Hemis Festival

Hemis Festival

Type of Holiday: Historic, Religious (Buddhist)
Date of Observation: June or July
Where Celebrated: Ladakh, Jammu, and Kashmir (India)
Symbols and Customs: Cham, Masks, Thangka


Buddhism, one of the four largest religious families in the world, is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563-483 B . C . E .) who came to be known as Buddha, or "The Enlightened One." The basic tenets of Buddhism can be summarized in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths are 1) the truth and reality of suffering; 2) suffering is caused by desire; 3) the way to end suffering is to end desire; and 4) the Eightfold Path shows the way to end suffering. The Eightfold Path consists of 1) right view or right understanding; 2) right thoughts and aspirations; 3) right speech; 4) right conduct and action; 5) right way of life; 6) right effort; 7) right mindfulness; and 8) right contemplation.

Tibetan Buddhism is defined not only by Buddhist teachings, but also by Tibetan indigenous religious traditions and folk practices. The Hemis Festival is related to these traditions. Tibetans observe a form of Buddhism known as Lamaism, Lama Buddhism, or Tibetan Buddhism. It involves belief in evil spirits, magic, and the spirits of nature. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists.

The Hemis Festival is held every summer at the Hemis gompa (monastery) in Ladakh, a region in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, India (formerly Western Tibet), It celebrates the birth of Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rimpoche, the eighth-century Indian Buddhist teacher who brought Buddhism to the Himalayas and completed the building of Tibet's first Buddhist monastery. Padmasambhava was a Tantric Buddhist-a member of a Buddhist sect that emphasized the attainment of magical powers through the performance of certain rituals-who was brought to Tibet when the construction of its first monastery had been halted due to the presence of earthquake-causing demons. Padmasambhava used his magical powers to get rid of the demons and complete the monastery in 749, establishing himself not only as a local hero but as the father of Tibetan Buddhism.

While Hemis is not the monastery Padmasambhava helped complete, it is the largest and probably the wealthiest in Ladakh. Built in the seventeenth century and located about twenty-six miles from the town of Leh, it features a courtyard where the masked dances known as CHAM (or chaam) are performed for two days in late June-early July. According to legend, Padmasambhava was able to get rid of the evil spirits who were interfering with the construction of the first monastery by using the so-called "Black Hat Dance," one of the cham dances that is still performed during the festival. These dances, therefore, reenact the victory of Buddhism over the shamanic beliefs that characterized religion in Tibet before Padmasambhava's arrival.

Hemis is also the home of the world's largest THANGKA , or Tibetan scroll painting. Once every twelve years during the Hemis Festival, this thangka is unrolled and hung from the second story of the monastery to the accompaniment of traditional Tibetan music played by yellow-robed monks. It was last displayed during the 2004 festival and will be shown again in 2016.

Although the Hemis Festival is named after the monastery with which it has been identified since the early eighteenth century, this is not the only location where Padmasambhava's birthday is celebrated. Monasteries throughout the Ladakh region hold their own dance-drama festivals at the same time, although none of these is quite as elaborate or as widely attended by spectators from all over the world.



The cham dances originated as a ritual form of dance in pre-Buddhist Tibet, where people believed in evil spirits who could only be kept at bay by offering animal and human sacrifices. After Buddhism was introduced by Padmasambhava in the eighth century, these ritual dances were reinterpreted to show how Buddhist beliefs had triumphed over shamanism. The cham dances even managed to replace the barbarism of blood sacrifices with symbolic sacrifices involving the use of effigies that were beheaded or dismembered and spouted make-believe blood.

As seen at Hemis during the annual festival, the cham consists of a sequence of dances performed by elaborately costumed monks wearing MASKS and executing very slow movements. Each dance serves a specific purpose; for example, the Black Hat dancers-so named because of their wide-brimmed black hats-are supposed to define the outer limits of the area where the dances will be performed and to get rid of any evil spirits who may be lurking there. The next dance, performed by the Compassionate Dakinis, purifies the performance space in preparation for the arrival of the guru Padmasambhava, who wears a golden mask with a peaceful smile, and his attendants, who represent the guru's seven incarnations. Other dance groups include the Masters of the Graveyard, dressed like corpses with white masks, whose purpose is to bring about the destruction of any remaining evil spirits, and the Dharma-Protectors, who ensure the survival of goodness (dharma) by flourishing their weapons and performing movements that symbolically bind the evil spirits in chains.

Although the costumes worn by the cham dancers are often frightening, it is believed that through repeated exposure to these horrifying personifications of death and evil, Tibetan Buddhists will better understand the nature of their existence and come to accept it without fear. Because the cham dances symbolize the victory of good over evil and of belief over nonbelief, they also serve as a reminder of Buddhism's ability to overcome the fears that are common to more primitive forms of religion.


The masks worn by the CHAM dancers are more than a means of concealing the dancer's true identity. When a monk puts on the cham mask, he is believed to undergo a transformation from the human to the divine. Every movement he makes while wearing the mask is therefore no longer a human gesture but one that reveals the character of the divine or supernatural figure that he portrays.

The cham masks are designed to represent evil spirits, mythical creatures, and various Buddhist figures. Some look like skulls, grotesque monsters, and devils, while others are more benign and reassuring.


The scroll paintings known as thangkas are usually painted on cotton or linen that has been treated with animal glue and talcum powder to make it less porous. They illustrate stories from the life of Buddha or other religious figures, and they range in size from very small rectangles just a few inches long to those covering many square yards.

The Hemis thangka, which portrays various Buddhist deities but is closely identified with Padmasambhava, is embroidered on silk using special patterned stitches to give the design three-dimensional texture and depth. So highly revered is the unnamed artist who produced this huge scroll painting that his hands have been mummified and preserved as a relic at the monastery.


Bechert, Heinz, and Richard Gombrich. The World of Buddhism. New York: Facts on File, 1984. Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.


Indira Ghandi National Centre for the Arts ignca.nic.in/nl_01104.htm
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Hemis Festival

Usually in June or July
This three-day Buddhist festival takes place at the Hemis Gompa in the mountainous region of Ladakh in northern India. This is the largest gompa (monastery) in Ladakh and has gold statues, huge stone monuments of Buddha called stupas that are studded with precious stones, and an impressive collection of thangkas, or big scroll religious paintings.
The festival celebrates the birthday of Guru Padmasambhava, the Indian Buddhist mystic who introduced Tantric Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century. Tradition says he was a native of Swat (now in Pakistan), an area noted for magicians. Tradition also says he brought on an earthquake in Tibet to get rid of the demons who were delaying the building of a monastery.
The festival attracts people from throughout the mountain areas of Ladakh and Tibet—Muslims and Hindus as well as Buddhists, all dressed in their most colorful clothes. A fair springs up, with stalls selling confections, gems, and crafts.
The highlight of the festival is the Devil Dance of the monks ( see also Mystery Play of Tibet ). Demon dancers are costumed as satyrs, many-eyed monsters, fierce tigers, or skeletons, while lamas portraying saints wear miters and opulent silks and carry pastoral crooks. These good lamas, ringing bells and swinging censers, scatter the bad lamas, as they all swirl about to the music of cymbals, drums, and 10-foot-long trumpets. The dance is a morality play, a battle between good and evil spirits, and also expresses the idea that a person's helpless soul can be comforted only by a lama's exorcisms.
Jammu and Kashmir Government
Directorate of Information
Opposite Pratap Pk.
Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir 190 001 India
91-194-2452294; fax: 91-194-2452227
RelHolCal-2004, p. 220
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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Summary: Ladakh [India], June 25 (ANI): Bringing the colorful shades in the barren, the legendary Hemis festival began on Monday in Ladakh, to commemorate the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava, the eight centuries Indian Guru revered for spreading Tantrayana Buddhism throughout the entire Himalayas.
Ladakh [India], June 25 ( ANI ): Bringing the colorful shades in the barren, the legendary Hemis festival began on Monday in Ladakh, to commemorate the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava, the eight centuries Indian Guru revered for spreading Tantrayana Buddhism throughout the entire Himalayas.
Get ready for the two- day Hemis Festival that,s going to start tomorrow
Listen to the lofty mountains reverberate with sounds of instruments and chants, and let the eyes feast on a riot of colour at the two-day Hemis Festival in Leh.
Geringer Global TravelOs new 14-day Ladakh program in India visits during the Hemis Festival. Priced at $2,760 per person double, the package includes accommodations, transportation in India, guided sightseeing and more.
Ladakh's biggest and most scenic monastery Hemis Gompa becomes the stage for the Hemis Festival that celebrates the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava.
Ladakh's Hemis festival celebrations, the Amarnath Yatra and the Hangul were also featured.
Initiated and headed by the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa Rinpoche, the pilgrimage walk commenced from Manali in Himachal Pradesh on May 23 and will culminate at Hemis Monastery in Ladakh on July 3, coinciding with the popular Hemis Festival.