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.
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.
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.
All hail the Khandoma!
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
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.
A monastery festival really is an explosion of dance and colours.
Masks of Gods and demons at monastery festival
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.
With masks like these, the demons sure do look scary!
The bridal dance at the monastery festival
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.
Need help planning your trip to Ladakh and Zanskar?
Map for the journey from Kargil to the Zanskar valley
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