The Sangla Summer Festival

Am just back from the Sangla valley in Kinnaur. ‘Kinnaur’ (earlier known as ‘Koonawur’) is a district in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh in India. With massive, tall snow-clad mountains and treacherous roads, the district has a unique melange of Hinduism and Buddhism which can be observed effortlessly in every day life.

It is sad though, that the many hydro-electrical power projects that have come up in the region in the recent past, while providing development, are also leading to the hills becoming unstable because of the blasting and other related activities concerned with the projects. But even as ‘development’ and its related progress marches on, the indigenous people of the district (they also find mention in the Sanskrit classic ‘Amarkosa’ as the ‘Kinners’) continue to uphold their culture and values, maintaining ancient traditions and practices with firm beliefs. In Kinnaur, every village has a local deity who is worshipped first and foremost.

My journey this time took me to the Sangla valley also known as the ‘Green Valley’. To get to Sangla, one has to take the diversion off the NH22 at Karcham. The road then moves along the ‘Baspa’ river. The roads here are not for the faint-hearted, as the mountains are cut in forms of a tunnel with one side open to the vertical drop to the river below. Landslides and lose falling stones are a very real danger. But all this is soon forgotten once you reach Sangla, with the valley opening wide to a panoramic view of the mountains all around.

As soon as I landed in Sangla, I learned that the ‘Sangla Summer Festival’ was on (June 18-20, 2016). This was very fortunate since it gave me the opportunity to not only witness the local cultural festivities but also enjoy the traditional food of the region. Reaching the location I could see flocks of people coming from all around the valley to enjoy the festival. While most of the middle-aged ladies were dressed in suits, some of them also wore traditional dresses. The ‘Thepang’ (also known as ‘Kinnauri topi’) which is a green-coloured cap, was adorning the head of most men and women. The festival was scheduled to be inaugurated by the Superintendent of Police of Kinnaur. The sun was out and the snowy tops of mountains were clearly visible. The festival was held on the grounds of the government school, with the stage setup at the centre of the ground. There were various makeshift shops lined up a little distance from the main stage. Some stalls were selling various local commodities such as shawls, caps, mufflers etc, while some had information and demonstrations to showcase new technologies and agriculture methods for improving produce to the farmers attending the festival. The summer festival also gets an interesting twist since it is a sort of a competition between various schools and ‘Mahila Mandals’ of the Sangla valley with special performances.

The festivities on the first day began with a splendid flute performance, with the flautist playing tunes of old local regional songs. This was followed by a traditional dance (Kinnauri nati) by school kids roughly between 8 and 12 yrs of age. The kids were smartly dressed in Kinnauri attire, and while the kids were dancing to the tribal tunes, I was amazed to realise that the musical instruments were also played by children of the same age! The beats were so enchanting that it felt as if they were communicating with nature itself. While the school children were adorable, the adults were moving to the groove too. As the different groups performed their routines one by one, I realised that there were slight but perceptible differences (which I could barely understand, but my Kinnauri friend translated and informed me of the significance) – the performances reflected the attire and language of the people of various villages which were just a few miles apart from each other.

The main event of the day (although everything was intriguing to me) was a special dance performed by the people of ‘Rarang’ which is a village outside the Sangla valley near ‘Akpa’ where Buddhism is widely followed and the local deity is also worshipped. The dance is known as the ‘Lion Dance’, which is a Buddhist ritual dance known as ‘Singay Cham’. It is said that the dance helps in evading evil and brings good luck. After the mesmerising performance the festival continued with traditional dances performed by various school children and ladies of the seven villages in the Sangla valley. The day concluded with the local kids dancing and enjoying themselves surrounded by magnificent snow-clad mountains all around.


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