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Witness the Tantric Dances of Buddhist Monks Celebrating the Hemis Festival

All Photos Courtesy Of Tania Bannerjee

The Buddhist celebration at a remote monastery high up in the Himalayas makes for an outstanding spectacle.

Perched on an arid mountain ledge about 40 kilometers away from the city of Leh in the Ladakh district of the Jammu and Kashmir state of India, Hemis Monastery is a major tourist attraction and center of Tibetan Buddhism of dragon lineage, or Drukpa, in the Indian region of Ladakh. On the tenth day of the fifth lunar month of a monkey year, Guru Rinpoche, also known as Guru Padmasambhava, was born miraculously in a lotus flower. He is worshipped by the followers of Tibetan Buddhism as a manifestation of Lord Budhha. The Hemis festival is held every year in honor of Guru Rinpoche’s birthday. On monkey years, the festivities receive special treatment by the monks. In the two days of celebration, masked dances are performed in the courtyard of the monastery around the flagpole.

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Monks wearing Drukpa hats gather on the rooftop of the Hemis Monastery overlooking the courtyard where the famous masked dances are scheduled to be performed. Drums are beaten, trumpets are blown, and cymbals are clashed.

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Two long trumpets, or horns known as dungchen, are showcased in the courtyard in front of the flagpole and blown by two monks. This marks the start of the Hemis festival. In the background, loudspeakers recite the story of the Hemis Festival in the local language as well as in English.

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A three-story high thangka (scroll painting) is unfurled amidst a melodious cacophony of monastic musical instruments. The thangka showcases Padma Karpo or Gyalsras Rinpoche, the founder of the Tsechu festival in Hemis, which is now known as the Hemis Festival. In the monkey years of the Tibetan calendar, which comes at an interval of 10 years, the thangka, containing a silken image of Guru Padmasambhava, is displayed.

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The first dance is of “the 13 black hat dancers.” Wearing an impression of skulls on their chest, the monks perform a slow-paced dance to ward away evil energy. They hold an iron dagger which is mostly concealed beneath the robe. This religious dance is associated with preventing evil from entering the ceremonial space.

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The dance of the divine fairies, the dakinis, purifies the place and makes it sacred. Sixteen monks dance wearing brass masks. They hold a bell in their left hand and damru (small hand-held drum) in their right hand. The color of the robe is different for each of them.

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A monk in the avatar of Guru Padmasambhava emerges out of the monastery. An orchestra of musicians greets him by playing their instruments. Flowers are sprinkled on the floor over which he walks, attended by two other monks and shaded by an umbrella.

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For the devout local Buddhists, the Hemis Festival is a religious gathering. They gather in the courtyard with families in tow and food baskets tightly packed. Guru Padmasambhava’s emergence is revered by them. Some pray to him with folded hands, some roll beaded malas, and others spin handheld prayer wheels.

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Guru Padmasambhava is accompanied by his eight manifestations: Guru Tsokye Dorje, Guru Padmasambhava (second from left), Guru Lodan Chog Sred, Guru Padma Gyalpo (third from left), Guru Nyima Odzer, Guru Shakya Senge (fourth from left), Guru Senge Dradog and Guru Dorje Drolod (first from left). They individually perform tantric dances through which they preach the ideologies of Buddhism.

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Wearing a costume imitating a skeleton, the four lords of graveyards gyrate around the flagpole. Their dance represents driving out evil forces from the cremation grounds. Sometimes in between their dance, they throw flour all around to demonstrate the victory of righteousness.

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The wrathful dance of the five Chemchog Heruka represents the raging Padmasambhava’s fight against the powerful evil spirits. An idol which depicts evil is laid on the floor of the courtyard. One Heruka carrying a sword vehemently beats the idol in the middle of the tantric dance.