Oasis in a white desert

Heritage

But, if Hemis Monastery is your destination, you cannot say it is fun getting there; getting there is a sublime experience because it is nestled deep in the majestic Himalayan mountains. Whether you motor your way up or trek, as you wind your way up the mountain, you have to pause every now and then and breathe deeply.

Either because you have run out of breath or because of its breathtaking beauty. After living on polluted air in the city, the mere freshness of the mountain breeze is choking. Then there is the imposing height of the mountains and the dizzying depths of gorges and valleys.

Hemis Monastery is 50 km to the east of Leh, the capital of Ladakh, on the left bank of River Sindhu (Indus). You first see the houses embedded into the mountains in the Hemis village and presently the monastery and are immediately engulfed by the mystic, magic and mystery of the monastery. It is the most famous and richest of monasteries in Ladakh and belongs to the Drukpa lineage or the dragon order of Mahayana Buddhism, with Gyalwang Drukpa as its supreme spiritual head.

Hemis Monastery is the biggest and wealthiest monastery of Ladakh, founded in 1630 by the first incarnation of Stagsang Raspa Nawang Gyatso (Taktsang Repa), with the support of King Sengge Namgyal (1616-1645). The former was sent by his gurus to Ladakh to spread the teachings of Lord Buddha. Taktsang Repa’s arrival resulted in a flourishing Drukpa lineage in Ladakh and neighbouring Himalayan regions. He and his successive reincarnations became the spiritual gurus of Ladakhi kings and their people.

Hemis has more than 200 branches in the Himalayas and more than 1,000 monks under its care. It is an important living monument and a representation of the heritage of Himalayas and its people.

There is a sprawling courtyard in front of the monastery where ceremonies take place. The largely wooden structure of the monastery is fashioned out of the poplar tree, which grows in the Himalayas. The monastery itself is divided into several blocks. The main temple has statues and paintings of well-known saints and sages associated with the monastery.

There is an altar dedicated to the ferocious looking Rgyalpo Pegar (King Pegar), the protector of Hemis Monastery. On the walls are esoteric paintings of sages like Guru Padmasambhava and Sakhya Muni. Guru Padmasambhava (Guru Rimpoche) also has a separate shrine, with a large statue in metal dedicated to him. It is believed that Guru Padmasambhava descends as a representative incarnate of all Buddhas to bestow grace and improve living conditions.

The annual Hemis Festival honouring Guru Padmasambhava is held here in early June. It is a commemoration of his birth anniversary when he is venerated through a dance performance. This is one of the most important events of the valley.

It is not only a celebration of Guru Padmasambhava’s victorious activities over negative forces, but an important event reminding locals of their heritage. From 1730, the Hemis Festival has been observed year after year without a break and has now become well known across the world. Once in 12 years during the Hemis Festival, the thangka (tapestry) of the monastery is displayed. The thangka is the sacred applique-work tapestry wrought with pearls, which depicts Guru Padmasambhava.

The festival takes place in the rectangular courtyard in front of the main door of the monastery. A number of musicians play traditional music with four pairs of cymbals, large pan drums, small trumpets and large-sized wind instruments. Next to them, a small space is assigned for the lamas to sit. The most esoteric of festivities are the mystic mask dances. The mask dances of Ladakh are referred collectively as Chams Performance.

It is essentially a part of the tantric tradition performed only in those monasteries which follow the tantric vajrayana teachings and where monks perform tantric worship. A museum is attached to the monastery with a very rich collection of ancient relics. The array of items kept inside the monastery consists of a copper-gilt statue of Lord Buddha, various gold and silver stupas, sacred thangkas and several other exquisite objects.

Of course, in tune with modern times, the museum has a souvenir shop where you can buy books, CDs, DVDs, prayer flags, prayer wheels and things associated with Tibetan Buddhism and the monastery.

The museum attached to it is a storehouse of some of the most treasured art and historical documents of the Himalayas. Since this area is situated along the silk route, Hemis has, over the centuries, collected art and treasures ranging from elaborate tapestries to frescoes to sculptures influenced by periods of middle-eastern and European art. Indeed, Hemis is regarded as a ‘living museum’ of Himalayan culture.

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