Hemis Monastery cradles the finest relics of Buddhist culture that thrived in Central Asia since millennia. Standing tall in the folds of arid deserted highlands of the Ladakh Himalayas, Hemis Monastery is the sacred religious hermitage that lives on the blessings of Naropa. Naropa was an ancient Buddhist scholar who also presided over the operations of Nalanda Mahavihara as a chancellor!
Where is Hemis Monastery?
Situated only at a distance of 45 KM from the town of Leh, Hemis Monastery has survived from many invasions, embedded in the history of Central Asia, that rocked the region. You will not be able to spot the monastery until you have reached the foot of the mountain and ventured into the interiors. It is mostly invisible to the outer world!
A hidden world of wisdom, ancient culture rich with the artifacts dating back to the Gandharan period. It truly opens up as you enter the Hemis Monastery premises. As you start to explore the area, you realize that it has largely remained nonchalant to the technology evolution changing the face of the modern world.
And yet, Hemis Monastery would not want to thrive in the impactful influence it has on the locals and the regional followers of Buddhism. In fact, it has opened its door to the world. It is inviting pilgrims, researchers and visitors from around the globe in order to share the rich heritage and cultural safe-keeps in the form of religious scriptures and folklore! Naropa Festival is a prime example of the endeavor!
Sustainable Tourism initiated by Drukpa Thuksey Rinpoche in Ladakh
His Eminence Drukpa Thuksey Rinpoche, one of the prime authorities of Hemis monastery has initiated many programs that will ensure sustainable tourism in the locality. It works to guard the peace that prevails in the mountains despite being in a conflict zone. And uplift the local people of the region. All this has a positive impact on the lives of local youth.
Naropa Festival is a successful confluence of people following many faiths and lifestyle. Be it from the remote villages of Ladakh or the mountains of Bhutan or the plains of India. In a couple of day’s time, we met environment enthusiasts, religious scholars, artists and more. All of them were passionate about bringing in the change for betterment!
As you proceed towards Hemis from Leh in the wee hours of the day, you will come across the magnificent river Indus. It is fascinating to look at the flow of Indus that has been synonymous with the identity of Indians! A lot of monasteries are situated by the river Indus, atop the mountains.
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The willow, the poplar trees, the bend of the river and the small villages built on the hilltops. Together they make beautiful landscapes, befitting the appearance of an oasis in the arid mountainous region of Ladakh! We learned the tree plantation was an initiative taken up by the Drukpas from Hemis Monastery, adding a dash of green to the area.
Naropa Festival at Hemis Monastery
We visited the Hemis Monastery for a couple of days during the Naropa Festival. Truth be told, if you love to delve deep into the culture of the region, you need to frequent this area many more times. Be rest assured, every visit will be a fulfilling learning experience. From the highway, it looks like a three-tiered institute.
There is Indus river at the bottom, from the banks of which a serpentine road goes to the entry gate of the Hemis monastery. A newly built ivory white Naropa Stupa, Naro Photang, adorned with wood carvings is situated by the side of the road. The Naropa Festival takes place here.
Go up with the winding road for another couple of kilometers and you shall come across the beautiful Hemis monastery made of clay and mud bricks. It retains the old world charm to a large extent!
Hemis Monastery of Drukpa
Following a religious sect of the Tibetan Buddhism under the Drukpa Lineage, Hemis monastery dates back to antiquity. In the year of 1672, the Ladakhi emperor Sengge Namgyal restored the glory of the monastery. It is one of the primary seats of Tantrik Buddhism. Many myths arguably suggest Jesus had spent his last of the “far east days” in this monastery.
The mystic mask dance, ancient manuscripts, handpainted murals and incense sticks inside the Gompas tell stories from the days bygone. No wonder, it is conferred to be one of the richest Buddhist monasteries of the Ladakh region. The main complex is a two-story building, made of typical Ladakhi wooden fixtures on the mud-brick wall, painted in yellow and maroon, the color of the monks’ robes!
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Make sure you explore the lamp room where yak butter is used to illuminate different shapes of lamps. Some burning for the entire year round, some only for a night. They are believed to be reminiscing about the deceased monks and holy spirits. Visitors can enter three gompas and observe the monks offering worship to different incarnations of Buddha and his disciples. The most prominent of them is the statue of Guru Padmasambhava, the legendary “second Buddha” according to Tibetan school of Buddhism.
The sprawling courtyard of Hemis Monastery also acts as the stage of famous Hemis Tsechu festival on the 10th day of the Tse-Chu, Lunar month of the Tibetan Calendar and celebrates the birth of Guru Padmasambhava.
Hemis Monastery Museum
On the other side of the courtyard is housed the fantastic Hemis Museum. Contrary to my apprehensions, this tiny museum is rich in relics, artifacts, and historical documents. It is like a walk through the history of Hemis Monastery since the dawn of civilization.
You can see Gandharan style statues dating back to the time of Alexander displayed beside the Black and white portrait of Tsechu Festival. An adult snow leopard skin is hung on display which used to be a meditation mat in earlier times. The walls are decked up with protector masks.
Most of the artifacts of the Hemis museum are put to use during the various religious ceremony and protected with care. They carry immense historical and heritage value! Photography of any kind is prohibited inside.
The Naropa Festival
Naropa festival is known to be the Kumbh Mela of the Himalayas. Like Kumbh Mela, devotees from many parts of the world climb the steep mountain to reach the monastery.
The ornaments made with bones and hair remnants of Naropa, the scholar is brought out for public display. The six bone relics is believed to be a blessing from the Dakini and consists of a crown, necklace, earring, bracelets, seralkha, and apron. A grand procession with the sacred relics proceeds from the Hemis monastery to the Naro Photang Naropa Stupa compound.
Traditionally the relics are worn by his holiness Gyalwang Drukpa, also the founder of Live to Love initiative that is bringing in positive change in the lives of residents beyond the realm of religious practice.
Tribes from remote parts of Ladakh rehearse for days to stage a grand performance. Traditional Ladakhi dress, head gears are brought out of the box. Regional delicacies are cooked and served by volunteers. On the menu, exotic mountain mushroom, local spinach, and leafy vegetables share the place with yum yak cheese!
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Annual Naropa Festival
The earlier custom was to celebrate Naropa Festival every twelve years. However, riding on the tourist influx in Ladakh, authorities have decided to celebrate The Naropa Festival on a yearly basis. The initiative is commendable since it inspires locals to interact with tourists. Tourists, on the other hand, are made aware of the culture of the place. Ladakh regains its identity beyond the Pangong Lake or the Chadar trek!
We found locals walking in traditional Ladakhi dresses from afar with the help of a stick. Pink-cheeked babies looked at us in an inquisitive way from the lap of their mothers. Broken Hindi often broke the language barrier among us.
As we sat through the Festival and performances, the Ladakhi grandmothers treated us with red apples plucked from her orchards. The locality is still void of overtly touristy invasions and interactions are very cordial and not the basis on a possible business transaction. The plastic packets or stationery goods has not spoilt the pristine mountains, thanks to the endeavors by Drukpas.
During the Naropa Festival, at night, the Bollywood exhilarates Ladakh! The profound impact Indian cinema has on the subcontinent is phenomenal and transcends all boundaries with elan. I saw many tourists en route their way from Pangong to Leh making a spontaneous stop at the venue of Naropa festival as Kailash Kher, Papon or Sonu Nigam chose to play their favorite songs. Indian military convoys joined in with glee and the party was an instantaneous hit! Music binds us all together, even as the bitterly cold night of the dry desert area that Ladakh is!
70 FT long hand-painted Thangka Painting
On the second day of the festival, the 70 FT long hand-painted Thangka was unfurled at the venue of Naropa Festival. Men and women bowed down in front of it. It had eight different forms of Amitabha Buddha. You can only see it for a couple of hours before the historical cloth is taken down and kept aside from the harsh sunlight.
The finest example of Ladakhi culture was portrayed by three hundred Ladakhi women who performed “Shondol” on the drums beats on the concluding day of Naropa Festival. I can still hear the drums resonate to the distant mountain corners…. The show easily scaled up to be the largest of Ladakhi dance show in the Guinness Book of World Record!
The Impact of Naropa Festival on Local Life
You may ask the reason behind deciding to host Naropa Festival on a yearly basis. Ladakh has its own share of cultural extravagant festivals like Losar and Sindhu darshan. Ladakh festivals are much acclaimed with charming Cham dances. However, the Naropa Festival intends to spread awareness on the sustainable development efforts taken up by the Drukpa lineage. From an Eco-conscious lifestyle to ensuring a sustainable travel experience, the Live to Love organization has been instrumental in educating locals and bring in positive change. Naropa Festival stands as a testimony to that celebration!
An example of the positive change is the Naropa fellowship. The new academic fellowship that aims to empower the youth of the Himalayan region has been opened to residents worldwide. The first batch of students for the merit scholarship has been accepted. The idea is to facilitate a self-sustaining livelihood for the residents in the fragile ecosystem of the arid region.
Visiting Hemis Monastery during the Naropa festival is a cherishable memory. You as a responsible traveler who values cultural experience as well as exotic locales! will cherish a trip to the monastery and festival.
This is a post by Madhurima Chakraborty who represented IndiTales at Naropa Festival in Ladakh.
Madhurima is a Kolkata born, Bangalore based travel blogger of Orangewayfarer. She loves food, sarees, books, clicking pictures and environment-friendly way of traveling. She aspires to travel to Antarctica someday.