We got up early to stake out a place because we knew it was going to be crowded. The Hemis festival has become famous among European tour groups, whose white-haired flocks swoop in to watch a few hours of monk dancing every year. The better seats are reserved in blocks at about $7 each and with thousands of visitors, this probably funds the monastery.
By the time the dancing started around 11, the courtyard was jammed with people, both tourists and locals. With only one entrance, the crowd turned into a crush of people just below us pushing and shoving to get in or out. Fortunately, there aren't any fire marshals in this part of India, and even more fortunately no one got hurt while the show went on.
The dancing was impressive for a time. At its climax, there were close to 50 masked dancers in the courtyard, including a large masked figure of Guru Padmasambhava and a smaller Sakyamuni Buddha, who obviously takes second billing in these parts. At the end of the morning the tourists clapped as if they had been to the theater and then most of them left.
The afternoon's dances were short and surprisingly simple. They did have a torma effigy as we had seen elsewhere, but they dispatched it with a few quick whacks instead of the intense ceremony that usually takes much of one or two days. The afternoon finished anticlimactically with a dance of monks in animal masks, then everyone packed up and left to visit the museum.
So far, we were a little disappointed with this the most famous festival. Although it put on a grand show neatly packaged in a few hours for the tourists, it seemed shallow compared with the traditional local festivals that drew few tourists and stretched from morning until night. Perhaps with the tour buses gone, the second day will be more like that.