Having attended Day 1 of the Hemis Festival I was a little unsure what to expect from the second day. I arrived early again, and it soon became clear that it was going to be far less crowded than the previous day. This is probably not that surprising as the Dance Honouring the Eight Aspects of Padmasambhava is meant to be the highlight of the entire festival period.
The build up to the start was again both colourful and interesting. Young buddhist boys blowing conch shells from the rooftops and a cast of characters arriving and taking up their favourite positions.
With the experience of Day 1 under my belt I was able to position myself in a better place for photographs and eagerly waited for proceedings to start.
The first act of devotion consists of preparation of the high altar and the seat for the incarnate lama. Seven cups full of water, grains and butter tarmas are kept in position. The ceremony begins by unrolling the thangka of silk patch-work of the great Lama Rgyalsras Mipham Rinpoche, the great teacher and guru who established this monastery. Thangka is unrolled to the music played by lamas with yellow robes and red hats, who stand in a row in front of the small altar.
Thirteen, dancers enter the performance arena. They are led by lamas playing instruments and two hatuks, who play the role of police-jesters. The dancers carry dried barley sprigs. And as they go out they throw the sprigs all around.
Then a young lama walks in with an incense pan and fumigates the place of performance. After the dance, the stage is cleared. The focus of worship shifts inside into the prayer hall to offer worship to the deities who protect the land of Ladhak.
Worship of Rgyalpo Pehar: The Protector Deity
The monks assemble in the hall and ‘recreate’ the altar of Rgyalpo Pehar, the protectress of Hemis monastery. The Rgyaplo’s body is decorated with textiles, silk cloth, flags, streamers, ornaments and various weapons. Thangkas of Avalokets Vara goddess Tara, the sages and Padmasambhava are displayed. A long wooden altar with fine carvings is constructed and various offerings are placed in a row. A skull cup containing chang, drink made with fermented barley, is placed in the centre with cups full of water.
On the right side of the altar, rows of lamas sit on the floor unrolling their manuscripts, while opposite them a raised altar is placed where the young incarnate lama witnesses the ceremony. Rgyalpo Pehar is the Tibetan form of goddess Kali, the protectress deity of the monastery. This worship is performed solely for protection of the monastery, the people, the land, the animals and the ecology of the area. The worship goes on for one hour till Rgyalpo Pehar is propitiated and satiated.
The next performance is a complete mystery to me. If anyone reading this is able to identify it I would be extremely grateful.
Ironically it was perhaps the most colourful and varied dance of the day, clearly there’s a lot underpinning the meaning of the performance, so I’m hopeful someone out there will be able to shed light on it.
Dance of Maha Dongchen: The Bison/Buffalow Masked Deity
The Maha Dongchen, with a Bison faced Mask, and his entourage come and dance in a group, encircling the flag-staff. Two monks inscribe a triangle-mandala in blue with white and red outline. Another lama walks in with an effigy made of dough concealed with a veil. The effigy is placed in the centre of the mandala on which a mantra is inscribed. The Bison Masked figure emerges from the hall.
He dances with his troupe with symbols of death and destruction. He is accompained by eight dancers. The gruesome group in succession dance around the mandala. Four figures appear carrying a bell and a dorje accompanied by two lamas, one carries a samovar, the other four holy cups. These lamas make offerings of chang and barley grains to the four demon-deities. While the music plays on these four, empty the cups and chant the mantras, ringing their bells and swinging their dorjes. The ceremony of filling and emptying the cups is performed four times.
This dance was then joined by the characters that performed the Dance of Turdag : Masters of the Graveyard yesterday
The final episode of the dance drama displays the interplay between the teacher and the disciple. Once the ego, represented by the effigy is slain by the demon-deity with horned mask, all acts of reverence come to finality. It is now left for the tradition to remind the audience of the ‘eternal’ quality of the message sustained and preserved through a reverential teacher-pupil lineage.
This was the only performance that used young boys from the monastery, and they clearly enjoyed being involved, playing jokes with the crowd. It was the perfect way to end the two day festival.
I must again credit Indira Ghandi National Centre for the Arts from where I managed to obtain the most useful detail about the dances themselves.