Come summers, and the otherwise barren landscape of Ladakh comes alive in a medley of colours and activities for the annual Hemis Festival. The energy and vigour of this monastic festival fills up locals and tourists, alike, and the high-mountain ranges of Ladakh open their arms wide to greet one and all with a joyous ‘Julley’!
Being the largest festival of Ladakh, Hemis Tsechu holds immense importance for locals. This two-day cultural extravaganza is among the more popular festival of the place that witnesses a reunion of Tibetan villagers and their families from different corners of the country. The festival is also a wonderful opportunity for travellers to interact with locals and learn about the culture, history and religious significance of this old tradition.
The Hemis monastery is believed to be the oldest in the region and also houses the foundation of this annual ritual. The monastery was founded in 1620 by the then Ladakhi king Sengge Namgyal and the Drukpa monk Stagtsang Raspa. The summer festival at Hemis, called the Tsechu, was established ninety years later in 1730 under the Gyalsras Rinpoche. This monastic festival commemorates the birth of Guru Padmasambhava, who was the eminent founder of Tibetan Buddhism. Introduced by a member of Ladakh’s ruling family, this tradition is now 200 years old and is still followed in all its grandeur.
The magnanimous, majestic environs of the monastery suddenly spring to life. With the onslaught of music and dance, the quiet dissipates, and the halls ring with the sound of laughter coming from visitors who stream in to witness this stately celebration.
The resident Lamas, dressed in traditional outfits with their faces behind ornamental, centuries-old colourful masks, take centre stage as the chams (performers), and get ready to mesmerize locals and tourists with their rhythmic, swaying movements. As they dance to the beats of trumpets and drums, locals in their best traditional clothing, sing along. The men look like a vision wearing their cummerbunds, while the women make for a resplendent figure in colourful headgear and heavy jewellery.
The spectacle is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. These dances supposedly represent the victory of good over evil. During this festival, the four-storey thangka (painting) of Guru Padmasambhava is hung in the courtyard, alongside other beautiful thangkas. Seated around the courtyard, visitors wait with bated breath for the battle of good versus evil to begin. The chams invoke the blessings of their deity through dance, and the surreal music transports visitors to a faraway, magical land. Once the victor strikes down evil, everyone rejoices with equal enthusiasm.
The Hemis festival is also a great opportunity for visitors to steal a quick glance of the intricately-done interiors of the monastery. The colourful paintings, murals, prayer flags and other variety of artefacts give travellers a glimpse into the rich Buddhist culture of the region, and also provide them ample opportunities to capture all the vivid sights in their cameras.
As you end your day, watch the mountains behind the Hemis monastery light up in the glow of the festive warmth and pay your respects not just to the Guru, but to the wonderful opportunity to have witnessed this vibrancy of traditions in one of India’s most beautiful Himalayan terrains.