Today’s guest post is by Amar Grover, a London-based journalist and photographer. He writes mainly for the Financial Times Weekend Travel, the Independent on Sunday, Geographical Magazine and WEXAS Traveller. His features have appeared in a wide range of other publications. For more details, and for some of his brilliant photography, please visit his website.
It was early morning when I heard the first vaguely musical rumbles percolating through the lanes and willow trees surrounding the guesthouse. Soon enough, they resolved into distinct sounds ─ the clash of cymbals, the deep thud of a heavy drum, bleating flutes and the deep honk of some kind of horn. By now even the locals were getting excited, clearly gearing up for the day’s festivities.
Organised by the state government of Jammu & Kashmir during the first half of September and held mostly in Leh, the fifteen-day Ladakh Festival has been going strong for nearly twenty years. Designed to show case various aspects of Ladakh’s culture and timed to prolong the short tourist season, it lends a fascinating insight into one of India’s remotest and most distinctive regions.
Now, on the first day, Leh was preparing for a visual feast. The festival normally launches with a procession of Ladakh’s various ethnic and regional groups in their finest formal dress. Couples from Zanskar strolled into town wearing long golden-yellow ‘marriage suits’ and peculiar flying-saucer shaped hats. Wealthier communities from the Indus Valley around Leh sent women adorned with traditional peraks, striking long headdresses encrusted with brilliant chunks of turquoise. There were blue-and-red brocade cloaks edged with fur and gorgeous felt shoes with upturned pointy toes, and city gents sporting tall ‘stove-pipe’ hats with winged ear-muffs.
We tagged along through winding streets into Leh’s main bazaar and ended up at the old polo ground. Now a dusty expanse theatrically framed by distant mountains and the former hilltop royal palace, this ground is the setting for many of the festival’s events. There’s polo, of course, with teams like the ‘Ladakh Scouts’ and ‘Animal Husbandry’ competing for the Ladakh Festival Cup ─ and up here it’s a rompish game with few rules and a carefree gung-ho clearly favoured by the locals.
Over the following days I enjoyed archery competitions (something of a regional obsession), raucous musical ensembles and simple folk dances. In the courtyard of downtown Soma Monastery, I marvelled at monks performing elaborate cham dances. Wearing long multi-coloured robes and fearsome masks of demons and evil spirits, they twirled and whirled, ducked and wheeled about as if possessed. For Ladakhis it’s a form of spiritual guidance. For tourists it’s a great spectacle. And for both it’s also entertainment.
By Amar Grover
If you’d like information on more unique festivals around the globe, please visit our Festivals and Events page.