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Festival Travel

Buddhist Festivals in "Little Tibet" — Ladakh, India

The Buddhist festivals in Ladakh are attended by droves of worshippers. They come from all over the mountainous area in India’s north-west which forms the western fringe of the Tibetan plateau. This isolated region — the treacherous mountain roads are cut off nine months a year by snow and the only way in is to fly — preserves the old traditions of Tibetan culture and the region is dubbed "Little Tibet." Much of the population live in isolated villages and typically walk for two days or more to attend the closest festival. They groom themselves for the occasion — the men roll their goatee and moustache to tapering pencil-point ends, the women weave woolen strings into their hair and don their best jewelry, an array of necklaces, bracelets, earrings and bangles. And they dress their best: many cover their purple robes with colorful vests, elaborate fringes-upturned brocade hats, shoes with front upturned, and some women flaunt their special attire, a rough-cut shawl of sheep’s skin draped over their shoulders.

The colorful crowd is itself part of the attraction, and their raucous merriment is infectious, but it’s the performances and the music of the festivals that is riveting. The largest and best known festival is the Hemis Festival, held in the large gompa in the village of Hemis, two hours bus journey from Leh, the regional capital of Ladakh. The dense press of spectators includes dozens of camera-wielding Indian and Western tourists, all attracted by two days of performances in which Buddhist philosophy is dramatized.  

At the start of the festival, a statue of the Buddha is led by lamas (monks) dressed in ceremonial hats and frocks, playing the windpipes, cymbals, gongs, and windpipes. Then the lama orchestra takes over, leading the performances by the dramatic tunes of cymbals, gongs, and windpipes.  

Most performances in the courtyard invoke the deities that accompany a person during the forty-nine days it takes from death to reincarnation. These deities are represented by costumed dancers wearing oversize wooden, brightly colored masks – the face wide, the eyes goggled, the nose upturned, the teeth bared in mocking snarl, and the mask studded with small protruding skulls (symbolizing death) – and a body costume that is equally colorful and layered, with upturned shoes, long skirt, and wide-armed frocks. Dancing to the rhythm the orchestra, the deities menacingly slice the air with wooden sickles, swords, daggers, or axes, to symbolize the deities taunting and tormenting the dead souls.

Yet these deities may only be as sinister as is warranted by the deceased's lifelong deeds. Really rotten souls expect something terrifying – hurtling through the process of rebirth alone, forty-nine days lost in the dark abyss of death. So, on the second day, the festivals’ denouement is dedicated to the attainment of virtue by the symbolic destruction of the causes of evil. These are represented by Mara, the embodiment of one’s mental obstacles to enlightenment (Mara consists of ten mental impurities, such as the reliance on sensual pleasures for happiness, an aversion to quiet places and still mind, mental and physical stupor, arrogance and overconfidence, and so on). At the festivals, Mara takes tangible form as a triangular piece of wood that is painted in bright variegated colors; perhaps it’s supposed to look evil by its warped shape and garish colors.  

The lamas spend two intense weeks meditating on Mara before the festival, casting their personal and collective impurities into this shrine, and common people are invited to do the same. Then, at the end of the festival, Mara is banished, mobbed, destroyed, or burned, and hurled down the valley amid a clamor of cheers and jeers.

Not all festivals follow the exact same pattern; the program, costumes, performances, and music differ slightly from one to the other. While the largest and best is at Hemis, another two big ones are at Lamayuru (about four hours by bus from Leh) and Zanskar (a different province thirteen hours by bus from Leh). The one at Lamayuru is held a week later than the one at Hemis, and to stay overnight at Lamayuru you can choose between basic rooms in the village’s single guesthouse or camping near the stream down from the village.  

At Lamayuru, you can also explore beyond the high mountains of Ladakh in a trek from Lamayuru to Alchi. The trek is one of the most interesting in Ladakh. It takes four or five days, and it’s also the second toughest trek in the state – the route traverses three high passes, the highest rising to 5,200 meters; every night you camp in isolated villages. There are two organizational options: either hook up with one of the trekking agencies in Leh’s Fort Road that would organize everything for about $30 daily per person or you can find a local shepherd in Lamayuru and ask him to organize donkeys (for hauling equipment) and guide you to Alchi. For the latter, you need all camping equipment and food (you can take your own camping paraphernalia, or rent the equipment from one of Leh’s trekking agencies – but bear in mind that agencies might be using all their equipment during busy periods).

Organizing your own trek has two advantages – it’s cheaper, and you get closer to the local people in the villages where you camp overnight. This is because the guide would know the locals who would invite him – and his companions (you) – to their house to drink home-made beer every evening. However, since the guide won’t speak any English, this is a major obstacle (I organized my own trek but I was traveling with an Indian friend who could communicate with guide). If you do the trek, do bear in mind that it’s tough; you’ll be walking between seven and nine hours daily under a fierce sun, and at the passes you’ll be gasping for breath. Don’t forget a hat, chorine treatment tablets for water from springs and rivers, a light fleece jacket for nippy nights, and allow at least a handful of days for acclimatization to high altitude in the villages (which are at an elevation of 3,000 meters) before you go trekking.   

To get to Leh you can either fly from Delhi (Jet Airways, www.jetairways.com, have good deals) or take a share jeep (organized by travel agents in Manali) from Manali in Himachal Pradesh: this is a 22-hour journey that traverses the Himalayas, one of the most unforgettable road journeys in the world (and one of the toughest and most dangerous too). In Leh there are many accommodation options ranging from expensive rooms in upscale hotels to basic and dirt cheap backpackers’ pits.

Every year, the festivals are held on different dates in late June and throughout July; the tourist office in Delhi, Manali or Leh would be able to supply that year’s dates. Here are the official names of the festivals: Yuru Kabgyat; Zanskar Karsha Gustor; Phyang Tsedup; Korzok Gustor; Dakthok Tsechu; Hemis Tsechu.