In Ladakh, amongst the few monasteries that hold the Masked Dances - Cham Dances - those at Hemis Monastery are the most famous ones. Also popular ones too. These dances are performed by monks wearing exotic looking dresses and masks.
Famous Masked Dance at Hemis Monastery
After lunch time the preparation for the Masked Dances begin in the same main prayer hall of the monastery, where the prayers were being recited since morning. The hall becomes their green room. The dances take place in the large courtyard of the monastery. Typically there are practically thousands of people gathered to watch these famed and exotic looking dances. This time in 2021 due to Covid, there were no spectators. And thus almost no camera people, except those from the monastery itself.
During the day several dance sequences are presented. All with different themes and thus different masks. I believe these keep changing slightly every year.
The Masked Dance Festival started with a young monk alone walked in and performed his dance. He had a flag on his tall pointy hat. Soon few more monks entered the courtyard. They all were wearing different coloured flags on their tall pointy hats. The next performance was that of several monks dressed In exotic colourful dresses; flamboyant reds, greens, yellow and blue practically exploded on the courtyard. I was told all these dresses have great symbolic meaning.
Following to this, different groups of dancers kept walking in. They were wearing bright festive dresses and masks . This went on for a while. Each new group was with a differently themed dress and dance. In some of the groups were probably warriors as they were carrying bow and arrows, swords and shields. Basically this entire festival is about the win of good over bad.
The festival ended with the dance of the senior monks. They were draped in old looking yet magnificent dresses entered the courtyard. Each one of them was holding a preserved but now blackened real human hand. It looked like just the remaining bones, but it still had the shape of a palm.
In the same hand they also carried a silver chalice. In the other hand they carried a beautiful Tibetan Bell. Then some younger monks dressed in the festival dresses walked in with beautiful silver carafes [ Surai]. They poured something in the monks' chalices and the monks drank some of it and threw the rest away. From the smell I assume it was local alcohol.
An actual real human palm held by a monk.
At the end of the Cham Dance, the kids with masks escorted the Senior Monk with mask back to the Prayer hall. Every movement in this entire festival has deep significance in Buddhist Tradition.
The entire festival ended with covering the gigantic Thangka - Ladakhi Painting with another huge cloth cover. This Thankga is unfurled on the huge wall of the monastery at the beginning of the entire festival. This Thangka is said to be painted with paints created with powder of precious stones.
After the festival was over, a couple of kids that had participated in the Cham dances, walked up to the tourists or devotees and caught them with a white scarf, by putting it in victim's neck. They only released the victims when they were given them some money. The standard escape route of 'Already Given' didn't really work on them. But then the kids were quite cute.
All in all I was quite lucky to be there - especially with no overwhelming crowds there!
PS : Every 12 years there is another important festival held at Hemis. - Naropa festival. I hope I should be able to attend that in coming few years.
The musicians perform sacred music on the roof of the monastery