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Ladakh Festivals - Hemis and Dak Thok

Hemis Festival. Photo courtesy of E Cullen

From the stunning mountainous landscape to the vibrant local culture, Ladakh is a truly memorable place, and a walking or trekking holiday or cultural tour, is the ideal way to experience this beautiful corner of the Himalaya in depth. One of the high points of any visit to the region is undoubtedly the chance to enjoy one of its festivals. They are the highlight of the year for the local Ladakhis, providing an excuse to dress up, socialise, drink, have fun and at the same time earn religious merit.

Hemis Festival

Taking place at Hemis Gompa, the festival is famous far beyond the borders of Ladakh. It occurs on the 9th to the 11th days of the fifth Tibetan month: July by our calendar. Lamas and monks gather during the festival to perform sacred mask dances called Chams. These highly choreographed dances, performed by monks wearing ornate, brightly-coloured costumes, signify and celebrate the triumph of good over evil. The dances are accompanied by a cacophony of drums, cymbals and horns and are the centre of the festival celebrations. Visitors can sit in the courtyard in front of the main door of the gompa (monastery) and watch the drama unfold.

The gompa itself is an important holy site. It is the largest and richest monastery in all of Ladakh and was founded in the 17th century by Stagtshang Rinchen. The second spiritual leader at the monastery, Gyalsey Rinpoche, was the founder of the Hemis Festival, and it is his portrait that is honoured on the great thangka.  Even without the festival, the gompa is a memorable stop on any holiday to Ladakh.

Our July departure of the Markha Valley Trek attends the Hemis Festival and also spends time visiting the key sights of  the Indus Valley before heading out on a classic 7-day trek.

Dak Thok Festival

The Dak Thok Monastery is situated in a village in the Indus Valley about 50km from Leh. Built in the middle of the 16th century around a sacred cave, the name Dak Thok translates as 'rock roof' and indeed, the internal roof and walls of the monastery are hewn from rock. The annual Dak Thok Festival is one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist events held in the region and is attended by large crowds of Ladakhi people dressed in their finery. It is held on the 9th and 10th days of the sixth month of the Tibetan lunar calendar - normally in August.

As with the Hemis Festival, Cham dances are performed by costumed monks and locals to the sound of drums, pipes, horns and crashing cymbals. The masks worn by the dancers represent different aspects of the wrathful and compassionate deities as well as a variety of animals, whilst the dances depict the battle between them - with good eventually triumphing. By attending the festival locals believe they will gain protection from evil things as well as receiving instruction in spiritual teachings. 

If you would like protection from evil spirits, you can join in the Dak Thok festivities on specific departures of our Gentle Walking Leh & Indus Valley holiday, our Definitive Cultural Tour of Tibet and our Stok Kangri & Markha Valley trek.

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