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Festivals and other events

Hemis Tseschu festival

Hemis Tseschu is held on the 10th and 11th days of the 5th Tibetan month in the Hemis monastery, one of the largest and most famous monasteries, belonging to the Drukpa Kagyu order. Tse-chu is the name of the 10th day (tshes bcu) of a Tibetan month, which is dedicated to Padmasambhava, an Indian Buddhist master invited to Tibet to spread Buddhism and to teach the tantras. He is known in Tibet as Guru Rinpoche, which means "Precious Master", and regarded as the "second Buddha". The 10th day of each Tibetan month commemorates one of the twelve essential episodes of Padmasambhava's life. According to the Drukpa Kagyu tradition, the 10th day of the 5th Tibetan month is regarded as the birthday of Padmasambhava. This day, Padmasambhava was born as an eight-year-old child appearing in a lotus blossom floating in Lake Dhanakosha, in the ancient kingdom of Oddiyana. The name Padmasambhava means "Lotus-born", while his other name Tsokyé Dorje means "Lake Born Vajra".

Padmasambhava was born several years after the parinirvana of Buddha Shakyamuni. According to the different traditions, his birth took place in either an Earth Monkey or a Wood Monkey year by the Tibetan calendar. For this reason, every Monkey year, which comes once in a cycle of 12 years, the Hemis Tseschu festival is held with great extravaganza. This event is marked by the grand display of a huge thangka (about 4 storeys high) of Guru Padmasambhava that attracts hordes of people from all over the world. This is the largest thangka in Ladakh. It is a marvelous silk patchwork made around 1750-1760 by Zopa Pale, an artist and craft master, the most renowned artisan of that time [2]. The thangka was commissioned by Mipham Tsewang Thrinley Tenzin Migyur Dorje who is more commonly known as Gyalse Rinpoche (rgyal sras means "Prince"). He was a grandson of the King Delden Namgyal. Gyalse Rinpoche was educated by the Second Taktsang Repa and later received all the transmissions and empowerments of the Drukpa lineage from the great masters in Tibet. He enlarged Hemis, constructed the main assembly hall, the courtyard for sacred dances ('cham ra) and introduced the annual Tseschu festival. The last time of the great thangka unfolding was in 2016. Now it will be kept hidden for another 12 years until 2028, the Earth Monkey year.

Two other huge appliqué thangkas (about 2 storeys high) are shown during the festival annually. These are images of Gyalse Rinpoche (identifiable by his beard) and of Kunkhyen ("the All-Knowing") Pema Karpo, who was the 4th Gyalwang Drukpa, head of the Drukpa lineage.

The day before the official opening of the festival, the monks decorate the monastery. It is also possible to see the rehearsal of the dance program, which is performed by the monks without wearing the masks. The festival takes place in the courtyard in front of the main entrance gate of the monastery. The Cham dances start around 10 a.m. on the first festival day. They proceed according to the following schedule.

Day 1 program.

1. Tsamchot (Black Hats). Tsamchot (mtshams gcod) literally means "establishing the boundaries". Thirteen monks in the broad-brimmed black hats (shwa nag) and colorful dress made of silk and brocade dance their way round the courtyard clockwise. Each of them carries a phurba (ritual dagger) in the right hand and a bandha (skull cup) in the left hand. Each dancer is given a few sprigs of dried sacred herb by a lama, and then they slowly make their way to the exit. The purpose of this tantric dance is to dispel evil forces and mark out the exterior limits of the Cham performance space. According to one version, the Black Hat costume is that worn by Guru Rinpoche, and the Black Hat dancers display his activity. Guru Rinpoche performed the Cham dance to prepare the ground at Samye for the first Tibetan monastery. Other tradition identifies the Black Hat dancers with ngakpa (sngags pa) – practitioners of Mantra, Buddhist yogis. On the other hand, the popular tradition equates the Black Hat costume and dance with ancient Bon-po priests and with episode of the assassination of king Langdarma, who persecuted Buddhism in Tibet in the ninth century, by a Buddhist monk Palgyi Dorje, who was dressed in a black Bon-po garb. However, this version is likely incorrect [6].

2. Jin Beb (Copper Masks). Jin Beb (byin 'bebs) means "bringing down the blessings". Sixteen monks dressed as dakinis in brass masks enter the arena of the performance. Dakinis represent the suite of Vajravarahi (Dorje Phagmo). Each of them holds a damaru and a bell in their hands. They dance in slow steps around the central pole chanting the mantra of Padmasambhava "Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum". They purify the space, the objects of worship, the teachers and disciples and invoke the blessings. This dance is popularly known as "Copper Masks" (zangs 'bag).

3. Guru Rinpoche and His Eight Manifestations. This is the most spectacular episode of the whole performance. It consists of a series of successive scenes and dances. The coming of Guru Rinpoche and his eight manifestations is accompanied by an imposing procession: two monks bearing incense pots, two masked monks blowing trumpets (rgya gling), two monks playing long horns (dung chen), two monks playing drums, two monks carrying Pushud (a sort of flag), a masked monk with fan and several clowns.

Then the monk wearing the golden mask of Guru Rinpoche enters the courtyard. He looks similar to the big image of Guru Rinpoche in Hemis Guru Lhakhang. He wears a lotus hat and holds a vajra and a bandha. A disciple carries a huge yellow parasol for the Guru.

Then the Eight Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche (gu ru mtshan brgyad) wearing masks of different colors and different appearance come to the courtyard and sit down on the chairs prepared for them. Their details are presented in the table:

No Name Color of mask Appearance Attributes Description
1 Orgyen Dorje Chang ("Vajra-Holder from Oddiyana") Blue Peaceful vajra & bell Acquiring Mahayoga teachings from Vajrasattva
2 Pema Jungne, Padmasambhava ("Lotus-born") White Pandita in monks robes vajra & bandha (skull bowl) Establishing Buddhism in Tibet
3 Loden Chokse ("Wise Seeker of the Sublime") White Prince damaru (double sided hand drum) & incense pot Mastery of teachings
4 Pema Gyalpo ("The Lotus King") Red Prince damaru (double sided hand drum) & mirror Prince in Oddiyana
5 Nyima Ozer ("Rays of the Sun") Yellow-orange Mahasiddha sun symbol & khatvanga (spear) Teaching Dakinis in a charnel ground, showing miracles
6 Shakya Senge ("Lion of the Shakyas") Yellow Buddha patra (begging bowl) Receiving ordination from Ananda
7 Senge Dradrok ("The Lion's Roar") Blue Wrathful vajra & scorpion mudra Defeating tirthikas (non-buddhists) in debates
8 Dorje Drolo ("Wild Wrathful Vajra") Red-brown Wrathful vajra & phurba (dagger) Binding spirits under oath, concealing terma

Guru Rinpoche and his manifestation are companioned by the bearded "White Old Man" (mi tshe ring). This character is believed to be the patron of Guru Rinpoche or, according to other explanations, the one who knows the detailed histories of Padmasambhava. According to academic scholars, this character was introduced from Mongolia, where he was a divinity of pre-Buddhist folk religion [8].

Then two groups of 16 dancers each enter the courtyard. The first group is the sixteen Dakinis, the Copper Masks from the preceding episode. The other sixteen characters wear the red mitre-shaped head-dresses and carry a damaru and a bell in their hands. They are described as Katrinchan (bka' drin can), "Benevolent", or as "Fairies". They sit down on the ground, opposite the Eight Manifestations.

After all characters took their seats, several dances are performed. First, a group of four Heroes (dpa' bo) of the Padmasambhava's Paradise in short skirts wearing a turban with a flag attached and carrying a damaru and a bell in their hands perform the dance in honor of Padmasambhava. Then The Five Wisdom Dakinis wearing the five-lobed crowns (rigs lnga), which represent The Five Buddha Families, dance while playing their drums with curved sticks. They also praise the Guru. The part of Dakinis is played by young boys, the monastery’s novices. In the context of the festival, these characters may represent the five consorts of Guru Rinpoche (Yeshe Tsogyal, Mandarava, Shakyadevi, Kalasiddhi and Tashi Khyidren). However, according to other sources, the number of Dakinis wearing a crown is four and they represent the Heroines (dpa' mo) [1,5].

After that, the manifestations of Guru Rinpoche dance one after another. These solo dances, generally short, are followed by a group dance of the 16 Dakinis and the 16 Fairies. They pay homage to the Guru for his kindness and compassion for humankind. They recall his deeds and entreat him to come again in the future. Then all the characters re-enter the monastery.

(Here is the end of the first session)

4. Jingkyong (Dharmapala). This dance involves twelve characters. The main character is Kshetrapala (zhing skyong), "protector of fields" (charnel grounds). He is the principal activity attendant ("minister") of the six-armed (Shadbhuja) Mahakala. This wrathful character is Lion-headed and of black color. He carries a spear-flag and a skull-cup. His consort is the ferocious Lion-headed Demoness. She is of red color and carries a heart and a trident. They are accompanied by a retinue of the eight wrathful attendant deities known as the "Powerful Messengers of the Eight Classes of Spirits" (stobs ldan pho nya sde brgyad). They are as follows [2,7]:

– The "Black Ironsmith" (mgar ba nag po), the main manifestation of the oath-bound protector Vajrasadhu (Dorje Legpa). He is black in color and carries a hammer in his right hand.

- Yamaraja, the "Lord of the Dead" (gshin rje'i rgyal). He is of brown color and carries a vajra club and a rope made of human intestine.

- The "Black Nine-headed Naga Demon" (klu bdud nag po mgo dgu). He is of black color and carries a poisonous snake as a snare.

- The "Demon of Countless Distant Carnivores" (bdud po bye ba gung ring). He is of black color and carries a sword and a rope snare.

- The Lord of the btsan demons, Yamshud Marpo (yam shud dmar po). He is of red color and carries a spear-flag and a rope snare.

- The king of the srin po (Rakshasa or cannibal demons), Nara Sengha. He is of blue black color and carries a stick and an iron hook.

- The White Brahma (tshangs pa dkar po). He is of white color and carries a knife and a spear-flag.

- The "Mother Goddess", Mamo Dorje Balan (ma mo rdo rje ba lam). She is black in colour and carries a sword and a bag full of diseases.

They are followed by a couple of monkey attendants.

5. Serkyem. Serkyem (gser skyems) means "gold libation". This is a drink offering to the protector deities, a procedure which is obligatory during the ceremonies dedicated to dharmapala. It is made by an advanced lama (slob dpon) of the Hemis monastery wearing gomsha (sgom zhwa), the meditation hat of the Drukpa School, and the religious robe, carrying a vajra and a bell in hands. He stands on a special rug spread in the center of the dance area and pours the chang on the ground under the sound of incantations.

6. Durdak (Skeletons). While the dough effigy called linga (see below, the fifth episode of the second day) is placed on the ground under the piece of blue chiffon, the four Durdaks (dur bdag), the "Cemetery Lords", appear in the courtyard. They wear the skull masks and the skeleton costumes made of red cloth on which the bones are depicted by white streaks. Their dancing and tricks amuse spectators.

7. Goma (Gatekeepers). The four Goma (sgo ma bzhi) are the Four Female Gatekeepers, the animal-headed guardian Dakinis of the four gates. They belong to the Mandala of Hundred Peaceful and Wrathful Deities featured in the "Tibetan Book of the Dead". Their names reflect the symbolic tool or weapon they hold in their hands. They symbolize the four ways of rebirth when emerging from the bardo.

- The white horse-headed Ankusha (rta gdong ma) carries the iron hook and represents rebirth in a supernatural manner.

- The yellow sow-faced Pasha (phag gdong ma) carries the noose and represents rebirth through a womb.

- The red lion-headed Shrinkhala (seng gdong ma) carries the iron chain and represents rebirth through an egg.

- The green wolf-headed Ghanta (spyang gdong ma) carries the bell and represents rebirth by warmth.

All four guardians dance around the linga.

8. Heruka. This episode, which involves the five dancing characters in wrathful masks, is difficult to understand. The first character has an enormous red mask ornamented with five skulls and carries a sword and a bandha. Very rapidly he proceeds to the execution of the linga, which is considered to be like "liberation" (see below). This operation is followed by the arrival of four other characters. The three in the series are red brown in color and carry a phurba and a bandha. The last one is black brown in color and carries a bag of diseases and a wooden stick (which are known to be the attributes of Remati, or Palden Lhamo). According to one interpretation, this ensemble represents Chemchok (che mchog), "The Supreme Heruka", with a retinue. Heruka is a meditational tantric deity (yi dam), the enlightened being in a wrathful appearance. According to another version, one of the characters represents Guru Dragpo, the meditational Heruka form taken by Padmasambhava [11].

9. Tsok Len. There are five dancers in terrifying masks. One among them, who leads, wears a big red-brown "devil" mask, with curled tongue and tusks. Others wear masks of similar wrathful form (white, yellow, green and red in color) with a crown of five skulls. All of them hold phurba (ritual dagger) in right hand and bandha (skull cup) in left hand. They are the five tshogs len – literally, "those who take the tshogs, sacrificial offering". They help to cut up and distribute the linga, which signifies the ultimate death of the evil. The characters involved in this dance are complicated for understanding. They may represent the four Liberation Gings (sgrol ging) with their leader, the deities originated from Bon tradition.

10. Gingchen (Heroes). The Great Heroes (ging chen) – five male ones, who belong to the earth (sa ging), and five female ones, who belong to the heavens (nam ging) – appear in the courtyard. They are musicians or heralds of Padmasambhava's pure land, the Glorious Copper-Colored Mountain. They wear terrifying masks colored in yellow, brown, red, green and blue. They have a flag on the head and wear leopard skin on the lower part of the body. The Heroes come out from the main assembly hall; the Heroines come out from Manikhang. They run around emitting cries and playing on drums (rnga) to express their triumph at the destruction of the evil. They divide up into two rows facing each other and perform different dance figures before the general dispersion which marks the completion of the first day dance program. In the final act, the thangka of Guru Rinpoche is rolled back with the resounding music.

Day 2 program.

1. Tsamchot (Black Hats). Similarly to the first day, the Black Hats perform their circular dance to purify the dancing area.

2. Gyalpo Pehar. The focus of the performance shifts inside into the assembly hall to worship Gyalpo Pehar, the main protector of the Hemis monastery. Pehar is a gyalpo spirit. Gyalpo spirits are considered to be the powerful spirits of kings (rgyal po) or high lamas. Gyalpo Pehar was subdued by Guru Rinpoche to be the main guardian of the Samye, the first monastery in Tibet. Later, during the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Pehar was moved to Nechung and became the principal protector of the Dalai Lamas and the state guardian deity of Tibet. In a Ladakhi legend it is said that a monk of the Hemis monastery captured Pehar using a pair of cymbals in Tibet and brought him to Hemis.

The puja is conducted for about two hours. In the assembly hall, a long wooden altar with fine carvings is constructed and various offerings are placed in a row. The thangka of Gyalpo Pehar is exhibited. The puja is performed for protection of the monastery, the land and the people. At the end, the three black animals – a horse, a goat and a dog – are decorated, purified with incense and then forced by laymen to run three times around the monastery buildings as a part of worship.

3. Acharya. In the afternoon a call announces the arrival of the eleven Acharyas (a tsa ra), spiritual Indian masters acting in a comic vein. Their masks are of different colors and face expressions – smiling, grinning or with pressed lips. All of them have a flag attached to the top of their head-dress. They hold a vajra and a mirror in hands.

During the dance, a monk draws a triangle on the ground with a colored powder. It is known as brub khung, a triangular pit intended to enclose ("imprison") the demons inside.

4. Maning. The first character wears yellow terrifying mask and carries a bandha and a bell in hands. The second character has semi-wrathful appearance, wears white mask and carries a bandha and an arrow with scarf. The identification of the personages is complicated. As the dance name points out, the characters should represent the Lord Maning (mgon po ma ning), the body emanation of Mahakala, also known as "The Black Eunuch" (ma ning means "without gender"). However, according to the iconographic depiction, the Lord Maning has a black face and carries a lance and a heart with snare in hands [5].

The yellow and white characters are followed by 18 dancers. Two dancers wearing high turbans and playing the short horns are described as ministers called "gotshang" (or "gutsang") [2,4]. Others are organized in four wings of four dancers each. They can be identified as the outer retinue of the Maning [5]. They include:

- four Black Hats (tantra followers), each carrying a phurba and a bandha;

- four gelong monks (dge slong) in red-yellow lama dress and flat golden hats (as worn by high lamas), each carrying a patra (begging bowl) and a khakkhara (monk staff with four jingling rings);

- four demonesses (bdud mo) in black masks, each carrying a stick with a human body impaled on it and something which looks like a snake or intestine;

- four Heroes (Warriors) wearing metal masks and tiger skin, each carrying a shield and a sword.

In turn, each group performs a dance around the triangular brub khung in order to trap the enemies of dharma there. After that, everyone join in a general dance and then re-enter the monastery, two by two.

5. Putting the linga. Skeleton dancers (dur bdag) come and bring a dough effigy called linga (ling ga) wrapped into a piece of red cloth and put it on the triangular brub khung. Linga represents the evil, the enemies of the Dharma and the obstacles preventing spiritual development. It is a likeness of a human (male) figure and sometimes described as a human corpse [5]. The word "linga" is borrowed from the Sanskrit but lost its phallic implication and a relationship with Shiva. It should be understood in the Tibetan ritual context as a "sign of something else" (here as a sign and receptacle of the evil forces). The dancers first move around the linga as if afraid, then threaten it and finally scream and run away. The next two episodes are centered upon the linga.

6. Serkyem. An offering to peaceful and wrathful deities is made by the principals of Hemis and Chemre monasteries as well as by the two chamspons ('cham dpon), "dance masters" (instructors in monastic dance), of these monasteries. They are dressed like the Black Hats and each carry a vajra and a bell. They are accompanied by two monks carrying a samovar and four brass cups. The Black Hats consecrate the linga and offer a "gold libation" (gser skyems) using the cups full of tea or chang. They empty the cups and chant the mantras, ringing their bells and swinging their vajras. The ceremony of filling and emptying the cups is performed four times. When the linga is uncovered, the intensity of the incantations increases.

7. Buffalo. The nine dancers enter the dance area. They are leaded by a Buffalo (Stag) mask of brown color holding a sword and a bandha. He is Mahe Dongchen (ma he gdong chen), a form of Yamantaka. He dances at the top of the monastery staircase and then descends followed by the other characters. The four Gatekeepers are of white, yellow, red and green color. The other four indeterminate characters are of the same color. Several times the dancers turn around the brub khung, pretending to be afraid of it. Then they dance to the accompaniment of a drum. Four skeletons arrive, whistling. Mahe Dongchen cuts up the linga with a few blows of the sword. The skeletons begin a wild dance around the linga, celebrating the destruction of the evil. Then two of them lift up the linga, throw it on the ground and destroy the brub khung with their feet.

Destruction of the linga, as the main ritual element of Cham dance, has a deeper meaning than just the destruction of the evil forces. The spiritual meaning is that the linga represents the illusionary human ego, which should be destroyed with a sword of the transcendent wisdom to liberate the consciousness.

8. Hashang and Hatuk. Hashang (hwa shang), the smiling "Chinese monk" character with a rosary around the neck, comes out along with five Hatuks (hwa phrug), "Hashang's children or disciples". Hashang character plays ambiguous roles in different dance performances of the Tibetan tradition. Sometimes he is identified with Hashang Mahayana, the Chan (Zen) master defeated by Kamalashila in the famous debate at Samye, and plays a ridiculous role. Sometimes he is depicted as one of The Eighteen Arhats [9]. In the case of the Hemis festival, Hashang plays a role of the venerated teacher, while the Hatuks (represented by the young monks) simulate the study. Hatuks prepare a seat for Hashang, and then bring the drum and cymbal. The monastery's chamspon plays the musical instruments and Hatuks perform dance. This final scene of the reverential interplay between the teacher and his disciples serves as a moral conclusion to the festival performance.

Photoreports on the Hemis Tseschu festival can be found in refs [10,11].

Literature used:

1. Helffer, M. The 'cham of Padmasambhava in the monastery of Hemis (Ladakh). The World of Music, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1980, pp. 107-124.

2. Rigzin, T. Hemis: the richest monastery in Ladakh. In: Recent researches on the Himalaya (ed. by P.S. Jina), New Delhi, 1997, pp. 91-104.

3. Khanna, M. The Hemis festival. The Indira Ghandi national centre for the arts newsletter, vol. V, 1997.

4. Schorter, L. Le Cham de Hémis. International association for Ladakh studies. Recent Research on Ladakh 2b, 1985, pp. 161-172.

5. Nebesky-Wojkovitz, R. de. Tibetan religious dances: tibetan text and annotated translation of the 'chams yig. The Hague, 1976.

6. Cantwell C. A Black Hat ritual dance. Bulletin of Tibetology, 1992, No. 1, pp. 12-24.

7. Beer, R. Kshetrapala (Lion-headed Mahakala) and his Retinue.

8. Jamtsho T. The Old Man ‘Mitshering’ at Nyima Lung monastery. Journal of Bhutan Studies, 2013, vol. 28, pp. 90-99.

9. Schrempf M. Hwa shang at the border: transformations of history and reconstructions of identity in modern A mdo. Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies 2, August 2006.

10. Standage, K. Hemis festival 2015.

11. Gross, R. The Hemis Guru-Setchu. The cham mystery dances in honor of Guru Padmasambhava, June 1986.

© text by Palden Z., TripsToLadakh

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