A Winter in Ladakh : Masked dances at Spituk Monastery

Spituk has been a place of historical importance for centuries in Ladakh; it was the transit point for the lucrative pashm (wool of Pashmina goats) trade from Tibet to Kashmir. It is also religiously significant – (a) The lama of Spituk Monastery is the Gelugpa head for all of Ladakh and (b) Kicking off the masked (chham) dances in the new year.

Their faces suggested Changpas and they were pleasantly surprised an outsider had guessed that correctly; having come all the way from the frigid cold of the Changthang.
The immaculate azure blue skies with the du-khang (prayer hall) of Spituk Monastery in the backdrop.

I had been hopping around lesser known sights of Ladakh and was made to feel like a celebrity for the distinction of being the only tourist in buses and shared transport going to those sites in the dead of winter. It was crazy cold walking on the frozen Pangong Tso and maybe that had prepared me to bear any kind of cold for the rest of my long winter trip to Ladakh. 

First glimpse of the exquisite Thangka; the crowd roared and egged the volunteers on to unveil it.

Spituk Gompa was originally founded in the 11th Century and has a fine temple dedicated to the goddess Tara with exquisite statues of her 23 manifestations. Locals told me that entry inside the Mahakal Temple (Kali Temple) near the monastery is only allowed for the duration of 2 days of the Spituk Gustor; i.e. I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time.

The young and the old; entire villages attend the masked dance festivals in Ladakh where religion plays an important role.

It was a sunny day and after a quick breakfast at my homestay in Leh, I walked to the main road. I had been hitchhiking with a great rate of success and today didn’t disappoint either; within no time I got a ride till the main road before the road to the Gompa diverges.

Spectacular setting for the Spituk Gustor. Ladakh in winter is pure delight.

Immediately a festive atmosphere greeted me; what I was surprised about was the silence that prevailed even though everyone was trying to transact business. It could have been Zen; there were Changpa nomads visiting with their families from the Changthang and complained about the warmth of the sun in Leh to be too hot for them. I smirked, it was easily -10 degrees!

Volunteers in charge of keeping the crowds in check and prevent them from falling over from the dizzy open terraces.

About the masked dances :

Dancing and swaying to a collection of sounds; a scary looking masked lama.

Although I had read a little about the masked dances and had seen a few in Spiti & on earlier trips to Ladakh, this one just felt authentic. I was perplexed to not understand head or tail of the dance when it started and sensing my discomfort, a guide who was accompanying a Dutch group of old women came up to me and explained to me the finer points of the Chham dance. Excerpts :

A benign mask; this performance was a calmer affair.

Gustor marks the victory of good over evil and celebrates the birthday of Tsong Khapa, founder of the Gelugpa sect. It is a two-day festival, lamas perform elaborate and colourful sacred dances. The masked dances provide a link between popular and esoteric Buddhism. These events of vibrant expression of cultural and religious values are attended by lamas and also general village folk who come to see from far-flung villages. It gives them a reason to meet each other and exchange news from Ladakh.

A chham dance at Spituk Monastery in Ladakh.

Significance of the masks :

The dancers, representing divine or mythological figures, wear colourful brocade robes and colourful masks as they perform ceremonial dances in the monastery courtyard. Most masks are gory looking and scary, while some are benign and pleasant. The fierce masks are actually the Bodhisattvas in their wrathful form.

Beautifully dressed in colourful brocade and perhaps silk, lamas seem to be in a trance in the masked dances.

On the second day, a human figure made out of dough is dismembered that marks the end of the Gustor. This signifies the destruction of evil in the soul while scattering the destroyed human figure shows the merging of the human body into the elements at the end of its physical existence.

Everyone looks with rapt attention and an unwinking gaze.

It turned out that I had arrived early and that gave me a chance to roam around and check the hidden alleys. There were 10 chairs kept for tourists and for a long time I remained the only outsider on that vantage point. I had gaped open mouthed at the temple of Goddess Tara and froze in fear looking at the scary statues in the Kali Mata temple.

Surreal landscape with a thin layer of mist descending on earth early in the morning as I walked to occupy my special seat.

After the cancellation of the Chadar Trek due to reasons beyond anyone’s control, there were a sizeable number of tourists in Leh without a plan and a masked dance only 10 kms away should normally have been a lovely day out. Without being judgemental, I thought Indians weren’t really interested in the culture of Ladakh and perhaps were more keen on having some Facebook worthy selfies! A group of Dutch tourists came and put me out of my misery of being the centre of attraction.

Just amazed at the size of this beautiful Thangka; the crowd turns back to see it only once a year.

First, the giant thangka was unveiled. Four men pulled the ropes to the boisterous clapping from the crowds showing a huge and beautiful thangka. Then lamas made special prayers to ward off evil spirits from disrupting the festival. The setting was immaculate; crowds swelled under the azure blue skies surrounded by mountains full of smooth snowy peaks. Dapper looking Ladakhi school boys operating as volunteers were smartly dressed in maroon robes.

I wish I had a bigger lens to zoom in and capture portraits of this cute kid!

The dungchen were being made ready; they are the 12 foot long copper and brass instrument that make a deep sound and also signify the beginning of the festival. The sun was now directly overhead and the crowd had come close to eruption when the first masked lamas danced down the stairs. A raucous cheer came from the crowd.

Future Lama : The kid seems to be trying to imitate the lama doing the dance.

It was unclear who gave the energy to whom; the powerful crowd to the dancing Lamas or the frenzied Lamas to the crowds. 

The full entourage just before lunch break was announced.

First genteel looking masks; then grotesque and scary. The volunteers told me that these masked dances showed the journey of the soul after a person’s death. There were meant for our eyes to see and mind to comprehend so that our soul doesn’t get frightened after death and gets liberated. It seemed that even in Ladakhis there were various interpretations of these chham dances.

Just when you thought that this place couldn’t accommodate any more…

Ladakhis are never far away from a drink and Chhang (barley beer) flowed freely outside the monastery compound. Word spread that people had gathered to play Tambola when the crowd had began to feel restless around 2 in the afternoon and lunch was signalled.

Curious onlookers while the lama playfully thunders down the timeless stairs of Spituk Monastery.

Walking down the hallowed stairs from the other side, I could see a sea of chortens and tambola and other games in full swing. Ladakhis bet a lot of money in these games and in their well natured humour laughed happily even when they lost.

There was the small matter of a lunch invitation from Spituk’s royal family that I had to attend to.

Chogtse : The low tables in most Ladakhi households with brilliant dragon wooden carvings; a full five course lunch with Gajar halwa for dessert! Yay

Jullay. Khamzang Ena Lay?!

More reading from Winter in Ladakh :

Khardung La in Winter : Part 2

Walking into the past along the frozen Indus in Ladakh

Practical tips for winter travel in Ladakh

Musings from the one home village of Yurutse at 4200m

Frozen in Markha Valley

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