Monday, July 3, 2017

Hemis Festival. The Opening.


Today was the day that the entire trip to India was planned around!  Today was the day we attended the Hemis Festival, held in the monastery of the same name.  Because I shot more photos and videos and wanted to showcase as many as I can, I am splitting my Hemis Festival postings into several.  This is posting is just an introduction, covering up until the moment the mask dances begin.  Each dance will be presented in its own posting.

The Hemis monastery is located just a short drive, about 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Leh.  On the way, we made a quick stop in the village of Stok and picked up one more person - Dorje's mom!  She's so sweet and I'm happy that she's joining us.  I don't know how often she gets to go to the festival but I hope this is a treat for her.

By the time we arrived at the monastery so had dozens of vehicles before us.  The road was so packed with not only vehicles but people as well that Dorje had to carefully make his way up the hill towards the monastery.  Somewhere along the way, he dropped us all off and went off in search of parking.  It was at this moment that I realized why he had brought his mother along....most likely he felt she could look after us....make sure we knew where we were going although that wasn't really hard as you just had to follow the crowd.

The walk to the monastery was pretty much uphill all the way though it was not a far distance to go from where Dorje had deposited us.

That's Dorje's lovely mom in the center of the photo.  Chantale is ahead of her on the right and Ayşe is just to her left.


As I had expected, many foreigners come to Leh to attend the festival.  Just on our walk alone, I saw more non-Indian faces than I had the entire week we've been in Leh.  I seriously don't think too many foreign tourists head the areas that we had been to which is really sad because I think we saw some very nice highlights of this region - monasteries and incredible scenery!


Right at the entrance gate were seated two monks who were gladly accepting donations.  This is another monastery that appears to be very well kept, no doubt thanks to generous donations from visitors.  We'll leave our share on the way out.


Dorje's mom was so cute.  I swear she was making a special effort to keep track of all of us.  With the language barrier, I couldn't tell her not to worry; that I always lag behind to take photos and that I would not lose sight of her.  I have to say, she really dressed up for the event.  You can't see in the photo but the handbag she was carrying was one to be envied, it was so nice!


Once we reached the base of the monastery, we noticed signs pointing the way so from this point forward, we were good to go on our own but Dorje's mom still kept close watch on us.  It was at this location that all the food vendors had also set up so we knew where we could come back to for refreshments.  Though we had packed water with us, I had a feeling we would run out not to mention the fact that we had not brought along lunch so we'll need to get some food.


We took the steps to enter into the courtyard.  That's where the festival activities are actually held.


The courtyard itself is quite large but today, because of all the seating, it was reduced to a pretty small area.  There was even some seating on the roof.  Initially, I thought that those seats would've have been a perfect vantage point to see the festival performances from but in hindsight, we had the best viewing location.  You have to buy seats and then literally not sit in them.  I'll explain why later.


I had asked Stanzin to buy us seats and insisted he get us the best seats he could buy.  Those turned out to be in a special section right on the courtyard floor.  It was a section that was specially cordoned off so we had to show our tickets to be allowed in.  The photo below was taken from that section.  Once we were in, Dorje's mom disappeared.  I didn't even notice her slipping away until I was specifically looking around for her.  I presumed she did not have a paid ticket so she had to find seating elsewhere which turned out to be the section right next to us.  I spotted her sitting on the ground.


We sorta, kinda had assigned seats i..e, we just sat where the monks directed us to.   We were quite a few rows behind the front row and even though there was no one sitting in front of us at that moment, I started to imagine what it would be like if all the rows of seats were filled with people.  I would not have a very good view.  So, while Chantale went about setting up her camera and tripod, I decided to scout out a new spot for myself within the section of seats.  Just as I picked out what I thought was the perfect place for myself, I heard the sound of metal crashing to the ground.  I looked back and poor Chantale had dropped her camera on the ground and broken it.  Luckily, she had her second camera with her otherwise, it would really have been a shame to come all this way and not be able to capture any images or video.

The spot I had picked out was right next to the front row of seats, pretty much sitting in the aisle.  From that vantage point, I had an unobstructed view of the courtyard.  It was perfect and I decided to just claim my spot until someone would come around and kick me out.  There was enough space for Chantale too so I urged to come and sit next to me.  We would only move if someone needed to walk by us.  Ayşe stayed in her seat and we had left some of our belongings on the chairs next to her in case we did get kicked out of our primo spots.

The festival itself was scheduled to start at 10a but things ran a bit late so I passed the time soaking in all that was happening around me and taking some photos.  It was a good time to get a feel for how I wanted to take lots of pictures from exactly the same vantage point without making the pictures look that way.

In the courtyard are two raised square platforms, three feet high with a sacred pole in the center. Placed atop the small table were a few ceremonial items - cups full of holy water, uncooked rice, sculptures made of dough and butter, and incense sticks.


As the minutes passed, more and more people arrived into the courtyard.  Surprisingly the section we were in was pretty sparse in terms of people so we probably could've taken seats close to the front but as far as I was concerned, my unobstructed view was perfect....except for the fact that I was sitting on hard stone.  So if you are reading this post, planning to go to the festival, bring along an inflatable pillow!

Chantale and I stayed in our spots and not a single person - monk or policemen shooed us away to go back to our assigned seats.  The section of non paid seats had ropes to cordon people off and when an Indian man, which all his camera gear tried to sit on the wrong side of the ropes, a policeman came to tell him to move.  He tried to convince the policeman to let him stay but no go.  So, he literally stayed in place and simply pulled the rope over his head in front of his chest so technically he was no on the right side of the rope.  But the people who were seated behind him....the ones who were originally in the front row, so to speak, kicked up enough of a fuss that he eventually left.  I don't blame them.  They most likely arrived in time to secure a good spot and this guy just wanted to but in.  Out he went.  





Shortly before 10a, the horn blowers got set up.  They officially announce the start of the festivities.  Notice the unusual red hat they are wearing. 


In Tibetan Buddhism, the Drukpa aka Red Hat sect is named for the color of the monks' hats worn at formal occasions.  The sect includes the three oldest of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, namely: Nyingma,  Sakya, Kagyu.  I'm not sure which school Hemis belongs to.


Next, came a procession of musicians who paraded along the balcony on the level above but adjacent to where we were sitting.


The musicians were making their way towards a group of lamas who had congregrated on an adjacent balcony. 



A few of the monks brought in a photo and positioned it behind a podium on which a chair had also been placed.  My guess is that the photo is of the monastery's head monk?



The musicians got into position.  It's like the orchestra getting ready to perform at a concert.


Then, a person who appeared to be relatively young took the seat at the podium.  I always presume the head of the monastery would be a senior adult so perhaps my guess is wrong.




With everyone in place, the band played and the monks chanted.



Against the backdrop of the chanting, drumming and cymbals, everyone's attention turned to what was taking place near the entrance to the temple.


A group of monks was unfurling a large thanka that hung down from the roof top.



Positioned on the roof was a single monk who helped to control the ropes from above.  It was like a giant Roman shade being let down. Hidden behind the front cloth was a painting of some sort. 


I could only get a glimpse of it as it was never fully uncovered.  My guess is that the thanka is a portrait of Padmasambhava (aka Guru Rinpoche) whom the Hemis Festival is dedicated to.



Padmasambhava  is believed to have been born on the 10th day of the fifth month of the Monkey year as predicted by the Buddha Shakyamuni. It is also believed that his life mission was, and remains, to improve the spiritual condition of all living beings. And so on this day, Hemis observes a major extravaganza in his memory - that is the Hemis Festival. The observance of these sacred rituals is believed to give spiritual strength and good health.  The highlight of the festival are the mask dances.  They certainly are a sight to behold.

Let the festivities begin!  More on the Hemis Festival in the next posting!