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Many of the annual festivals of the Gompas take place in winter, which is a relatively idle time for majority of the people. These take the form of dance-dramas in the gompa courtyards. Lamas, attired in colourful robes and wearing masks, perform mimes symbolising various aspects of the religion such as the progress of the individual soul and its purification or the triumph of good over evil. Local people flock from near and far to these events.

The biggest and most famous of the monastic festivals is that of Hemis, which falls in late June or early July, and is dedicated to Padmasambhava. Every 12 years, the gompa's greatest treasures, a huge Thangka, is ritually exhibited. Its next unveiling is due to take place in A.D 2004. Other monasteries, which have summer festivals, are Lamayuru (early July), Phyang (late July/ early August), Tak-thok (after Phyang) and Karsha in Zanskar (after Phyang). Like Hemis, the Phyang festival too involves the unveiling of a gigantic thangka, though here it is done every third year.

Spituk, Stok, Thikse, Chemrey and Matho have their festivals in winter between November and March. Likir and Deskit (Nubra) time their festivals to coincide with Dosmochhe, the festival of the scapegoat, which is celebrated at Leh in late February. Dosmochhe is one of two New Year festivals, the other being Losar, which falls around the time of the winter solstice.

The Monastic Festivals

The monastic festivals are annual events of the major monasteries which the local people eagerly look forward to attending, both for attaining religious merit and as a means of social entertainment. These are generally held to commemorate the establishment of a particular monastery, the birth anniversary of its patron saint or some major events in the history and evolution of Tibetan Buddhism. People turn out in the thousands to attend these festivals in their colourful best, making every event a carnival of colours

Chhams - the ritual dances

The core event of the monastic festival is a highly choreographed ritual dance-drama known as 'Chhams', which is directed by the 'Chham-spon', the mystic dance master of the monastery. The dances are performed not only to dramatise the esoteric philosophy of the event for the benefit of the lay devotees, but also by way of ritual offerings to the tutelary deities of the monastery and the guardians of the faith. A select group of resident lamas of the monastery, dressed in brightly patterned brocade, robes, perform these dances in the courtyard of the monastery. They also wear masks representing various divinities, which are mostly found in the form of statues in the "Gon Khang", the room dedicated to the guardian divinities. Some of the dances also feature masks representing famous characters from historical episodes or Tibetan fables. The more fearsome ones represent powerful divinities in their various manifestations, mostly representing the Dharmapalas or protectors of the faith. The dancers, holding ritual instruments in hands, step around the central flagpole in the monastic courtyard in solemn dance and mime, in tune with the music of the monastic orchestra. The ritual instruments and the hand gestures or mudras of the dancers symbolise different aspects of the dance-drama. In between the more sombre sequences, relief is provided by a group of comic performers who jump into the scene in the guise of skeletons and other characters, performing comic and acrobatic feats. These also wear masks representing various divinities and religious or historical characters.

Destruction of the evil

As the 'Chhams' approaches its end on the second and last day of the festival, the climactic scene is enacted, in which the votive offering, a grotesque human figure made from dough, is ritually cut into pieces and scattered in the four cardinal directions. This figure symbolises the enemy of Buddhism as well as the embodiment of the three cardinal evils in the human soul viz. ignorance, jealousy and hatred. Accordingly, its destruction represents killing of the enemy of Buddhism and the purification of the human soul from the three evils. This ritual is known as 'Dao Tulva' and has many interpretations: cleansing of the soul from evils, dissolution of the human body after death into its elements, or a re-enactment of the assassination of the Tibetan apostate king Lang-dar-ma by a Buddhist monk in 842 AD. In fact, the long-sleeved dress and the huge hat worn by leader of the Black-Hat dancer, who executes this ritual in most festivals, represents the dress used by Lang-darma's assassin to conceal his identity.

Pilgrimage of the deities

The 'Rimpoche' or head lama incarnate of the monastery conducts the rites and ceremonies of the festival. He sits on a high throne placed in the centre of the long veranda that runs along one side of the rectangular courtyard facing the huge, elevated gates of the monastery's main prayer hall or Du-khang. This room actually serves as the green room for the artists during the festival.

The lamas of the monastery and the monk musicians in their full ceremonial attire, sit on carpet-covered cushions on either side of the throne in the veranda, according to their hierarchy.

The Rimpoche leads the lamas in the recitation of the mantras associated with the 'Chhams', thus creating the appropriate ambience for the dancers to enact the role of the deities whose guise they adopt. For the lay devotees, however, seeing the masked dancers serves to familiarise themselves with the kind of deities they are to encounter during the 49-day- 'Bardo' or transition period between death and rebirth in one of the six forms of existence, depending upon one's karmic existence.

The festive atmosphere

The monastic festivals also provide the local people an opportunity for socialising, trading and entertainment.

On this occasion, makeshift markets spring up overnight near the monastery, to which people throng. During the summer festivals, the visiting people organise picnics, overnight excursions, and all-night signing and dancing parties.

For the more devoted villagers, however, the event is essentially a pilgrimage to the monastery and its various temples, for it is during this period only that they can see all the images and figures, which are otherwise kept veiled.

The Ladakh Festival

It is a major event organized every year by the J&K Tourism Department, in collaboration with the local communities and the district administrations of Leh and Kargil from 1st to 15th September. Its main objective is to revive and promote the richness, depth and pageantry of Ladakh's centuries-old culture, traditions and folk heritage for world-wide appreciation and enjoyment.

The inaugural function is held on grand scale at Leh with a spectacular procession in which various cultural troupes and village contingents participate in full ceremonial costumes, singing songs and performing various types of dances to the tune of the traditional orchestra. At the Polo ground, where the procession terminates, the participants break into a variety of folk and popular dances, presenting the best samples of the region's performing arts.

Among the regular programmes, the most colourful and interesting are the village archery festivals held in selected suburban villages of Leh. Every villager is required to formally participate in these events in accordance with the established social code.

Every male participant is expected to try his skill with the bow and arrow in alternate rounds of archery and dancing while the ladies have to join in as many rounds of the mandatory folk dances. Other programmes of the festival include a series of evening musical concerts, mask dances by lamas of selected monasteries and mock marriage ceremonies complete with all the associated traditions.

A major polo tournament called the "Ladakh Festival Cup" is also held as part of the festival in which polo teams from different parts of the region participate. Visitors to Ladakh during this period will have the opportunity of witnessing this ancient sport of the western Himalayas being played in its original, wild style with fewer rules and frenzied crowd involvement. Yet another interesting programme is the staging of a typical Central Asian trade mart in Leh Bazaar, complete with caravans laden with traders' goods, while skilled artists dressed in period-costumes play the role of merchants engaged in trading, bartering and associated activities.

The festival is also simultaneously organized in different parts of Kargil district. These include traditional archery tournaments, besides presentation of programmes showcasing the cultural heritage and traditions of different ethnic groups of the area. Of particular interest are the cultural programmes presented by the Brok-pas people based on their ancient social customs and ceremonies. Among the programmes presented by the Dards of Dras is the game of polo, the ancestral sport of the Dards of the western Himalayas. Similar programmes are also held in Zanskar Valley, where the high point is the traditional sport called "Saka", in which a number of colourfully attired horses are used in a quaint racing competition.

The Ladakh Festival is a unique project of the State Department of Tourism to patronize the revival and promotion of Ladakh's age-old traditions and customs, its cultural heritage and the performing arts. For the visitors to Ladakh, the festival provides an opportunity to witness and experience the lifestyle and cultural ethos of a people who have lived for centuries on the crossroads of Asia, receiving and harmonising socio-cultural and religious influences from their neighbouring societies.

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