The monastic festivals are annual events of the major monasteries which the local people eagerly look forward to attending, both for attaining religious merit and as a means of social entertainment. These are generally held to commemorate the establishment of a particular monastery, the birth anniversary of its patron saint or some major events in the history and evolution of Tibetan Buddhism. People turn out in the thousands to attend these festivals in their colourful best, making every event a carnival of colours.
Chhams – the ritual dances
The core event of the monastic festival is a highly choreographed ritual dance-drama known as ‘Chhams’, which is directed by the ‘Chham-spon’, the mystic dance master of the monastery. The dances are performed not only to dramatise the esoteric philosophy of the event for the benefit of the lay devotees, but also by way of ritual offerings to the tutelary deities of the monastery and the guardians of the faith. A select group of resident lamas of the monastery, dressed in brightly patterned brocade, robes, perform these dances in the courtyard of the monastery. They also wear masks representing various divinities, which are mostly found in the form of statues in the "Gon Khang", the room dedicated to the guardian divinities. Some of the dances also feature masks representing famous characters from historical episodes or Tibetan fables. The more fearsome ones represent powerful divinities in their various manifestations, mostly representing the Dharmapalas or protectors of the faith. The dancers, holding ritual instruments in hands, step around the central flagpole in the monastic courtyard in solemn dance and mime, in tune with the music of the monastic orchestra. The ritual instruments and the hand gestures or mudras of the dancers symbolise different aspects of the dance-drama. In between the more sombre sequences, relief is provided by a group of comic performers who jump into the scene in the guise of skeletons and other characters, performing comic and acrobatic feats. These also wear masks representing various divinities and religious or historical characters.
Destruction of the evil
As the ‘Chhams’ approaches its end on the second and last day of the festival, the climactic scene is enacted, in which the votive offering, a grotesque human figure made from dough, is ritually cut into pieces and scattered in the four cardinal directions. This figure symbolises the enemy of Buddhism as well as the embodiment of the three cardinal evils in the human soul viz. ignorance, jealousy and hatred. Accordingly, its destruction represents killing of the enemy of Buddhism and the purification of the human soul from the three evils. This ritual is known as ‘Dao Tulva’ and has many interpretations: cleansing of the soul from evils, dissolution of the human body after death into its elements, or a re-enactment of the assassination of the Tibetan apostate king Lang-dar-ma by a Buddhist monk in 842 AD. In fact, the long-sleeved dress and the huge hat worn by leader of the Black-Hat dancer, who executes this ritual in most festivals, represents the dress used by Lang-darma’s assassin to conceal his identity.
Pilgrimage of the deities
The ‘Rimpoche’ or head lama incarnate of the monastery conducts the rites and ceremonies of the festival. He sits on a high throne placed in the centre of the long veranda that runs along one side of the rectangular courtyard facing the huge, elevated gates of the monastery’s main prayer hall or Du-khang. This room actually serves as the green room for the artists during the festival.
The lamas of the monastery and the monk musicians in their full ceremonial attire, sit on carpet-covered cushions on either side of the throne in the veranda, according to their hierarchy.
The Rimpoche leads the lamas in the recitation of the mantras associated with the ‘Chhams’, thus creating the appropriate ambience for the dancers to enact the role of the deities whose guise they adopt. For the lay devotees, however, seeing the masked dancers serves to familiarise themselves with the kind of deities they are to encounter during the 49-day- ‘Bardo’ or transition period between death and rebirth in one of the six forms of existence, depending upon one’s karmic existence.
The festive atmosphere
The monastic festivals also provide the local people an opportunity for socialising, trading and entertainment.
On this occasion, makeshift markets spring up overnight near the monastery, to which people throng. During the summer festivals, the visiting people organise picnics, overnight excursions, and all-night signing and dancing parties.
For the more devoted villagers, however, the event is essentially a pilgrimage to the monastery and its various temples, for it is during this period only that they can see all the images and figures, which are otherwise kept veiled.
The 10-Year Calendar of Monastic Festivals
The monastic festivals of Ladakh are governed by the Tibetan calendar which is luni-solar. So the dates vary form year to year, requiring astrological calculations to determine each year’s calendar. Traditionally, at the end of the year, the astrologers prepare a new calendar of festivals so that it is available as the new year ushers in. But in the absence of long-term calendars, visitors face problems in planning trips to Ladakh to witness these events.
In order to address this problem this website has had a 5-year calendar of festivals, for the period 2010 AD to 2014 AD, prepared by an astrologer, for the convenience of visitors ( go to Calendar of Monastic Festivals ).