Festivals of Ladakh

Ladakh, the highest plateau in the country, is yet a relatively uncharted wonderland, even though it is renowned for its splendid jagged landscape. It extends from the Himalayan mountains in India to the Kunlan range in the Tibetan sector.

The erstwhile independent kingdom constitutes the nucleus of Tibetan Buddhist culture. The Ladakhi region is speckled with monasteries and gompas or Buddhist centres of learning. Often Tibetan chants can be heard in the stillness of the air.

Apart from having a picturesque landscape and being a Buddhist hub, it is also the land where merriment, dance, music, and cuisine are celebrated all year round, through numerous festivals

Monastic Festivals

Spearheaded by monks, monastic festivals form an integral part of the local calendar of Ladakh. The underlying theme is the triumph of good over evil. In previous times, residents kept track of seasons through these mystical festivals. Spread through the year, the celebrations take place amidst large crowds in gompas with monks clad in flamboyant silk outfits, donning facial masks.

Winter Celebrations:

Although most travellers, particularly avid bikers, visit Ladakh in summer, the frigid, frosty winter season offers a more serene and silent Ladhaki territory, with fewer tourists. Accommodation is easier to find and shopping is simpler. Adventurists can relish long hikes on quiet trekking trails and walk on frozen lakes. The Frozen Lakes Trek particularly is amongst the most unique experiences in the world. Furthermore, there are beautiful colourful festivals to join in.

Spituk Gustor:

The Gregorian calendar year kickstarts with Spituk Gustor in January, in Spituk monastery, 8 kilometres from the capital city of Leh. Celebrated for prosperity and world peace, it is also a symbol of collective unity for braving the harsh winter. Residents believe the festival will usher in warmer weather. 

Although the exact history of the festival is untraceable, the monastery was founded by Lama Od-de, the elder brother of Lama Changchub Od, in the 11th century. The holy site belongs to the Gelugpa sect or Yellow Hat order of Tibetan Buddhism. There are many ancient shrines, frescoes, and religious scriptures inside the monastery, and it is home to around a hundred monks. 

The festival is celebrated over two days on the 28th and 29th days of the eleventh month of the Tibetan calendar. ‘Gustor’ means sacrifice and prayers start at the monastery, a week before the festival. Devotees, monks, and tourists throng the monastery to receive blessings from Lord Buddha. 

Traditional music, dance, art, and cultural exhibitions form the backdrop of the fete. The key highlight of the festivities is the Cham dance, performed by lamas in eye-catching animal masks made from paper and clay. Elaborate costumes and yellow headgear are chief features of the dance and there are several groupings for performances – pairs, solo, and groups. The dance typically endorses the victory of good over evil through the assassination of the dishonourable Tibetan king, Lang Darma, by a Buddhist monk, Lhalung Pelgyi Dorje, in the 9th century. Cham dance is complemented by melodious tunes through instruments such as cymbals, conch shells, and bells. 

The merrymaking culminates with the burning of malevolent effigies and the cutting of torma or the sacrificial cake.

Festivals of Ladakh


Famously known as the ‘Festival of the Scapegoat,’ the Dosmoche festival falls on the 28th and 29th days of the twelfth month of the Tibetan New Year. Although the dates vary yearly, it typically falls in the month of February. It is one of Ladakh’s most popular prayer festivals and is the only religious celebration observed by all monasteries in the territory. Held in 3 locations – the courtyard of Leh Palace, Likir, and Diskit monasteries – it is flocked by Buddhist disciples across the world.

Initiated by the Ladakh royals during the reign of King Lhachen Gongdup in the 14th century, the prime objective of Dosmoche is to placate evil spirits. First, tall wooden constructions are erected with vibrant threads or Dosmo, sacred emblems, and flags, followed by an offering of ritual cakes or Chotpa to the Buddha idols. Next, lamas from the Takthok Monastery – well-known for their skill in tantric practices and astrology – weave intricate crosses and prepare effigies from dough, or dho, to capture demonic forces. The woven figures are isolated and prescribed mantras are chanted whilst weaving. The dho and dosmo offerings are ceremonially burned at a specific time outside the city the following day, thus symbolising the elimination of all sinister forces and protection from natural disasters. The burning of the effigies marks the onset of the New Year, and the people hope to be blessed with peace and good health in the year to come. 

The ceremonies are heightened by a collection of masked folk dances, or Diskit, performed by lamas from various monasteries across Ladakh, on a rotation basis. Enthralling music, and the sounds of drums, gyalings or trumpets, and cymbals, married with the loud thumping of the dancers, make the celebrations a delight.
Locals wear traditional Ladakhi costumes and stalls are set up by shopkeepers in the Leh Bazaar, for games, lotteries, and shopping.

Festivals of Ladakh

Stok Guru Tsechu:

The ‘Festival of Oracles,’ holds the distinct position of being the only celebration that is nearly wholly reliant on local people. 

Held at the end of February/beginning of March, the Stok Royal Palace – the current seat of Ladakhi royals – welcomes resident devotees to prophecize fates through two powerful oracles. Trained by monks from the Spituk monastery, the two chosen followers act as mystic channels, and conduct sacred rites whilst in a trance to reveal their predictions. Buddhist disciples flock to seek advice from the pair to remove obstacles and hindrances from daily life. 

Stok village is an explosion of colours with veiled dances accompanied by music and food, adding to the excitement of the festival. 

Festivals of Ladakh

Matho Nagrang:

Observed a week after the Stok Guru Tsechu festival, Matho Nagrang is similar in thought and theme. Matho gompa, the only religious establishment in Ladakh devoted to the Sakya lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, is the seat of this winter celebration. As with Stok Guru, the festival is famous for its two oracles, or Rongtsans, who preordain events and predictions. However, skilled priests and not laypeople, are used as conduits for the Rongtsans, who meditate for at least two months in seclusion before the occasion.

Over the next two days, monks robed in bright silks perform elaborate sequences of choreography. They also perform astounding acrobatic feats blindfolded, such as jumping from one balcony to another, running on the roof parapets with steep drops, and cutting themselves with swords.

Chemrey Wangchok:

Perched on a hill, the Chemrey gompa is one of the oldest and most picturesque spiritual institutions in Ladakh. Founded by Lama Tagsang Ragspa in 1664, the monastery was constructed in the king’s memory with a notably tall Guru Padmasambhava statue. It is dedicated to the Drukpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. 

Chemrey Wangchok is celebrated in November and like all other tributes marks the defeat of darkness through light. Priests meditate for a week preceding the festival and perform a signature Cham dance wearing masks, on the opening day. Residents participate in the dances as well. The second day concludes the festivities with the sacred ‘Mandala Pooja’ on the grounds of the gompa. 

Galdan Namchot:

‘The Festival of Lights,’ or Galdan Namchot is an important social and religious observance in Tibet, Nepal, and Mongolia apart from Ladakh. It memorialises the birth, death, or parinirvana, as well as the Buddhahood and enlightenment of Je Tsongkhapa, a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and founder of the Gelug order. The commemoration falls in December and ushers the beginning of the New Year in Ladakh. 

Public, government, and residential buildings are all lit up beautifully. The glow of butter lamps flickers in the corridors, and roofs of monasteries, and the bright lights symbolise the annihilation of darkness. Colourful dramas are performed by monks in ceremonial clothing honouring Je Tsongkhapa. The revelry is further heightened by whipping up traditional culinary delights. Households prepare butter Tea, or gur-gur cha made from tea leaves, yak butter, and salt, along with momos and thukpa, chicken, or vegetable noodle soup.

Ladhakis gift each other Khatak, a traditional ceremonial scarf. It is usually white in colour, signifying the purity of the heart of the giver. 

Festivals of Ladakh

Losar (New Year):

The most awaited festival, Losar, or Ladakhi New Year marks the beginning of the New Year for the Tibetan calendar and usually corresponds to a date in February or March.

The history of Losar (Lo, year and Sar, new) traces back several centuries to the pre-Buddhist period when Tibetans followed the Bon religion, burning incense during a spiritual ceremony in winter and offering it to the Gods to ensure their wellbeing. The practice merged with the farmers’ harvest festival that applauded the flowering of apricot trees, during the reign of the 9th Tibetan King, Pude Gungyal. 

The occasion lasts for 15 days and the key salutations take place during the first three days when prayers are offered to the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, in monasteries across Ladakh. 

Losar begins with the Metho ritual on the eve of the festival. The ceremony includes a procession of people chanting sacred slogans, carrying flaming torches, and walking through the streets. Residents believe that the holy mantras and fire ward off woes and suffering.

Day one starts with the monks of Jamyang Namgyal monastery invoking Goddess Palden Lhamo for protection. People wake up early to clean their house and the kitchen is specially cleansed. Guthuk, or noodle soup, a traditional favourite dish, is prepared with dough balls made from nine ingredients such as dried cheese, ginger, beef, mutton, tomatoes, etc. As a fun element, one dough ball is stuffed and served with an object to reflect a person’s character.

On the second day, religious formalities are followed in gompas, and offerings are made to Buddhist gods. Gifts are generously given to monks and firecrackers are burned in the evening to banish harmful supernatural forces.

The third day marks New Year’s Day. People wake up early and don new clothes and make offerings to the deities in their household temples. Family members exchange gifts and have a reunion dinner, with cake or kapse and chang, an alcoholic drink to keep warm.

The festival of Losar fosters communal bonds with preparations of traditional food, family reunions, cleansing, prayers, and beautification of homes. It is an assortment of cultural events, such as horse racing and wrestling, rituals, and staged dance dramas with decorative masks. Yak dancing is a common sight. The guttural chant of mantras and the New Year greeting of ‘losar bey tashi delek’ hangs in the air. Prayer flags for peace and happiness can be seen fluttering everywhere and hundreds of people gather in Ladakh’s vibrantly decorated sacred sites to perform rituals of gratitude. 

Festivals of Ladakh

Summer Festivities:

Ladakh is a traveller’s paradise in summer with moderate temperatures and spectacular views. Several biking and hiking expeditions can be spotted, as the weather allows for easy travel across the province. As with winter, the practice of festivals and revelry continues with greater elan in the warmer months.   

Hemis Festival:

Falling in late June or July, the Hemis Festival is one of the most popular and important festivals of Ladakh. Celebrated in the most-visited shrine, Hemis Monastery, it marks the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, a central figure in tantric Buddhism. Its origins date back to the 8th century when Lord Padmasambhava fought through dark forces to protect the local people. 

Today it is associated with brilliant hues, upbeat sounds of drums, and flamboyant folk dances with ornamented headgear. The unfurling of giant thangkas, or Buddhist paintings, in public is a key highlight of the event.

Festivals of Ladakh

Phyang Tsedup Festival:

A tribute to Jigten Gombo, the founder of the Dringumpa Monastic Dynasty, the festival of Physang Tsedup is held in the Phyang Monastery in late July/early August. The gompa is one of the only two monasteries that belongs to the Dringumpa school of Buddhism

Central to the pageantry are the dance dramas with rich, silk coats, decorative masks, and the worship of Jigten Gombo’s thangkas. Ritual offerings are burnt and the Stroma is destroyed to conclude the procession. Countless messages of Lord Buddha with special prayers ring through the air and exhibitions of Buddhist artifacts are displayed. 

Ladakh Harvest Festival:

An annual event spanning a fortnight in September, the Ladakh Harvest Festival showcases a festive, cultural carnival with troupes from different parts of Ladakh. The procession of locals includes leaders, children, and adults who sing and participate in popular dances, on conventional tunes. Masked monks also perform the famed Cham dance. 

Sports occupy central space with archery and polo competitions amongst the men. The festival attracts huge crowds across the globe and pays homage to the rich culture of Ladakh.

Ladakh is a land of unimaginable splendour coupled with the outstanding warmth of its people. Deeply rooted in their culture, the people of Ladakh are bound by custom. Honouring and observing the local celebrations is the ideal way to connect with them, and Offbeat Tracks will create the perfect travel plan for you to participate in the festivals of Ladakh.

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