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Korzok Gustor festival, Ladakh

The calm beauty of Tso-Moriri Lake, Ladakh, India.
The calm beauty of Tso-Moriri Lake, Ladakh, India.

At an altitude of 4,595m (15,075 ft) in the Himalayas, not too far from the Tibetan border, sits the lake of Tso-Moriri, a large and mind-bogglingly beautiful teardrop of melted Himalayan snow.

A calm expanse of water 19km (12 mi) long, 3km (1.9 mi) wide and barely 40m (130 ft) deep, Tso-Moriri is the centrepiece of the Rupshu valley which cradles the lake in mountains six kilometres (20,000 ft) high.

Tso-Moriri has quietly acted as a receptacle for Himalayan snowmelt and natural spring water over the millennia. The lake's water ought to be pure and sweet, but because Tso Moriri is a closed lake — the water flows in but has no outlet — evaporation over the centuries has left it saturated with natural salts washed down the mountainsides with the snowmelt…

Here, a unique and delicate ecosystem flourishes: rare plants and flowers, small and threatened populations of animals such as the Kiang (red wild ass), and a drifting population of Changpa nomads who roam the plateau seeking nourishment for their lucrative herds of Pashmina goats, horses and yaks. There's also the tiny hamlet of Korzok — perhaps 50 dwellings on the northwest shore of the lake, overlooking precarious crops of barley, oats and vegetables: these are some of the world's highest and most difficult farmlands, so remote that Korzok is cut off from the rest of the world by snow for about eight months each year.

And, of course, there's a marvellous, picturesque monastery, Korzok Gompa, presiding over the village, where you'll find a tiny group of about 35 Tibetan Buddhist monks.

Korzok Gompa dates back somewhere between 300 and 500 years and is home to stunning old paintings, relics and statues, including a stunning Shakyamuni Buddha. Once a year, the monks organise the Gustor — "Sacrifice of the 29th Day" — and it's this festival, Korzok Gustor, that we typically feature on our photography tours of Ladakh.

Pure theatre: Monk in a mask.
Pure theatre: Monk in a mask.

Colour, costumes and rituals

It's an amazing, photogenic two-day spectacle, attended by the Changpa herdsmen, the locals and their families. The story behind the colourful rituals, masks and dances is deep and complex, but it centres around the triumph of good over evil: a symbolic sacrificial cake is ritually destroyed and the assassination of an apostate Tibetan king back in the 9th century is celebrated.

In this thinly populated and quiet part of the Himalayan mountain ranges, the barely suppressed excitement of the gathered throng is all the more apparent. Old friends meet here, often for the first time in a year; the monks hurry about prepping and primping the decorations, testing their musical instruments and checking their elaborate masks; women bustle about in their traditional Sunday-best costumes, wearing all their jewellery.

The photo opportunities are out of this world: there is almost too much happening for any one photographer to capture. In addition to the crowds, the traditional festive garb, the banners and the flags, you'll capture the monks as they work their way through prayer and ritual, sound their dung-chens (traditional long trumpet-horns), clash their bells and cymbals and beat their drums. Your action photography skills will be put to the test as monks whirl and swirl through their dances.

ladakh-prayer flags-296x200
Buddhist prayer-flags.

On day 2 of Korzok Gustor, the masks come out in full, fearsome strength: strange and wildly coloured demonic and animalistic faces, creating the photos that will become the iconic images of the festivities at the Gompa. Live horses, goats and yaks are brought in to play their role too: their contribution to life and survival is celebrated and blessed.

And all the while, out there is the calm, often mirror-reflective expanse of Tso-Moriri, offering your camera upside-down landscapes of brown, tan and black hillsides with white-capped peaks and — weather permitting — piercing blue skies.

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