Scenes from a Himalayan Festival: Part Three

The landscape. Hanle Monastery in Changthang. Picture credits: Mayank Soni

The Changpas of Ladakh have been featured in two of our previous posts, the first about the place and the second about the people, especially the children. These posts are part of our Himalayan Chai section that has been developed in collaboration with Vishwas Raj and Adventure Sindbad.

In today’s post, we bring you a photo essay from the annual festival held at the Nyoma monastery, with a brief introduction and references to the spiritual and religious activity of the Changpas, a deeply religious Buddhist community. This video provides a view from the Nyoma monastery, a typical white-washed building with wooden framed windows that is perched on a hilltop overlooking the valley. Prayer flags flutter frantically in the strong Himalayan wind during this somewhat mild weather. Monasteries in the region of Ladakh are quite unique and provide a profound connection of community feeling among the villages they serve. In an artistically illustrated feature about monasteries and monks, Bhat writes “Ladakh, the land of high passes, is also home to an ancient Buddhist culture that has remained unchanged for nearly a millennium. Every village in the region supports a monastery, usually located on a crag overlooking the village and serves the spiritual needs of the village’s population. The charm of these monasteries are many, like the ever-smiling monks, complex prayer rituals, young monks (or monklings, as a friend once called them) running around chasing each other in the monastery’s courtyards, the traditional materials of worship, the room of lamps, colourful prayer halls, exuberant festivals, the chortens (or stupas) in the premises and so on. Here is a collection of images of life and still-life of Ladakh’s Buddhist monastic institutions, captured over several visits to many monasteries over a period of three months.”

The main festival for the Changpas and Ladakh as a whole would be Losar – their new year, which occurs during the last week of December. Apart from this, each village monastery has their annual festival which happens at different times of the year. The festivals are an opportunity for social celebrations, and the festivities at Nyoma are no exception. The largely dispersed families of the Changpas come together for collective worship, fun and some marketing. Children play together with others, women and men gather around in their festive costumes, and young people get busy making friends and kindling romantic alliances.

Religion is a very important aspect of the Changpas’ lives, as they have deep faith in the protective function of regular rituals, apart from the opportunities it provides for prayer, entertainment, trade and social interaction. For their part, the monks ensure that the ceremonies are dramatic, colourful and engaging, although making sure to have in-between breaks for periodic fun and laughter to keep all ages engaged.

Big monks, little monks: The Nyoma Festival. Picture credits Adventure Sindbad

In an interesting coverage of faith and festivals in the region, Kumar discusses the place of religion among the Changpas. Their lives as nomads are hard, and in order to survive, they are compelled to eat meat. This is a fundamental violation of Buddhist tenets, and this awareness is not lost on the Changpas. They make regular atonement for this aberration, which compels them to lead a “sinful life” through devotion and prayer. The chanting of mantras is a regular activity among the Changpas, especially in the evening time, once the animals have been rounded up in their enclosures for the night. In the video, we can see that one person takes the lead, opens his prayer book, rocking back and forth singing the mantras; “one by one, the others join in, humming along” as they go about their activities. Soon, Kumar experiences that the entire home starts reverberating with the harmony of prayers that are punctuated with meanings about the place of humans on earth and the meaning of life amidst the energy of nature.

The annual monastery festivals and new year celebrations are, of course, special. Apart from the collective gatherings, the Changpa homes are also purified through a special ceremony, performed and guided by monks from local monasteries, who descend on villages to fulfill these responsibilities. The households create little figures symbolising their offerings to divine beings who inhabit the wheel of life. This wheel is believed to have different sections for divinity, negative images, humans, animals and the after life-world.

Wheel of Life as represented in Buddhism. Picture: Adventure Sindbad

Apart from seeking blessings for peace, happiness and harmony, offerings are also made to forces like greed and anger that are invoked during the ceremony for the purpose of personal and household cleansing. Tormas, little pyramind-shaped forms made of dough depict negative energies like addictions or compulsions which are all destroyed in the climax of the ceremony by burning these down. The chungpa images, also made from the same material, are offerings to the divine guru Padmasambhava and other gods. In the video, one can see the head of the household tapping his body parts with the little figures while chanting to expel negative energy from his own body. The month-long household pujas end with a village-level ceremony synchronised with the 15th day into the Tibetan New Year. Colourful flags are mounted to honour deities. As the little flags flap in the strong winter wind, prayers are believed to spread far and wide and towards divinity. For the festival, monks create elaborate tormas that will be used in prayer around a central piece of the Troma Nagmo or the fierce black one, Kumar says is the Tibetan Kali. “Every aspect of her fearful form is prepared to convey spiritual meaning”.

Village level pujas require one person from each household to be present, whereas regional pujas are large, social gatherings of all family members from the villages around. Horse races used to be a common conclusion to the festivities in the past, although now a days, few people own horses. In some ceremonies, one by one, each torma is destroyed by pelting stones from the horse riders, in a symbolic gesture to wipe-out negativity. Any idols remaining are later destroyed at the outskirts of the village to herald a fresh new year of opportunity. Until the next New Year, the families will feel protected and safe. An interesting perspective was provided by Kumar where he found that the dramatic and even frightening quality of the masks worn during such ceremonies are in fact to familiarise people to apparitions they may encounter in an after-life.

Festive times. Picture credit: Adventure Sindbad

Apart from the new year celebrations, there are local monastery festivals that bring Changpas in surrounding villages together. This is a first hand account of the Nyoma annual festival which was attended by Vishwas himself.

The monastery festival is a source of much activity for everyone, from the youngest children to teenagers and older people. Food and drink are enjoyed from the food stalls set up around the area. Every monastery has a courtyard with a big flagpole. The Lamas, who organise the festivities, dress in elaborate colourful garments and perform sombre ceremonial dances that have profound religious significance. Vishwas commented that to him, it appeared that not everyone seemed to know the detailed significance of the dances, and it appeared that the community had entrusted the ritual activity with the monks who prepare for elaborate rituals with that responsibility. Many of the dances are slow and serious, as the monks move around the central decorated flagpole. The festivals goes on from morning till evening and generally lasts for two days with a grand finale. The crowd gather around the courtyard and children can be seen in eager anticipation, dressed and ready for the ceremonies. These monastery festivals also provide opportunity for young people to find friends, even romantic encounters that can be initiated at this time of celebration.

Little Monk! Little Monk!

Most big monasteries have young students who enrol to become monks and they participate in the rituals of the festivals. In Nyoma particularly, the little monks or lamas play an important role of keeping the community entertained, served and attended to. In between the sombre dancing with serious mudras and expressions, the younger monks jump in, sometimes wearing oversized masks that instantly raise a lot of laughter. Playing along with the comic impact they have on the audience, these children play tricks on and gently tease members of the audience, also serving them butter tea and prasad in between. Vishwas noticed that their pranks provide a welcome break to the seriousness of the ritual dances. The little monks also offer silk scarves as blessings to people, and along with that, they also invite donations from the audience, which are readily handed over to them. Although the scarves are supposed to be left with the people, the little ones sometimes pull them away in jest.

Pictures: Credits Adventure Sindbad

The central flagpole, the lamas and audience at Nyoma
Elaborate costumes provide a riot of colour against the desert landscape
Celebrating community spirit
Little monks with big masks!
Preparing for the playful interlude
Distributing tea and prasad

A little monk surprises a lady from behind by putting the khatak on her
The audience
Entertaining the audience
On the run!
Distributing silk scarves
Playful pranks!

The place of children in our lives

Children have a very special place in our lives and this is demonstrated by the festivities of the Nyoma Monastery as well. The Changpas live under difficult conditions and the hardship of their lives generates a great deal of respect for the community. Ceremony and prayer guided by the beliefs of Buddhism focussing on peace, harmony and brotherhood towards others as well as the ecology, are amply expressed in the mantras they chant every day. Collective ceremonial responsibilities are fulfilled by monks from monasteries that guide the community. In these serious preoccupations, we find from this illustration of Nyoma monastery, that the little monks, children who are enrolled to be trained as lamas, inhabit a space between solemnity and amusement. The lighthearted cameos performed by the children play a special function in the annual festivals, the role of keeping the joy of life and its fun intact even while conducting the most profound ceremonies.

We end with a big thank you to Adventure Sindbad, Vishwas Raj and Tamchos Namgyal, for providing us with these illustrations, and to Vishwas also for a final reading of this essay and use of pictures. Also, our respect and gratitude towards the Changpas needs to be acknowledged for having taught us so much about family life, childhood, survival and sustenance amidst the beauty of the Himalayan desert regions of Ladakh.

A little lama with a Mask

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