Naropa Festival: a grand tale

Held once every 12 years, it convenes a mammoth crowd to take the name ‘Kumbh of Himalayas’. However, it has deviated from its norm

Monks wait for the arrival of the Six Bone Ornaments

In the windswept cold desert, she walked solemnly. A silk thangka of Buddha Amitabha stood lofty on a metal scaffolding and a white milestone announced the distance to the Hemis Monastery: five kilometres. The monotony of Leh’s auburn landscape was broken by the turquoise of her perak (a traditional Ladakhi headdress). Rows of turquoise stones embedded on leather sitting heavily on her scalp. I could count the turquoise rows to know who she was — a queen, an aristocrat, or a commoner. 

Before I could count nine rows for queen, seven for aristocracy, three for the plebeian, I saw him. A man in a Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses. Perhaps a fake D&G. Propping a toothless grin amidst a stubble and carrying a prayer wheel in his cragged hands. A little girl in pink fleece scurried by, whooping at the sight of the palanquin dressed in marigold-coloured satin frills.


One of the many participants at the festivals

At the five-day Naropa Festival, the curious, the onlooker, the pious and the agnostic were milling around. The air was redolent with the whiff of incense, the sky resonating with the sound of oboe, drums, trumpets and cymbals. 

Sitting on a red rug thrown over a mattress, I was listening to the story of a boy named Naropa. A boy who lived nearly 1,000 years ago. The one who studied at the Nalanda University and later became the Guardian of the Northern Gate. The one who left the materialistic world and his family to the path of enlightenment. At the age of 40, he met his guru, Tilopa, and attained enlightenment 12 years later. His teaching of the Six Yogas of Naropa are considered to be one of the fundamental pillars of the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition.

Sitting on the red rug, I waited for relics. The Six Bone Ornaments of the Naropa. According to Buddhist lore, at the moment of his enlightenment, Naropa was offered the Six Bone Ornaments by the Dakinis, who later flew into the sky. One of the most revered relics of Buddhism, the ornaments include anklets, bangles, crown, earrings, necklace & seralkha. Devotees believe that the mere sight of these ornaments would confer blessings so great that the doors to the three lower realms — animal, hungry ghost, and hell — are closed. 

When the palanquin drew closer and the sound of the cymbals hit a crescendo, I was caught in the melee. In a sea of humans. Known as the Kumbh of the Himalayas, the Naropa Festival, the largest Buddhist festival in the Himalayan region, is held every 12 years at the Hemis Monastery.

This was the first time, the Festival had broken the 12-year routine and was being held two years after the mega festival of 2016. 

Much festivity

The day was crowded with traditional dances, spiritual discourses, official launch of the Naropa Fellowship and Ladakh’s first EDM CD. But I wanted to meet the injured dogs, the horse with a broken leg and the camel with a nasty back. It was a long, bumpy ride to the Stray Animal Rescue & Management Centre. So far away from civilisation that only the green poplars reminded me that I am not on a moon crater. The driver pushed open the mesh gate to the rescue centre founded by His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa, the current head of the Drukpa lineage. Separate enclosures for nearly 350 dogs and hundreds of poultry, camels, horses, donkeys. All sick and injured and brought to the centre. Compassion has found home in the cold desert. 


Hemis Monastery, Leh. Photos by author

In Leh, religion steps beyond rituals and discourses. It steps into the unchartered territory of saving the environment and creating Himalayan leaders. At the Hemis Monastery, I heard His Eminence Drukpa Thuksey Rinpoche’s talk of the tree plantation drive and the initiative to provide garbage bags to taxi drivers so that Leh’s beauty is not tarnished by used plastic bottles and littering. The Live to Love foundation, along with Waterkeeper Alliance and Himalayan Glacier Waterkeeper, founded by His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa, has launched a first-of-its-kind initiative to protect the waters of the Himalayas.

At Leh’s Naropa Festival, I had met the monk who wore a pair of fake D&G sunglasses. I, however, could not drive away without meeting the one with a curly mop and large earlobes. The golden Buddha who sits amidst red wooden trusses in the sanctum of Hemis Monastery. And the other one who is perched on a hillock by the monastery. As I hurried up the steps of the 17th-century Hemis, a sudden snow flurry interrupted my pace. Travellers scurried for shelter, but I walked through the huge courtyard to see the Buddha. Sitting peacefully in a padmasana. I stood by him. Borrowing the sheen of his golden skin and the stillness of his mien.

In Leh, I found quiet. Buddha’s quietude. 

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Naropa Festival: a grand tale

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