Colourful monastery festivals in Ladakh and Zanskar

A two-day riot of colour, dance and music, a monastery festival is an important event in the social life of the people of Ladakh and Zanskar. These monastery festivals are the perfect way to build social camaraderie among the far-flung villages of the high altitude regions – Ladakh and Zanskar valley. These festivals are lined up in the monasteries of Zanskar and Ladakh in the summer months.
A two-day riot of colour, dance and music, the Sani monastery festival is the perfect way to build a social camaraderie among the far-flung villages of the Zanskar valley.
Over the years, the Hemis festival has become the most popular monastery festival in the entire Ladakh and Zanskar regions.

The festival that we attended was in the Zanskar valley. A village called Sani, 6 km before Padum – the headquarters of Zanskar, was hosting its monastery festival when we visited the Zanskar valley in July. Sani monastery, we were told, is the oldest monastery in Zanskar.

Music, dance, colour, masks and above all, victory of the good over evil – the monastery festival has it all.

People from all around Zanskar come to Sani for this festival. A photographer’s delight, this festival sees attendees even from countries like Japan and the United States besides a large number of Europeans.

Sani festival is the biggest events in Zanskar.

People from all around Zanskar – Padum, Karsha, even as far as Phuktal come to Sani for this monastery festival.

Monastery festivals are a photographer’s delight. We saw many photographers from countries like Japan and the United States, besides a large number of Europeans.

Ironically, we were the only non-local Indians at this monastery festival!

For the two days of the festival, every household in this Zanskar village was full of guests. We were staying in a typical Zanskar homestay with a local family of Sani village. They had over for dinner, a lot of their relatives from other villages of Zanskar. Us and a few other tourists staying there got to experience the wonderful hospitality of the people of Zanskar.

Women hold the Katha at the monastery festival.

Women hold "Katha" - the white scarf, to welcome the chief guest at the Sani monastery festival. A two-day riot of colour, dance and music, the Sani Festival is the perfect way to build a social camaraderie among the far-flung villages of the Zanskar valley.

All over Zanskar valley, guests are welcomed with this white scarf. It is a mark of friendship and honour.

Experiencing a monastery festival is not only about the songs and dances that follow. It is, in a way, a melting pot of the present day culture of Zanskar. An ideal place to observe the nuances of the daily life of the people of Zanskar, their social interactions as well as the changes that time has brought about.

Simple life of the people of Zanskar how to travel to Zanskar valley

All hail the Khandoma!

Khandoma, was the chief guest at the Sani festival. She is the wife of the Lama from Bhutan, a very respected personality.

Khandoma, was the chief guest at this monastery festival. She is the wife of the Lama from Bhutan. This Lama is believed to take reincarnation. This makes her a very respected personality.

Music is in the air! The festival resonates with the beats and rhythms of several musical instruments.

Music is in the air!

The monastery festival resonates with the beats and rhythms of several musical instruments.

Music from the traditional instruments like Dhamal, Yelling and Nga sets the tone for the events that follow.

The dances of the monastery festival

This is the inaugural dance of the Sani festival. Known as Bapa, it is a celebratory dance, performed after killing the enemy. These masked dances are the most awaited events of the Sani festival.

This is the inaugural dance of the monastery festival.

Known as Bapa, it is a celebratory dance, performed after killing the enemy. These masked dances are the most awaited event of any monastery festival.

The lamas wear masks symbolising Gods as well as demons and perform these dances. The dances are actually prayers in a trance-like motion.

This is Cham, the war dance of the Sani festival. In this dance, the brave warriors kill the enemy with the arrows that are hidden in their sleeves.

This is Cham, the war dance of the monastery festival. In this dance, the brave warriors kill the enemy with the arrows that are hidden in their sleeves.

A monastery festival really is an explosion of dance and colours.

Masks of Gods and demons at monastery festival

This mask symbolises the good (God) that wins over the evil (demon) at the Sani festival. The demon getting killed by the God is the underlying theme of all the dances in the festival.

This mask symbolises the good (God) that wins over the evil (demon).

Notice the third eye on the forehead here, reminiscent of the third eye of Shiva according to Hindu mythology.

The parallels between the Padmasambhava sect of Buddhism followed in the Zanskar valley and Hinduism are un-missable.

This is the mask of the demon in the Cham dance at the Sani festival hosted by the Sani monastery. The demon getting killed by the God is the underlying theme of all the dances in the festival.

This is the mask of the demon in the Cham dance at the monastery festival. The demon getting killed by the God is the underlying theme of all the dances in the festival.

With masks like these, the demons sure do look scary!

The bridal dance at the monastery festival

The most celebrated event of the Sani festival is the bridal dance. All the newly wed brides of the Sani village, arrive all dressed up in the whole bridal finery.

The most celebrated event of the monastery festival is the bridal dance.

All the newly wed brides of this Zanskar village, arrive all dressed up in the whole bridal finery.

The bridal dress is rather elaborate, turquoise being the dominant colour. The head-gear studded with turquoise stones is called Perakh. Similar gear covering the ears is known as Skorshey. A bright scarf on the back with golden designs in called Yogar or Bok.

Wearing all of this, weighing several kilos more than their own weight, the brides perform a ceremonial dance. The local Zanskar folks then greet them with Kathas, the white scarf, congratulating them and wishing them well.

Top tips for attending a monastery festival in the Zanskar valley

  • All the monasteries in Zanskar have different dates for when they host the monastery festival. The exact dates can be found out at The official website of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Leh.
  • Except Padum, all the other villages in the Zanskar valley are not equipped with tourist facilities. This is an excellent opportunity to experience the local life of Zanskar, live with a family and share stories.
  • Alternatively, you can hire a local taxi to take you back to Padum after the monastery festival.
  • There might be some jokes made at your expense. Even if you are an Indian, you will still be considered (rightly so!), an outsider to the Zanskar valley. Take it all in the right spirit.
  • Lastly, go easy on the free flowing chang! Remember: Zanskar valley is in the higher altitude Greater Himalayas. Alcohol is not your best friend at these altitudes.

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Sandeepa and Chetan. Married. Indians. Exploring Travel as Lifestyle. Featured by National Geographic, Yahoo. We hope that through our travel stories we inspire others to make their dream into a reality.

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27 thoughts on “Colourful monastery festivals in Ladakh and Zanskar

  1. Lenaic

    Hello,
    I plan a trip in Zanskar in june 2017, and I would love to assist to a festival. Do you know if there is a festival in June 2017 ?

    Thank you.

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  4. 2travellingsisters

    Such mesmerizing pictures, took our breath away! Looks like the spirit of festivity was all around…

  5. Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay

    This is a wonderful post, very informative with some amazing bright and colorful pictures. I admit that I had no clue hat even such a place existed, let alone having such a festival. This diversity within J&K was completely unexpected and a pleasant surprise!

    Thanks ..

  6. corneliaweberphotography

    Just an amazing post with most beautiful images and that great text. Thank you for sharing

  7. Priyanka

    Vibrant images. Great detail. It’s such a co-incidence I spent all evening yesterday trying to draw out an itinerary for a Ladakh trip, and today you write so elaborately on the place! 🙂