If you have heard of Spiti, you would have also heard of Cham dance in all probability.
The dance, popularly known as the Mask Dance, is a popular dance form inspired by Tibetan Buddhism. People flock in large numbers to Ladakh during the Hemis festival to see the Cham Dance. The dance is a common practice in many monasteries in Bhutan too. I was taken aback to find the dance being performed in the Key Monastery of Spiti Valley.
I was happily sipping my butter tea at the guest house at Kibber. The plan was to see the Key Monastery and then head to other villages such as Hikkim and Komic.
We were chatting with the guest house owner when he mentioned that the renowned Gustar festival is only a couple of days away. It would be a great idea if we could stick around till then. I was intrigued at the very mention of the festival and began enquiring more and more about it.
The Key festival happens annually. I was elated to be there just at the right time of the year. I had never seen the Cham dance before and was super excited to see it now.
How often do you get to be at the right place at the right time?
Kye Gompa aka Key Monastery
The Key Monastery is known by many names or many different spellings— Ki, Kye, Key, Kee.
When we reached the Kye Gompa, it had a small number of visitors. The monastery is just about 15 to 20 km away from Kaza and is an iconic Spiti representation.
Being geographically close to Tibet, these monasteries come under the governance of His Holiness, The Dalai Lama. The head of all the monasteries here reports to Him. All the prayers and proceedings in the Monasteries are carried out in the tradition of the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism. This is different from what you would see in Bhutan or any other country where Buddhism is practised.
The monastery is located slightly uphill. If you Google the Key Monastery pictures, you will come across pictures resembling a huge fort. Key, in reality, is not that big. Over the years, Key has witnessed multiple attacks and has also undergone fire and earthquake. All these atrocities and calamities destroyed many beautiful parts of the fort.
New rooms have now been built around the fort, which makes it look like a big fortress. Access is allowed only to the prayer hall. You may also get to peek into the kitchen sometimes and be offered herbal tea or butter tea! Hospitality, you see!
When I entered the monastery, a prayer session was in progress. I stood there silently and immersed myself in the soothing drum beats and the Buddhist chants. Everyone was engrossed in the prayer, and there was nobody to inquire about the Gustar festival.
A monk who was supervising the prayer hall stepped aside for a moment, and I seized the moment to ask him THE question. He nodded in a hurry that the festival is the day after next.
I was on cloud nine!
I walked into the kitchen and found another monk preparing something for the pooja. The kind monk offered us some herbal tea. I switched on my chatting mode and engaged the monk in a conversation.
He, too, mentioned that the Gustar festival is scheduled for the day after tomorrow. Because it was the festival time, no outsiders were allowed to live in the monastery. The Guru has already arrived for the festival.
Celebrations had already begun. For the past three days, festivities and dance shows had been taking place in the evenings. He added, “People from all the neighbouring villages come to attend the festival. All the roads in Spiti lead to Kye Gompa on Gustar day. You better attend it too!”
We had made plans of going to Chandrataal. But now, we chucked it off our list only to attend this once-in-a-lifetime festival.
The monk was kind enough to show us the upper chambers, which otherwise remain locked. There is a room where His Holiness Dalai Lama stays on His visits. There were also a couple of other rooms where ancient books and scrolls were stacked up.
I left Kye excited at the thought of returning to the monastery again for the colourful festival.
Gustar Festival, Key Monastery
Let me be honest here—Apart from the Cham dance, I had no clue what the festival was all about.
Along with my travel mates, I reached the monastery around 9:00 am. People had started to set in a good number.
There was a staging area adjacent to the monastery. Chairs were laid out for the villagers and tourists. I quickly took a seat and held onto it, for I did not want to let go of my hard-earned spot.
I started a conversation with the locals. They had come from Kullu just for the festival!
It is like a pilgrimage and holds a lot of importance for the villagers. They told me it is pronounced as ‘Guettar’ festival (the s is silent). The festival is celebrated to mark the triumph of good over evil. It is celebrated in monasteries following the practices of Tibetan Buddhism.
Depending upon their specific lunar calendars, each monastery celebrates the festivals on different days. Since we saw it in July, I suppose every year around this time is a good time to visit the valley to catch the festival.
Significance of Cham Dance
The Cham dance is said to have started from the time of Guru Padmasambhav. He was trying to build a monastery when a lot of spirits disturbed Him. To fight against these spirits, He conducted a series of rituals which are depicted through the Cham dance.
The dance is tantric art. The Lamas from the monastery dress up as demons and deities and enact out an elaborate show. It is believed that these dancers are really Gods and deities.
It is different from a drama or just a dance. It is a mix of a lot of chanting and prayers and some rhythmic movements. They have symbols in their hand with which they perform certain acts. Also, it is not a one-day event. Specific Lamas are chosen for different rituals, and they perform rituals for nearly a week. The key monastery is otherwise open for visitors to stay, but no other outsider is allowed to stay in the monastery during this time.
After the final victory dance, a fire is lit, which symbolises the destruction of the evil. Then the local villagers lie flat on the floor. The Lamas, the deities as they are believed to be, walk over them.! This denotes that if you have any disease or any spirit possesses you, the deities help you get rid of it.
I had missed the rituals that take place after the victory dance; these were later told to me by a witness. Totally trustworthy!
Cham Dance at Key Monastery
The honourable lamas came down from the monastery. The auspicious horns were blown in full vigour, and the head Lama recited a prayer aloud.
I cannot tell you how annoyed I was at the crowd of the photographers and the vloggers who had flocked around them and were completely obstructing the view. As a tourist, this irks me the most. Imagine the plight of the pilgrims and villagers who have come there sincerely to pray, and you block their way with your stupid cameras!
Soon other spectators began shouting at them. The young lamas, dressed in fancy masks, also tried their hands at crowd management.
Anyway, let me not get carried away! Back to cham dance…
The director and the spiritual head of Kye Gompa, Reverend T.K. Lochen Tulku Rinpoche arrived at the event and addressed the crowd.
The monks playing the traditional music instruments took their positions. Blowing their long trumpet indicated the start and end of each dance.
The first Cham dance was that of lamas wearing a red mask followed by those wearing a blue mask. The symbols on the mask indicated that they are evil or demons. There was then a dance with animal masks on.
They had this repetitive motion of swirling around and balancing themselves on one leg. It was a splendid sight to watch!
The fiercest of all was the one with Black headgear. The performer danced in all the directions to show his prowess. You need to be super fit and have supreme willpower to balance yourself on just one leg and move around for that long!!
Or, as they say, God gets into you and helps you throughout the show.!
The last one must have been the one invoking the deities. This ritual goes on for a longer time.
First, one of the llamas dressed in an elaborate shimmering dress came out and performed repetitive hand gestures, facing in all the directions one by one. You can feel the gravity in his face! He carried certain special symbols in hand using which he performed the ceremony. Then he did a solo Cham dance for a while.
Gradually, a group of llamas joined him, and they all danced together. This one was the most elaborate of all. The loud drum music, their thumping of feet and also their shouting enthralled everybody.
The dance must have echoed all through the mountains that day! It was that impactful.
After all this, there was a show put up which lightened the mood of the place. Lamas dressed up as yaks performed a fun show. It was amazing to see two lamas bent over inside a yak costume, and many a time, the lama acting as the cowherd would ride on the other! It was so well-practised.
We broke for lunch after this. The lunch was from the community kitchen, and I thoroughly enjoyed having the rice, dal and potato subji.
The whole place now looked like a fare. So many people were selling food, souvenirs, and fancy items. It was only then I noticed that the number of vehicles piled up too. The place was getting crowded gradually.
It suddenly turned windy and cloudy as well. It seemed as if it were to rain. Sadly, we had to leave as we were heading to Batal that day for a halt. So we did not stay for the rest of the festival.
The next event was to light a fire, and then the llamas walked over the people. Several other dance performances continued. Different people from different villages performed various dances, dressed beautifully in traditional attires [as informed to us later].
I wish I could have stayed further to see that too.
Here is a short glimpse of the dance.. It has a stitch of small clippings that I shot in my mobile, so the clarity is not so great.
How to Reach Key Monastery
One has to reach Kaza first.
There are two ways to reach Kaza. One is through Shimla, and the other is through Manali. From Kaza, Key Monastery is just 15 km away. If you have your own vehicle, then nothing like it.
Else you can hire motorcycles or hire a cab from Kaza town.
You can consider hitchhiking as well.
I have a complete guide on everything about Spiti Valley. Read it here – How to Plan a Spiti Valley Trip