Braving the windswept heights of 11,800 ft above sea level in central Ladakh, a pair of ravenous crows descended upon nomadic Gelugpa monks and made away with dough figurines called torma offered in thanksgiving to the deities. Curiously, the torma was later discovered untouched upon a promontory overlooking the Thiksey village. The year was 1433 and this metaphysical episode was interpreted as a benediction to build the first and largest gompa (monastery) for the followers of tantric Buddhist, Je Tsongkhapa. Hewn out of stone, cast mud bricks and wooden beams, the 12-storey-tall Thiksey gompa gradually spilled out over the entire south facing slope of a rocky outcrop in the historic Indus valley.
Today, a serpentine path winds amid tumbledown cottages towards the main temples painted in vermillion and sacred yellow at the summit, opening out to a central courtyard flanked by decorous visitor pavilions. Under the bleary Himalayan firmament, this open-air coliseum annually witnesses the two-day-long festival of Thiksey Gustor in the eleventh month of the Tibetan lunar calendar. Faintly analogous with Dussehra, this year's jamboree unravelled on October 31 and November 1, set into motion by the anguished bellowing of dungchen (long horns).
With all the makings of shamanism, bouts of Cham dancing and pantomime break out in gravity-defying masks twice the size of a normal human head to ward off Rudra, the primeval incarnation of vice in Vajrayana Buddhism. The subjugation of this Satanic entity by Dharma Protector Heruka is re-enacted every year to the cadences of folk drums and Tingsha bells as blissfully oblivious children scramble past the wrathful performers, unruffled by this centuries old expulsion ritual that remains a symbol of empowerment for the Tibetan diaspora in our country.
Bedecked in the astounding haberdashery of flowing gowns with broad sleeves, a caped poncho and bone ornaments, the characters for the masquerade are drawn from the glittering pantheon of Gelugpa cosmology. Colloquially known as descending from the Yellow Hat sect, the Gelugpa monks can be easily singled out from the dancers by their yellow-crested, ceremonial hats woven from silk brocade and worn to indicate their adherence to strict ethical discipline. The spheres of influence collide as the yak or deer faced choreography splits open the earth in a great mandala of action to claim the final victory of good over evil.
On the second day, the spirit world is invoked again by the cutting of a sacrificial cake in a veiled reference to the assassination of King Langdarma in 842 AD who disrobed thousands of monks throughout his tyrannical regime. In a smaller rite called the Dao Tulva, black hat dancers adorned in skull heads and peacock feathers present a beguiling visage, whirling in long robes called phoego and liberating the consciousness of mankind with enlightenment energy. The torma figurines are also revived as an effigy, the flour of mortal sin exhumed in leaping flames while rakshasas (monsters) are banished to four corners of the universe until next year.
Architecturally reminiscent of Tibet's Potala Palace, the Thiksey monastery delivers a grandiose spectacle to tourists all across the country and overseas, especially popular for the Maitreya Temple that hosts a 49 ft high statue of Buddha. The carnival of Thiksey Gustor is also accompanied by a bustling trade fair, fire rituals and general socialising that is open to locals and foreigners alike. Off the beaten track, this esoteric gathering is one of the vibrant episodes of cultural euphoria you could ever have the privilege of witnessing in India.
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