Mountain Spirit: Ladakh’s Magical Monastery Festivals

Fierce performances, haunting music, and stellar views at these Buddhist lamaseries.  
Yuru Kabgyat Festival Ladakh Kashmir
Music is a crucial part of Lamayuru gompa’s annual Yuru Kabgyat festival with monks playing cymbals, drums, and wind instruments. Photo: Braden Gunem/Age Fotostock/Dinodia

During Ladakh’s gompa (monastery) festivals, otherwise sleepy villages nestled in crooks of the Himalayas come alive with colour and activity. Fiercely masked dancers dramatise bloodthirsty legends, Buddhist monks chant in a hypnotic chorus, and scores of tourists and locals flock to the monasteries to watch the ritual unfold.

The most famous of these monastic festivals is the Hemis Tse-Chu (14 and 15 July), celebrated on the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava. However, every gompa in the region has its own annual celebration. At Phyang Tsedup, lamas and locals watch chhams (ritual dances) performed to the rhythm and bass of drums and pipes in the monastery’s courtyard. Around the lamasery, stalls dole out bowls of broth, Tibetan bread, and momos.

The festival of the Thiksey cloister, which is perched on a cliff 19 kilometres outside Leh, is called Thiksey Gustor (17 and 18 Nov). At the annual rituals here, lamas wear masks of the patron saints of the Gelugpa order of Tibetan Buddhism. Ladakh’s oldest and most spectacular festival is held at the Lamayuru monastery, which dates back to the 11th century. Its annual celebration the Yuru Kabgyat, will be held on 1 and 2 July, and features lamas in menacing skull-themed masks performing traditional chhams in a large courtyard. Visit for a list of Ladakhi monasteries and their festival dates.

Last updated in February 2016. Appeared in the May 2013 issue as “Mountain Spirit”.


    Neha Sumitran is Nat Geo Traveller India's perpetually hungry Web Editor. She loves exploring food markets or better still, foraging for new kitchen ingredients. She hopes to have a farm near the mountains someday. She tweets and instagrams as @nehasumitran.

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