Hemis Festival – Celebrating Ancient Tantric Traditions in the Richest Monastery of Ladakh

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The red and brown mountains smouldered with the rays of sun. A chill in the wind of the cold desert was palpable. Hooves of an army of raging horses stirred up a storm of dust. Mounted on them were men clad in dark black clothes and steel armours that shone brightly. They raced their sturdy horses up the treacherous slopes of barren mountains. Plundering, looting, marauding, they went surging ahead in the glory of their victory. Jumping their horses from one broken edge to another, they went passed a steep gorge, completely oblivious to hymns and chants emanating between the walls of the gorge. No, this isn’t a scene from a magnum opus period film. It is scene from a page in history. This is how for centuries the Hemis  monastery stood fast against several invaders, plunderers and warriors.

Hidden between a gorge, close to the hill where Lord Padmanasambhava or Rimpoche had once meditated, this monastery stayed unscathed through several wars and conquests. While other monasteries were plundered and looted, this monastery, owing to its hidden location and the generosity showed by reigning Buddhist rulers, went on to become so rich that it is believed that it now owns half of the land in Ladakh. Today, the Hemis Monastery is the biggest, richest and most powerful monastery in Ladakh. Its grandeur steeped in rich history, heritage and mythology of Tantric Buddhism, attracts multitude of tourists from various corner of the globe. The mysticism associated with the monastery goes on to claim that  Jesus, during his 12 missing years which some believe were lived in India, spent meditating with the monks of the monastery.

Ever since its reestablishment, the Hemis Monastery celebrates its annual festival, the Hemis Tse Chu festival! It is during this festival when the ancient Tantric traditions blossom in all their opulence and glory. The vibrant colours burst out among the flock of nuns, lamas and tourists in the monastery. The elaborate costumes, colourful masks, and dramatic dances totally captivate and enthrall the audience. The entire aura of the monastery during this time is so unique that it attracts travellers from all around the world to get blessed by the prayer flags fluttering in the wind.

Watch Monks Dancing In Perfect Coordination In Ladakh Hemis Festival 2016..!!

Click on the links below to read specific sections

Introduction and History of Hemis Monastery

How the Hemis Festival is Celebrated

The Masked Dance Performances of Hemis Festival

Dates for the Hemis Festival 2015, 2016 and 2017

Must Do at the Hemis Monastery

How to Reach Hemis Monastery

Things to Remember For Hemis Festival

Inside Hemis Monastery. In front the statue of Guru Rimpoche

Inside Hemis Monastery. In front the statue of Guru Rimpoche

 

Set up in the picturesque landscape of the Stok range away from the city life, the experience is a mix of beauty and bliss. Hemis has a peaceful aura to it. It is surrounded by mustard fields that add colour to the otherwise barren mountains. Hemis is located close to the Hemis high altitude national park which is home to the endangered snow leopard.

Hemis Festival Ladakh celebrations

The Main Courtyard of the Hemis Monastery Before the Hemis Festival
Photo Credit: Madpai/ Flickr


The crowd gathers in the main courtyard of the monastery where Cham dancers perform. The 12 m long Thangka hangs from the fourth floor to be visible to all.

THE HEMIS MONASTERY – A Brief History and Introduction

Credit: Krishna Moorthy E
Nestled between Himalayan gorges, Hemis Monastery has stood still against medieval invasions

 

  • Hemis Monastery is a Buddhist monastery of the Tibetan Drukpa lineage
  • Located in the Hemis region in Ladakh, 45 km from Leh
  • One of the largest and oldest monasteries in Ladakh
  • Name translates to “the lone place of the compassionate person”
  • Established before 11th century but perished
  • Re – established in 1672 by the Ladakhi King Sengge Namgyal
  • Annual festival honours Lord Padmasambhava
  • Its sacred silk painting known as the Thangka is unfurled only after 12 years
  • Next unfurling to happen in 2016
  • Houses the largest Thangka, 12 m long
  • Houses several statues and stupas with semi-precious and precious gems on it

 

Tibetan Thangka of Padmasambhava Hemis Festival ladakh

Tibetan Thangka of Padmasambhava holding a bowl of nectar, vajra staff, halo, vulture feather in lotus hat, traditional garments, boots, gold & turquoise earrings, saint founder of Tibetan
Photo Credit: Wonderlane/ Flickr

 

THE HEMIS FESTIVAL – Celebrating Ladakh’s Biggest Festival

Credit: Tee WK
Masked Dancer Perform at Hemis Tsechu 2014

  • Celebrates the birthday of Lord Padmasambhava, also called Guru Rimpoche
  • Guru Padmasambhava got Vajrayana Buddhism to India and Tibet, to defeat the evil forces by the fundamental principle of Dharma
  • Celebrated on the tenth day of the Lunar Calender of Tibetan month
  • Celebrates the victory of good over evil
  • Lamas perform the Cham dance, wearing beautifully crafted masks and colourful costumes
  • Colourful masks and costumes make it an unbelievable riot of colours
  • Rituals believed to bring spiritual strength and good health
  • Attracts travellers from all over the world
  • A congregation of  adventurers, photographers, and  writers
  • Visitors collect souvenirs from stalls set up by locals
  • The carnival outside the monastery sees visitors from several remote villages of Ladakh
  • From children to elderly who have never been to city before, everyone participates with unbound enthusiasm
  • Best opportunity to see the local Ladakhi culture
  • Foreign tourists often indulge themselves in clicking pictures of rehearsing monks

Get Enthralled By The Masked Dance Performances In Ladakh Hemis Festival 2016..!!

 

THE STORY TELLERS OF DHARMA – The Masked Dance Performances

Credit: Judith Kibbe
Monks at Hemis Tsechu 2014

  • Lamas perform the Cham dances which are a part of the Buddhist tantric culture
  • Performance in the gompa after the tantric-Vajrayana teachings and rituals
  • The dancers wear masks and each mask portrays a different expression
  • The most exciting of all is the combat show performed by masked actors
  • It depicts the fight between good and evil
  • At the end of the show, the evil is finished and the good prevails over all

 

Hemis Festival Ladakh

Hemis Festival
Photo Credit: Luigi Pansecchi

 

  • A seat adorned with silk cloth and gems is created
  • A cup of uncooked  rice and tormas made of dough, butter and incense sticks is placed next to it
  • The seat itself is surrounded by lamas, who then play the traditional instruments including large sized trumpets
  • The Drukpa’s followed the Mahayana Buddhist tradition and believe in enlightenment and benefit of others
  • Thus, the Hemis festival has a message to convey- one must overcome all human emotions and desires in order to attain nirvana, and the soul must endure these characteristics

 

Monks at Hemis Festiva Ladakh

The wide mouthed wind instruments played by the lamas after the Vajrayana rituals are completed
Photo Credit: Rajkumar1220/ Flickr

 

DATES FOR THE HEMIS FESTIVAL

Hemis Festival 2015– 26th and 27th June

Hemis Festival 2016 – 14th and 15th July

Hemis Festival 2017 – 3rd and 4th July

MUST DO AT THE MONASTERY – For a Totally Memorable Trip

  • Eat at the pretty little Tibetan café right outside the main entrance that serves lip smacking food. Do not miss different styles of fried rice, noodles and their local thukpa and momos
  • Buy postcards, books, prayer flags and other such souvenirs from the Hemis museum shop. They sell postcards at low cost and you can buy loads for your friends back home
  • Do not restrict yourself to only the main courtyard. Go around and explore, but make sure you do not get lost
  • Start a conversation with the locals (guards, monks, etc.). They help you understand the history of the monastery, and if you put up a good impression, they might even show you around
  • Roads Less Travelled organises Hemis Special Trip in the month of June – July, for those who wish to witness this colourful extravaganza
Hemis monastary Ladakh

Hemis Monastary.
Photo Credit- Sistak/flickr

Click to Read more on Wikipedia

 

HOW TO REACH HEMIS MONASTERY

Mode of Transport

  • By Road: The Hemis monastery is located 40km away from the Leh city. It is easily accessible through local buses, taxis or private transport. Make sure you speak to a few taxi operators and check with the current rates before you finalize one.
    Carry a route map with you in case you are taking your own vehicle; the roads can get confusing at times. Check with the timing of local buses. Do not miss YOUR bus!
  • By Air: Daily flights leave Delhi for Srinagar. And you can drive up from Srinagar to Leh by the Zoji-La pass which serves as the gateway to Ladakh, with a stop over at Kargil or the Lamayuru monastery situated in the moon land. Flights also operate from Delhi to Leh which take about up to one hour/ 45 mins.
  • By Foot: You could also walk or cycle through the highway routes with groups which leave from Delhi to Leh or from Manali to Leh, by foot.

 

Routes

You can also drive up to Leh through the Manali-Leh highway that goes through the famous Rohtang pass.
You can also trek through various routes like treks from- Spiti-Kaza-Tso Moriri, Padum-Zanskar-Leh, Baralacha la to Hemis, Chandratal-Spiti-Baralacha la, Garhwal-Changthang, Udaipur(Himachal)-Padum-Shingola pass.

Ladakh Hemis Festival

At Leh
Photo Credit: Rajarshi Dutta

 

 THINGS TO REMEMBER FOR HEMIS FESTIVAL

  • Plan your trip to Ladakh around the Hemis festival on the 26th and 27th of June in 2015, when the Tibetan and Buddhist culture is at its best! You wouldn’t want to turn up a day later and realize that all the fun is over.
  • Drop in a little earlier to see all the dancers and lamas prepare for their day ahead. You will get to know what happens behind the scenes!
  • Photographers should grab a good place and set up their cameras. Getting closer to the stage should be your priority.
  • Interact with the local monks. Get to know more about the festival, the celebrations and legends associated with it. The monastery is closed from 12pm to 2pm. So make sure you don’t land up at the wrong time.
Preparation of Mask Hemis festival. behind the scenes action! Photo Source httpwwwtrekearth.commembersttmountainman

The masks are being prepared, prior to the Hemis festival. behind the scenes action!
Photo Source: httpwwwtrekearth.commembersttmountainman

The monastery also has its own school for spiritual and meditative learning. Enthusiasts from all over the world travel to the monastery to learn the fundamental basics of Buddhism and meditation and live the lives of these monks. It is a one of a kind experience altogether.

Hemis Festival Ladakh

The good and the evil fighting for dharma.
Photo credit http://media.zenfs.com/156/2011/07/14/1_052444.jpg

 

The Hemis festival is definitely one of the most happening festivities that take place in Ladakh. There would be no better way than to travel to the Mountain Kingdom and witness the awesomeness of the Hemis festival! What one gets is an enriching experience of the Buddhist culture and how the monks celebrate their lives.

Watch the monastery in full blossom. You’ll see so much of action in an otherwise quiet and peaceful atmosphere, happiness surrounds all and they are ready to begin a new phase of the year.

Ladakh Hemis festival

The dancers depicting evil wearing masks.
Photo Credit: rajkumar1220/ Flickr

The Hemis festival gives you an opportunity to explore the local culture and the everyday lives of the Ladakhis. The festival is so important that the government announces a two day holiday. Moreover, in every twelve years when the Thangka is displayed, the amount of tourists visiting the city expands vastly. The locals are more than happy to have you aboard! Plan your holiday to witness Ladakh’s most exotic festivals.

It is difficult to check the veracity of the legends and myths associated with this mysterious monastery. This perhaps imparts a unique mysticism to this ancient hub of Tantric Buddhism. The claim that the stories and rituals of the most fascinating branch of Buddhism have the strength to arrest the imagination of every single mind is something that is vindicated by everyone who attends the Hemis Festival. Still don’t believe us?

Why don’t you check it all by yourself by being a part of the Ladakh Hemis Festival 2016..!!

Read more about Ladakh here. Share your experiences of Ladakh with us in the comments section below.

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