The centuries -old culture of Ladakh has found expression in its monuments, monasteries, oral literature, art forms and fairs and festivals. And in the time-honoured tradition of collective celebration ; every occasion -marriage , birth , harvesting or even the flowering of plants --- is marked by feasting, dancing and the singing of folk songs that form a part of its living heritage .
Visits to the major Buddhist monasteries and other cultural
or heritage sites are the principal tourist attractions of central Ladakh
. These sites, most within reach of Leh, may be visited by bus or by taxi.
Most villages and / or monasteries are provided with regular bus services
from Leh. Taxis are expensive, with fixed tariff for almost every
monastery or group of monasteries, but offer good value in terms of
comfort, convenience and time frame.
Most of the region's principle Gompas are open throughout the day and a caretaker lama is available to show visitors around. Show visitors around. Some of the less visited establishments have special opening hours, as in the case of Namgyal Tsemo, Shey Palace and the Stok Palace Museum. Check the timings in the Tourist Office before proceeding to these places. Most of the monasteries charge a small entrance fee.
The monasteries constitute the fountainhead of Ladakh's Buddhist religion and culture. Tourists are advised to respect their sanctity, shoes may have to be removed before entering some of the temples, smoking is anathema to the monastic atmosphere, while loud action and speech may disturb the tranquil ambience characteristic of such places of worship.
The religious philosophy of Buddhism, however, profound and
subtle doesn't preclude and immense joie-de-vivre among its Ladakhi
adhe-rents, and even solemn religious enactment's are made the occasion
for joyous celebration. Many of the annual festivals of the Gompa take
place in winter, a relatively idle time for the majority of the people.
They take the form of dance-dramas in the Gompa courtyards. Lamas, robed in colourful garments and wearing often startlingly frightful masks, perform mimes representing various aspects of the religion such as the progress of the individual soul and its purification or the triumph of good over evil.
Local people flock from near and far to these events, and the spiritual benefits they get are no doubt heightened by their enjoyments of the party atmosphere, with crowds of women and men, the opportunity to make new friendships and renew old ones, the general bustle and sense of occasion.
The biggest and the most famous of the monastic festivals, frequented by tourists and locals alike, is that of Hemis, which falls in July, and is dedicated to Padmasambhava, Every 12 years, the Gompa's greatest treasure, a huge Thangka - a religious icon painted embroidered on cloth is ritually exhibited. The next unveiling is due to take place in A.D. 2004.
Other monasteries which have summer festivals are Lamayuru (also early July), Phiyang and Karsha in Zanskar (11 days after Phiyang). Like Hemis, the Phiyang festival too involves the exhibition of a gigantic Thanka, though here it is done every year.
Spituk, Stok, Thikse, Chemrey and Matho all have their festivals in winter, between November and March. Likir amd Deskit (Nubra) time their festivals to coincide with Dosmoche, the festival of the scapegoat, which is also celebrated with fervour at Leh.
The New Year Festivities
Falling in the second half of February, Dosmoche is one of two New Year festivals, the other being Losar. At Dosmoche, a great wooden mast decorated with streamers and religious emblems is set up outside Leh. At the appointed time, offerings of 'Storma', ritual figures moulded out of dough, are brought out and ceremonially cast away into the desert, or burnt. These scapegoats carry away with them the evil spirits of the old year, and thus the town is cleansed and made ready to welcome the New Year.
Losar falls about the times the winter solstice, any time of the winter solstice, any time between 8th and 30th December. All Ladhaki Buddhists celebrate it by making offerings to the gods, both in the gompas and in their domestic shrines.
MAJOR FESTIVALS OF LADAKH :
The Ladakhi's believe implicitly in the influence of gods
and spirits on the material world, and undertake no major enterprise
without taking this influence into consideration.
The Lamas are the vital intermediaries between the human and the spirit worlds. Not only do they perform the rites necessary to propitiate the Gods - in private houses as well as in the Gompa temples; they also often take on the role of astrologers and oracles who can predict the auspicious time for starting any enterprise, whether ploughing the fields, or taking in the harvest, arranging a marriage or going on a journey - and advise as to the auspicious way of going about it.
The Matho Gompa Oracle
The most famous monk oracles are those of Matho Gompa. Chosen every three years by a traditional procedure, two monks spend several months in a rigorous regimen of prayer and fasting to prepare and purify themselves for their arduous role. When the time comes they are possessed by the deity, whose spirit enables them to perform feats that would be impossible to anyone in a normal state such as cutting themselves with knives, or sprinting along the Gompa's topmost parapet. On this condition, they will answer questioned put to them concerning individual and public welfare. However, the spirit is said to be able to detect questions asked by skeptical observers with the intention of testing him, and to react with frenzied anger.
Based On Local Beliefs
There are also in some villages lay people, men and women, who have special powers as oracles and healers. Some of them belong to families in which there have been several such receptacles of spirit forces. Others are diagnosed as such without any hereditary background.
The spirits possessing these lay persons are believed to be capricious, and not always entirely benevolent, and some people resist being possessed by them. Once they have accepted, however, they undergo a process of initiation and training by monks and senior of oracles, and only after this is completed may they start practising. The effectiveness of their spirit healing is an article of faith with the Ladakhis.
There is little tradition of artistic craftsmanship in
Ladakh, most luxury articles in the past having been obtained through
imports. The exception is the village of Chilling, about 19-km up the
Zanskar River from Nimo. Here, a community of metal workers, said to be
the descendants of artisans brought from Nepal in the mid-17th century to
build one of the gigantic Buddha - images at Shey, carry on their
hereditary vocation. Working in silver, brass and copper, they produce
exquisite items for domestic and religious use: Tea and Chang pots,
teacup-stands and lids, Hookah-bases, ladles and bowls and cooking pots
they need for everyday use.
'Pattu', the rough, war, woollen material used for clothing is made from locally produced wool, spun by women on drop-spindle, and woven by semi-professional weavers on portable looms set up in the winter sunshine, or under the shade of a tree in summer. Baskets, for the transport of any kind of burden-manufacture for the fields, fresh vegetables, even babies-are woven out of willow twigs, or a particular variety of grass. Woodwork is confined largely to the production of pillars and carved lintels for the houses, and the low carved tables that are a feature of every Ladakhi living room.
Many such items, together with others recently introduced as part of the development process, are available in the District Hnadicrafts Centre at Leh, which exists to train local people as well as to market their products. There one can find, in addition to traditional objects, a few special items like Pashmina shawls- rough compared with those produced in Srinagar, but soft and warm as only pure Pashmina can be: and carpets in designs and techniques borrowed from Tibet. Similar carpets are also to be had at the Tibetan Refugee Centre at Choglamsar.
The Handicrafts Centre also has a department of Thanka painting. These icons on cloth are executed in accordance with strict guidelines handed down from past generations. In the same tradition are the mural paintings in the Gompas, where semi-professionals, both monks and laymen about to keep the walls decorated with images symbolizing the various aspects of the Buddhist Way. The skill of building religious statues is also not extinct. The gigantic representation of Maitreya was installed in Thise Gompa as recently as the early 1980s.
In Leh, and many of the villages,
archery festivals are held during the summer months, with a lot of fun and
fanfare. They are competitive events, the surrounding villages all sending
teams, and the shooting takes place according to strict etiquette, to the
accompaniment of the music of Surna and Daman (oboe and drum).
As important as the archery are the interludes of dancing and other entertainment. Chang, the local barley beer, flows freely, but there is rarely any rowdiness. The crowd attend in their; Sunday best, the men invariable in traditional dress, and the women wearing their brightest brocade mantles and their heaviest jewelley. Archery may be the pretext for the gathering, but the party's the thing.
The Traditional Sport Of Polo
Polo is traditional to the western Himalayas, especially to Baltistan and Gilgit. It was probably introduced into Ladakh in the mid-17th century by King Sengge (also spelt as Singe) Namgyal, whose mother was a Balti princess. The game played here differs in many respects from the international game, which indeed, is adapted from what British travellers saw in the western Himalayas and Manipur in the 19th century.
Here, each team consists of six players, and the game lasts for an hour with a ten-minute break. Altitude not withstanding, the hardy local ponies-the best of which come from Zanskar - scarcely seem to suffer, though play can be fast and furious. Each goal is greeted by a burst of music from Surna and Daman; and the players often show extraordinary skill. For example, when starting play after a goal the scorer gallops up to midfield holding ball and mallet in the right hand, and throws the ball, hitting it in the same movement towards the opposite goal.
Unlike the international game, polo in Ladakh is not exclusively for the rich. Traditionally, almost every village had its polo-ground, and even today it is played with verve in many places besides Leh, especially in Dras (also spelt as Drass) and Chushot, a big village close to Leh. In Leh, it has been partly institutionalized with regular tournaments and occasional exhibition matches being played on the polo-ground in the takes a keen interest, especially in those matches in which a civilian team takes on the Army. Altogether, polo adds a unique kind of colour and excitement to the summer in Leh.