully costumed performers dance and leap in a dramatic depiction of the conflict between the evil spirit and the good, religious one. The good spirits bear triangular flags and have bells on their feet. In the course of the long performance, the latter slowly vanquishes the non-believer, converting him to the Tibetan form of Buddhism, thus representing victory. One of the dancers carries pair of mummified hands which are supposed to have belonged to a painter who painted the giant tankha (Tibetan painting), which is displayed once every 12 years, at the Hemis festival.
The performers often mix with the crowd and bless the onlookers. Visitors from all over the world throng the balconies flanking the courtyard.
The masks worn by the performers often bear resemblance to certain legendary animals or illustrate the various moods of the gods. There are at times as many 15-20 performers on the open-air stage with the audience sitting as close as possible to the performers. The festival ends with a long prayer meeting held by the rimpoche of the monastry.
Tourists visiting the monastry swell to such large numbers that at times it seems the ancient balconies would collapse due to sheer overload.
Some sort of reinforcement of the balconies is necessary, otherwise so many visitors should not be allowed on these delicate and beautiful balconies.
As part of the ceremonies, the monks also use beautiful coloured and variously shaped butter and barley-dough figures. The local brew, chang, is sprinkled all over to purify the environs of the ceremonies.
The monastry is an architectural delight. There are a large number of small balconies overlooking the courtyard depicting a beautiful form of architecture typical of Ladakh.
The main monastry also has some of the finest paintings on its walls. The main hall or the sanctum has a high roof supported by four large pillars of wood. There are some beautiful statues and tankhas of Buddha, Padmasambhava and other Buddhist monks. Padmasambhava was an Indian monk who, in the 8th century A.D., influenced Buddhism a great deal.
On the four walls of the monastry are small prayer wheels, which are meant to be rotated by each believer. The monastry also has a single, huge prayer wheel which requires at least two people just to move it. The prayer flags and wheels are symbolic in that they are supposed to send up prayers for the one who prays.
Every year the revelry is held for two days and then the drums quieter. Yet, the magic remains – of Ladakh, of Padmasambhava and of history pulsating again.