Snow Lion Dance: Ladakhis Celebrate Friendship between Humans and Animals

For many of you, history classes are boring. But you can travel and visit cultural festivals to beat boredom associated with cultural history classes. For example, Ladakh Festival presents a number of folk dances that re-narrate cultural practices of the mountain dwellers every year in Leh.

The festival presents snow lion dance (Senggey Garcham) that tells a lifestyle story of mountain people of bygone eras.

This dance is a multitasker like you: it highlights an age-old bond between two animals and people of Ladakh in an entertaining way. The dance is generally performed in opening ceremonies.

The first animal is a snow lion: a mythical creature that exemplifies enlightenment and fearlessness. The lions representing glaciers and snowy mountains and ascetic community of Tibet are revered locally.

The second one is a yak. The yak provides for all needs of the nomads living in high altitude areas.

I saw it for the first time in Ladakh Festival 2013, Leh. It was funny and relatively fast dance in which an old man matched steps with a pair of energetic snow lions and a yak. The body movements in sync with the beats of traditional folk music instruments were simple. The old man hopped; the lions jogged, jumped, and scratched itself. The old man moved around the lions and imitated its jumps. Both were almost of same height. The old man swung his arms. But these bubbly peppy performances were executed by young kids.

Two pairs of artists wore costumes of snow lions. Another pair of artists was dressed in costume of a yak. The front artists controlled the head and / or the horn of feisty animals. The second controlled hind parts, including the tails.

The costumes are as heavy as about 20 kg. To perform these dances gracefully, lots of practice is required. The artists turn over, jump, sometimes roll, run in circle, and sit. Synchronization is therefore must.

I noticed that the mouths of the animals were always wide open. The mouth doubles as a window for the artists who can see the stage and audience through it while performing.

Now scroll down to experience the dance.

Snow lion dance, Ladakh Festival in Leh

An old man, the ring master in bold multi-color and multi-layer costume, runs to the stage, the open ground.


Snow lion dance, Ladakh Festival in Leh

A snow lion in white and green dress follows. The musicians play a drum, flute-like instrument, and cymbal.


Snow lion dance, Ladakh Festival in Leh

Another snow lion enters the stage.


Snow lion dance, Ladakh Festival in Leh

The old man and the snow lion


Snow lion dance, Ladakh Festival in Leh

The old man performs with the yak and the snow lions. (Background) Tsemo Castle.

Related Story: A Short Hike to Tsemo Castle, the Highest Point in Leh



Yak, an ox-like domesticated animal with short legs and long hairs, lives at high altitude ranging from 4,000 to 6,000 meters. Chinese call it “hairy cattle.”  However, lungs of yak are naturally designed to pump more oxygen required to survive in rarefied atmosphere of the high altitude areas. The count of small red blood cells is also more than that in the cattle living in plains, enhancing ability of the blood to carry more oxygen.

Although the low number of sweat glands and thick fur protect it in cold climate areas, this very feature makes its life difficult in mid altitude.


Snow lion dance, Ladakh Festival in Leh

The man rides the yak and sits at the hind part, causing a peel of laughter in the audience stands.



Yak mammals have a mechanical cousin: Yak aircraft.

Both beasts of burden are known for their survival skills required in rough terrains. The mammals regularly bore the burdens of the traders who traversed the Himalayas in the past. In the mid twentieth century, the Yak-24 (Flying Wagon / Letayuchiy Vagon) created payload-to-altitude records: the aircraft transported 4 tons (about 4,000 kilograms) of cargo to an altitude of 9,520 feet (2,885 meters) and 2 tons (about 2,000 kilograms) to 16,670 feet (5,052 meters).

The wagon was the part of a series of jet fighters (Yak aircraft) designed by Aleksandr Seregeyevich Yakovlev and named after him.  The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) used these yaks in the 2nd World War (1939-1945).


Snow lion dance, Ladakh Festival in Leh

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