Dosmochey: Calendrical Celebrations Marking Change in Season (Back Cover Story)
(Back Cover Story) A group of Ladakhi men and women dressed in heavy costumes of leather and wool sings and slowly sways on traditional tunes in the main market.
This February Dosmochey in Leh was different from many earlier ones. It was predominantly nonmonastic, even so, monastic celebrations were big. Chhams were very quick yet storma procession was elaborate and quite long. The venue was different because a part of traditional site was under repair and renovation. Next year Leh may again celebrate the festival in the restored traditional venue. Both monastic and non-monastic celebrations overlapped.
Dosmochey is defined in a variety of ways although basic essence is the same: killing the evils, purification, and welcoming a new season and new year. The festival is organized in the last month of Tibetan calendar to mark the end of winter and the start of spring, like Holi, according to one of the Tourism Department officials.
Dosmo chenmo means “a big cross of threads.” The threads fasten all evil spirits of the past year in one place. Dosmochey is also interpreted as a name of a devil. Devils are evil spirits. Is it not? One of the adventure tour operators dubbed it as a “festival of the scapegoat.” This epithet also matches its general meaning: driving away evils. It is probably the last two days of a week-long ancient Tsemo fair starting in mid-February. For the first five days, monks from Ladakhi monasteries prepared votive offerings – a cross, effigies, and stormas - ; and performed chhams and other rituals in the Tsemo monastery and Leh palace.
Diskit, Leh, and Likir editions of Dosmochey celebrated across Ladakh are quite popular.
The atmosphere was electric in Chowkhang Vihara, main market of Leh, Polo Ground, and Moti Market. Not all chhams listed in the bilingual (English and Ladakhi) program schedule were performed. Each rendition was like a trailer. All masked monks danced around a sacred pole on solid high wide white base in the courtyard of the Vihara in the main market. Surana (shanai) and daman (drum) players faced the door of the cella, whereas cymbal, green drum, and long pipe players occupied high front porch of the cella overlooking the courtyard. The spectators occupied every inch of the space around the pole. They were also crammed in the stands facing the monastery and even in low terraced shelves meant for storing shoes of the visitors.
Two-day Dosmochey was mainly a local festival for the locals by the locals... Why are all men dark and girls fair? The jewelry was original unlike the synthetic flowers bought outside of Ladakh. The flowers lacked freshness, fragrance, and exclusivity.
Less than half a kilometer long main market lane was well-appointed with clean pavers. The lane was divided into three parts: left, center, and right. Street lamps and big plant containers divided the center into rectangular sections featuring woodcum-iron benches. Some sections had closed plastic dustbins. Pavements hemmed the other two parts. The center and pavements were a few inches higher than the left and right subdivisions. Vehicles were prohibited in the lane; so were the restaurants from serving outdoors. People squatted or stood on the central structures to have a glimpse of the festivities.
Restaurants open were full as many eateries and shops were shuttered. Even a few beggars tried to make hay in festive din and clatter. Although folk artists dominated the event, modern singers -small in number- received equal attention. Many artists changed their heavy traditional costumes as soon as their act got over. It was an indulgence in traditional performing art. Nevertheless, it was mere annual lip-service to the local art.
Artists mainly presented a tiny slice of remote lifestyles of Ladakh. For example, their love for flowers and layered costumes was evident. The flower dance artists dressed in black from Kargil used bright synthetic flowers as props. Lady dancers from Stok village reminded of a tradition: They never danced bare faced before the king. Their wide headgear somewhat resembled a big high hat wrapped in a pleasant blue cloth. The white cotton face masks had a pair of openings as wide as the eyes. All dancers wore layers of clothes including Banarsi brocade and handmade woolens; turquoise blue stones and silver jewelry; and elaborate headgears adorned with feathers and flowers. They danced slowly barring a few occasional moderately fast steps. Slim Kashmiri man performers sported white embroidered dresses and round caps with a single feather.
Elderly carried a part of traditional costumes shown in the performances. Young generation showed interest and enthusiasm in the lavish costumes and dances yet sported non-traditional clothes and relished junk food- chat, gol guppa, pizza, burger...
All announcements were in local language; a disappointment for non-Ladakhi like me. The compere told little about the show in English or Hindi.
Neither ground-level nor 4-foot high stage lacked audience. In fact, there was shortage of space for both the performers and the audience. Everyone happily and keenly saw dances and listened to folk songs. Police wielded batons to keep audience away from the ground-level stages that merged with audience stands. But it did not use the batons.
Interest in photography was contagious. Almost every one took pictures from their mobiles. Some did not switch off the devices probably until batteries ran out or hands got tired. There were many professional photographers as well. Friendly and cooperative locals made space for professional photographers in jam-packed sections. Even sunny weather required multi-layered woolens for the
People participated in the festival with great enthusiasm and civility despite cold and crowd. Two-day Dosmochey was mainly a local festival for the locals by the locals. More than 95% audience comprised locals. The number of domestic and international visitors was extremely small. If I tried, I could count the number on the fingers of one hand. However, non-local officials hailing from various central government offices formed sizeable portion of the rest of the audience.
In Polo Ground, local artists performed on a single high stage; make-shift cot-stalls sold daily use items. All stalls were abuzz. The dust continuously rose from the unpaved ground. In one corner of the ground reeking of urine, gamblers tried to make quick buck in varied versions of the aiming games.
The unpaved narrow lane starting from the palace and meandering through Old Leh was a stage on the second day. Ladakhis presented their craft as an orchestrated traditional lifestyle show. The show was arranged for selected media to promote winter tourism. Local and non-local photographers keenly captured every artisan but neither followed the lifestyle. Some of the organizers wore traditional coats over the latest urban dresses. Others sported the latter, including hip-hugging jeans. Is it not objectifying the lifestyle for earning tourism revenue?
A pair of women roasted and ground barley for sattu and flour. A pair of wool spinner and weaver from Shey demonstrated their craft. We sampled their traditional breakfast, pava of barley and black peas with curds garnished with local greens. Three Nimoo women in traditional costumes showed process of wool making. Another pair of women who grinned at every photographer spun the wool. A local man played flute. A blacksmith from Changthang made a sickle for cutting grass. He was too naive for the urban world. He knew only his mother tongue and was very slow.
Men and women from Dah displayed dried apricots, apricot almonds, and chhurpe, dried cottage cheese. Light skin girls with elaborate floral head gears and extravagant jewelry drew all attention. But, surprisingly, men and boys with equally elaborate floral headgears got little attention. It was awkward for them. It made me curious as well: Why are all men dark and girls fair? The jewelry was original unlike the synthetic flowers bought outside of Ladakh. The flowers lacked freshness, fragrance, and exclusivity.
Earlier they used to collect fresh flowers from nearby forest and the fields. This substitution connotes an evident change in lifestyle and probably in physical environment too, scarcity of wild flowers, or a distaste for time-consuming flower gathering process. Even carefully canned and pickled cultures reflect the natural inclination towards change and easy mechanized lifestyles.
Monks meticulously crafted stormas in different sizes. They offered these high conical colorful cakes to deities. Public offered bills and coins to the cakes. During the procession, a lady even
realized importance of my photographing the event for the magazine and gave me ample space.
The procession of colorful cross, effigies, and stormas started from the Chowkhang Vihara contrary to the traditional starting point, the palace, and ended at an open space quite lower than the road level near Moti Market. Monks said prayers and performed chhams on the tunes of cymbals, drums, and trumpets in the shallow depression before setting the pyres holding ceremonial objects on fire. Locals elbowed each other to grab the “auspicious” threads after the objects of barley, butter, colorful threads, and wool transformed into ash. These lucky charms ensure wealth in the upcoming year. Traditions guaranteeing easy gains never fade.