One fine morning at my homestay in Leh, I found a beautiful Venezuelan girl telling me that she was planning to go to the Hemis Festival. After an hour we set off for a colourful journey that proved to be full of dances, music and excitement. [ A tip - Don’t ask a Venezuelan girl if she was Miss Universe. Probably she is, and will get annoyed, and will ask you 'Why everyone in India asks me this?' ]
Musicians performing on the roof top of the monastery
This year the festival was banned for everyone - tourists and locals alike - except for the monks who were going to perform. We were told this by the owner of the homestay, but we decided to take our chances.
For the start, we were stopped by a group of police at the exit of Leh itself. The policeman was quite stern and clever. I tried to tell him that we won't go to Hemis but will go to Shey Palace. Then he took a picture of my number plate and told me that he is sending it on their WhatsApp group and if this car is seen near Hemis they will catch it.
Thankfully we had another guy with us with his car. So we simply turned back, took his car and proceeded taking an inner route. Even on that tiny road there were at least 5 check posts and we were stopped at each one of those.
I with my training of gatecrashing the concerts, [ and the knowledge and information acquired from so many heist and crime TV serials watched during lockdown ] sailed through smoothly and landed up to witness the magnificent Masked Dance Festival !! My both co-travellers were completely floored by my skills of telling cock and bull stories and excuses !!
Although every monastery in Ladakh holds an annual festival, there are only 4-5 monasteries where these spectacular Masked Dances take place. Hemis being an important monastery, has the famous festival. It's one of the two, where even the government has a holiday.
This is a two day festival. In the morning there are many prayers and chants in the Main Prayer Hall of the monastery. The monks chant their scripts, then the musicians play some music for a very short duration in between, then again the chants begin. This goes on all the morning. While all this is going on, hot Ladakhi tea is served to all . Typically it's for the younger monks to offer the tea.
At some point the musicians walk up the roof and go to the top-most point of the building and perform their traditional music. No loudspeakers etc are used on the roof. Typically while this is going on thousands of spectators will gather outside in the large courtyard, waiting for the Masked Dances to begin.
There is a lovely museum in the basement of the building opposite the main hall. In the same building there are galleries where important people and guests sit to watch the dances. That looks like a good vantage place, but I found out its better to be on the grounds if you want good pictures.
As this year no one from outside was allowed, there were hardly any people there; may be a hundred or so. The only outsiders were some family of army chaps and some local officials. This allowed me to move freely anywhere I would want and click photographs. I was simply lucky this way. Normally it would be simply impossible to even move an inch because of the tremendous crowd.
After lunch time the famous Masked Dances start in the courtyard of the monastery.