Spiti Festival 2017: Preserving Ancient Culture

17-09-2017 Day 1 Spiti Festival 2017:

What happens when Development and Technology meet Traditional Culture and Ancient Ways of life? Progress. Prosperity. New Directions. And some times, it also leads to a rejuvenation of the traditional, the old ways, and a coming together of people. Just like the people of Spiti came together to organise the Spiti Festival 2017 in Kaza.

This year it was celebrated from September 17-19… but let me start at the beginning, because it is more than just a festival.

First organised in 2012, The Spiti Festival is organised by HIRIP Tribal Cultural Society and Sakya Sports and Cultural Society (SSCS) with the support of small scale businesses in and around Kaza and the local community. The festival came into existence with a vision to preserve, maintain and celebrate the rich culture of the people of Spiti. The festival was founded by the visionary Padma Dorje, a social activist and former Pradhan of Kaza, with co-founders Tsering Bodh, Norbu Ram, Norbu Gyaltson and Tan Tsering.

The need for the festival has its roots in the social and cultural impact of the Economic Liberalisation of India in 1991. With liberalisation came the advent of popular television, tourism, and new influences that affected the ancient ways of life of the people of the region. By 2004, in order to save the unique culture of the people of Spiti which was being adversely influenced by modernisation, a club was formed wherein 150 people showed up to join hands for the cause under an informal group called ‘The Kaza Cultural Society’. The response of the people was so astounding that a tribal cultural society was formed as a non-governmental organisation (NGO) under the name HIRIP with the sole purpose of safeguarding and promoting the traditional culture of Spiti. Though the society could not benefit from the funding of the broader La Darcha Trade Fair, the people of Spiti worked hard to realise their dream of a cultural festival and collected funds on their own. Sakya Sports and Cultural Society (earlier known as Dragon Sports and Cultural Association), an entity that conducts sports activities and annual cultural functions, joined hands with HIRIP and thus, in 2012, The Spiti Festival came to life.

The venue of the event this year was the ground of the Government Senior Secondary School, Kaza. An elaborate stage and sitting arrangements for the audience had been made. I had been watching the preparations since morning, and I knew it was going to be a great experience since it would showcase folk dances and songs in complete traditional attire worn in these parts – traditions and arts that have been passed from generation to generation across the centuries.

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The venue for the Spiti Festival 2017 with fresh snowfall on the mountain top in the background; Photo: Abhinav Kaushal

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From Left: H. E. Yomed Tulku Rinpoche, the Chief Guest on the first day of Spiti Festival 2017, with Guest of Honour Teng Lhundrub Tse and Meme Nawang Tashi; Photo: Abhinav Kaushal

The first day of the event commenced at 1900 hours in the school ground. It had rained during the day time and so it was cold. As the sun started to set, people started gathering. There was a flurry of excitement with the arrival of the chief guest, His Eminence Yomed Tulku Rinpoche from Ugyen Sanag Chhoeling Gompa, which is a 600-year-old monastery situated at Kungri in Pin Valley. He was accompanied by the guests of honour Meme Nawang Tashi and Teng Gong Lhundrub Tse who were welcomed by women dressed in traditional attire as they took the blessings of H. E. and were then escorted to the stage where they were seated.

After the chief guest shared a few words with the audience, all the guests of honour were shifted to a sitting place in the middle of the crowd and the event began with a traditional dance by a group of women from Kaza. The group is called Thomas and Tashi Group and they performed the Tashi Dance. The participants were beautifully dressed wearing silver ornaments, with one on the shoulder having many turquoise stones embedded in it. After the beautiful dance, next came a performance by a group of young girls singing a local song. They were a little nervous at first, but the performance was great.  Next up was Chunnit Chicham, a  renowned singer in these parts. As soon as she set foot on the stage and started her performance, the crowd was on its feet, with hands swaying in the air.

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Chunnit Chicham performing at Spiti Festival 2017; Photo: Abhinav Kaushal

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Women from Kaza performing Tashi dance; Photo: Abhinav Kaushal

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Government Senior Secondary School girls dancing, backed up by vocals from the students themselves; Photo: Abhinav Kaushal

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Sonu Negi concluding the day with a few local songs; Photo: Abhinav Kaushal

Events continued with a traditional dance performance by girls (dressed as boys and girls) of the Senior Secondary School Sagnam (Pin Valley), a performance well received by the audience. The day’s events ended with a song performed by Sonu Negi, a famous singer who had come all the way from Pooh to perform.

As the crowd departed, the claps, cheers, and whistles echoed through the atmosphere and in my mind. Due to rains during the day, many of the participants couldn’t make it today. It is also a crucial time of the year for the people of Spiti since all the preparations required for the coming winters are done during this period. But I was amazed by the commitment and dedication of the participants. The came from far and wide, from far-off villages around Spiti. The people of Spiti are very close knit, cooperative and collaborate brilliantly. The women of Mahila Manḍal Kaza went the extra mile to prepare food for the performers.  As I headed back to the hotel, I thought of the simplicity and warmth of the people here. Tomorrow will be another great day, with many more performances and I can’t wait for the events.


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