Hemis Monastery Leh
Hemis Monastery The Hemis monastery is situated 44 kilometres from Leh. We started out very early in the morning to cover the distance from Leh to the Hemis monastery, on a metal road that winds along the Indus river. It was a vain attempt at beating the crowd because the crowd had the same idea. A cavalcade of jeeps filled with tourists, was hot on our trail.
Unlike other monasteries, Hemis is not built very far from the main village, which has a very small non-monastic population. Things were just beginning to warm up as we arrived and besides the hoard of foreign tourists, the locals were turning up in busloads from far and near.
It is the largest monastery in Ladakh, Hemis belongs to the red sect, Brokpa. Built in 1630, 45 km south from Leh, it is not only impressive and intriguing but also different from the other important monasteries of Ladakh. An annual festival is held for two days in June-July in the courtyard of the monastery to commemorate the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava. The festival features dances and a colorful pageant where good triumphs over evil along with an annual 'bazaar' where Ladakhis from remote areas come to buy and sell wares.
The entrance fee for the festival is only 20 rupees and extra if you book seats in advance. The courtyard of the Gompa is the venue for the mask dance and visitors sit all around it. There seemed to be some order to the seating arrangement initially but as the crowd increased there wasn't much order left to speak of.
We were told to wait a while for the festival to begin. Wait we did with bottles of mineral water, hats and dark glasses and of course, cameras.
Finally the 12-foot horns, bugles and trumpets heralded the beginning of this two-day Tse-chu festival, the 10th day of the Tibetan lunar month which is celebrated as the birthday of Guru Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism. Amidst chanting of Om Mane Padme Hum, an ancient Thanka was lowered from its yearlong repose, which brought in the star attraction of the festival.
The costumes and masks used in the 200-year-old dance drama tradition by the participants, who are resident lamas of the monastery are said to be about 400 years old. The dance is based on the Holy Scriptures, an enactment of the legend of Guru Padmasambhava to the slow beat of the monastery orchestra.
While the Ladakhis welcome the summer sun, the harshness of the mountain heat can become uncomfortable. So I decided to take a look inside the monastery, to find people prostrating before the impressive larger than life figure of Guru Padmasambhava.
The Ladakhis really enjoy their festivals and their numbers reaffirmed that. I was told that compared to the last two years this year the crowd had been much less. I hate to imagine what this place would be like then. It's an art you have to learn to weave your way through the human chaos.
Small shopkeepers make the most of it too, but I wouldn't recommend buying anything from here. All of this is available in Leh and cheaper at that.