We got lucky two weeks ago, when I was leading a tour in Spiti Valley with a group of photography enthusiasts. The monastery at Ki Village had decided to celebrate their annual festival on the dates that coincided our visit. Unlike in Ladakh, where festivals are planned well in advance and you can work your visit around them, monasteries in Spiti plan the festivals at a short notice. We had the good fortune to be there at the right time. Some images from the fest.
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A monk rehearses for the cham dances on the evening before the festival at the monastery premises. One of the key elements of the monastic festival is the cham dance, in which the monks perform a series of dances wearing very exotic-looking costumes. Some of the dances also involve monks performing with mask symbolizing the guardian deities that can look demonic.
The festivities happen at a quadrangle next to the monastery, where the monks dance to the tune of drums, cymbals and an aerophone called Gyaling. Entry of important persons or characters is emphasized with a long vuvuzela-like instrument that make a similar sound, called dung-chen. The festival usually attracts a large number of people from nearby villages. For reasons that I did not understand, the audience were largely women, with very few men around. I rang up a few local men whom I knew and weren’t at the festival, and asked them why they weren’t around. Everyone seemed to be busy with some work or other.
The cham dances in progress.
The audience, gripped by the dances.
While the performance is in progress, these masked men, usually young brat-monks, do the job of crowd-control, holding a stick in hand and reprimanding any one who gets too close to the performers.
The congregation also offers an opportunity for vendors who line up their wares on the road leading to the monastery.
Here is a short video I made, which gives you a glimpse of the dances.