The Rites Of Life
One of the most popular monastic selections in Ladakh, the festival of them is symbolises the centuries-old traditions of the Kar-gyur-pa sect of Tibetan Buddhism.
An Interesting Tale
It is a centuries old story that sounds more like something out of a Hans Anderson, only it is not a fairy tale. A long time ago (circa 12th century), through the barren freezing wastes of western Tibet venerated monk, following possibly an equally ancient Silk Route through the Korakorams, or perhaps the Kailash Trail west down the hoary Indus finally reaching what then was the kingdom of Ladakh.
He found this sparsely populated region with a density of less than one person per couple of kilometers too distracting and sought greater seclusion in this wilderness. A remote cave deep in a re-entrant on the northern flanks of the Zanskars found favour with Rgodtshangpa Mgonpo Rdor Rje who meditated there the rest of his life, in the process of establishing the "Bya Brgyupda" school of Buddhism in Ladakh .
Establishment Of the Monastery
For the next couple of hundred years the cave called 'Rgod Tshang' was the focus of religious favour prompting the king of a Ladakh, King Sengge Namgyal to establish a monastery there around 1600 AD. Appropriately it was called 'Chan Chub Sand Ling' (The solitary place of the compassionate one) in honour of Rgodtshangpa Rje, the reclusive monk. It took another 130 odd years for the monastery to develop its distinctive styles of painting, sculpture and religious art, which have evolved from their roots in the Brugpa tradition of Buddhism in Tibet.
Under the royal patronage of the powerful Namgyal dynasty - which traced its roots to Tibet-the monastery underwent a major renovation under Rimpoche Rgyalsras, the Third Incarnate of "Stagtshang". He introduced an annual fair called Wangchlong. It has been held ever since with ever increasing popularity that is now global, ironically rendering the monastery no longer solitary, nor its younger residents as compassionate.
A Monastic Festivity
Held in the months of June-July, the festival of Hemis symbolises the traditions of the Kar-gyut-pa sect of Tibetan monasticism.
This festival, like the many others held in monasteries, is more a symbol of reaffirmation amongst the Buddhist devout than a carnival, However, given the harsh and isolated lives led by villagers in this region, over a period of time the event has evolved in an occasion that combines religious solemnity with an opportunity for revelry and socialising.
The Hemis festival is by far the most popular of all monastic celebrations in Ladakh, to an extent that it often features as a "must see' on the popularity on the international circuit is its timing (June-July) coinciding with summer holidays as well as the opening in of road routes to Ladakh, which are barred by heavy snow on the high mountain places of Joji-la, Tagalong-la and Rohtang from October to May.
Untouched By Aggressors
Additionally, amongst the older monasteries it is about the only one that was not subjected to the unpleasant attentions of the Dora general Zorawar Singh who pillaged several monasteries during his 18th century foray into Ladakh . The credit for this goes to its founder monks, Lamas Rje and Rasdpa who chose as it so remote and astutely concealed that - unlike other monasteries By the Indus, which are visible kilometers away in the thin; crystal air of Ladakh Hemis and its priceless treasures escaped General Zorawar's ravages. Even today the monastery is visible only during the last 250 meters of its approach.
The original treasures of Hemis have added to its fame thereby attracting the attention of many experts specialising in ancient arts of appreciation an interpretation. Consequently, many of its treasures are no longer on display. The management committee is planning to create a museum to display. The management committee is planning to create a museum to display these rare artefacts too.
The Festival Of Padamasambhava
The Hemis festival is dedicated to Lord Padmasambhava (Gur Rimpoche) venerated as the representative reincarnate of Buddha. He is believed to have been born on the 10th day of the fifth month of the Monkey year as predicted by the "Shakia Muni Buddha". It is also believed that his life mission was, and remains, to improve the spiritual condition of all living beings.
And so on this day, which comes once in a cycle of 12 years, Hemis observes a major extravaganza in his memory. The next is scheduled for 2004 the highlight of which will be the display of a 250-year-old, 50-feet long portrait in silk of this saint and some special prayers and masked dances in his honour. The observance of these sacred rituals is believed to give spiritual strength and good health.
The ceremonies begin with an early morning ritual atop the Gompa where, to the beat of drums and the resounding clash of cymbals and the spiritual wail of pipes, the portrait of "Dadmokarpo" or "Rygyalsras Rimpoche" is then ceremoniously put on display for all to admire and worship.
Entering the monasteries is like stepping out of a time machine into another, timeless world. Attending the prayers in the Dukhang- that proceed the "Chhams" - may prove a very spiritual experience irrespective of one's faith. Many old Thangkas normally packed away inside are displayed during the festival and constitute a major treat for art lovers. Also the last minute practice, dressing up and expectant air of excitement has its own infectious appeal.
The Masked Performances
The most esoteric of festivities are the mystic mask dances. Chhams, as it is known in Ladakhi is a complexly choreographed, religiously oriented dance drama - held in the Chamra of the monastery. The resident monks of the monastery perform it. Using hideously contorted masks representing various divinities, guardian angels and devils from the Buddhist pantheon the dances will symbolise in a very colourful ritual the supremacy and permanence of the good. As in the past one is likely to find the combination of complex dance steps to the accompaniment of raw musical intonation compelling.
Exquisite Buddhist Frescoes
Of all the rooms full of historic relics the one that makes the most impact is the oldest, the Dukhang Ryinpa. (Primarily because the frescoes and wall paintings are original, untouched /restored and dating back to around 1750 AD.) The frescoes depicting the scenes of the Buddha Lila and the Buddha reincarnates are derived from the distinctive styles and influences of art from further east.
The sober colors used were made from grinding coloured rocks and powdering precious metals like gold and silver and semi-precious stones such as pherozas and corals. (The mountains of eastern Ladakh are known for the colurful hues of their rocks not to mention the 'Coral Hill' on the banks of Pngong-tso.) Even today there is luster and clarity to these wall paintings that defy time. Unfortunately, of late, retouching is done with chemically derived paints that rob this ancient art done with chemically derived paints rob this ancient art much of its spiritual impression and don't last even a few years. The 15-feet-long statue of Padmasambhava in the Guru Lhakhag - though made in 1982 - is still another impressive work of art.
The festival has tremendous appeal across the width of Ladakh. Even if one is not religiously inclined the lush terraced fields amidst the barren desert, the scent of blooming Rose Webbiana, random wafts of sage and Nepeta Clarkei, the snow-clad towering Zanskars, the quiet, hospitable people living in quaint villages and picturesque vistas make for an idyllic opportunity for those wanting to explore the off beaten tracks!
In the treasured words of philosopher monk Rig-Dzin Chenpo - "When the end of the Degraded time reaches, I shall come for the sake of the (faithful); every morning and evening of eachday, riding the colourful Rays of the Sun..." So be there, Get lucky!
Air: Leh is
well-connected by air from Delhi and
Road: Leh is connected by road via New Delhi-Chandigarh -Shimla - Manali -Rohtang Pass -Upshi-Karu. Hemis is approximately an hour's scenic drive (42-km) from Leh to the east, 7-km from the village of Karu.