Spitok Gustor Zanskar
The victory of Black hat dancers over evil - Gustor literally means 'Sacrifice of the 29th day'. it is traditional to the monasteries of the reformist Geluk-pa order of Tibetan Buddhism. This two-day ling festival is held mainly in the Spituk, Thiksay and Karsha (Zanskar) monasteries, at different times every year.
The celebration ends with the dismemberment and dispersal of the 'Storma' (sacrificial cake) by the leader of the Black Hat dancers in a ceremony called 'Argham' of 'Killing'. This symbolises the destruction of all forms of evil. And also re-enacts the assassination of the Tibetan apostate King Lang-dar-ma, by a Buddhist monk in the mid 9th century. In some monasteries, an effigy symbolising the strong forces of evil is burnt at the end of the festival. The masks worn by the dancers represent the guardian divinities (Dharmapalas) of the Buddhist pantheon, and the patron divinities of the Geluk-pa order.
Masked dances in the royal courtyard - An ancient tradition started by the Kings of Ladakh, Dosmoche is till celebrated every year in February with great pomp and fervour. The courtyard of the chapel below the gates of the Leh Palace comes alive with the music of drums and the thumping steps of the masked Lamas from different monasteries performing the sacred dance-drama. The Lamas prepare, consecrate and eventually destroy the sacrificial offerings as the climax.
The tantra of 'DO' - The Lamas from the Takthok Monastery, the only Nyingmaps foundation of Ladakh, who are experts in tantric practice and astrology, prepare the elaborate 'Do' or Thread Crosses - the main objects of offering, which ensnare all the evil spirits, hungry ghosts and demonic forces when the prescribed mantras are recited and requisite rites observed by the Lamas.
The festive procession - Ten other kinks of offering, of different shapes and sizes, complement the main offering. These are brought down from the main venue and carried through the main bazaar.
Black hat dancers, followed by the lamas in their religious costumes and the local people in their resplendent best, make this a spectacular procession. Musicians and the monastic orchestra lead the way. Outside the town, the offerings are burnt and destroyed with great fanfare to wish away all evil spirits and guard against natural calamities and disasters in the coming year.
Dosmoche celebrations are also held in the Likir (Indus valley) and Deksit (Nubra valley) monasteries. In Deksit, a number of folk dances are performed as interludes of the 'Chhams'.
Stock Guru Tse-Chu
When even laymen can predict the future - Yet another festival of oracles, this is held in Stock, the present seat of royal residence. The two Stock oracles - unlike those at Matho are laymen, spiritually cleansed and prepared by the lamas of the Spituk Monastery to receive the spirit of the deities.
As in the case of Matho, people repose abiding faith in the predictions made by the Stok oracles.
The festival of the blindfolded acrobatic oracle monks - On the 15th day of the 1st Tibetan month Monastery - the only Saskyapa monastic establishment in Ladakh. During this festival, the two oracles of the monastery make a public appearance in their full spiritual form. These oracles, actually monks of the monastery, mediate in complete isolation for a state of trance and invoking the spirit of the deities.
On the day of the festival, they invoke and receive the deities and come into their full spiritual trance. They run over the high rise ramparts of the monastery, jump from one balcony to another and execute a number of acrobatic feats, all while blindfolded!
People from far and wide come to hear the oracles predict key future events an to seek answers about their own future.
The festival of Padmasambhava - The 10th day (Tses- Chu) of the Tibetan lunar month is celebrated as the birthday of Padmasambhava (Guru Rimpoche), the founder of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Hemis Monastery celebrates this event in the form of a 2 day festival. Its resident Lamas perform sacred masked dances leading to the destruction of the sacrificial offerings. Masks worn by the Lamas represent various guardian divinities of the Dugpa order, of which Hemis is the leading establishment in Ladakh.
This 200 year-old tradition was introduced by a member of Ladakh's ruling family who was reincarnated in the 18th century as the monastery's Head Lama, ' Sras Rimpoche'. The Hemis dances are a re-enactment of the magical feats of Padmasambhava, in his services to the cause of Buddhism in his eight different manifestations.
The festival takes an auspicious turn every 12 years in the Tibetan Year of the Monkey, when the two-storey high 'Thankga' depicting Padmasambhava is displayed. This famous Thankga, richly embroidered with pearls and and semi-precious stones, is due to be displayed next in AD 2004.
As the Hemis festival is held during the peak summer season. It attracts the largest number of people from within and outside Ladakh.
An awesome spectacle - This 2-day festival is celebrated during July, in the spectacularly situated monastery of Lamayuru, about 127 kms west of Leh.
The masks worn by the lamas during the dances represent guardian divinities from the Dringungpa pantheon. As in the case of other monastic festivals, the sacred dance drama concludes with the destruction of the sacrificial offerings. Devotees come by the hundreds to witness the celebrations
Pilgrimage to the Thangka
Phyang is one of the two Dringungpa Monasteries in Ladakh. This monastery, 17 km west of Leh, holds its festival in July/August. Like other monastic festivals, sacred dance-dramas or 'Chhams' form the core of this festival. But the main attraction for the devotees is the pilgrimages to the huge Thangka of Skyabje Jigten Gombo, founder of the Dringungpa monastic order, which is kept on exhibition during the two-day festival.
Tsongkhapa's Birthday and Buddhahood - This socio-religious event is celebrated to observe the birthday and the Buddhahood or Tsongkhapa - the Tibetan saint-scholar who founded the Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism during the 14th century. The Gelukpa school later developed as the dominant monastic order in Central Tibet.
The festivities include illumination of all monastic, public and residential buildings throughout Ladakh.
Namchot heralds the beginning of the New Year celebrations which continue till the festival of Dosmoche.
During this festival, it is customary to prepare various varieties of the traditional dish, 'Thukpa' in every home to be served to visiting friends and relatives to mark celebration of the festival.
How Ladakh got its New Year - This New Year festival has an interesting history. In the 17th century, King Jamyang Namgyal decided to lead an expedition against the Balti forces during winter. He was advised that any expedition before the New Year would be inauspicious. Like Alexander's solution was direct and simple. He advanced the New Year celebrations by two months, establishing a tradition that people still follow - celebrating Losar on the first day of the eleventh month of every year.
Blending Buddhism with Bonism - Losar is the most elaborate of all the socio-religious events of Ladakh. It involves the entire population of the region. Interestingly, the rites and rituals are a mixture of Buddhist and the pre-Bhuddhist Bon religious practices. Preparations start by the end of the harvest period when people start stocking provisions, sheep and goats for the customary feasts as well as grain for brewing 'chang' (a local barley beer). New clothes and jewellery are kept ready for the occasion.
Lights and Feasting - The festivities start on the 29th day of the 10th months with the illumination of buildings and shrines. Sheep and goats reserved for the occasion are ritually slaughtered to begin the series of evening feasts for all relatives by rotation.
Ritual and Warmth - The New Year day itself starts with the offering of votives and greetings to various gods, elders, relatives and friends. Afterwards, the elders await the customary visitors who come to greet the family with presents and 'Khatak' (ceremonial) scarf). The younger members go out to visit other families. Leh and its adjoining villages wear a carnival look as people come out in their colourful best. It is customary for the Muslims and Christian in Leh to visit their Buddhist friends and greet them on the eve of Losar.
Guardians of Prosperity - Images of ibex and other auspicious symbols are put on the door, walls of the kitchen and the top-end of is central wooden column. The ibex is a symbol of fertility and is believed to bring prosperity. Small images of ibex moulded from dough are arranged on kitchen shelves to add to the good luck.
The procession of fire - In the evening, the 'Metho' ceremony takes place. The bazaars of Leh and the streets of villages get lit up as processions bearing flaming torches pass through with the people chanting slogans to chase out evil spirits and hungry ghosts - the result of bad Karma (one's deeds). Whirling torches create a fantastic display of fire and light. At the end of it all, the torches are thrown well outside the town to bid farewell to the old year and to welcome the new one.