Of Lamas & Legends - Ladakh Hemis Mask Dance Festival

6/17/2013 09:01:00 PM

A hindu by religion, though i am not really a prayer practitioner or a temple visitor, as a child and a growing up teen-ager i read many holy books to understand the religion I follow as well as many others. my solo expedition to Ladakh in 2010, was my very first and closest interaction with buddhism, the practice that I felt is relatively very close to hinduism, including the interpretations and how two religions symbolize the destruction of evil forces, manifestation of good over evil, and also the illustrations of various gods.

Mask dances by monks of monasteries in india and in rest of the buddhist centers across the world are  religious ceremonies and are events of culture importance of performed annually at every monastery. these dances are sacred and performed to the god and the guru. they depict the war between the gods and evil forces through various interpretations and use of colorful costumes and masks, the dance steps and also certain kind of music. dances are performed by lamas of all ages.

Costumed lamas with gaily painted masks, ceremonial swords and sparkling jewels jump and sway to the rhythm of echoing drums, trumpeting horns and chanting of monks. These masks which usually that of various animals and deities, with whom, as per the local people here, one meets after death, enthrall the locals, tourists. seeing the dance is also believed as a blessing.

Event finishes with a ritual of burning the effigies made of flour, and wood and other elements and also releasing of animals like yaks, horses and goats after a puja ceremony.


In ladakh I got a chance to attend hemis and korzok festival. Korzok Tsomoriri, being in remote area of ladakh, is a low key affair, attended by few tourists, villagers and nomads living in the close areas of Changthang, and let me say, also more organized of the two and also less commercial in nature, however Hemis festival that attracts many tourists and media from across the globe and is more of an annual colorful fair for the locals who come truckloads from all the part of Ladakh to witness this somehow a bizarre of a  dance and costume spectacle and also to sell/buy some beautiful traditional handicrafts.

Hemis, about 300 years old monastery, also the biggest and richest of the all in Ladakh region, is situated about 40kms from the city of Leh. The festival and chamdance thats performed in the courtyard of the monastery is to celebrate birth anniversary of Guru Padma Sambhav, founder of Tantric Buddism. The main temple wall adorns a beautiful Thanka, depicting Padmasambhava and also the wealth of the monastery as its richly embroidered with pearls and semi-precious stones.

One of most awaited in Ladakh, this extravaganza is something not to missed for photographers or anyone who's visiting Ladakh. and this is exactly why, including its close proximity to Leh, the festival is the most crowded, with press photographers, documentary makers, national international channels, visitors and local included. I initially planned to be there for all three days, including one pre-festival practice day when it' shouldn't have been that packed, But I only made it for one day.


5 Reasons why you might not want to attend Hemis Festival  but other small-level local folk festivals:

1. Reservations:

This is to my fellow indian readers/ travelers mostly, not to mention how much we have dealt with reservation in our life starting from school days, the last thing I would want is to have the seats reserved for a local indian festival to peacefully watch and shoot. There is no FCFS ( first-come-first-served) The local who are serving their guests occupy entire space, the rest is given to VVIPs and the Press. if you are just a traveler or an independent photographer you are most likely to get succumbed by the media force and the foreign friends who bring more business to the local then an average traveler rambling on a budget. You've no respect.

2- Monkey Business / Bad Press:

In India, I have shot festivals in Kerala, and I have been to the largest gathering on earth, The Maha Kumbh Mela, But I have never met a press as bad and mean as in Hemis festival, this is after I paid 50 bucks for the entrance and ~300 INR I believe, for photographing the event to organizing lamas ( u perhaps know now where that wealth comes from) and I was constantly poked by the press head, a  lady who came with her 20-30 interns and occupied the entire space, like no one else belonged there.

Well She spotted me shooting inside the temple, I was the only one there, except her team, so perhaps she dint like me much as she constantly kept bickering and making faces through out the day.

Incase you wondered I was her only victim? Actually No, I was the only one she couldn't do nothing about, because She actually dint spare, none of the hundreds of photographers specially those who were shooting videos with their tripods and I still remember their were a few old people totally patronized by her. it was awful. more so because, those lamas had collected money from all of them. ugh.

Local People of all age, plus visitors had the area jam-packed under harsh sunlight and heat-waves of June, and there were absolutely no arrangement whatsoever for them excluding those for the VVIPs and alike. I wonder if they are doing any better now. well good luck.

3- Repetition -

Coming to the Actual ritual part, It wouldn't be right on my part if I criticize it in anyways because these are the rituals, I would however tell you from the photography point of view, thats its repetitive, both music and the dance. so the only thing that you can focus on here is Masks and the overall costumes adorned by the lama groups. and If you are willing to capture those.


4- Its all about lamas and Only about Lamas, But you miss the story somehow-

Yes you can throw it back at me saying, its is lama dance festival, so Only those will be there, But by this What I meant it is not a reflection of Tibetan culture, Until unless you are well read, and you can figure out the stories they're telling only by looking at their costumes, You can not get out more educated, nor you can bring 100 unique visuals back home. but You can come out more spiritual and I wont deny that.

5-  Why Small festivals are better

if you can instead go to more surreal settings such as Korzok monastery overlooking Tsomoriri or kaza or Rangdum in zankar, You can not only enjoy the festival to the core, but also can get better background and shots from more angles then what you can get in hemis. here is the thing, Yes the costumes here are most vibrant, and royal, while those in smallar monasteries are not, but once you study the photograph, You'd find the rugged looking better. You can come out more satisfied as a photographer, as a traveler, and trust me, you wouldn't be subjected to insult , that you being as a non-VIP might end up getting at Hemis.

I think I have listed most of the reasons I could recall from my experience, precisely I only spent a day, shot 500 pictures, and I still dont find them good enough, but, If you thought I have put you off, and if you actually, can still brave above all, here I give you 5 more reasons for why you should, and How you can be best prepared. here's why


5 Reasons why you should attend Hemis Festival :

1- Photographing the locals

Hemis is undoubtedly the biggest in Ladakh, so no matter what, locals from all parts of ladakh come to witness it and most of them in their traditional attires, i.e. a great opportunity for you to click portraits.

2- Ancient Monastery Culture - Its Royal

You may not find the local dance, songs and folk performances here, but you can witness the incredible ancient rituals that are performed in the dark temple of hemis, more authentically, hemis being the head monastery the reason. for that I suggest you go early, probably a day or two ahead and find your way to live in the monastery itself and celebrate the festival with lamas.

3- For once - It is the Spectacle

Even though it failed me on photography, and arrangement levels, I still enjoyed it for once, live. the music, lamas do the most simplest dance movement in the whole world, lifting their one feet a little high on the ground that is, is celestial, and rhythm does get to you. I still remember it scaring me a little bit, and now after 3 years when I am trying to remember the sound, all what is coming to my mind is the trailer music of the transformers the latest sequel.

4- Its the most Sacred

Or so the local says, I have seen people sitting their with their hands folded in Prayer, while watching the lamas in Masks of Gods, as if they were real Gods and demons, Its all about belief, and I do believe in locals.

Did I give you just  four? then, here is the photography tip for you -

The light at this time around, is mostly harsh, and taking in the nature of festival, you might find the contrast a bit too much, and working on the background later on extremely difficult. You dont need much zoom or high shutter speed either because their moments are extremely slow, but try carrying some glass with shallow depth of field, which solves your background issues and bring more focus on your subject.

Visit the place a day before to study the light and fix your position, and fight for it the next day. well you can do anything for your perfect image right? also if your visiting for the royalty, You'll have to visit the first day since the next day typically, the crowd is lesser, but so is the royal rendezvous.  

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  1. That was a marvelous report! Am going there in Aug :) and the fest is in Sept. No regrets after reading your post!
    Thank you.

  2. You're most welcome. It took me 3 years to write, this festival is actually today and tomorrow India time this year, there are nice ones at phyang, lamayuru, korzok etc. kaza was closed that year. must have been maintained now.
    I love the phyang people. they are very nice. I couldnt attend their ceremony as i was coming back from zanskar the same day but heard its better. do check if you can see that. lots of traditional dances there. :)

    Thanks :)

  3. This is amazing, loved the description and the costumes, the masks are so lovely. I have never been to Ladakh, that's a shame, but yes, it is on my list at the top now. It is going to be a marvelous. I am sorry about that lady with interns, I guess we all have to deal with such people at some point. Once again, great post!! Keep them coming.

    Himanshu Nagpal | Being Traveler

    1. Thanks Himanshu, yes there're always challenges one needs to face, but we keep doing what we want to do. right? glad you liked it. thanks and good luck for your ladakh trip in advance :)

  4. Colourful display! Nice post on Hemis festival.


  5. Festivals, like the Kites festival in Ahmedabad or Maha Kumbh are more of money minting machines than a festival anymore. They dilute the culture which a traveller wants to experience with comfort which a tourist wants.

    I prefer smaller ones these days. Like a local festival which isn't hyped as a must do for tourists.

    1. You're right. I wouldnt mind the local small business as for them its like diwali and holi which they wait an entire year for, but for big businesses who actually rip more money out of travelers in terms of basic travel needs, its truly painful to see.

  6. Good one Poonam. I think next time I'll skip the bigger festivals and go even more remote !! :)

  7. @Gaurav - Thanks Gaurav, I am replying to your comment from april, I am guessing you have already been to ladakh. hope you had a great time. sorry for the delay. had been MIA mostly.
    happy diwali have a good one. :)


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