The great Himalayan Zone, the land of lofty mountains, most magnificent scenery, of fascinating valleys, snow-fed perennial rivers and streams, is also the land of rich and colorful natural life. The great mountain wall of the Himalayas overlook the areas of Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh.
Ladakh, the land of monks, monasteries and mysteries, is a part of Jammu and Kashmir of Indian Union. Ladakh is also known as the Lunar Landscape, the last Shangrila and the Little Tibet. It occupies the 70 per cent of the total area of the Sate. The stark, sun-baked, barren, forboding, windsewept rugged yet exciting region is the abode of lamaseries, yaks, hoary palaces perched on pinnacles and Buddhistic arts - colorful dances, colossal statues, tanakas, frescoes, mystery plays, palaces, stupas, monasteries, etc.
Ladakhis are of Tibetan descent and depend for their livelihood on agriculture and nomadic herds. They rear sheep and goat and migrate from one region to another and higher altitude to lower according to the season. They are great dance-enthusiasts and find any occasion good enough for dancing. They are Buddhist by faith and their whole life revolves round the castle-like monasteries perched on the hill tops and the ridges. These monasteries are the center of arts and culture and they are also the upholder of the religion. It was Padma Sambhava who founded the Byingmpa sect of Buddhist here in the 8th century. It is also known as the Red Hat-sect. Later on another sect Gulugpa, popularly known as Yellot Hat-sect was also introduced towards 14th century.
The monasteries here, among other things, have attached courtyards surrounded by galleries. These are meant for mask-dances and mystic plays. These religious dances cannot be categorized either as folk or tribal. They form a different class of their own and have much in common with those performed in Tibet, Sikkim, and Bhutan. These colorful dance-dramas of great weired beauty are performed annually in different monasteries at different times of the year. For example at Hemis the famed mask dance-drama called Tscham-dance is held during June every year. It celebrated the victory of Buddhism over Bon-creed as well as the birthday of Padma Sambhava, the great Buddhist guru. The lamas wear rich and magnificent brocade costumes and strange masks and perform their exorcising ritual dances with grat pomp and show to the accompaniment of large cymbals, gongs, trumpets, horns and drums. The dancers wearing the masks of divine beings, gods, demons and animals stage a fierce fight. Obviously, gods represent the dharma and good, and the devils the evil and adharma. These dance drama begin at and maintain a slow tempo and are characterized by wide positioning of, and whirls in a large circle by the participants. These dance-plays, simulating a combat between good and evil are also performed to exorcise the evil spirits and to protect the followers of the faith against wicked spirits. These have become now so famous that people from far off places in India and abroad come to Ladakh to witness these dance-dramas and mystic plays braving all sorts of difficulties and incurring heavy expenses.
There are over 100 monasteries in Ladakh region. Some of other famous monasteries besides Hemis are those of Alchi, Lamayuru, Likir, Mulbekh, Phyang, Rizong, Spituk and Thiksey.
The valley of Kashmir, the Paradise on earth, the Super Switzerland of Asia, is inhabited by many ethnic groups, races, sub-races including Aryan Dogras, Muslims, Buddhists, nomads, and the several tribes like the Wattals, the Gujjars and the Bakkarwals. They all are handsome, hardworking, simple, fun-loving, and music and dance enthusiasts. The majority of the population consists of the followers of Islam. The traditional culture of Kashmir continues to live and flourish in its folk-songs, music and dances besides in its temples, mosques, painting and crafts. From this picturesque valley we have such folk dance-forms as the Rouf, the Hafiza, the Hikat, the Bacha Nagma, the Bhandpather and some tribal ones.
The Rouf is a simple but a fascinating spring harvesting dance of the valley of Kashmir. The female dancers attired in rich skirts, and draperies and laden with silver jewellery face each other in two rows, and dance forwards and backwards holding one another by arms over the head and shoulder. While they dance their bodies bend above the waist delicately forward like creepers laden with flowers and fruits. The accompanying song is either in the form of a chorus or a simple question-answer dialogue form. These may sometimes have a philosophical and mystical touch. The Hikat is again a simple harvest and spring time dance performed by the boys and girls in groups and pairs. It is danced annually in April-May. The participants boys and girls interlock their arms and perform the simple dance to the accompaniment of melodic chants sung by the dancers. These songs full of sheer joy and gay abundance of life, are from local stock and pertain to the various aspects of nature there; the fascinating plants and trees, rivers, streams, lakes and lotuses in them, snow and village greens and the like. Occasionally there is also a strand of love and romance mixed with that of nature and environment. The girls wear ghaghara, a brocade cap called taich, chunari and various kind of silver and gold ornaments. It begins with a slow tempo but gradually hots up into a fast dizzying footwork and speed requiring perfect balancing and timing on the part of the performers.
The Hafiza dance, as the name signifies, is performed by the female dancers called Hafizas. This dance-form dating back to antiquity reminds of the Devadasis of the South India. In the medieval period Hafiza became very popular when the dancers performed while singing in Sufiana Kalam, consisting of ragas or melodies called muqams based on rich Persian literary tradition full of deep thoughts. The orchestra which accompanied it consisted of santoor (a string instrument) and called the "Veena of Kashmir", tables (dukra), shetar, etc. Later on Hafizas were relegated to the position of professional nautch girls and were engaged to perform on many a social and ceremonial occasions.
Bacha Nagma, an offshoot of Hafiza dance-form, has been very popular as an item of sheer entertainment. Here boys perform instead of the women. The boys of tender age and delicate voice disguised as women, wearing long hair perform it. It is very popular and draws large crowd and much applause. Accompanied by rabab, sarangi, shenai and drums, it involves quick spinning movements and pirouettes resembling those of Kathak. There is much expressional dancing as well, and the dancer has to interpret the song related to love and romance. Hafizas remind us of the Devdasis, and Bacha Nagma revives the memory of the Gotipuas of Orissa.
Bhand Pather is an ancient traditional folk form of Kashmir still extant and also very important. It is not bound to any time and place, and so it can be performed anywhere and at anytime as a dance-drama.
The various nomad tribes of Kashmir are also great dancers. Among the Wattals a dance-form closely connected with fertility rites is very popular. It is purely a male performance in which the participants dance in a circle round a pole topped with banner. It is enjoyed on many auspicious occasions to the accompaniment of instrumental music of nagara (a drum) and surnai or sehnai and some other instruments. The dancers sing as well. It begins at a slow pace and tempo but soon picks up the speed and tempo culminating into acrobatic leaps, jumps and a very loud music. Again it is a spring dance and here the pole symbolizes creation, fertility continuity, ebb and flow of life. They dance in circle, around it.
Nestled in the north-west lap of the great Himalayas, Himachal Pradesh, a mountainous region, is Nature's own child. Himachal Pradesh, with its Lahul-Spiti immersed in barren and rugged splendour, fascinating valleys like Kangra, Kuku and Chamba, can rightly boast of a unique folk dance and music heritage. Dancing and singing is a favourite pastime of the people of this land. It is in their blood. The ethnic scenerio of Himachal presents a rich variety of races, religions and tribals. They all indulge in several forms of charming folk-dances. The dances are performed by both men and women either together or separately.
In the Chamba valley of Himachal Pradesh live the Gaddis equally beautiful and colorful tribe. The Gaddi women and men perform fascinating dances but separately. The female performances are tender and languorous, and those of men are vigorous and fast. The men-folk dance is a circle going round and round and singing songs of gallantry and romance. They do it on various festivals and other annual occasions and fairs. The Gaddi women, dressed in pretty costumes of skirits, shawls and head-gears and adorned with ornaments, dance in a circle going round and round to the accompaniment of songs sung in a chorus. While they dance they bend sideways and make beautiful and hand and arm gestures. The theme of the songs is invariably a romance between a Gaddi lass and a youth and domestic affairs.
The Gaddis, like their counterparts the Gujjars and the Bakkarwals in Kashmir are pastoral people and cattle-breeding is their main occupation. They are Hindus by faith and believe Shiva to be their originator of this universe. Besides Shiva they also worship many other gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. They migrate from one place to another in search of new pastures and fodder for their cattle. In short, they are lively and gay and love to dance on any and every occasion they can find.
Kulu is another charming valley of Himachal Pradesh. It is also known as the Valley of the Gods because of the fact of many temples and shrines dedicated to various deities are located there. Every now and then some festival is held there which is invariably accompanied by song, music and dancing. Of these Dusserah festival is the most famous. During this festival, held in October, all the gods and goddesses from the different parts of the region are brought in a procession in their respective gay palanquins to an appointed open place in the valley. The palanquins are richly decorated with flowers, garlands, buntings and umbrellas above, and incence sticks are burnt before the images of the deities. Thousands and thousands of people, men and women, young and old, children and householders assemble here in their Sunday best colorful garments and enjoy the celebrations to their hearts' content.
During this ten-day festival a variety of dances are performed which includes sword dances and a few others. The men-folk lavishly draped in tunics and trousers, shawls and plumed round caps form a dancing circle and commence with slow steps, which gradually gathers speed and tempo. The dancers hold handkerchiefs in their right hands which they wave gracefully to the rhythm of orchestra. The accompanying orchestra consists of dholak, narsigha, shehnai and Karnal. As the musicians sing of chivalry, patriotism and in praise of the deities and the warriors, the dance reaches a crescendo and climax, and then some of the dancers come forward from the circle in the center and commence, their sword dance brandishing their bright weapons, moving continuously in a frenzy and at a very fast speed. These martial dances, performed against a back-drop of snow-peaked Himalayan mountains of Dholadhar and Kailash, also involve a lot of pirouettes and spinning at one place. The festival is celebrated with all the pomp and splendour and homage is paid to the deities. Bazaars are set up for the sale of sweets, toys, household goods and endless knickknacks, and there is a lot of excitement, gaiety, merry-making and revelry.
Some other better known and popular folk-dances of the region are Pangi and Sangla. Pangi known after the valley of the same name, is a female dance in which a group of women perform in a circle with charming body turns to either side and hand raised above the head swaying in supple movements to the rhythm of the song and the dance. It is done seasonally in honour of the goddess Devi. There are many famous Devi shrines in the area. On full moon day people visit there shrines to pay their homage to the goddess and then these dances are performed. On these occasions fairs are held and the deities propitiated. Sangla is a mixed affair, and so men and women jointogether to pay homage to the local deities and mythological heroes. The men and women participants at first stand in separate rows facing each other, but with the progression in the dance they comingle. The accompanying songs are in a dialogue form of question-answer. One party sings on behalf of one character and then the other answers on behalf of the respondent character. As usual, these dances begin at slow tempo but gradually gather speed and momentum leading to the climax full of dizzy spinning and pirouettes. There are many other dance-forms either confined solely to men or women performers or done by both together. Many of these dances are done on the occasion of Yatras or pilgrimages to various shrines.