7 things to look forward to at a Buddhist monastic festival in Ladakh

By @Saravana |
Ladakh's landscape is not just about its majestic mountains and brilliant blue skies, it also reflects the (majorly) Buddhist heritage of the land. The landscape is dotted with numerous Chortens, Mani walls, fluttering flags and majestic monasteries overlooking entire villages and towns.

Religion forms an important part of people's lives here and nothing exemplifies it better than the monastic festivals that happen around Ladakh at different times of the year.

The monastic festivals are grand affairs and are cause for much celebration in the villages around the which where they are conducted. They draw large crowds, locals and tourists alike, to witness and participate in the festivities.

Here are some things a visitor should watch out for and look forward to at a monastery festival in Ladakh.

The mask dances (chams)

The main feature of these festivals is the mask-dances (Chams). These dances reenact various Buddhist mythological stories and teachings in the form of a theatrical dance performance. It is a colorful spectacle with elaborate costumes and masks depicting various deities and creatures from the Buddhist mythology. The dances are accompanied by traditional Tibetan music (long horns, short trumpets, cymbals and drums) and solemn chanting of mantras by a group of high lamas who orchestrate the entire program.

Starting Dances : Invocation of the monastery's Guardian Deity.

The festivals normally start with a ceremony to invoke the guardian deity (yidam) of the monastery (gompa). The head lama along with a few other senior monks chant the invocation prayers and in a symbolic gesture one of the monk dancers dressed as the deity would come out of the temple and into the festival courtyard.

Some of the other common first dances involves elaborate re-enactments to depict the origins of the monastery or of the particular order of buddhism (e.g the Gelugpa or Drukpa sects) the monastery follows.

The Entertainers : Cheeky devils to cheer the crowds..

Granted, the festival proceedings can be a solemn affair. So inorder to lighten the mood they have fun performances in midst of the more serious dances. Onc such performance is by young novice monks, who dressed as colorful skeletons come out to terrorize the crowds, in a fun way.

They perform their own version of the dance: hop, skip and jumping from one corner of the courtyard to the other. Every once in a while they go among the crowd to perform mischef, getting into mock fights with the audience and sometimes even snatching the audience's belongings like caps and snacks etc. All this is carried out in good sprit and works up huge bouts of laughter from the crowd making this definitely one of the memorable moments from the festival.

Special Event : Unveiling of the Giant Thangka

In some monasteries, during the second day of the festival a Giant 'Thangka' would be unveiled from the roof of the monastery temple. The 'Thangka' is would be 2-3 storeys tall and is the treasured possession of the monastery. Visitors usually dont get to see the thangka except during the festival. And owing to the delicate nature of the Thangka, it is not displayed for long, usually for an hour or two before it is rolled up and safely stowed away.

Special Moment : The appearance of the Oracle

Undoubtedly the most special moment of the festival is when the Oracle appears. A chosen lama is possessed by a certain deity during the day of the festival and he goes into a trance state. The possessed lama then answers questions put forth by the people regarding the future prospects for ladakh and the local village for the coming year. He is also said to sometimes answer personal question put forth by the public but puts on a "frenzied display of anger" when asked skeptical questions designed to test him

While in the trance state the oracle also performs astounding feats of acrobatics like dancing on the end of a ledge high up in the monastery (sometimes blindfolded) and even cutting themselves with knives (they supposedly heals the next day when the lama wakes up in the morning).

The climax : Stroma ceremony

Towards the end of the second day, the festival reaches its climax with the Stroma ceremony. In this ceremony a hideous human figure made of dough is dismembered and its pieces are strewn in all four (cardinal) directions. The figure represents the forces against Buddhism and also the 3 evils affecting the human soul: ignorance, jealousy and hatred. So this act (the 'Dao Tulva' ritual) represents the destruction of the enemy of Buddhism and also the purification of the human soul from the three evils holding it back.

Another interpretation of this ceremony, is that it symbolises the assassination of the Tibetan apostate king Lang-darma by a Buddhist monk. In the early 9'th century Buddhism was taking its hold on Tibet slowly replacing the ancient Bon religion. The then king Ralpachen was an ardent Buddhist but in 836 AD he was assassinated by his brother Darma, a Bon religionist. Darma then took over as king and started brutally persecuting Buddhism by sealing gompas and hunting down monks. In 842 AD he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk finally paving way for the unhindered spread of Buddhism across Tibet.

After festival procession : The bonfire burning of artifacts.

One of the special events of the festival start after it has actually ended. A few hours after the final ceremony (usually late in the evening), the monk offer pujas to the Butter sculptures and Tomas (conical cakes made of barley and butter) created as offerings for the festival. Once the puja is done they take these artifacts on a ritual procession around the monastery, usually accompanied by a lot of cheering and music from the monks. After a hard two days it is now their time to relax and unwind

At the end of the procession they gather at an ordained place outside the monastery. The head lama then shoots an arrow in a symbolic gesture and then the monks start a huge bonfire and throw all the butter sculptures and tomas into the fire.

Note : It is not clear what this shooting of the arrow and the ritual bonfire means. This post will be updated once more details are gathered.
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