The Himalayas of India:  Ladakh and Dharamsala, Summer 2008
Ladakh -  Leh Mosque, The Amazing Hemis Festival
Page 6 of 16


Delek and I ate at a Punjabi dhaba in Karu, on the other side of the Indus River from Hemis Monastery, where I would return to see the Hemis Festival just days from now.

And across the street from the dhaba was...this.  "TEA STALE" this truth in advertising?

This was our third and final trip, and I was sorry to see Delek go.  The trips had been set up by Dorjai at Traveller's Paradise and were well run.  Upon my return to Leh, Dorjai and I chatted for an hour and a half over chai.  He had known about the writing on the Tangtse boulders, and looked with fascination at all the photos.

11 July - Everywhere you go within India's borders, including Ladakh, you see diversity.  Cultural diversity, religious diversity.  And a fine illustration of this are Buddhist prayer flags strewn across the front of the mosque in Leh.

I spoke to Lisa for half an hour.  She was upset.  Waylon the cat was not feeling well and had a cancerous growth on his neck.  I again felt sad and awkward to be away from Lisa and Waylon.  I kept having this thought that from now on, we'd only get tortoises for pets.  I considered the logistics of leaving early.

I had my shoelace repaired from someone from the Punjab, ate spaghetti bolognese at Gesmo's, and wrote postcards.  I thought it humorous that spaghetti bolognese was far more plentiful here in Leh than where I lived.


12 July - It was early Saturday morning, and I arrived early for the Hemis Festival, 250Rs ticket in hand.  But the ticket was a colossal waste of money.  I got kicked out of every single spot that I tried to stay at, and after an hour, I simply didn't bother showing the ticket and wandered wherever I pleased.  Since I was going to get shuffled around anyway, I figured I'd at least choose my spots. I got much better vantage points, although I also became extremely wet and muddy.  I was pushed and shoved constantly by the surging crowds, and at one point had a Ladakhi man literally sit down on my shoulders while I was sitting on the wet stone courtyard taking photos.

The crowd was kinetic, moving constantly, pushing and shoving to get better views.  Some Ladakhis had traveled hundreds of kilometers to see this annual festival, and they were not to be denied.  They were not being rude; it was simply what anyone had to do to see anything at all.  And under these circumstances, it's miraculous that I got so many good photographs as I did, but there are some advantages to being 184cm tall (6' 1").


The long Tibetan horns kick off the Hemis Festival.

Thumping drums, echoing horns and clattering cymbals in close proximity didn't sit well with this young monk. 

However, since I wasn't sitting as close, I was captivated by the hypnotic rhythms and chanting resonating in the courtyard and the one-legged slow-motion movements of the Hemis dancers.


This is one of three photos that were selected for the Top 100 travel photos in the 2009 Photo Issue of the Los Angeles Times!

The devout in the audience fingered their mala beads while watching the performance, devoted to the birth of Guru Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to these far Himalayan reaches of the world,  Many of these people had traveled from the farthest corners of Ladakh to attend the festival.

This Ladakhi woman continually spun her prayer wheel, sending its prayers spinning to the heavens with each revolution.  Hemis Festival was not only fascinating for its performance, but for people-watching.

It began to rain again.  The crowd squished in.  I was squeezed between Ladakhis and two photographers from Singapore.  We were soaked and muddy and squished.  Still, shooting between moving people while being jostled constantly, I managed to squeeze off a few shots of the performance, such as these next six photos, often shooting the gap between people like threading a needle.  Miraculously, some of them actually came out well.

Reenacting key scenes commemorating the birth of Guru Rinpoche, or Padmasambhava, an Indian sage revered for bringing Buddhism to the far-off Himalayan regions.

The dancing mostly involved hopping one foot slowly while wearing colorful garb and boldly colored masks.  And while in rehearsal two and a half weeks ago, it looked silly, with the epic drums and horns, the slow-motion dancing took on a mesmerizing, surreal quality.  The music is of the moment and place - I'm not convinced it translates well to recordings played in one's iPod as well.

More scenes from the Hemis Festival on 12 July.

The Hemis Festival performer gives a bit of attitude towards his courtiers.

A row of performers sat in a row as part of the next performance.  I caught a photo of one of them looking back briefly at the audience, managing to squeeze the shot off between a woman holding a crying baby, a Ladakhi man spinning a prayer wheel while walking, and the mud and the rain, again shooting the gap between people.

One of the Hemis Festival performers interacts with the young monk.

The performers broke for lunch.  For most, it was time to walk past the concession stands and get some noodles and drink.  For others, it was time to spin the prayer wheels.

A Ladakhi woman in traditional hat and dress peruses the concession stand, the awning overhead imbuing her with a deep shade of blue.

I made my way past the stands to the monastery restaurant below.  I devoured the giant pile of steaming hot vegetable noodles and began realizing just how exhausted and hungry I was.  I decided to go up the upper roof.  I realized that I'd probably get kicked out again, but if I could grab a chair for a moment on the upper roof or even get away from the crowds from an hour or two, I'd feel much better.

The Himalayas of India:  Ladakh and Dharamsala, Summer 2008
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