Mountain Masquerade: The Hemis Festival of Ladakh, India

No 21

Ladakh is a high, dry land of monasteries, and the biggest of one of them all is called Hemis. Situated just outside Leh, the capital, this nearly 400-year-old temple hosts a lavish festival every year in June or July—the exact date varies, adherent as it is to a local calendar, but the reason for the celebration remains a constant: Padmasambhava, the 8th-century Indian guru who brought Tantric Buddhism to Tibet.

Less of an international secret than it once was, the festival (also known as Tse-Chu) continues to draw pilgrims from all over Ladakh. They travel great distances for spiritual reasons and, no doubt, for the fantastic bouts of pageantry, from the fanfares of giant copper trumpets to the brilliant thangka, or embroidered tapestry, that monks unfurl down a three-story wall.

The highlight of the festival is the cham, a 1,300-year-old masked dance that depicts angry gods battling evil. (The more skulls there are in a character's tiara, the more formidable his powers.) The ritual colors so vividly on display are symbolic—black for wrath, white for peace—and the body postures of the monk-dancers strictly codified. The many mudras, or formal hand gestures, form a distinct language of their own. Even the donning of the costume must be done a certain way, with the papier-mâché mask lifted up from the right, drawn across the body, and placed over a monk's head from the left.

Unleashed in the monastery courtyard, the demon-dancers absorb the pernicious energies that surround them, thus purifying the world for enlightenment. The cham lasts for many hours. Their job concluded, the masks are once again locked away for safekeeping.

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