Gold Faces: The Fagli Festival of Kullu Valley

Fagli, Faguli, Phaguli – the mysterious mask festival home to the upper Kullu Valley of Himachal Pradesh with as many spelling variations as it has origin stories and ways of being celebrated.

At Playground, we’ve been hearing the drums sounding loudly all day as our neighbors in the village below celebrate this coming of spring and expulsion of evil spirits – with some of our guests and staff even attending.

Photo Credit: Harish Kumar

It’s our belief that this is the core of what it means to slow travel. To settle down in a place long enough to explore it with meaning, understand the space you’re occupying and the people occupying it with you beyond what a tourist will ever see, and eventually return home (or not) with stories and insights you collected along the way.

Our guests who visited yesterday’s Fagli festival, for example, learned that this festival is celebrated in Kullu Valley, besides just being one hell of a party, for the purpose of cleansing the village of evil spirits, and to bless the upcoming year and harvest seasons to come.

Photo Credit: Harish Kumar

Each village has a devta, or local deity, who is protected fiercely and cared for by the village to which it belongs to. Each year this devta decides the date of the Fagli festival according to the  phases of the moon and traditional calendar.

Since each village’s devta is generally specific to that village, this is why the festival is celebrated on so many different dates each year throughout the valley. In theory, if you timed it just right, you could attend several in a year!

During the festival, the same local devta speaks through the gur, a member of the village appointed (sometimes through family bloodline) to speak on behalf of the devta and deliver his or her message to the village.

At our festival yesterday, the devta (through the gur) predicted things for the upcoming year such as the amount of rain and snow that the village will receive, how plentiful the harvest will be, and what to expect in the coming seasons.

While this is a regular feature of the Fagli Festival, the main event is the masked dances held to the beat of dhol drums. Just like the spelling, everything from the clothing, to dance style, and use of the masks changes depending on the village, the stories passed down in that area, and interpretations of the meaning behind the celebration.

Men don huge masks, hand-made grass dresses or skirts, often carrying carved wooden staffs, and carry out a full show – from dances, swirling, and running through the fields in costume, to acting out play fights and short scenes amongst the different masked characters, oftentimes resembling good and evil battling one another.

Photo Credit: Harish Kumar

The good mask frequently represents God Narayana, depicted to have a face of gold, who fights the evil spirits to cleanse the village.

These masks stay with one family in the village and are passed down through generations. Breaking or losing them is not an option, because it is said that they cannot be replaced.

In many locales, another devta of Narayana, made of pure gold, is placed into a kilta (a straw-woven basket used throughout Himachal to collect things like grass, firewood, or apples, etc.), and gently tossed down into the crowd waiting to catch it below.

The one lucky enough to emerge with the kilta is then given the task and honor of serving a feast for the rest of the village.

And of course, a feast of mutton, fruits, local wine – you name it, along with one big dance party follows the formal celebration late into the night.

What we realized when writing this is perhaps the coolest part of the entire Fagli festival is that no two people will tell you the same story. Its meaning is just a little bit different for everybody, every village, and every valley – and it continues to change as stories and traditions are passed on through the generations.

We’re lucky enough to be right in the middle of it all, and have the chance to learn something new everyday.

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