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tibetan horns, buddhist monastery, clothing garments, likim

Tantric Mystery Dances

Author: Anja Heij

An endless row of small figures zigzags up the mountain in a snow-white Indian winter landscape. The Buddhist monastery of Likir in northern India lies on a Himalayan top and forms a colorful mandala in the midst of a virginal white world.
I feel like a pilgrim on a sacred yet unknown journey. The other foreigners on their way up are a Dutch man who studies Tibetan Buddhism, and two young Germans who work as volunteers in an educational institute for the local people. Unlike the touristic Buddhist festivals in summertime this two days Tantric Winter Festival is very genuine. It is one of the highlights of the year for the Ladakhi people of this region.

Likir is well known for its Mystery Plays. The monks have practiced all year long for the danced depiction of Tantric knowledge and truths. They dance in slowly paces on the trance inducing rhythms of the drums and long Tibetan horns of other monks musicians.
The dancers wear masks of wood or papier mache and beautifully decorated costumes. They carry ritual objects or colored strings in their hands. In tantra all colors, objects, clothing, garments and masks are chosen for their symbolic meanings, and I would love to know what these are. But to my surprise the Ladakhi spectators do not know the meaning of these dances…So these literally are Mystery Plays.
Small groups of dancers enchant and impress from morning till evening on the inner court of Likim’s beautifully painted monastery.
Other utmost friendly monks serve us free meals inside the kitchen, with lots of buttertea of course. Buttertea is something you have to get used to; this national drink consists of weak tea with a lump of salted butter and does great work in a cold climate.

A group of skeleton dancers causes fear and panic. Unless the other organized dances the Depicters of Death are allowed to walk into the public and touch everyone they like. Well, and when Death touches you…
Belief in reincarnation or not, the Ladakhis try to avoid the playful Death dancers. Of course the skeleton dancers find the light-haired me in the middle of the dark Ladakhi people and enjoy touching this foreign lady. But I am not afraid; I went to India because I got stuck in my life and am ready to accept a transition onto a new way of living. The symbolism of the Death dancers is welcome.

We are offered to have dinner and spend the night in the house of one of the monks. Like other rooms of monks I have visited, the decoration is simple but very tasteful and harmonious. Tantric practices have led to a great balance of the inner masculine and feminine in the monks; peace and happiness radiates from their eyes, their acts and their surroundings. Although I am experiencing a heavy cold and it is minus 20 degrees Celsius outside, it is a delight to be in this atmosphere.

More snow falls that night and transforms the Himalayas in a white fairy-tale.
The second day we discover a fifth foreigner: an American photographer specialized in picturing ritual figures.
The monks dance again. This time a mischievous skeleton dancer with naughty eyes behind his mask rubs tsampa (a kind of flour) on my face.
In the afternoon a large procession of lamas, monks and musicians carries a statue made of butter to the fields where it is ritually burned to dispel evil. Herewith the festival has come to an ending. And a practical problem starts: how do we return home? Public transportation is not available.

We get a lift of a military unit who served as first aid during the festival. Somehow seated between the materials and the men in the back of the truck we enjoy recalling old jokes of Monty Python. They drop us halfway, at the military base, and we continue by foot. After a while a taxi, ordered by the American photographer, stops. We join the other passengers the American picked up and tightly heaped up but happy we reach home. The photographer keeps on talking about the magick of the bare mountains, the special light and the fantastic prints he made of the unbelievable great dancers.

These were two unforgettable days. The colorful monastery with the sacred dances as center of a pure white world of mountains was deeply impressive. But equally impressive was the hospitality we met; the ease with which people shared their possessions and space with us. The western world in which we so often feel compelled to defend ‘our personal space’ was far away.
And the touch by Death? Well, my life has changed completely afterwards.

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