India: Celebrating hues of divinity

During the Hemis Festival, the Monastery comes alive with dances and colourful celebrations. The religious mask dance remains the centre of attraction. This year Hemis festival is going to be celebrated from 23rd June to 24th June.

Synonymous with peace, tranquillity and meditation, Ladakh is known as the “land of high passes”. A region in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir that currently extends from the Kunlun mountain range to the main Great Himalayas to the south, inhabited by people of Indo-Aryan and Tibetan descent.

After a long dreary winter, summer is the time to rejuvenate with pomp and fervour. Here, rejuvenation is a celebration, a way of attaining supreme truth. The festivals are a perfect concoction of ancient customs, rich culture and celebration of life.

One of the most famous festivals here is Hemis Festival celebrated in Hemis Monastery. Situated 45 km away from Leh, the capital of Ladakh.

Hemis Monastery is the largest in the region. It is famous for its magnificent architecture and the Buddha statue positioned atop a mound overlooking the monastery.

This two-day event commemorates the birth anniversary of Buddhist guru Padmasamabhava who brought Vajrayana Buddhism to Central Asia, China and the Himalayan region. Revered as the second Buddha, Guru Padmasambhava was invited to India in the 8th century to conquer dark forces and transform them into guardians and protectors of dharma.

The festival is celebrated every year on the 10th lunar day of the Tibetan calendar. This year will be celebrated from 23rd June to 24th June.

The central courtyard of Hemis Monastery sets the stage: Drums, trumpets and wind instruments commence the celebrations with an early morning ceremony in which thousands of Buddhist followers take blessings from a portrait of Lord Padmasambhava. Uncooked rice, incense sticks, tomas (butter-and dough dish) and holy water are the main ceremonial items.

The chief monk of the monastery carries the holy water throughout the courtyard for purification. However, the key attraction is the religious masked dance performed by the lamas (monks) around the central flagpole in the courtyard.

Known as Chhams, these dance dramas are performed wearing vibrant clothes and intimidating masks. The dance consists of two parts: the first pays homage to the eight aspects of Guru Padmasambhava. The second part shows Maha Dongcren, a horned masked figure, slaying demonic forces. The eight manifestations of Padmasambhava belong to the tradition of the revealed treasures. It includes the depiction of union with consort, a fully ordained Buddhist monk, a young crowned prince, the Saviour who teaches dharma to people, the intelligent youth, a naked yogi pointing towards sun, fierce manifestation of Vajrakilaya and the Lion of Debate.

These religious dances are used to educate people about the impermanent nature of all phenomena and the victory of mind over ignorance and evil. Blaring horns and hypnotic drums serve as perfect soundtracks for the dance with most movements consisting of measured steps and twirls. The stunning colours of whirling robes, antique masks and swaying movements create a visual treat.

Witnessing the mask dances is believed to remove ignorance and take one closer towards to attaining nirvana. “By watching these mask dances, ‘choreographed’ by celestial beings for enlightened masters, we should receive the blessings of being able to cut through afflictive emotions and realise the nature of our own mind and wisdom,” says one of the monk from Hemis Monastery.

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