The Hemis Festival
Thanks to the Hemis Setchu festival - one of the few held in summer, when the passes are open - Hemis, 45-km southeast of Leh , is the most famous Gompa in Ladakh . Every year in mid-July hundreds of foreign visitors join the huge crowds of locals, dressed up in their finest traditional garb, that flock to watch the colourful two-day pageant.
An Enormous Thangka
Once every twelve years, the Hemis festival also hosts the ritual unrolling of a giant Thangka. The Gompa's prize possession, which covers the entire façade of the building, was embroidered by women whose hands are now revered as holy relics. Decorated with pearls and precious stones, it will not now be on show again until 2004. Among the treasures on permanent display is an exquisite Buddha Shakyamuni, also inlaid with jewels. The serene faced colossus sits in the Cho-khang chamber at the far end of the courtyard, along with a couple of richly inlaid silver Chortens.
The festival draws pilgrims, dressed in their finest costumes, from all over Ladakh and since 1975, tourists from all over the world. Apart from being one of the largest in Ladakh it is one of the few major religious festival in Ladakh, which is held in the summer, when the passes are open.
Hemis Gompa is the largest and one of the most important in Ladakh quite apart from its annual festival. It was founded about 350 years ago by Stagtshang Rinchen, who was invited to Ladakh by king Singe (also spelt as Sengge) Namgyal.
One can gain an impression of the extent of the monastery area on the climb to the so called "Eyrie", a hermitage reached by a one hour, 3-km climb to 3,900 metres, 1,000 metres higher than Hemis. The 13th century monastery predates the Hemis Gompa and was built by Syalwa Gotsang-pa, who meditated in a cave nearby. A small shrine has been built around the cave, where one can see his foot and hand print in the rock.
Trek Towards The Gompa
There are about a dozen monks living there the small Gompa serves as a retreat for many of the lamas from Hemis and it also services many of the monasteries in Ladakh by printing religious texts using carved wooden blocks, yak oil and lamp black, and rice paper imported from Burma (also known as Myanmar). The climb is quite strenuous because of the altitude; one should not undertake it lightly. While the Ladakhis, who are used to the scarcity of oxygen, will virtually sprint up the mountainside, a visitor will need to take quite a few rest breaks.
The thousand square metre courtyard of the Hemis Gmopa is entered from the northeast. The two prayer flags, in front of the first steps up to the Du-khang, form the middle point during the festival. A few places are reserved for guests but it is sometimes possible to buy 'admission tickets' to the gallery from business minded monks! The day before the two-day festival is devoted to demonstrations.
The Celebrations & Performances
On the first day of the festival the part, which foreigners can watch, begins at 10.00 am with ceremonies in the courtyard. After prayers in the Dukhang the Rimpoche climbs the steps up to the courtyard, accompanied by musician monks, crosses it and takes his place underneath the gallery.
Shortly afterwards the dances begin which have as their theme the struggle against evil and infidels and the inevitable victory of good and of Buddhism. The Padmasambhava dance, which shows the conquest of the 'Ruta' demons, is part of this dance. Other figures, which the dancers represent, are 'Yama' - the god of death, the black hatted sorcerer guru Trakpo the vanquisher of all demons, and various other forms of Padmasambhava. The sequence of the dances changes with time - often to present a different finale for the benefit of distinguished guests!
The dancing continues to late afternoon, with a brief stop at midday. Locals and foreigners find time to patronise the many small stands outside the monastery walls where tea, soup, Tsampa, sweets and other refreshments are sold. If one wishes to take photographs take account of the position of the sun when selecting the vantage point. In the crowded conditions during the dancing it is virtually impossible to leave one's place.
The Tranquil Ambience
If one visits the Gompa outside the festival time one will be impressed by the stillness of the valley. One will also have the opportunity to see the various chapels, the opportunity to see the various chapels.
Dukhang & Lakhang
Near the Dukhang is the Lakhang, which is the first one after a small set of steps from the yard. The doors are placed inwards so that the front room stands behind, its roof supported with four poles. The sidewalls of this front room are covered with partially damaged frescoes of the watchers of the heavenly directions. In the Dukhang, the general assembly room, the throne of the Rimpoche dominates the sitting places of the monks.
In the Lakhang there is a large gilded statue of the Buddha Sakyamuni with blue hair, surrounded by several silver Chortens, which, as in Spitok Gompa, are decorated with semi precious stones. There are also beautiful frescoes in the Lakhang Nyingpa, which is otherwise practically empty. The hands of the artists who prepared the Gompa's giant Tanka are revered as holy relics, but Hemis also has many lesser, but still interesting, Tankas. Hemis also has an excellent library, particularly well-preserved wall paintings and good Buddha figures.
Rimpoche Or Head Lama
In the second and third storeys, near the other chapels like the Zankhang, there is the Kharrabgysal, the rooms of the Rimpoche or head lama. The Rimpoche, Spiritiual overlord of Hemis, is a reincarnation of the monastery's founder, Stagtshang Raspa, who built Hemis in the first half of the 17th century, under King Singe Namgyal who also established the monasteries of Chemre, Hanle and Themisgang.
The last overlord of the Gompa was a reincarnation who, as a five-year-old child was undergoing training in Tibet when the Chinese invaded. Since then the Chakzot, a brother of the late king of Ladakh, has conducted the business of the Gompa. Because of the Chinese takeover of Tibet the monastery has had no communication with its Rimpoche since the '60s. During the 1975 festival Drugpa Rimpoche, a 12 -year old youth, became the new Rimpoche as a new incarnation. He is at the same time the overlord of the Drugpa Kargyupa, one of the six divisions of the red cap sect who, before the Chinese invasion of Tibet, possessed influence practically only in Bhutan and Ladakh. In Ladakh the Stagna and Chemre monasteries belong to this order, while Spitok belongs to the yellow-cap. Drugpa Rimpoche currently lives in Darjeeling, where he is completing his training.
Most of the 500 monks who were once based at Hemis have now moved to other monasteries throughout Ladakh and the monastery is maintained almost entirely for tourism. The monastery is growing rich from the proceeds of its festival.
Road: By car, Hemis is an easy day trip from Leh . By bus, services are only frequent during the festival; at other times a single daily service leaves at 9.00 am and returns at 12.30 pm, leaving no time to have a good look round.
One can however stay here in very basic rooms, the one adjacent to the Gompa; or in the village below in a small tent camp in the woods where one can rent mattresses and blankets. There are several secluded camping sites beside the stream. The monastery also runs a café at the base of the Gompa and another one in the village below.