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Ladakh Festival

Ladakh lies against a geographical background that is stark and barren but there is so much cheer and so much of active involvement of the native Ladakhi folk in their celebrations that visitors come away rejuvenated. Here is a first hand account.

I liked that music. Not many did though. And understandably so, because it was slow, haunting, perhaps a little too haunting and somewhat plaintive. But I still liked it. I think this had something to do with the overall ambience of the place. The barrenness of my surroundings, the desolate silence that seemed to get into one’s bones and the highly rarefied atmosphere – I think all this contributed to the impact of the orchestra. Not to mention a slight light-headed, fuzzy feeling which everybody attributes to the rarefied air. Anyway, whatever the reasons, I was enjoying myself.

So were the monks I think. We were inside Hemis, one of Ladakh’s largest and richest Buddhist viharas or monasteries, where the lamas were celebrating a two-day festival held in honor of their guru Padmasambhava. This is the man who was responsible for introducing Tantric Buddhism into Tibet, being a famous Tantric who was invited to Tibet to do so. The Hemis Festival is held in the month of July and there are a lot of interested tourists who coverage here from all over the world to watch the famous masked dances where good is seen conquering evil. The music is characteristically punctuated with sounds of cymbals, drums and long, unwieldy trumpets. The masked dancers move around slowly, very slowly, and the most vital part of the dance is the masks and not so much the actual movements of the dance. The dances end with good vanquishing evil and the evil one is brought into the protective fold of Buddhism.

At Hemis, this two-day dance festival turns more into a kind of mela or fair, because in these back – of – beyond places where months are spent battling a fierce winter, any such event is cause for much celebration. Villagers buy and sell miscellaneous wares outside the monastery, and this is a great time for socializing for the local Ladakhi. As part of the dances at Hemis, a huge thanka is displayed on special occasions. Another dancer carries around a pair of mummified hands, and the devout believe that these are the hands of the man who painted the thanka that is on display. All dances being with chang a local brew, being sprinkled on the ground in the central courtyard which is where all the festivities take place. The belief is that chang purifies the surroundings.

Like the Hemis festival, monasteries like Lamayuru, Thiksey, Spitook, Likir and many others also have their individual festivals that celebrate Buddhism. Since they follow the lunar calendar, the actual dates of the festivals vary from one year to another. Other than these religious celebrations, Ladakh has also been host to a 15-day festival each year to bring forward the many nuances of this rich and exotic culture that is peculiar to this high part of the world. For the third year running, the Jammu and Kashmir tourism people have been organizing the Ladakh Festival in the month of September bringing forward the region’s folk dances, art and craft, sporting events and rituals.

The Ladakh Festival, I found, was one long medley of dances, polo matches, traditional archery matches and cultural competitions. Different activities that are part of the festival are held in different parts of Ladakh, and I think that was a good idea because one got to see more of this beautiful moonscape highland. The inaugural ceremony of the festival was a very colorful affair, distinctive because it was being held in the world’s highest polo ground in Leh. Troupes from all parts of Ladakh were performing there and to be able to see so many different performers at one place was something of a feast. Held against a backdrop of lofty mountains, the Leh palace and gompa, under an azure blue sky, the whole ceremony had an ethereal, mystical beauty about it.

Polo is still played as a traditional game in Ladakh and the native spectators go hysterical, supporting the local heroes. Something like football in West Bengal, I guess. I was distracted by the fact that playing in this rare field atmosphere might be very taxing not only for the men but for the horses too. The polo players and horses seemed to have a mind of their own, carried away by the excitement of the game. So take care, else you might find yourself surrounded by energetic, excited equestrians and horses to boot!

Archery is another favourite of these happy-go-lucky Ladakhis and each man enjoys participating in the competitions held as a part of the festival. The target is a special oval tennis racket-like leather object with a circular, tiny bull’s eye. More often than not, most people miss the target itself! But the fun involved more than made up for such losses.

In the villages of Da and Hanu, two Drokpa villages – Drokpas are of Aryan descent – roughly a hundred kilometers from Leh, the Ladakh festival is celebrated. Drokpas are considered to be the ‘last remaining stock of pure Aryans’ in Ladakh. The men and women wear beautiful flowers on their headgear and have peculiar rituals. Their dances and songs seemed different from the ones I saw in Leh, though the pace of the dances was again as slow.

If you happen to drop by a Kargil as a part of the festival – incidentally Kargil has a new airport with commercial flights – do visit Suru Valley. It is a unique place where the dominant population is Muslim, owing allegiance to the Shia sect. It is a picturesque place with its own peculiar customs, which are closely linked to the practices of Islam as in Iran.

The evenings during the festival can be spent in a leisurely fashion in the bazaars of Leh or one can go witness the song and dance performances held in the courtyard of Leh palace. The beautiful, smiling faces of the Ladakhis always welcome everyone and the resonant Juley or the local greeting echoes in my mind long after I have come away from that gorgeous, desolate land. Caution: If you go by air to Ladakh, be sure to take it easy for the first two days, high altitude sickness can affect the fittest of the fit, and it is most discomfiting. Be sure to have confirmed air tickets before you leave for Leh; it is not easy to get a seat on the plane at the last minute. If you are traveling by road, carry enough food and water, landslides are common and can get you held up for long periods of time.

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