Hemis festival kick-starts in Leh

Leh: Monks donning costumes and traditional masks that date back to the 1750s, sang and danced to folksongs at the Hemis Festival which began here on Friday at the 300-year-old Buddhist monastery of Hemis Jangchub Choling.

The festival, an annual affair is celebrated on the 10th day of the Tibetan lunar month (Tse-Chu) and commemorates the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava, an avatar of Guru Rinpoche, regarded as the second Buddha and one who brought tantric Buddhism to Bhutan during his visit to the country in the eighth century.

"These costumes which the monks wear while dancing dates back to the year 1750. We have preserved it since the ancient times and they are only taken out during the festival," First Chief Abbot of Hemis, Tsewang Rigzen told the PTI.

The costumes definitely wear a worn out look but the sheer colour and gloss speaks abundantly about the rich material they are made of. These monks have been storing the materials since a long time and they manage it through a committee.

"It is said that our monastery is not rich in money but we have such rich ancient artifacts and materials. If these clothes get worn down over the years we have sufficient material to re-stitch them and use them," says Sangyas Sri, In-charge of Hemis museum.

The two-day festival which was inaugurated by the Minister of State for Home Affairs, Jitendra Singh in the courtyard of the biggest Buddhist monastery in Ladakh began with a `13 black hat dance`.

Monks wearing ritual tantric dress fashioned out of silk complete with a mask and shoes all belonging to the 1750s era performed the dance at the Hemis Festival. "The materials used in the costumes have come from Tibet and it was bought by the founder of the Hemis Monastery Guru Rinpoche and stocked here. The costumes after packed up in a wooden box and see the daylight only on the next festival," says Rigzen.

Like the costumes, the dances too have remained unchanged over time with the performances following a set pattern over the years. "The monks who dance in the festival take about a month to train to learn the ancient form. But in order to get into the character of the story they narrate through their performance it takes a lot of spiritual meditation that takes months to perfect," says Rigzen.

A monk can participate in the ancient ritualistic dance – gentle swaying movements to background score of music comprising drums and long horns – for only three years. "Every three years the performing monks change. The costumes are practically handed over through the generations preserving our ancient culture," says Sangyas Sri.

Owing to the harsh climatic conditions in this part of India,shoes are an integral part of the performance. Like the costumes the Tibetan cream shoes embossed with silk work have been handed down year after year since 1750.

So also the masks and props like silk scarfs, rounded shaped bells and small hand drums are also made by the monks and handed down.

On June 30, on the second and the last day of the festival that is popular with tourists from across the world traditional performances continue with much more colourful dance performances with equally colourful costumes demonstrating the victory of good over evil.