Rituals and Masked Dances at Karsha Gustor Festival in Zanskar

Gustor is traditional to the monasteries of the Geluk-pa order of Tibetan Buddhism. This two-day festival is held at Spituk, Thiksay and Karsha Monasteries, at different times each year. Gu-Stor literally means “Sacrifice of the 29th Day” which doesn’t enlighten me. A person really has to be Buddhist to understand and get into the nuances of the festivals. Let’s just say that it is the victory of good over evil.

The cymbals, drums, dungchen (those mournful, very long horns) and oboes began playing. The head monk was escorted to his seat. And finally, the first masked monk appeared wearing a huge brown mask supported by two other monks to keep him from falling over. (It is probably impossible to see out of one of those masks.) He was led once around the courtyard before sitting down. A ancient, special tanka was then placed on a pole in the courtyard for a short amount of time.


head monk at the Karsha Gu-Stor Festival in Zanskar

large brown mask begins the Karsha Gu-Stor Festival in Zanskar

ancient and sacred tanka at Karsha Gu-Stor Festival, Zanskar


I have no idea what the different masks were actually called. All I know is masks worn by the dancers represent the guardian divinities in the Buddhist pantheon, and patron divinities of the Gelukpa order. Brown mask first. Tanka next. A l-o-n-g…break. A procession of decorated animals into the courtyard; a horse, dog, yak, ram belonging to Karsha Monastery. Stanzin said they are sacred to the monastery, do no work and are very well cared for. I think the orangey/ochre looking streaks were painted on fur, and horns. (Just guessing.) I also have no clue why they were sacred or what they represent. A person would have to attend a festival with a Buddhist Scholar for complete explanations. The monks also did something to all four animals. Other tourists would occasionally rush into the courtyard, dance around the animals, getting in their faces, and practically look up nostrils to take photographs.

sacred yak at the Karsha Gu-Stor Festival in Zanskar

sacred horse belonging to Karsha Monastery, Zanskar

sacred ram with pink horns at Karsha Festival, Zanskar


More dancers descended down steps from the Dukhang Hall while monks pushed crowds back. Dragon heads. Red masks. A very impressive bull-like black mask. Yellow masks. Dancers who frightened small children. Two dancers jumping around that even I recognized as “ghosts.” The “ghosts” were a big hit with the crowd.

red masks descending into the courtyard at Karsha Monastery, Zanskar

red-masked deity at Karsha Gu-Stor Festival, Zanskar

scary black mask dancer at Karsha Gu-Stor Festival, Zanskar


There were big lulls between each set of masked dancers who would come down the stairs, parade around the courtyard, repeat the exact same dance steps in slow motion accompanied by the same music, before leaving the courtyard. I sat in a catatonic state, bored out of my gourd, while ex-Marine kept motioning from the courtyard fringes, “Let’s go!” Yes, it is colorful and yes it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience but a little masked dance goes a L-O-N-G…way. I am embarrassed to tell you how many times I probably asked Stanzin, “Is it over yet?”

Karsha Gu-Stor Festival ghost dancers, Zanskar


The celebration is supposed to end with the dismemberment and dispersal of the Storma (sacrificial cake). This symbolizes the destruction of all forms of evil as well as reenacting the assassination of the Tibetan apostate King Lang-dar-ma, by a Buddhist monk in the mid 9th century. The photograph below may have been that since it received impressive oohs and aahs from the Zanskaris.

destroying evil at the Karsha Gu-Stor Festival in Zanskar

traditionally dressed grandmother and grandchild at Karsha Monastery, Zanskar


The most interesting part of the Karsha Gustor Festival for me was two women wearing magnificent peraks. Read about this in tomorrow’s Travels With Sheila’s article on the festival…


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