One of the highlights of my winter trip to Ladakh was the opportunity to attend the Gustor Festival at the Spituk Monastery in Ladakh. This year it was held on 7th and 8th January. As it falls in winter it is attended by the locals in large numbers, tourists were in minority!
It is said that Buddhism was introduced in Ladakh in 200 BC during the reign of King Ashoka. The census of 2011 puts 66% of the population in Leh as Buddhist. Monasteries are important religious and cultural centers.
The winters are harsh in Ladakh. In January the maximum temperature would often be in single digit and minimum in double digit minus! A festival in such a weather is just what is need to cheer up.
Gustor is a religious festival where lamas perform cham or mask dances. Cham is a choreographed dance performed only by lamas. The dances symbolize the destruction of evil spirits. The festival ends by burning an effigy which is a symbol of destruction of evil. Some of the dances are performed in pairs where the deity appears with a consort. Some dances are performed in a group.
The masks can represent fiery, benign and pleasant spirits. Animal masks are also used. The masks are made of clay and paper. They are painted with natural colors and polished with gold and silver. The dress is usually silk and brocade. It is said that the masked dances have existed since 8th century AD in Ladakh. The dances are performed by monks to the tunes of long horns, cymbals, conch shells, bells and many other instruments.
Our soft spoken guide Tashi told us to go early to the Spituk Monastery as it would get crowded during the day. And he was absolutely right. At the monastery there is a statue of Goddess Kali which is open to public only on the Gustor Festival days. When I went in it was not crowded. But while we were walking out in the afternoon for lunch, the queue was spilling down to the middle stairs.
The good folks had cordoned off a small seating area all for us marked as media. We had the balcony seats. The Grand Dragon Hotel (my sponsor for the trip) had sent in kahwa too. We were all set to enjoy the festival.
As the day progressed the place got more and more crowded. I had a gala time watching the cham dances and crowd watching.
At Gustor Spituk the tourists were in minority. This couple from Japan was sitting next to me on the Delhi-Leh flight. I had the window seat. I offered to click pictures for them too. They were very happy with the results. However, they spoke very little English so we couldn’t talk. I was happy to spot them at the festival too and on our return flight as well!
It was a feast to watch the dances and be amidst the incredible energy that the crowd and the music was generating. It was a jolly crowd.
Around 1.00 pm it was time for lunch. Our lunch was at the hotel! It was time to get out of the courtyard. Our original plan was to come back in the second half again.
By now even the windows were taken. It was a task to get out! We really has to squeeze our way through the crowd. It was an extremely well behaved crowd, there was simply no space to march out! I was so happy after I managed to get out in the open. I also have a very practical point to make. Regulate your water intake or taking a loo break is also going to be tough. Looking at the crowd we didn’t go back in the second half!
Gustor Festival at Spituk is the first monastery festival I have watched. I wish I get to see many more!
PS. I was invited to Ladakh in winter by the Grand Dragon, Ladakh.
When you get to visit Ladakh within the first ten days of a new year you know it started on the right note. Ladakh is really special for me. It was the first place I wrote about on this blog! My life looked up after I visited Ladakh in 2005, I am hoping for something similar after this visit a decade later! To begin with here is Ladakh in winter in pictures!
The Hosts- Grand Dragon Ladakh
My hosts for this trip were The Grand Dragon Ladakh. With the temperatures in minus for most of our stay, I appreciated my centrally heated room a lot! This post is an overview of my trip. You will get to read in detail about the various aspects of visiting Ladakh in winter later! I am so grateful to the Grand Dragon and their PR partners for providing me a fabulous start to 2016!
My room faced the Sotk Range of mountains. This was the view I woke up to daily. As Leh is at the height of 11,500 feet we took the first day easy and just lounged about in the hotel!
Day 1- Gustor Festival at Spituk Monastery, Shanti Stupa, Leh
One of the highlights of our trip was attending the first day of the Gustor festival at the Spituk Monastery. In a crowd of thousands there must have been about 40 odd tourists, out of which our group contributed 14 members! The mask dance festival was attended primarily by the locals!
Shanti Stupa, Leh
Our second stop for the day was at the Shanti Stupa in the evening. With the temperatures firmly in minus, it was cold! I was happy to head back to the heated car and the heated hotel!
Day 2- Chilling, Alchi and Lamayuru
We had a long day on Day 2 and I was looking forward to it! Our first stop was supposed to be Chilling, the starting point of the Chadder Trek. But as the Border Roads Organization (BRO) was blasting about 10 km before Chilling we had to give up our quest but not before we saw the beautiful Zanskar River trying hard to freeze.
We stopped at Lamayuru Village first. It has a fabulous monastery where we were the only visitors! It is beautiful as any village in Ladakh!
Alchi is one of the oldest monastery in Ladakh. It has four complexes with stunning paintings on its walls. To preserve it, no photography is allowed inside it.
Beautiful Vistas on Day 2
Day two was equally memorable for the beautiful landscapes we saw all along our drive. We gave the drivers a very tough time, asking them to stop almost at every bend! This was somewhere near Lamayuru!
Our young driver Tashi was extremely patient with us. On this day I was sharing the car with fellow bloggers Swati and Sam and we had a wonderful time!
Day 3- Thiksey and Chemdey Monasteries
We attended the morning prayers at the Thiksey Monastery to start the Day 3. While this was not the first occasion when I attended the prayers at a monastery it was certainly a first in the winter! It was followed by the breakfast at a local village nearby.
Chemdey Monastery, Ladakh
We shared the Chemdey Monastery with a few locals. There were no tourists other than us! It was certainly cold but it was a pleasure to have almost the whole Ladakh to us!
Our last official stop was at the home of a local oracle. But we made many unofficial stops while coming back to the hotel!
This in nutshell was my first trip of 2016. I am blessed that I got to see winter in Ladakh with my base at the luxurious Grand Dragon Hotel. I will write separate, detailed posts on each of the aspects of this cherished trip. But to begin with, I could not resist showcasing the pictures from the entire trip!
I started my India travel blog, Travel Tales from India in 2005. In 2016 I realized Travel Tales from India and Abroad better reflected my writings. I love to walk and ride in metros around the world. I have not been everywhere, I am not even close, but it is on my list. I also quite my job as a professor in 2015, it was a happening year! I did a Ph.D. from IIT Kanpur ages ago!
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