I got lucky in Leh the next morning. It is the capital city of Ladakh, located at 11,562 feet above sea level and is a charming little Himalayan town, which is very popular with travelers from all over the world. Thus it was not a surprise when I found the dining hall of my hotel to be quite crowded for breakfast and at the table bits and pieces of conversations from a large group of photographers floated up to me. They all had huge professional looking cameras, ate fast, talked big, and were universally excited about the Ladakh Festival.

Ladakh festival is famous for masked dances

Masked dancers at the Ladakh Festival

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In 2012, Ladakh Festival was held in September

An annual fiesta organized by the Jammu & Kashmir Tourism Department, in collaboration with local communities and district administrations of Leh, Ladakh Festival is designed to be an eyeball-grabbing event. The main aim of this festival is to showcase and highlight the spectacular Ladakhi culture, its traditions, and heritage. Though the Ladakh Festival usually lasts for at least 15 days, that year, which I presume was 2012, it was limited to only 8 days.

It is a festival showcasing the local culture and heritage

Ladakh Festival begins with a spectacular inauguration parade

The festival begins with an inauguration ceremony and a spectacular procession is carried out in Leh. Various cultural troupes of local leaders, school children, and dancers in their ceremonial costumes participate in this parade and there are much singing and dancing to traditional orchestra tunes. The procession culminates at the Polo Ground where the participants perform various folk dances, unique of their region and this makes up most of the first day. For the next one week, the Ladakh Festival hosts many special events like costume and mask dances, craft stalls, musical concerts, archery contests, polo matches, Thanka exhibitions etc. This festival is also celebrated in many parts of Ladakh region with various sports and cultural events.

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One of the lovely Ladakhi ladies in her traditional attire

September mornings in Ladakh seem like the best time in the world

So as luck would have it, that morning happened to be the Ladakh Festival inaugural ceremony day. The September morning was beautiful without the need for pomp and grandeur, and the Ladakh Festival added more charm to it. Sun shone brightly through a vast cloudless blue sky and the crisp mountain air was refreshingly sharp. Dazzling snow-clad peaks stood out in clear rows in the distance and it was a kind of a morning when the world feels like a wonderful place. Excited by the news of the festival, I hastily finished my breakfast and being a complete stranger to Leh, trailed behind the gang of photographers. They walked up and down steep roads, past closed Tibetian Refugee markets, endless restaurants until I got an orientation of the dinner-plate sized Himalayan town.

Spectacular costumes and intriguing cultures of Ladakh

Headgear, stone jewellery, dazzling costumes, and masks

On that day, all roads and everybody seemed to be heading towards the same place and all of us stopped in front of a beautiful white and green mosque. There were throngs of people lining up by the time I reached there and they were an eclectic mix of tourists, photographers, journalists, monks, local Ladakhis, Kashmiris, stray cows and organizers wearing important looking badges. They hung around the barricaded road, perched on top of surrounding buildings, trees, and lamp posts. There was a buzz in the air and impatient anticipation rang through the excited viewers. Suddenly pipe music and drum beats filled the air and a nearly naked Hindu holy man came out from behind the veil of dust. He was followed by the most fantastic procession of people behind him and his huge trident flashed metallic in the air as the participants marched in their full glory. Stunning traditional costumes, huge masks, dazzling stone jewelry, heavily embroidered boots, glittering tassels, extraordinary headgear and full body lion masks were in display sending every camera-toting person in a photographing frenzy.

Ladakh Festival is a photographer's delight.

Ladakh Festival is a photographer’s delight.

A festival in which the spectators are as photogenic as the participants

The participants walked in a disciplined procession, proudly smiling in their rich heritage. They twinkled and smiled mischievously at the crowd of spectators as fantastically attired dancers swirled slowly to the Himalayan music. The spectators were as photogenic as the parade participants and old Ladakhi men stared at the bejeweled ladies as their wives scowled at them while twirling their Buddhist prayer wheels. People cheered from rooftops as thousands of glitter poured from the sparkling street festoons. It seemed like a festival for one and all, so we joined the procession dancing to the drum-beats until we reached the Polo Ground. Now that was a walk to remember.

The spectators are as photogenic as the festival participants

Ladakh Festival Travel Tip

The Ladakh Festival is held every year in September in many places across Ladakh. The festival in Leh is the largest and most spectacular one. Those who wish to schedule their trip according to the festival are advised to download the festival calendar and schedule from the official Ladakh tourism website before planning their journey. According to this website, Ladakh Festival dates for 2018 are from the 20th to the 26th of September. Book your hotels ahead, since it is a very popular time to visit Ladakh.

Prayer wheels stopped swirling and wrinkled faces crinkled with goofy smiles,

When the much-awaited Ladakh Festival procession

Started off with great pomp and show.

Scowls darkened, and cameras went crazy

As the beautiful Ladakh festival dancers came walking by.

And thus began my first day in iconic Ladakh.