All About The Hemis Festival Of Ladakh

The two-day event honouring Guru Padmasambhava features monks wearing masks and dancing at a hypnotic, slow pace to the rhythm of cymbals and long horns
 Several masked dances are performed by Kagyu monks
Several masked dances are performed by Kagyu monks

One of the largest of Ladakh&rsquos gompas, Hemis, was founded in the 1630s under the patronage of King Sengye Namgyal. It is possibly the largest and richest of the Ladakhi monasteries. Its du khang, shrines, maze-like stairs and courtyards, and rooftops are all worth exploring. Travel down the Indus on the Leh-Manali Highway until Karu. Cross the river, and after numerous loops and twists, as well as countless fields and poplar trees, the vast and stunning Hemis Gompa comes into view, nestled away in a cleft of the Zanskar Range. The annual Hemis Festival, which takes place in June or July, has made the gompa particularly well-known. The two-day event honouring Guru Padmasambhava features monks wearing masks and dancing at a hypnotic, slow pace to the rhythm of cymbals and long horns.

The Origins

The Hemis Festival (also known as the Hemis Tsechu) is a prominent summer celebration that commemorates Guru Padmasambhava&rsquos life and works. Through his miraculous exploits, this fabled Indian Buddhist Tantric master, originally from the Swat Valley, is credited with popularising Buddhism over the length and breadth of the Himalayas in the 8th century CE. Padmasambhava is revered as a second Buddha by the dominant Drukpa order of Ladakh, which is a sub-sect of the ancient Kagyupa order of Tibet, and his birthday is celebrated every year with the masked dance (or Chaam) at the Hemis Monastery.  

The annual festivals in Ladakh generally take place in the winter, except the one held in Hemis in the summer. This is one of the valley&rsquos most prominent festivals, with the main attraction being the presentation of the mask dance-drama that takes place over two days. The Hemis Festival has been observed year after year without interruption since the time of Rgyalsras Rinpoche around the year 1730 and has now become well-known worldwide.  

The Rituals 

The Hemis monastery has held this annual festival for the past 200 years. Several masked dances are performed by Kagyu monks to commemorate the victory of good over evil and to bless the land with renewed life and fertility. The most important dance, however, is held on the first half of the first day, when masked monks perform a sequence of dances on Padmasambhava under a giant silk thangka of Gyalsas Rimpoche. Hemis was greatly enriched during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries under the supervision of Gyalse Rinpoche, a monk and a ruler. Every 12 years, on the Tibetan Calendar&rsquos Monkey Year, an enormous embroidered silk thangka representing Padmasambhava is ceremoniously unfurled. 

Sixteen mask-clad dancers chant Padmasambhava&rsquos invocation mantra. Following that, his eighth incarnation appears. The manifestations are the main shapes that Padmasambhava took at various stages throughout his life. The show begins with a parade of monks and entertainers leading up to the arrival of the eight manifestations and Padmasambhava.

The festival is held in the rectangular courtyard before the monastery&rsquos main door. The room is divided into two three-foot-high, raised square platforms with a sacred pole in the centre. The platforms define the core of the performance area. The ritual materials&mdashcups full of holy water, uncooked rice, tormas (sculptures made mostly of flour and butter), and incense sticks&mdashare put on a raised dais with a cushioned seat and a finely painted tiny Tibetan table. The traditional music is performed by a group of musicians that use four pairs of cymbals, large-pan drums, small trumpets, and large wind instruments. A tiny place is set aside next to them for the lamas to sit.  

The Significance Of The Dance And The Mask 

The chaam dances performed at the festival convey several subliminal messages. It is believed that the dancer is an empowered divinity in human form. The monk dancer is a dancer-deity whose human nature undergoes a transformation as a result of the mask dance process. Each of the masks worn by monks has a special significance. For instance, Padmasambhava is the colour blue with attributes in the hand of vajra and skull, and the aspects reflected denote the moving of the wheel of dharma and subjugating evil. The Lolden Mchhog mask is flesh-coloured with damru and incense and denotes a great teacher.

The dances have various themes and titles. For example, the Dance of the Protectors of Dharma is the second most significant section of the performance, held after the master Padmasambhava is propitiated. Then there&rsquos the Dance of Turdag Masters of the Graveyard, which features four dancers dressed in white masks depicting graveyard masters. Their mission is to identify evil and demonic beings and transport them to higher deities who can destroy them. The Dance of the Four Protectors of Dharma features four figures with ogre-like masks, mouths open, and projecting tongues curved upward. Each has a weapon with which to combat demonic and evil forces.

The Information 

Getting There

Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport in Leh is the nearest airport, around 3.8 km from the city centre. Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport has direct flights to major international airports in India, including Delhi. It also receives flights from Srinagar, Jammu, Chandigarh, and other major destinations. The nearest railway station is in Tawi, 700 km away. The remainder of the journey, which might take up to three days, will necessitate the use of a private vehicle.

Where To Stay

From homestays to luxury hotels, Ladakh has many stay options you can book. Check out the Omasila (, one of Leh&rsquos oldest hotels. The wooden floors, old-world Ladakhi design, and spectacular patio overlooking the mountain vista make it a popular choice. You can also book a budget stay in Gyab Thago Heritage Homestay in Stok. They serve excellent local cuisine ( Incidentally, the Hemis monastery complex has a cafeteria and a stream running downhill alongside, where people go camping.

Monastery Stays Nestled in the folds of mountains, gompas are an intrinsic part of the stark surroundings their built heritage is inextricably linked to their surroundings&mdashthe dramatic craggy hilltops. Some of them also provide lodging options for visitors. If you are looking for isolation and a dose of peace and quiet, a monastery stay is a great option. It will let you soak in Ladakh&rsquos undoubtedly unique charms. For more information, check here

Cover photo credit Wikimedia Commons

Related Stories

No stories found.
Outlook Traveller